Teenagers & Thank You Notes (This Really Happened)
Ashley Weber teaches high school French. Every Thursday, she asks the students to dedicate the first 10 minutes to writing a thank you note. And, you might be shocked to learn… they LOVE IT. Because of Thank You Thursday, there are currently over 1600 messages of thanks out in the world. At that, Madame Weber can only stand back and say merci.
When Gratitude Revealed came across this video, we were so moved and inspired, we had to find out more about how this extraordinary teen transformation occurred. Enjoy the video and then read the interview that follows below.
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Interview with Educator Ashley Weber, Creator of Thank You Thursdays
GR: How did you become so interested in gratitude?
Ashley: I have been a language teacher for the past 13 years. Along the way, I’ve had some amazing opportunities. I’ve been an academic dean, I’ve been a program dean, I’ve taught in other countries and I have worked with many age groups. Over the years, I’ve noticed a growing assumption about who is teaching character education. Parents assume this is being taught in school. Teachers assume this is being taught at home. Sometimes, this means there is a large gap in teaching what makes an adult a good adult. What makes somebody happy and healthy and productive.
Social emotional learning, which emphasizes things like creativity and resilience and zest and curiosity, promotes character education. And gratitude is a powerful tool to teach character. Learning how to feel and say thank you.
GR: Is that how you came up with the idea for Thank You Thursday?
Ashley: I noticed that many young people don’t know how to express gratitude. If they do say, “Thanks,” it might be in the form of a text message or an email and it just says, “Thx,” and then they hit send and it’s the end of it. It also seemed as though many students were associating gratitude with a gift. If it wasn’t something tangible that they had received for their birthday or for another holiday, they found it to be a strange and maybe even wasteful activity to sit down and write a thank you note. It occurred to me this might be a practical and approachable way to get students to spend just 10 minutes, once a week, on slowing down and having the chance to reflect on something meaningful to them.
GR: Were the students supportive of one another? Did you have to deal with any initial push back?
Ashley: I consciously addressed that from the start in two ways. First, I wanted to encourage risk taking by sharing my own thank you note that I wrote during the activity, which was for something that could almost be dismissed as trivial. I think somebody brought me lunch in a Tupperware because I couldn’t go to the cafeteria that day. It was just a really nice, easy gesture. I wanted my students to see that small gestures have a big impact.
Secondly, every week I asked for two to three volunteers to share their story of who they’re thanking. I never ask them to read their notes out loud, but I do explain that one of the objectives of the project is to not only express gratitude but also hear some of the goodness that’s happening in the world. We all need a boost. In each class, there was at least one brave student who was willing to raise his or her hand and say something like, “Oh, I wrote a thank you note to my grandmother because she picked me up from school last week when I couldn’t get a ride.” This brief storytelling encouraged the other kids to share as well. It would trigger their memories and help them to recognize the multitude of small gestures worthy of gratitude.
I think the simplicity of the exercise is what made everyone feel like they could risk participation.
GR: It sounds like this was really unfolding as it happened.
Ashley: Sometimes the students were inspired because they had forgotten about things that people had done for them in the past. Hearing the stories of their classmates, they suddenly remembered. That is a pretty neat ripple effect of the sharing aspect of the project.
GR: Did you see any ways in which this ripple effect expanded beyond the classroom?
Ashley: When people receive paper thank you notes, they often keep them in a drawer or in a shoe box and it enables a discovery down the road. You can see the handwriting of the person who thanked you. It has a way of acting as a direct bungee cord back to the moment that experience happened. I do think that there’s something about paper and handwriting that conveys a sincerity that’s unmatchable in today’s electronic age.
GR: Also, I know from personal experience that writing inspires you to be more creative, it encourages you to write in complete sentences. It also requires you to be succinct and thoughtful, as you only have so much room on your thank you card.
Ashley: Right. I feel strongly you can’t go wrong with this stuff. There was a point early in the project where I was apprehensive that somebody might come to my classroom and say, “Why are you not teaching what you’re ‘supposed’ to teach?”
GR: That’s a big concern these days, I’m afraid, isn’t it?
Ashley: My concern was that they would say, “You’re here to be teaching this subject matter.” I asked myself, “Well, if I don’t teach gratitude, who will?” and, “Whose job is it, exactly? What’s stopping me as an adult from helping a younger person understand the importance of this?” I think, as adults, we have a responsibility to pass this on to kids.
Then came that old, familiar mental roadblock of, “Am I allowed to do that?” I think that that’s the real crisis in our country, when teachers must stop and say, “Am I allowed to teach them this important life skill?”
But ultimately, there’s nothing I believe in more than increasing the number of compassionate people on the planet.
GR: Do you have any advice or feedback on how we can encourage teachers to participate in our Gratitude Challenge? How do we communicate clearly with them that this is an easy, accessible exercise to do, and worth doing?
Ashley: I’d say there are two things that could immediately make a difference. The first is administrative support. Teachers are going to feel safer if they know that their principal or their department chair is on board with something like this. The activity is contemplative and there’s a short discussion that goes along with it, but it doesn’t detract from much class time. Once they hear how fast the activity is, there’s little objection.The second is to somehow encourage teachers to ask themselves why they became educators in the first place. What was the tipping point along the way when they were learning and loving these subjects that they said, “I want to pass this on and I want to work with young people?” Can they pinpoint it? If they explore that little bit of nostalgia, they’ll realize that talking about gratitude and other important life attributes likely reflects the reason they wanted to become a teacher in the first place.
Most educators go home every day feeling as though they made some small difference. We don’t always get feedback for it, but we do hope we’ve helped at least one kid every day. If that is still the goal, and I believe it is for teachers until the day they retire and beyond that, then doing these gratitude activities can only be a benefit for their classroom.
This will sound like a cliché, but I’ll say that I’m getting just as much out of Thank You Thursday as the kids are, if not more.
GR: That’s so wonderful. How so?
Ashley: It’s not just the clear evidence that here they are practicing gratitude, or that they’re able to come up with these moments in their lives and articulate why it makes a difference to them. It’s not just that. I also feel hopeful in hearing their stories about people doing good things. I think 2016 has been an especially confusing and frustrating year for many, many people. To take a break in the middle of your day to write a thank you note can have a very healthy impact.
GR: Well said.
Ashley: I’ve enjoyed our conversation so much. I had no doubts that I would.
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.