|The Wonder of It All
Fostering gratitude through academic discovery and exemplary lives
Like academic discovery, gratitude begins in wonder. Schools can lead children to experience the joy of moving from wonder to understanding. In the process they can light a path from apathy to gratitude.
Gratitude for new things learned weans students away from the arch-enemy of education - apathy or indifference. Cicero reminds us, "A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues." Why? Because gratitude is a way of looking at the world which focuses outward while ingratitude focuses inward.
Unfortunately, we Americans are too often prone to be what Time magazine once labeled "a nation of whiners." Super-endowed with material blessings and reaping the rewards of a political system that has historically ensured both liberty and stability, Americans tend to feel "entitled" to the good things in life. We take them for granted. We have come to believe we are owed them.
How much more pleasant for our students and for our future, if we considered the good things of life as "gifts bestowed" rather than "payments owed."
"Gratitude is thankfulness for the gift of life and the gifts in life," reads the poster definition from the character education program, Core Virtues. In other words, gratitude is more than a nod in the direction of good things. Gratitude is an internal disposition to see the wonder of the world about us, to recognize good things as bounty bestowed, and to delight in the beauty and goodness of things given.
Gratitude is both a spur to learning and a by-product of it. The intellectual journey begins exactly where the virtue of gratitude begins -- in wonder: wonder at the unknown, awe-filled appreciation of the mysteries that surround us. The kindergartner asks: "Why do leaves turn red?" "Why is the sky so blue?" The older student wonders: "How does music lift the heart and spirit?" "Why does a painting so move me?"
One secret to cultivating in students the disposition of gratitude is for teachers to feed this fire of "wonder" with the gift of knowledge. Genuine wonder and delight is not found in the romance of "not knowing." If such wonder about the unexplained were sustained over a lifetime, it might at some point be termed "ignorance."
To feed the flame of wonder and gratitude, schools and teachers should not simply marvel along with students, but also be in the business of helping children find good answers - the knowledge that feeds the fire. Finding answers does not extinguish the flame of wonder, but fuels it, heats it, sends it crackling to a new level. The intellectual curiosity and thankfulness we seek to cultivate in adolescents begins in a strong academic encounter of youth, one that immerses them in the intricacy and richness of the quest for understanding. The child who wonders and discovers is not sated, but hungrier for more.
That hunger - that wonder - can also be fed by lighting the lamp of inspiration. We should tell the stories of those who saw life as a gift, who acted as great stewards of their inheritance. We should tell, for example, the story of Wilson Bentley, who looked at a snowflake and saw a universe, recording his observations in Snow Crystals for all posterity. We should tell the story of Beatrix Potter, who watched garden rabbits and saw a way to cheer an ailing boy. We should tell the story of Japanese poet Basso, whose wonder and delight at the world around him led him to produce haiku. We should tell the story of Barn Savers, a father and son who work to preserve a heritage that would otherwise be lost.
We must inspire students by telling of those who have come from little, but done much. We should tell stories of those who have come from much and felt the need to give more. We should stress the works and lives of those who have chosen to give back, to be faithful stewards. Utilizing this combination of feeding the intellectual appetite and lighting the fire of imagination, we can attend to both content and character. We can help students move from apathy to wonder, from wonder to knowing, and from indifference to gratitude.
Mary Beth Klee is the author of Core Virtues, A Literature-Based Character Education Program for K-6. In that volume, which complements the Core Knowledge Sequence, teachers can find reading lists of books to illustrate the virtues of gratitude, wonder, and stewardship. It can be ordered from Link Institute: 1-800-276-6400.
Gratitude and Wonder in Literature
A few recommendations of Mary Beth Klee
Heetunka's Harvest: A Tale of the Plains Indians by Jennifer Berry Jones. Illustrated by Shannon Keegan. Roberts Rinehart, 1994 (for grades 3-5).
A generous prairie mouse (Heetunka) shares her carefully harvested beans and seeds with the Dakota people in exchange for gifts. An ungrateful woman takes all of Heetunka's beans and learns the hard way that greed and ingratitude only bring her grief. Heetunka "will happily share with those who come to trade with humble, thankful hearts."
The Tongue-Cut Sparrow. Momoko Ishil. Illustrated by Suekichi Akaba. Dutton, 1987 (for grade 4).
A Japanese folktale in which a sparrow teaches a mean-spirited old woman to appreciate the many gifts in her life. The poor, selfish, greedy old woman cannot be content. In a fit of anger, she cuts out the tongue of her husband's only treasure - a sweetly singing sparrow. The sparrow teachers her a lesson in living contentedly and humbly with what she has.
The First Thanksgiving by Jean Craighead George. Illustrated by Thomas Locker. Philomel, 1993 (for grades 3-5).
Haunting illustrations and substantial text in this tale of Pilgrim courage and gratitude.
The Stonecutter: An Indian Folktale by Patricia Newton. Putnam, 1990 (for grades K-3).
This tale of ancient India is a beautifully illustrated story of a stonecutter who learns to be grateful for the life he has.
Christopher Columbus: From Vision to Voyage by Joan Anderson. Dial Books, 1991 (for grades 4-6).
"He had the sea in his veins and dreams in his heart." Strong factual presentation with excellent illustrations in this photographic telling of Columbus' story - his curiousity about the world, his dreams, and maverick venture.
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Illustrated by Mary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin, 1998 (for grades K-5).
Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), son of a Vermont farmer, has fallen in love with snow. He is caught up in the beauty of each flake and his passion is to reproduce the intricacy and variety of snow crystals. Bentley's parents save for years and buy him a special camera to photograph each flake. Throughout his adult life, Bentley sketches, photographs, and shares the glory of nature. His book Snow Crystals is a classic.
© 2000, Gateways to Better Education