An Argument for Elevating Joy Right Now

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A couple weeks ago, a colleague of mine asked us a simple question at a department meeting: What are you doing to make learning fun right now? The fifteen or so of us in the room furrowed our brows and lowered our eyes until he bailed us out by admitting that he asked the question because he was struggling to find an example from his classes too. He then offered an optional challenge for each of us: think about the ways we could bring some fun into our classes in the last quarter of the year.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this challenge that evening, and it reminded me of the last pre-pandemic post I wrote, which was about fun’s close cousin joy* and how we can inspire joy and use joy to inspire in the classroom. I was ready to hit send on the post in early March of 2020, but then for reasons that likely don’t take any elaboration, it suddenly became a less than ideal moment for a post on joy, and so I shelved it for a later date.

I think what made my colleague’s comments stick was that it brought to the front of my mind both that post and some worries that had been quietly gnawing at the back of my mind for some time. I have these pre-pandemic memories of the joy that I used to regularly encounter within school, and when I think about my classes and the classes of those around me now, I fear that much of the joy that once existed got lost over the past two years.

Before moving on, it should be mentioned that this loss of joy makes a lot of sense. Joy can be tricky to evoke and maintain in the best of times, and keeping it at a high level as we shifted in and out of different modes of teaching and showed up to school day after day after day during an unrelenting pandemic was likely not possible. Further, with so much suffering and uncertainty over the last two years, leaning into joy wasn’t always appropriate or what we or our students needed in those moments.

Even still though, it is worth thinking about the role joy plays in our classes, given how chronically undervalued it was pre-2020 and remains now in secondary and post-secondary grades. Many who oversee or write for teachers indirectly or directly cast joy as a superfluous thing–a whimsical detour for when the real work or building student skills, preparing them for high-stakes testing, and making up for “learning loss” is done. So much of this diminishing of joy also takes place at the subconscious level, making it easy to absorb and hard to rebut. 

The crux of my pre-pandemic post on joy was examining this regular undervaluing of joy through the lens of the last in-person workshop I attended in February 2020 called “Teaching for Joy” by storyteller and professor at Ohio Northern University Kevin Cordi. In his session, Cordi pointed out that we often think of joy in the classroom as an either/or. We can do something fun or something meaningful. We can seek joy or do the work. You can’t do both. And then he spent the entire session disproving this false dichotomy, pointing out that joy in the classroom can…

This idea that joy can augment and uplift the serious work we do in the classroom is not new. Linda Christensen opens her book Teaching for Joy and Justice by stating directly that “[Joy is] what our students need. But it’s also what we need” (2009, p. 11). And in recent years Dr. Gholdy Muhammad of the book Cultivating Genius has gone out of her way to add joy as a fifth central pursuit that classes should be built around, nothing that it has a nearly unmatched ability to “animate the human soul.” 

Relearning the lesson that Muhammad, Christensen, Cordi, and my colleague point out–that joy should not be something extra to be evoked during spare scraps of time or saved for when the pandemic is truly over–feels incredibly important right now. I keep coming back to joy as potentially being key to improving the well-being of students/staff and for improving student skills as we approach the last quarter of a year that has been so hard on so many.

With all of this in mind, one of my main goals for the next two months is to actively and thoughtfully seek to infuse and inspire joy in my classroom. To help with this, I have been reaching out to everyone I know (including Twitter, which led to this wealth of ideas) to ask about joyful practices, and I have received a bunch of great suggestions. Here are a few I am definitely planning to use: 

  • Sweating the Small Stuff: Debate and argumentation in classes don’t have to be confined to just the text you’re reading. As a way of building community (and one that is surprisingly effective), teachers can regularly debate the silly stuff too. Do pineapples belong on a pizza? What is the ultimate walk-up song? Batman or Spiderman?
  • Writing on Joyful Prompts: A great way to infuse joy into the ELA classroom is to use writing prompts that inspire joy. The exact right joyful prompt is going to depend on the combination of the class, teacher, and students, but the key is to be on the lookout for joyful prompts. One example that I am particularly proud of is one I did with my writing partner for the upcoming book Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA, Matt Kay. One day Matt found a massive tray of untouched and delicious-looking macaroni and cheese in the park on his way to school. He tweeted about it, and upon seeing the tweet, I asked my students to write an origin story about the mac-and-cheese. The result had the whole class in stitches as the surprising and often shocking origins of the park mac-and-cheese was revealed.
  • Playing with Fun Tools: In my interview with Penny Kittle a few weeks back, she recommended using the end of the year to experiment with multi-genre composition. As someone who has taken digital storytelling, photography, and podcasting classes, I can attest there can be something deeply engrossing and joyful about getting to create in multiple genres, and I absolutely plan to answer her call this spring.

The list of options to bring joy into our classes goes on and on: It can be something as simple as getting outside or as inspired as this idea from Brett Vogelsinger of the upcoming book Poetry Pauses that I am pretty sure I will use for every vocabulary word from now on:



It would probably be fair to say that we live in troubled times. All it takes is one click of any news outlet to be inundated with a host of dreadful stories. And when it comes to our schools, many are more battlefield than safe sanctuary, and student mental health issues–already frighteningly high pre-pandemic–deteriorated even more over the last two years. Focusing on joy can feel odd and even insensitive in times like these, but joy is arguably more important than ever right now, as it can be a potent source of healing, relationship-building, and inspiration for us and our students to continue our essential work.

During his life George Orwell also had a front row seat to troubled times, and while he often wrote about the sad and serious things he saw, he also wrote a great deal about topics like the first toads of spring and picking hops. For his regular investment in these “not serious” topics, he received his fair share of withering criticism from those who said he wasn’t committed enough to fighting tyranny and bettering the world. What those critics missed is that the regular doses of joy that Orwell took from taking in and writing about gardening and nature and toads were what fueled him to battle so well against both totalitarianism and the tuberculosis ravaging his body in later years.

To wrap this year up, I propose that we take a page from the book of Orwell (and Christensen, Cordi, and Muhammad) and look for those moments of joy to help fuel us and our students to the end. And when you do, please let me know what works, so that I can try it too!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

*While related, to me fun is a momentary and often shallower happiness, while joy goes a bit deeper and often lasts a bit longer.

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2 responses to “An Argument for Elevating Joy Right Now”

  1. […] creativity and choice reminded me of two posts I wrote this year about the often underrated role of joy and choice. Both are often cast as being at odds with rigor, but the truth is that both joy (and […]

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  2. […] retention and deepening understanding. Plus retrieval is great for games, which can add a layer of joy to your classes. See here for a post on […]

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