Gratitude Day At Sunrise Middle School

Posted by Anne Veh on Feb 13, 2017
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It’s really quite simple, and also profoundly transformative; we gather in a circle, we invite the sharing of stories; stories open hearts; open hearts transform the circle into a sacred container of trust, trust invites a special quality of reflection, reflection invites transformation.

    

Last year, our local “Kindness Team” joined forces with the students and staff at San Jose’s Sunrise Middle School for a memorable Kindness Day, which spilled into a school wide 21-day Kindness Challenge. The stream of ripples that ensued inspired us to return this year, with a request to offer a new theme. Why not follow-up with a Gratitude Day to kick off a 21-Day Gratitude Challenge?

With fresh memories from last year of students creating their own “free hugs” and “free compliment” signs, gifting flowers and personal gratitude notes to teachers, janitors and our own Kindness Team, we know the wisdom in creating a Gratitude Day starts with the students. 

        

In mid-January, Vishesh and I went down to Sunrise to meet with the student council and leadership class to invite their participation to co-facilitate Gratitude Day. When I arrived, Vishesh was standing at the head of the class, comfortably fielding question after question from the students: “What is college like? What are you going to do after college? What do your parents think of your choices? How do you challenge yourself?” It was amazing, Vishesh was looking each student in the eye and sharing openly on even his most challenging experiences, including the time he blindfolded himself in the middle of the cafeteria at lunchtime, wearing a “free hugs” sign. He shared how some students threw food at him or put disgusting food in his hands, and how he accepted it all in a practice of equanimity.

From his amazing heart opening stories, the kids were ready to speak about gratitude and ways they could bring gratitude on campus. We shared the story of “How Vinny Changed His School Culture,” which inspired a long list of potential activities. The one idea that stuck was to create a “You Are Loved” wall, making a heart for every student in the school.

Within a minute, one student added, “Let’s make a heart for the teachers, too! And the staff.” :)

 

Over the next two weeks, the students created over 200 hearts, each with a personal message of gratitude. And the entire activity was kept a secret amongst the student leaders -- so they could surprise the school community on our February 1st Gratitude Day! The following week, their teacher, Ms. Krista, FaceTimed me during their class so that students could share their progress and ideas. On this day, we learned that three of the 7th grade boys have offered to share personal stories of gratitude during the school-wide assembly!

As the students’ enthusiasm reflect, the labor-of-love spirit in which this day comes together builds an indefatigable spirit and regenerative quality to the entire experience.

Teachers Bradley and Marie take the day off work -- getting substitutes to fill in for them at their respective high schools -- just to practice gratitude with Sunrise’s 190 middle school students. On top of that, in the days beforehand, Marie found herself down with a cold and decided to still spend several hours writing gratitude messages on 200 stones as a gift to each student at the school. “It was nice opportunity to step out of thinking about myself and my cold, and to practice compassion and gratitude for others,” she shared in our opening volunteer circle. Then there was Afreen, who diligently got 190 Day 1 journal templates (created by last year’s summer intern, Saheli!) printed, and thoughtfully brings ample markers and post-it notes for our classroom breakout activities. In addition, Bradley, Stella, and I were inspired to independently bake up a storm of sweet treats -- making sure there would be enough for all 190 students and 15-20 staff members to receive one.

       

Marie, who also volunteers in the summer with a local Soulforce Fellowship for high schoolers, extends the invitation for her students to join the Gratitude Day. Three of them -- Pansy, Aaron and Stella -- respond with a resounding “Yes!” :)

Marie shares, “Aaron is a former student and now my teaching assistant, and he has been longing for more positive interactions with peers and adults than what he sees everyday. Stella, who wants to promote wellness and community at our school, is also longing for positive models. She likes to bake, so I will let her choose what to make. Pansy will make gratitude cards and will help set-up, but she can’t stay for the day, as she has school.”

After all the preparations, finally, February 1st -- the first day of their Gratitude Challenge -- arrives. It unfolds in unexpected beauty…

Around noon, our Kindness Team arrives at Sunrise. As we enter the schoolyard, we are instantly struck by the nine-foot “You Are Loved” wall. It's hard not to stop and read every heart! We then gather in one of the classrooms to circle up in silence followed by sharing a recent moment of gratitude. Lunch arrives, a homemade spread of multiple dishes. It’s made by Arlene, the superstar administrator who offered to cook us a vegan meal -- and on top of that, all while she was cooking, she was meditating on gratitude!

     

Somehow the morning’s multiple tasks and prep (plus a surprise visit from Fumi, a former high school teacher at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, who’d inspired a Kindness Circle for his own class a few years back, and now happens to be serving with Catholic Charities down the street!) are all accomplished with a joy and ease that comes when serving with Great Love!

At 1PM, we head to the cafeteria for the school-wide assembly. The students are ready and eager to step into the day. Pancho introduces the practice of “washing our mind” and the students -- smiling and remembering his story from last year -- respond with presence and a willingness to be still. Audrey blesses our time together with her infectious smile and love as she shares the day’s activities and begins with a simple story of gratitude. She knows just how to reach each child!



As we begin to explore gratitude, 7th grader Jamie shares, “I like to water the plants and do the compost every week. I do it… [then a long pause]… for all of you.”

The students, listening attentively, are moved by his generosity, and genuinely thank Jamie. Our team is blown away by the number of students who bravely volunteer to take the microphone and speak in front of the entire school. It’s heartwarmingly apparent that they not only understand community, they strengthen the circle of trust with their openness, vulnerable hearts and sharing. Some students, even visibly shaking, were able to complete their sharing, knowing their peers were there to support them.

We then break into seven smaller circles and meet with the students in their homeroom classrooms.

In classroom circles of 25-30 students, a Kindness Team member is joined by two student council facilitators to lead the gratitude activity. As I left the cafeteria to join an 8th grade homeroom, a few girls stay back and offer to help me carry the art supplies. The sincerity in which they offer touches me.

As I enter the room, one of the students is crying. Ms. Krista, the homeroom teacher, informs me of a family issue that the student is facing, and that is shared by several others in the community. Sunrise Middle School is located in one of San Jose's toughest neighborhoods, literally nestled between two gangs, and with 87% of students qualifying for free or reduced school lunches. Just as the students start openly expressing some of their fears, Ms. Teresa, the school director, enters the room and assuage the students' fears and concerns. "This room is a sanctuary," she encourages. "Anything shared will be held in confidence, and I want you all to know this school is a sanctuary. You and your families are safe at Sunrise."

These are the moments when I am most grateful for the opportunity to serve, as we get to practice courage and compassion in the moment, allowing the heart to lead.

              

In the cafeteria, Stella, Aaron, and Audrey engage with students in sixth and seventh grade. A student reads the description for the Day 1 gratitude prompt, “What do you have enough of?” and they set to work journaling on the elements of abundance in their lives. Friendship, family, food, opportunities to learn -- the lists go on and on. Some draw pictures. Others write colorful reflections. When they are finished, they write about their gratitude on a post-it note, and pastes it up as a leaf on the Gratitude Tree (hand-painted by one of the teachers!) that adorns the cafeteria wall. As students in other classrooms return, they also post up their gratitude on the tree, and within a half hour, the once-bare brown trunk and branches are overflowing with vibrant new foliage! :)

        

                                   

The school reassembles in the cafeteria and students volunteer to share their reflections. One sixth grader sweetly takes the mic and offers, “Thank you for today. You all make me happy... I hope I can be in student leadership.”

                     

Another rises up and offers, “I’m grateful for this school.”

Afreen reflects, “I was so impressed at witnessing the positive school culture. It is rare it is to see Middle School students step up in front of the whole school and share from their heart -- saying things like, ‘You are important to me; you make me happy; I want to get you know…all of you’ and ‘I water the school plants and compost. At first, I was doing it for myself, but then I realized I do it for all of you.’ These students are shining examples of the courage, love and compassion we need in the world.”

We close out the day with a hopeful music video sung by youth around the world and everyone enjoy a homemade sweet treats. Pancho gifts the school a world flag, and he, Bradley, and Teresa promptly put up on the poles in the school yard.



As the day comes to a close, an enthused excitement spills forward into the days to come. That evening, Ms. Teresa sends us a beautiful note, with some follow-up stories:

One of the students who seemed particularly happy this afternoon and publicly thanked you was a student who had cut herself just last week. I can only imagine how this day has changed her life.

And, it was great to see Vanessa again come forward, the second year in a row, to be so excited about what these circles bring [as she spontaneously shared her gratitude in the closing assembly]. There were so many warm moments when afterward students and teachers gave each other cards of appreciation and roses.

For now, the colorful gratitude journals are copied and ready to be written in, and the stones are in boxes, ready to be given away. I’ll keep you posted on how things go!        


An album of photos from the day. 

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