Every fall, we read the short story “The Fisherman and the Jinnee” from 1001 Nights. It is a frame story—an overarching narrative with two other stories embedded in it. All three stories have one thing in common: a theme about expressing gratitude instead of rashness. After reading, we discuss the importance of gratitude and I have students read this article about gratitude’s many health and personal benefits. (For a PDF of the article with questions, click here.)
Then, I give them an assignment: Type up a list of 100 things you are grateful for. Yes, 100 things.
I give them 3-4 nights, including a weekend, to do it. I offer extra credit if they decorate it in any way.
At first, I am met with silence, until someone finally asks, “100? That seems like a lot. What if I don’t have 100?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell them, “you do. Often what happens is that the first 40 or 50 go really fast, and then you have to start thinking. You have to look closely around you. Wherever you’re sitting when you do this activity—start looking around.” It’s like close reading your life, I tell them, looking for the evidence buried in the main events.
They don’t believe me. Then they think about it. “Can I name all my friends separately?” they ask. Of course. “Can I say something that you won’t understand, but I know what it is?” Absolutely. “Can I say something stupid, like I’m grateful for my hair?”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “Yes, and that’s not stupid at all. You should be grateful for your hair. There are plenty of people in this world that wish they had hair and they don’t.” I let that one sink in, without spelling it out: cancer, burn scars, alopecia. It’s interesting that in our culture kids feel silly for expressing gratitude for obvious things. But that is the point—to be impractically thankful. Practice irrational gratitude, I tell them.
But that is the point—to be impractically thankful. Practice irrational gratitude, I tell them.
At any rate, they have no choice but to do it, because I make it a grade. When they come in the following Monday with their lists, they are excited. I’ve learned from past years that it’s good to let them talk about their findings for a while. I have them group up and take turns giving highlights from their lists. The room fills with laughter, voices, and shouts of “Me too!”
It is beautiful. When I corral them back to the whole group, I ask about the process. They universally agree that it seemed like a lot at first but in the end wasn’t hard at all. They each reached a number where things started to pop into their minds quickly. “I’m still thinking of things now,” one girl said. “I could do another list.” I encourage them to start gratitude journals; I tell them that this feeling is always available to them, and it can be a transformative part of their lives.
Every year, it is a transformative part of mine. Sometimes students write me notes on the backs of their lists, thanking me for making them do it.
In addition to being grateful for family and friends, various basic necessities, several phenomena in nature, all manner of foods, and Netflix, here are some thoughts from this year’s lists:
my grandpa’s corny jokes
when people make up nicknames for me
bracelets with quotes
a stable marriage between my parents
having exact change
the smell of cut grass
the color burgundy
my mother always telling me the truth
good hair days
the snooze button
live mouse traps
It may not seem like a heavy-duty English lesson. But I believe students are hungry for other lessons as well—human lessons. As teachers, we have a responsibility to make space for their growth as people alongside their growth as intellectuals. These are the things they’ll remember most in the end.