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Harvard EdCast: Giving Thanks in the Classroom

How bringing gratitude into the classroom can have a positive impact on student learning.
Thank you note

Math class doesn't seem the likely place to practice gratitude, but while teaching ninth-grade math Michael Fauteux, Ed.M.’06, discovered that implementing moments of gratitude in class had positive impact on student learning. 

Now the founder of GiveThx, a nonprofit that uses digital thank you notes and research-based lessons to nurture mental health and improve academic success, Fauteux's sharing the practice in classrooms around the country. Since the organization's launch in 2018, there have been over 300,000 gratitude notes sent by over 20,000 students.

“When we started talking to the students, yes, it's a little weird in the beginning, but students, teachers, parents, everybody inherently understands 'thank you.' It's one of the first [phrases] you learn if you go to another country or you try to learn to speak another language, so whether it's a school or a place, it's just such a universal concept and way to value somebody,” he says. “It's good timing right now for people to say yeah, let's give this a try and extend Thanksgiving to be not one month, but 12.”

In this episode, he discusses what motivated him to launch the nonprofit and how gratitude can help student social emotional learning and more. 

TRANSCRIPT:

Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Michael Fauteaux discovered the power of gratitude while teaching math. He noticed students were stressing and struggling to be honest about what they didn't know in ways that blocked their ability to learn. When Michael added simple gratitude practices like writing down mistakes you're glad to make, or writing thank you notes to someone who helped, the classroom experience started to shift, impacting student learning and culture. 

For years Michael used gratitude in the classroom before creating GiveThx, a non-profit that uses digital thank you notes and research based lessons to nurture mental health and improve academic success. I asked Michael when he decided to leave teaching in order to focus exclusively on helping develop gratitude in classrooms. 

Michael FauteuxMichael Fauteaux: It had been going on in my classroom just as a practice for a few years, and then we prototyped, honestly, some spreadsheets, we networked together, we played around with some kids designing how it might work with Google Forms and all of that, and people really liked it, and two friends of mine from a previous project said why don't we make a go of building something that looks a little more proper, and we did, and it was a little web app. We experimented designing with the kids and implementing it. We did that over maybe six months, and at the end of the school year, we were just interviewing students.

We thought we had something. There was this one student who, let's call her Maria, she was a 9th grader and she didn't really identify as popular, and she did identify as a language learner, someone who's still building their capacity. We asked her hey, what do you think? How's it going? She just kind of started crying. We waited and asked her, and said hey, why are you crying? Are you okay? She said well, I just didn't know some of these people even knew who I was, and I feel seen and appreciated for the things that I do. It was at that moment I'm like okay, we want everyone to be able to feel this way, and we definitely have something here. How can we help the other schools in our network and then maybe schools more broadly learn from what we're doing to hopefully have more students feel that type of being valued and connected. That was when I said okay, let me step away and see if I can't turn this into a non-profit and give it a go. 

Jill Anderson: Tell me more about GiveThx and how it works.

Michael Fauteaux: GiveThx is a program where students use it between 10 to 30 minutes a week, and it has three parts. It has a curriculum with a set of core practices and lessons, it has some trainings for the teachers, and it has some software to help people safely establish routines and to practice together. Schools will start by saying hey, what do we value and care about as far as social-emotional learning goes? Is it listening? Is it kindness? They make those decisions and they put them in the system, and then they find opportunities to anchor their work in. 

It could be okay, whenever we do a process check or a reflection, we'll use GiveThx to help students reflect things that they're grateful to others for that made the work go well, or they'll find a place in their advisory, let's say, or their homeroom or their morning meeting where they say this is where we want to anchor these lessons, these sequential lessons. You'll walk into a classroom and they might have an opening routine or a closing routine where you see them expressing thanks to one another or reflecting on things that they're grateful for to just create fertile conditions for learning. Schools get to start with what's important to them. It's something we realized was critical. 

We can't come in and say you have to do these 10 social-emotional skills. That's what's most important. We had to start with where they were, and they also needed a way to see how it could live very easily, in minutes, in the classes they're already teaching, because teachers are really busy, but also in their professional routines, because all the staff, from the custodian to the principal, to the office manager to the lunch staff, all needed to be involved as part of that learning community. It really is as simple as being able to thank people a few minutes each week and to reflect, and then for the students to do some lessons to go a little deeper.

Jill Anderson: Did you hear a lot about just challenges for educators and trying to figure out how to implement this in some way into their schools, into their classrooms, especially at some of maybe these middle and high school level? Because it feels like SEL in the elementary level is just built into their curriculum, but I'm not so sure that's happening in some of the higher levels.

Michael Fauteaux: That's a great question. Most people when they find out about us, they think that we're an elementary school program, and we actually work 2nd through 12th grade. When I tell them it was designed at a high school in the Oakland East Bay here in California, they go oh. Yeah, this was built in high schools, and so there are definitely challenges to implementing any program, and we always tell folks the first challenge, and the biggest one honestly, are the educators. They need to have buy-in, they need to feel that it's sustainable, and that they're going to have the support necessary to do what's asked of them. 

I say that as a 20-year educator, one and done PD, there's little worse than that. It's very frustrating, and unsupported mandates are just untenable. They just don't work. The main pushback we get is always initially from educators who go come on, this is a little too kind of squishy, sunshiny. I need to worry about my math class. I just teach 9th grade algebra. I tell them this came out of a 9th grade math class, and this helped kids really accelerate their learning because they felt safe, and safe's not a nice to have. It's a must have, particularly for traditionally marginalized students. 

I think that's a big shift that has to happen in social-emotional learning. You alluded to elementary school as they've got a dedicated time. It's just assumed that it's part of elementary in ways that it's not in the secondary space, and the nod to social-emotional in the secondary space is okay, let's have an advisory program. Then people don't know what to do with it and it becomes fair or not, a dumping ground for lots of different disparate practices that really have no coherence and very little impact. 

We always tell schools, whether they be elementary, middle, or high, don't worry about the kids right now. Let's just work with the adults for a month, two weeks, four weeks, get them to that aha moment where they can see both the value and the sustainability to make this work. Otherwise, it's just not going to have the implementation fidelity that programs and practices need so everyone can benefit from their impact. I will say, at Harvard's Ed school, their EASEL Lab, Professor Stephanie Jones' kernels work, which tries to identify across multiple curricula what are these kernels, these practices? Because I don't have time for 90 minutes a week, let's say, particularly in the secondary space. 

The kernels of GiveThx are impersonal and interpersonal gratitude, so it's reflection and thank you notes. It's analyzing one's own data to identify strengths and decisions they make to have impact on others. Those are very easy to integrate in a short amount of time into existing practices, and that's really important because you will get pushback, mainly on is this a fit and is this sustainable? That's why we start with the adults and we make sure that they can quickly see what the impact is themselves to experience it, and realize okay, this is something I can immediately do to enhance instead of put on top of my existing work.

Jill Anderson: I keep thinking about how just writing thank you notes has kind of become something that's really passe in our culture in a lot of ways. It doesn't seem to happen at all anymore, and it's so striking that something as simple as writing a thank you note and sending that to someone can be so impactful.

Michael Fauteaux: The research base is really surprising. It's really funny. Most people just think whatever, gratitude. It's like no, no, no, no. It helps you make new friends. It helps support your mental health. It makes you a better learner. You literally do better in school as a direct relationship between your performance and how grateful you feel. There's effects on your self-control. I mean it's really wild. Most people would go yeah, sure, whatever. It's remarkable to look at that research base, and there's research on our program itself that shows many of those things. It always surprises people. It really does.

Jill Anderson: I want to just ask you about the numbers, because I think I saw this, and maybe you might have to update it for me, but I think 150,000 notes of gratitude. Is that right? 

Michael Fauteaux: We've had over 300,000 gratitude notes sent, over 20,000 students participate. It's been really heartwarming to see. It's just something. We're really excited to see it, and all these adults too. I keep coming back to that point. People like the students, they go, and the adults. It's a really big deal, right, adult well-being right now, particularly in schools, and so to see the adults and the students participating side by side is just so heartwarming to watch. What's really interesting about it, not to get too nerdy, is you can see what people are grateful for. 

It goes back to that beginning where you go okay, we're going to put these 10 words in the word bank. I pick Jill, and I say thanks so much for asking those questions first. It makes me less stressed. I pick courage. Imagine if you saw every thank you note you ever received in one place sorted by reason. What could you learn about yourself? Then you get to go and search and show me every thank you note. Okay. Oh, I didn't realize I'm doing these things. I'm going to do more of that. 

It's pretty wonderful to watch students learn that way, holding their data close. When you see that across a grade level or a school, it's fascinating because now educators, administrators, they can start to see formative evidence of specific practices. You brought up the pandemic. 

There was a school in Fruitvale in Oakland, a K to eight school that was using GiveThx and started it during the pandemic, and it was really interesting for the principal to track what are my students and staff most grateful for? How is that changing over time? The number one thing that showed over the course of the year was joy. They were so grateful for joy and to be connected. They really needed that and they could see it in the notes and the reflections. Being able to monitor that and how people were expressing thanks to each other was a very instructive thing for the leaders to be able to just kind of meet the community's needs and to monitor them as they developed over the course of the year. 

Jill Anderson: We're hearing a lot too about trauma and mental health issues, especially now, as fallout of this pandemic and how things have been playing out for so many kids, so that's really interesting to hear.

Michael Fauteaux: The number one thing that they talk about, they being students, and this is a gross generalization just from looking at our data and talking to our schools, is they talk about feeling connected, or rather disconnected and how this could help them feel connected. They talk about feeling valued and seen for things other than academics, and that's particularly been a hard thing this past year, and so being valued for your courage or your kindness, those aren't small things. 

You may forget the Pythagorean theorem. I hope you don't as a math teacher, but your ability to recognize how to be patient, how to let others go first in a group, I mean, you and I can probably talk about professional settings we wish more people had developed that skill in. They're really important, so feeling connected and feeling valued this past year has been just absolutely critical.

Before the pandemic, access to social-emotional learning and mental health needs, they were already not equitably distributed. Certain folks were already having a much harder time and the pandemic exacerbated that, also not equitably. It really, really is a significant challenge. It's a crisis. The American Pediatric Association said this is an absolute crisis that we need to respond to, so we feel fortunate that we can provide just some practices and some ways to certainly not solve, but just mitigate and help address some of this in schools.

Jill Anderson: Can you tell me more about the equity piece to this?

Michael Fauteaux: The short answer is the S in SEL, the social piece, is really tricky. We define equity as resourcing based on need instead of power. An example of power versus need might be well, look, I have seniority in this school. I want to teach the AP math class. Even if I'm the strongest teacher and I would do best being there for the 9th graders, too bad. I want to teach the AP kids. For us that meant, in SEL, identity safe access. It's a bit of a long phrase, but essentially everyone, regardless of the components of their social identity, feels they can have safe access to social-emotional practices and its benefits. In our school, just to tell a story of what that could look like, I'll pick on gender.

Our young men felt very comfortable publicly making fun of another young man. Totally fine. For a young man to stand up and say to another hey, I want to thank you for such and such, it impacted me this way, that was a non-starter for a bunch of young men because some of them viewed it as a potential sign of weakness and that just wasn't going to work. That's an example of us saying okay, so the public aspect, the social aspect of social-emotional can be tricky to navigate. We could go further, right, language learners who might not have a level of confidence to participate, students with learning differences, just shy students, any number of different identities can sometimes be obstacles instead of assets.

When we built this with students we centered that question, how can we create safe access for students of all identity, and we had these really cool design teams with students and staff. We believe in designing with those we design for, and we had a team that was just young women. We had a team that had a significant number of language learners who wanted to talk about that issue, because our belief was if we designed for the traditionally marginalized, you'll naturally address the center of the picture if you're working with the margins. It produced really interesting outcomes. 

Identity safe access, equitable access, means for example, that students have the time to be able to express and participate when those same three lovely people are normally dominating, everyone can still have access to and participate. What was a mechanism? We built a little software where people could one to one thank each other. Then the students said okay, but we really want that monitored by the teacher. We said okay, why? They said well, for example, the young women's group was we just don't want to be harassed. That's our number one concern, so we want that safety. We said oh, okay. Then another group said don't let us reply. We said oh, what are you talking about? Don't put a reply button on the thank you note. 

It turned out they're like look, we have chat apps. We don't need another. It'll lower the meaningfulness. People just need to sit there and be thanked. People are terrible at that. We don't want this to become a back and forth. The biggest one was students saying only let us thank one person at a time because when we tried it where they could thank a bunch, it replicated the same lack of safety of public expression in front of a lot of people and the worst of social media. Hey, I just want to thank Joel for helping me study and get a 4.0. How many likes can I get on this message? 

The public, the social piece of social-emotional, we really tried to think how could everyone have safe access, and so building a one to one way with the software with the students, and using these gratitude practices that were just naturally strength based. I can't be critical to you, Joel. I'm thanking you for something. It made people feel very safe and valued, so their differences could be assets and could be celebrated as such. Then they had that way to connect with each other. 

The example with the young men, after the first few notes of hey, what's up, and believe me, those were the first few notes, they realized that it was safe and like oh, okay. You could look at just the length of their message over the course of the year get longer and longer, and they were expressing real feelings to other young men. By the end of the year it was just mind blowing, and their participating went up tenfold. Safe access is a real big thing if we're going to have equity, and those are a few examples I think of of how we try to approach that in our work. 

Jill Anderson: Why should educators consider implementing something like GiveThx or just gratitude practice in their classroom? 

Michael Fauteaux: It's intentionally simple. My co-founder likes to say making something complex is easy. Making something simple is hard. Designing this with these beautiful constraints of it has to be usable in like four or five minutes, and it has to complement what's already going on in schools and classes, was really important because that's where folks were, again, before pandemic it was already hard. It's much harder now with pressures for learning loss and recouping that, but I think everyone knows, even though people are mainly talking about learning loss, there's a ton of well-being loss that we need to address. 

If you don't address that, the learning loss is going to be much harder to tackle. We're really excited to continue expanding. We've had, in our three years, over 100 schools and 20,000 students, as I mentioned, and we're just thrilled to begin working with schools and districts who are saying hey, we want to push our social-emotional learning further and certainly address both the mental health side, the well-being, but also we just want all of these social-emotional skills to get more practice and people to have some visibility into how they're being developed. 

Someone once asked okay, great, why GiveThx? Where did it come from? I tell them my first year of teaching, somebody handed me this purple manila folder and I said what's this for? They said this is your thank you folder. Okay. They go trust me. Just put every thank you note you ever get from any student, teacher, parent, doesn't matter, in here. You'll want to open it from time to time, and sure enough, I did, and I remember whatever it was, four years ago, I was opening it in the school one day and I just started absentmindedly moving the notes around into piles but by reason. 

I started realizing people had been thankful to me for being patient, even though I don't think of myself as a patient person. That pile was just literally physically taller on my desk. I read some of the notes and the things that I had done to be thanked for that. I just started wondering if the students could see this, what could they feel and how could they grow?

When we started talking to the students, yes, it's a little weird in the beginning, but students, teachers, parents, everybody inherently understands thank you. It's one of the first things you learn if you go to another country or you try to learn to speak another language, so whether it's a school or a place, it's just such a universal concept and way to value somebody. It's good timing right now for people to say yeah, let's give this a try and extend Thanksgiving to be not one month, but 12.

Jill Anderson: Michael Fauteaux is the executive director of GiveThx. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.