A number of years ago, I asked my ninth-grade English students to make a bucket list of at least three things they’d like to do before they die. Examples of what they wrote down include “riding a motorcycle,” “becoming a lawyer,” “running a marathon” and “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” I then asked, “What’s the difference between a bucket list and a list of desiderata?” The students had no idea, as they had never heard of desiderata. One student, after looking carefully at this new term, suggested it might have something to do with what we desire. I then explained that desiderata can be translated as “desired things.”
I shared a PowerPoint presentation on Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata” and gave each student a written copy. Before going into a discussion about “Desiderata” and some of the new ideas and terms it presented, I shared a few “desired things” from the film The Bucket List:
- Drive a Mustang Shelby
- Visit Stonehenge
- Drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China
- Go on a safari
- Visit the Taj Mahal
- Sit on the Great Egyptian pyramids
Once again, I asked, “What’s the difference between a bucket list and a list of desiderata?” It didn’t take long before a few students had some ideas. Here’s one example: “The bucket list is more about fun things to do. Desiderata are more about being a good person.” I then suggested that “Desiderata” is something like a fable and presents lessons about how to live. I had the students do a “quick write” about some of the lessons in the poem. Here are a few examples from their work:
- Learn to get along with others
- Be at peace
- Tell the truth
- There is beauty everywhere
I asked my students to think about what they would include if they wrote their own desiderata for a better world. Their suggestions included justice, peace, a healthy environment and enough food for everyone. To give students time to really think about what it would take to make a better world, I gave them a week to write their own version of “Desiderata.”
Once their assignments were completed and students had an opportunity to share their desiderata with the class, I had them make another comparison. “What’s the difference between desiderata and action plans?” The students were soon sharing ideas about how wanting something and actually doing something to make it happen differ. As a follow-up, I had the students work in small groups to figure out how they could take one desired thing from their desiderata and develop an action plan for making something better in their neighborhood or school.
I gave the groups 40 minutes to come up with written action plans using a form I had developed. One group came up with the following plan based on what they had heard about an empty lot near the school being developed into a community garden.
Desired thing: Healthy food for families
Action: Organize volunteers from the ninth-grade class to help with the community garden.
Steps to be taken:
- Contact community garden director.
- Make a sign-up sheet for volunteers.
- Have a meeting with volunteers.
- Get to work in the garden.
For Younger Children
There are ways to adapt this lesson for younger children. One kindergarten teacher, for example, first engaged children in a discussion about desired things for a better world. She showed the children a picture of prayer flags hung outdoors between trees. She explained that these flags were used to send good wishes to the world around them. She gave some examples: good wishes that the trees would grow tall and healthy, and good wishes that the animals living near the trees would have enough water and food and be protected from things that could hurt them.
She asked the children to think of other good wishes for the world. Their wishes included safe places for kids to play, rain to water the plants and flowers to give nectar for the butterflies. While some of their wishes weren’t social in nature, they did express concern for the world around them, which can help foster a sense of caring. The teacher then helped the children make “good wishes flags” by painting simple drawings of good wishes on small pieces of cloth. She hung these flags by an open window so that the breezes could carry the wishes to the world.
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.