UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – The gratitude journal

Each year in November, I introduce my classes to the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. Research suggests that people, who take a few minutes each day to reflect and write down good things in their lives, and who do so consistently for at least twenty-one straight days, will feel and exhibit improved mental health and well-being. Thinking good thoughts and being grateful for positive aspects of our lives, no matter how small, actually makes us feel better. It improves our attitudes toward ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.

A few years ago, Cherry Creek High School implemented a student-led program called Sources of Strength, which focuses on building and sustaining positive school culture. In the first year, students were encouraged to identify positive influences in their life, from mentors and friends to healthy activities and mental health. Through advisory classes, each student was given the opportunity to keep a gratitude journal. It’s a mindfulness practice, and for three weeks each November, my students get settled and prepared for class by reflecting quietly and writing down three positives in their lives – as a class we take a few moments to voluntarily share out loud.

I am grateful for so many things in my life, and first and foremost are the many people who mean so much to me. My wife of thirty years and my wonderful children who are wise beyond their years are sources of joy and strength in my life. I also value my colleagues at Cherry Creek High School. The daily sense of collegiality and professionalism that I encounter is truly a source of good fortune. From engaging professional conversations to thoughtful and supportive discussions to silly chats about the most random of things, the people of Creek fill my day with positivity. 

I’m also honestly thankful for my students, all of them over a thirty-year career. The young people I have the pleasure of working with continually improve me. When I think about the greatest accomplishment in my life, it’s undoubtedly my teaching career and the kids who make it a fulfilling vocation. As much as I try to educate them, these hardworking, fun-loving citizens of Generation Z teach me a great deal as well. And at a place like Creek, I regularly encounter ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. From top-ranked academic achievements to inspiring athletics to stunning fine arts performances to dedicated participation in a vast collection of clubs and activities, the kids these days amaze me. One particularly gratifying aspect of Cherry Creek High School is the Unified programs, which pair special needs students and their mainstream peers in theater productions, sports leagues, activities, and adaptive classes. I am truly grateful to work in such an inclusive environment.

I am also grateful for the simple unsung conveniences of contemporary life. I appreciate all the technologies that make life so much more efficient. From digital music platforms like Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube to simple web applications and software like GoogleDocs and even wireless projectors in the classroom, tech just makes life nicer. I also value my home, my short walk to school each day, and the community of Greenwood Village. From the city workers who maintain our parks and guarantee well-plowed streets to the Parks & Rec department that offers regular enrichment activities, my village is a wonderful place to live.

Finally, I am thankful for the arts in all their beautiful forms. Music is an indispensable form of joy in my daily life. From the cool jazz I listen to each morning to the pop, rock, and country I hear throughout the day to the lo-fi chill hop in the background as I write to the punk rock that energizes my workouts, music brings a rhythm to my life. I also appreciate simple culinary pleasures like pumpkin pancakes, St. Louis specialties like toasted ravioli and thin crust pizza, and of course, coffee because, well, … coffee.

The practice of journaling is a positive act and practice which has thousands of years of evidence to validate its benefits. From the meditations of Marcus Aurelius to the reflections of Michel Montaigne and St. Thomas Aquinas to the journals of Henry Thoreau, taking time to write and reflect everyday, or at least regularly, is a valuable contributor to overall mental health and well being. And a good place to start is writing a gratitude journal for the next twenty-one days.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com