Teaching Gratitude with Thank You Thursday
Because of Thank You Thursday, there are now over 1600 messages out there, still rippling. At that, Ashley Weber can only stand back and say merci.
“Madame, when is the test?”
“Madame, I have my homework from the other day…”
“Madame, I don’t understand why this word is singular.”
You don’t have to be a French teacher to experience un déluge de questions upon setting foot in the classroom. Maybe you answer each student, rapid fire. Maybe you encourage them to listen during the upcoming lesson for the solutions they seek. Or, like me, you get so overwhelmed sometimes that you’re tempted to ignore any inquiry at all—until one stands out from the rest:
“Madame, can I have an extra thank-you note?”
It’s a touching question, and one that will serve as fuel for the week ahead. My classes may not be fond of forming adverbs or pronouncing nasal vowels, but they’re connecting with at least one important project: Thank You Thursday.
Research has long pointed to gratitude as being a major indicator of health and happiness. As SEL (Social Emotional Learning) begins to gain traction in even the most traditional schools, educators are motivated to get involved. Inadvertently, we foster attributes such as resilience, curiosity, and creativity—but to do so in a more direct manner may mean straying from our syllabi or departmental objectives. Thank You Thursday gives students the chance to explore the benefits of gratitude in any academic setting without hitting the typical roadblocks of extensive time, preparation, and funding.
Each week, I reserve a mere ten minutes per class for the art of the handwritten thank you note. Students write in any language they wish, with the option of face-to-face delivery or the U.S. Postal Service. When I first introduced the project, perplexity prevailed. Comments ranged from “Is this worth points?” to “I already wrote one for my birthday presents.” The idea of expressing thanks for small gestures or even cherished memories eluded them; even more bizarre was the suggestion that they write to someone they didn’t know on a personal level. Tutorials were given about stamps and addressing an envelope, “basics” that are now gathering dust in a digital world. I’d stew about how old that makes me feel were it not for a more distressing fact: most of the students have never received a thank you note, either. What happens to their cursory, exchanged text messages? Can “omg thx” be stored in a shoebox to be discovered years later?
Indeed, it is not only the endurance of the notes, or the sweet feel of paper in palm that I want my students to appreciate. It is that there is value in activities that demand reflection. Writing by hand takes a while. Erasure marks show, but so does the sincerity of the message. There are clear boundaries in the four corners of cardstock. Even phrases like “dear” and “yours truly”—at risk of being struck from the lexicon—have their chance to shine in graphite and pink ink alike.
Freedom and privacy are key in this project, but I gingerly press my luck by asking two to three volunteers to briefly “spread a little goodness” and share to whom they’re writing or why. Gratitude goes to friends for explaining chemistry homework, parents for attending volleyball games, clothing retailers for excellent jeans, and sometimes—yes—their teachers. These small stories are casual, uplifting, and serve as a welcome break from the curricular pressure cooker. I suspect my classes also enjoy the sanctioned straying from French immersion.
Conversations occasionally lead to the reactions of recipients. Students have reported receiving heartfelt notes in return, and tears from mothers aren’t uncommon. New friendships have formed and dormant ones have resurfaced. One student, Zack, wrote to the waitress that regularly serves his family during weekend dinners. The restaurant manager caught wind and gave her a raise and promotion. Our classroom broke out in applause over that one. While Zack’s Thank You Thursday victory lap won’t increase his GPA, I believe it’s precisely the sort of thing that should go on his report card in gilded script.
The project is now in its second year, but back at the two-month mark, I wondered for how long I could continue purchasing stamps and stationery. While most students hand-delivered their notes (on simple cards purchased in bulk from Amazon), a decent number opted to send them abroad. Kids from Turkey, Mexico, China, Vietnam, and other countries delighted in writing home as an alternative to Skype. While there was something satisfying in seeing those exotic zip codes, my discretionary funds begged to differ. Fortunately a member of my school’s Mothers’ Council (whose child I didn’t even teach) learned about the project and sprang into action. An expert shopper, she hunted down boxes of beautiful, discounted stationery and delivered nearly a hundred with a smile. When I struggled—ironically—to express my stunned gratitude, she spoke of a lifelong obsession with paper goods that would finally be supporting the perfect cause.
One of the perks of being a high school teacher is also one of the challenges: we watch our students grow up. Their hobbies and haircuts change with the weather. They lose their homework and find homecoming dates. They care what you think, they don’t care what you think, they share and shut down and feel life to the core. All the hours of test grading and creative lesson planning don’t translate to a clear, finished product that hangs framed on the lobby wall. To teach is to have deep faith in humanity but deeper respect for subtle change. We spend our days examining and polishing peculiar stones, and—at the very moment they begin to deflect light in ways beyond imagination—we hand them a diploma and skip them out to sea.
Because of Thank You Thursday, there are now over 1600 messages out there, still rippling. At that, I can only stand back and say merci.
Ashley Weber is a dynamic educator with 13 years of combined experience in foreign language teaching, leadership, and youth character development in independent and public schools. Currently, her responsibilities include (but are not limited to) teaching Upper School French courses, mentoring advisees, overseeing the Senior May Committee, coordinating school trips abroad, and offering SEL programming.