When I was in high school, I planned to become an architect. I took all the technology classes I could and found joy in them all. Why wouldn’t I, when I had a teacher like Mr. Johnston. His passion for his subject was palpable, and his sarcastic sense of humor made me want to crack the quiet shell I had formed around myself. Each day, I entered that room knowing I would be working, but it wasn’t the kind of “working” I was used to at school. I was building and drawing as I bopped along to music, and, yes, I was still learning. I felt true joy in that room.
When I think back to the other classes I loved in high school, they, too, incorporated joy. I savored the variety in those safe, energetic rooms. I created projects, performed chemistry experiments, and utilized the artistic freedom I was given. I had fun.
Here’s how I attempted to replicate that joy in my classroom:
Liven up the look of the room. Students need to walk into a classroom and feel joy. Recently, I saw Ingrid Fetell Lee’s 2018 TED Talk called “Where joy hides and how to find it,” and she mentions “sensations of joy,” which focus on bright colors, round objects, and symmetrical patterns. I needed that in my tiny, cramped room, so I asked my students to share their suggestions. Now, I have a gorgeous, vivid book mural and round tables instead of desks. Bookshelves line the walls with a wide variety of titles. My classroom is certainly a work in progress, but when my students tell me they enjoy spending time in it, I know I’m doing something right.
Autonomy is a must. When my students know they have choice in what they read, they read more. When they have choice in what they write, they write more. They will see reading and writing as joyful. It really is that simple. I can still challenge my students, but in a mode that works best for them.
Connect through talk. Choice can lead to an innovative, and often powerful, voice. We must talk to our students. I ask mine questions, but, more importantly, I encourage them to ask me more. As proven in this UK study, young elementary students are full of questions, but that curiosity often disappears by the time I meet them in high school. I aim to bring that curiosity back. It all starts with making connections. I put myself on display, often writing on the fly, right in front of them. They know my struggles are real, but that’s what makes me human. When a student has a rough day, we talk. We discuss. We connect.
Add elements of surprise. Though Spring in Buffalo is often not until late April or early May, I can’t wait to take my kids outside to read and write. Yep, I’m talking about high school freshmen and seniors. Let me tell you, beautiful, tangible joy is on every face! We all need a change of scenery sometimes. It’s a welcomed surprise. When I am not the one who can be the “expert” on a given topic, I bring one in who is. Authors, activists, and journalists have come in to speak with my students. They enlighten, encourage, and inspire them.
When joy is apparent in a learning environment, we will see growth and success in our students.
Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York. She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students find joy in learning, reading, and writing. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.