iGen, a term used by generational researcher Jean M. Twenge (2017), is used to describe children born between 1995 and 2012. In her book, Twenge analyzed large data sets to understand the struggles and hopes of this rising generation. iGen are the children who now fill the seats in our middle school classrooms.
As iGen must negotiate the unchartered demands of the digital age, Twenge poses the question of what we can do to protect children from anxiety, depression, and loneliness, all of which are traits on the rise, and researchers have connected this rise to the influx of technology. Knowing that iGen faces these challenges, what can we as educators do to counteract feelings of isolation and loneliness?
Practicing gratitude in education is one pathway to help students with anxiety, depression and loneliness. In Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are (2011), Voskamp challenged herself to find 1000 things she is grateful for amidst the duties, stress, and burdens of everyday living. In the same way she challenged herself to uncover what she is grateful for, how can we include gratefulness in our classrooms as a tool to foster community, connectivity, and happiness? How can gratitude in the classroom move beyond an obligatory pre-Thanksgiving assignment and into the fabric of everyday learning? Here are some ideas:
Discover gratitude. Before we can ask anything of our students, we must first embark on a gratitude journey of our own. Consider what you are grateful for in your personal and professional life. Who are the people in your life who bring you joy? What are the things you are grateful for? Where can you choose to see beauty in imperfection, and where can you choose gratitude over indifference or bitterness? Take time to slow down, put the phone down, observe your immediate surroundings, and document what you are experiencing.
Model gratitude. As you travel on your own journey of gratitude, begin to model gratitude for your students. Often, we speak to students; instead, make a pedagogical choice to speak with students. Share with your students about the people, things, and even challenges for which you are grateful. As you share your own stories of gratitude, this opens the door for mutual humanization, which consequently lays the groundwork for transformative learning (Freire, 1972, 1998).
Embed gratitude in curriculum. Consider embedding gratitude in your curriculum. For English courses, regularly provide students with opportunities to journal about what they are grateful for using sensory images and descriptive writing. In science, connect inventions and innovations to gratitude for modern conveniences. Encourage your students to seek or cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of geography, weather, and nature. In math, connect concepts to real world applications that keep us safe and healthy. In history, connect the stories of the past to the stories of today. Cultivate gratitude for how the sacrifices and lives of others have strived to make our world more fair, just, and equal for us today. In P.E., cultivate gratitude and amazement at what the human body is able to do. In art and music, embed gratitude for these tools of self-expression and creativity.
Cultivate a community of gratefulness. When you take attendance each period, invite students to respond with something or someone they are grateful for rather than just responding "here." Engage in regular activities of gratitude such as writing thank you notes to class guests, providing opportunities for students to report specific examples of their gratefulness for one another, setting aside time to discuss and express gratitude for empowering school leaders, kind peers, and helpful school personnel. Cultivate a community that begins to see the people and things that are invisible and forgotten. Challenge your students to not only see them, but to be grateful for their presence.
When gratitude is present in personal identity, curriculum, and classroom community, it's a powerful tool to actively resist anxiety, depression, and loneliness in a fast-paced digital age, and helps set the stage for authentic, transformative, and connected learning and living.
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Herder and Herder.
Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as cultural workers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Twenge, J. M. (2018). iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Atria International.
Elizabeth Yomantas, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of teaching and the director of clinical practice at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Before beginning her work in higher education, she was a middle school English teacher.
Published January 2019.