by Kari Giordano, SchoolArts, April 2015
Those of us that work in high schools can’t escape the sights, sounds, and smells of the teenage years. It has become the norm to coexist with all of their quirky behaviors. I truly enjoy teaching this age group. I love that my students can simultaneously LOVE and HATE everything, and that making a mountain out of a molehill is as common as getting out of bed in the morning. Most of the time I have patience for the stubbornness they throw at me; however, over the years I have been consistently disappointed when students fail to show gratitude.
I hold the door open for them; they walk through. I hand out paper with really useful, well-thought-out information for their growing brains to soak in; they groan. I bring in a box of donuts to celebrate the end of a big project; they scarf them down without ensuring that everyone received one.
My knowledge of this age group armors me with empathy and understanding; however, I find that hearing “thank you” is the least of my concerns. I fear that students are having a difficult time feeling gratitude, never mind taking the time to communicate it.
This concern prompted one of the lessons in the Life Skills unit of my Foundations of Design curriculum. The physical end result of this project is a sculptural card that uses symbolism to connote gratitude and hides an actual message of appreciation to the person for whom it is intended. The lesson requires discussion or it risks becoming a superficial exercise in merely saying “thank you.” My goal is to give the students the opportunity to think about the things in their lives that they feel grateful for in a deeper way than a common Thanksgiving project.
I ask my students to consider and discuss something that they can’t live without. I encourage them to reflect on the reasons they would be so strongly affected by this absence. More often than not, it comes down to a handful of people in their lives for whom the students are thankful. The class discusses why people fail to communicate their gratitude and how often we dwell on the negative while neglecting to notice the abundance of good in our lives. The students observe that there are little and big things that they can show gratitude for and find that if they do it more, it tends to come back to them as well.
The Art Problem
This project can be as simple or as complex as you make it. The general criteria are as follows: Brainstorm ideas about how to best illustrate gratitude to a specific person or experience. Then, design a sculptural card that extends outward into space in some way and that also hides a message to its recipient. The card should use symbolism to illustrate the feeling of gratitude without having to articulate it directly with the words “thank you.”
Students have surprised me with some very creative results including a stethoscope with a heart shaped “slit” large enough to fit a small note intended for a nurse. Another student created a framed collage for his favorite art teacher with the hidden message under the frame stand. Students have chosen people, places, and experiences as the object of their gratitude and each has shown a sensitive and deep connection to the inner feelings that are typically kept personal.
The result of this project and the discussions that accompany it, may yield a slightly more polite group of teenagers with really cool sculptural cards or it’s possible that you may help a few kids get through their teenage years feeling really grateful for their mountains and molehills.
Kari Giordano teaches art, design, and photography to grades 7-12 at Mount Everett Regional School, Southern Berkshire School District, Sheffield, Massachusetts.