What's Happening in Character?

An Attitude of Gratitude: 4 Ways to Make Veterans Day Meaningful

Posted by Dave Keller on Tue, Nov 10, 2015 @ 08:11 AM

by Dave Keller

Thankfulness is a word often synonymous with the month of November.  I was in an elementary classroom a few days ago and saw bulletin boards already filled with construction-paper turkeys, harvest foods, pilgrims, and other iconic Thanksgiving Day images.  It brought back fond memories of my own childhood Thanksgiving classroom rituals.

But November also provides another important opportunity to offer thankfulness: Veterans Day.

I must admit I don’t have any childhood school memories of Veterans Day celebrations at my school.  Perhaps my school didn’t celebrate it openly.  Perhaps we did and I simply failed to fully understand it at the time.

Today, I am personally grateful that so many schools are actively taking time to celebrate Veterans Day.  I see a deeper understanding and appreciation in the hearts of so many young people these days.  They have been appropriately taught that many of the freedoms for which they openly show gratitude on Thanksgiving Day were bought and paid for by the sacrifices of veterans throughout many centuries.

As a professional character educator with Character.org, I see enormous potential for educators to use Veterans Day to intentionally enhance the character development of their students.  At a minimum, there are four powerful character development forces that synergistically come together as we seek to find creative and meaningful ways to honor veterans:

1. Connect to the curriculum

As students learn about U.S. history, Veterans Day provides a unique opportunity to personalize the history lessons beyond merely reading about it in a text book.  For example, the website history.com offers the following explanation of the origin of Veterans Day:

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War, then known as “the Great War.” Commemorated as Armistice Day beginning the following year, November 11th became a legal federal holiday in the United States in 1938. In the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to American veterans of all wars. (Source)

Character.org offers 11 Principles of Effective Character Education.  Principle 6 discusses connection to the curriculum.  Veterans Day allows a unique opportunity for this to occur.

Promising Practice winner, Lindbergh High School (St. Louis, MO) is a great example, as they use their History Alive Program to develop meaningful conversations between students and veterans. This occurs in four unique sessions, focused on WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq & Afghanistan.

2. Explore the science of gratitude

Some researchers have called gratitude the mother of all the virtues.  There is growing research that shows that people who are habitually grateful tend to be happier, experience greater health benefits, and are better able to deal with adversity.  Some strategies include keeping a gratitude journal, learning prayers of gratitude and using visual reminders. Also see Seckman High School’s Promising Practice, A Collective Expression of Gratitude. (To learn more, explore the research of two leading gratitude psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami)

3. Create opportunities for moral action

Principle 5 of the 11 Principles deals with providing opportunities for students to participate in moral action.  Many schools hold Veterans Day celebrations on their campuses (see below for some recent examples).  These celebrations provide unique opportunities for young people to help lead in the development and execution of these events, which clearly align with the spirit and intent of Principle 5.

Promising Practice winner, Hoisington High School (Hoisington, KS) took action by joining with the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to bring in a Vietnam MOH recipient to speak with students. This was a part of a comprehensive series of programs including a Veterans Day ceremony and an opportunity for students to interview veterans during a “Salute to Veterans” event.

4. Develop intrinsic motivation toward character development

Principle 7 challenges educators to find ways to develop intrinsic motivations in students.  Gratitude is inherently intrinsic and can provide a powerful context for intrinsic motivation to occur.  As students reflect on their freedoms and seek ways to express their gratitude, they strengthen their intrinsic motivational development.

One way they do that is by having individual conversations with the veterans like at Promising Practices recipient, Clyde Hamrick Elementary (Imperial, MO). They invite local veterans to be honored with an assembly, student made speeches, choir performances, color guard and a parade. The day includes a more personal visit to each classroom with students and staff.

As a veteran myself, I am personally grateful for all the schools and educators across the country who intentionally try to develop gratitude in young people.  It is a special and powerful thing to watch young students intrinsically recognize a desire to thank others.

On behalf of all veterans, I humbly and respectfully say “Thank You.”