Although in the United States we associate expressions of gratitude with the Thanksgiving holiday, it is a feeling that deserves more frequent attention. By feeling and expressing gratitude, students can better appreciate the kindness of others and the importance of their relationships with family, friends, and teachers. Expressing gratitude also helps create a more caring and cohesive school community and allows students to focus on what they have, instead of on the deficits in their lives. Being grateful allows young people to become more sensitive to others and can help them overcome moments of self-doubt, insecurity, and lack of confidence. As students become more confident, they can take on more challenges as learners and as leaders, engaging their strengths to contribute in the wider world.
This lesson begins with a brief discussion about the meaning of gratitude. Students watch a video that explores why people give thanks. The video shows middle school students making flags that represent the people and things for which they are grateful. After writing personal expressions of gratitude, students find their own ways to represent them. Students then examine a quote by His Holiness the Dalai Lama about gratitude to end Part I. In Part II, students explore the connection between gratitude and a concern for the environment. They consider aspects of their environment for which they are grateful. They also discuss how being selfish can damage the environment. Students watch a second video about the impact of garbage on the environment and then engage in two projects through which they demonstrate gratitude for the environment and suggest ways in which they can help protect it.
- Approximately two class periods
- Understand the duality inherent in the core value of gratitude (appreciation and reciprocity)
- Understand the positive and negative interactions between human beings and the environment
- Recognize that a sense of gratitude can fuel actions that demonstrate respect for the environment
- Recognize and respect a diverse range of perspectives
Prep for Teachers
- Examine the media resources to familiarize yourself with the lesson content.
- Smart Board or whiteboard and markers
- Writing paper or journals
- Art materials such as colored pencils, craft paper, posterboard, scissors, glue sticks, and tape for Step 3 and the final activity
- Young Peace Leaders: Cultivating Gratitude
- Students Making a Difference
- Teen Maps Contaminants from a Coal Plant
Part I: Exploring Gratitude (40 mins)
1. Ask students what we mean by gratitude. Other than at Thanksgiving, when do we talk about gratitude? What are some of the things that we are grateful for? Jot down students’ comments on the board.
2. Show the video Young Peace Leaders: Cultivating Gratitude, in which middle school students discuss why people give thanks, and create flags to symbolize what they are grateful for. They put their feelings into words and display their flags around their school for all to see. In doing so, students gain new insights about themselves and each other.
After watching the video, discuss the following:
- What was the most memorable moment in the video?
- Why did that moment have an impact on you?
Before moving on, take a moment here to explore two words that are closely related to gratitude and often used interchangeably. Thankfulness is the expression of gratitude, typically shown through words or deeds. Ask students for some examples that demonstrate understanding, such as writing a thank-you letter or offering your time or gifts to help others. Appreciation implies an understanding of why you feel grateful for something or someone. It can also be demonstrated through words or deeds. Again, ask students for some examples, such as giving a special award to someone who has gone beyond expectations in service to their community, or giving a friendship bracelet to a friend.
3. Give students an opportunity to examine personal expressions of gratitude. Have them address the following questions:
- What are some of the things you are thankful for? Take one to two minutes to write down your ideas.
- Consider your list. What are you most thankful for?
- Do you express how thankful you are? If yes, how? If no, why not?
- Why is it important to be thankful? In what ways does gratitude improve our lives and the lives of those around us?
In the video, flags are used to symbolize what the students are grateful for. Ask students to brainstorm other ways that they can express gratitude. Using materials you supply, have students work in pairs or small groups to create something together—song, drawing, poem, dance—that expresses gratitude for someone or something close to them. Time and materials allowing, you may also expand the exercise to other art forms, as well as multimedia. You may also want to team up with a music, theater, or art teacher.
Ask for volunteers to present their artistic expressions to the class. Facilitate a discussion with questions, such as: How can our appreciation of one another help us become more sensitive to others and confident about ourselves? How does it feel to be grateful? What happens when we don’t thank others?
4. Have students discuss the quotation from the Dalai Lama that appears at the beginning of the video: “The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” Given what they know, what do they think his statement means? (One interpretation is “More goodness grows through an appreciation of the goodness that already exists.”) Do they agree or disagree? Why?
Extension activity: Have students use print and online references to collect their favorite quote about gratitude and interpret its meaning in their own words. Then, have them create a visual interpretation of the message. Display student work as part of a dedicated wall of gratitude in your classroom.
Here are some quotes to use as examples:
- “Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”—David O. McKay (Mormon leader)
- “I was complaining that I had no shoes till I met a man who had no feet.”—Confucius (Chinese philosopher)
- “’Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.”—Alice Walker (African American author and activist)
- “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”—Marcus Tullius Cicero (Roman orator)
Part II: Extending Gratitude to the Environment (40 mins + additional class time for the final project in Check for Understanding, if not assigned as homework)
5. Psychologists note that gratitude is a complex feeling that allows us to extend our awareness and incorporate a wider worldview. So, a person who feels grateful for the natural world may be more inclined to look out for its well-being.
Two of the students in the video mention that they’re thankful for trees that give us oxygen and for water that helps us live. Ask students to give other examples of how the environment (and living things within it) provides for them and their families in daily life. Students should name the resource or living thing and explain what it provides. To initiate the conversation, you may use clean water as an example.
- What are some of the ways you use water in your daily lives?
- What would you not be able to do without clean water?
- How often do you feel a sense of gratitude for water?
6. Describe the concept of “environmental gratitude” as an approach that can help inspire positive action. Noticing and feeling grateful for one’s surroundings can help develop an attitude of concern for and commitment to planetary well-being. Environmentally grateful people can think about finding creative solutions to environmental problems that result from people not showing gratitude for the environment.
Next, ask students to recall the student in the video who calls it “selfish” when you’re not thankful for what you have. Selfishness can manifest in many ways. Explore this idea in relation to the environment. You might say that one demonstration of selfishness with respect to the environment is not taking responsibility for one’s actions. Another is a lack of awareness that there are consequences to one’s actions. For example, the clean water we all rely on can be polluted by things that are knowingly or unknowingly dumped into it (such as putting paint thinner down a drain). Ask students to come up with some other examples of threats to the environment that result from human activities. Make a class chart of students’ ideas.
7. Show students the video Garbage, which explains the amount of garbage we generate each day, the threats it presents, and the various ways we manage it.
After watching the video, ask students these questions:
- What are some of the problems associated with garbage?
- How can it harm Earth and its inhabitants?
- How can we change the way we buy and use things to better protect Earth?
8. Invite students to take a first step in demonstrating environmental gratitude. To begin, have them explore how young people are helping save the environment. You may allow them to do research individually or in pairs, or show them the following as a class:
- Students Making a Difference—The first video in the interactive, Kids Care for the Kenai, spotlights student projects developed to raise awareness about two problems in these students’ communities: managing household hazardous waste and combatting streamside erosion to improve fish habitat.
- Teen Maps Contaminants from a Coal Plant—Meet Marisol, a high school student from Little Village in Chicago, who learned about the toxins produced by the local coal-burning power plant and helped create an interactive online map that includes videos, facts, and descriptions of toxic pollutants in the community.
Next, have them form small groups and share some of the student-led projects they researched or discuss what they saw in the videos. Then, have them identify an environmental topic about which they are concerned in their community and outline a plan to bring about change. Circulate to learn about each group’s chosen topic and plan.
Check for Understanding (time varies)
To wrap up and gauge understanding, have students express their gratitude about the environment. For instance, they could create a poster that contains a drawing of the subject for which they are grateful—e.g., a stream, a wetlands, a city park, an animal,—and that highlights the services it provides for humans or other living things. They should create their own quote about feeling grateful toward that aspect of the environment. Other options include making a short video, composing and performing a song or a rap, creating a diorama, or writing a book review of a book on the topic.
This lesson is inspired in part by “BIODIVER-CITY—Building Cities & Environmental Conservation: Can We Do Both?,” a lesson written by Lay Eng Tan, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.