Teaching my Chicago Public Schools students the importance of saying "thank you" even if it makes them feel powerless

As I’ve mentioned before, in addition to teaching my Chicago Public Schools students writing skills, I also find opportunities to teach them social skills.  In an era where students have easy access to material goods and where so many things are done for them, I devoted some time this week to remind my high-school students of  the importance of writing thank-you notes.

The science behind expressing gratitude reveals benefits for the person who says “thank you.”  In a video produced by Soul Pancake about an exercise modeled after a study, participants who expressed their gratitude to someone increased their own happiness levels by 4-19%.

So I told my students that if they’re having a day when they’re feeling kinda down, saying “thank you” to someone can help improve their emotional state.

To help solidify this practice, I bought a bunch of blank cards and asked students to write a note of gratitude to an adult who demonstrated kindness by doing something to help them—not by buying them something.

I reminded them that thank-you notes always need to be specific and mention the impact of the person’s kind gesture.

Furthermore, students got a chance to apply one of the four classic paragraph structures we’ve been studying.

Option A: The Turnabout Paragraph

Start off discussing some misconception that exists but be careful not to make the person receiving your note uncomfortable.  Do not, for example, say, “I know that everyone thinks you’re bitter and selfish.”

Transition to describing how the person was kind and the impact of this kindness on your life.


Option B: The Interrogative Paragraph

Start off with a thoughtful question related to the situation.

Answer the question by describing the act of kindness and how it affected or helped you.


Option C: The Straightforward Paragraph

Begin by expressing gratitude explicitly.

Continue by explaining why this act of kindness made a difference in your life at that time.


Option D: The Climactic Paragraph

Explain the struggle you were facing.

End the paragraph by expressing your gratitude


Of course, students need to also use the sentence structures we’ve learned: semicolons, appositives, dashes, colons.

And they need to include a couple of vocabulary words from our running list.

After they drafted their paragraphs, they rewrote them carefully and neatly on a blank card, decorated it briefly with markers, glued some clip art images of “thank you,” and addressed the envelope.  Their homework is to subtly deliver the note.

However, thanks to info passed along by a wise librarian friend of mine, we must remember that expressing gratitude can make teens feel powerless.  In fact, the ParentingSimply.com blogger wrote about the work of journalist Po Bronson who explains how making teens express gratitude can make them feel cynical during a time when they yearn for independence.

Still, students tell me they found this meaningful (I had to pass around the tissue box to some teary-eyed, sniffling students).  I hope this helps them remember our study of rhetoric, which examines how words affect an audience, and why it's important to recognize kindness--and to be kind to others.

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