The Window: A Glimpse Into Our Classrooms
The Role of Joy in Learning: Must We Move Mountains?
We wish, at a minimum, for our children to feel contented with school, with home life, with their friends, and perhaps most importantly, within themselves. Of course, our deeper desire is that they regularly experience true joy, a persistent joy that does not easily dissipate in the face of challenges or peak and valley as do our bodies after a sugar rush. Many of the things we most want to give them cannot be bought, packaged, or gifted to them. We cannot provide children with joy, but there are paths to joy that we can brush clear as we walk alongside them as fellow travelers and guides. Schools often embrace a false dichotomy: children can either learn or enjoy themselves. However, metaphorically speaking, whether the paths educators walk with children lead over mountains or along river valleys can make all the difference in the joy they experience.
Both mountains and rivers are objectively beautiful, but when thinking about their characteristic differences, the former is fixed, slow to change, inflexible, while the latter is dynamic, fluid, and influenced by multiple sources. Similarly, in education, one path to learning—a mountainous path—involves a set curriculum that can go unchanged for years, that requires children to adapt themselves to it in order to move beyond it. The other path to learning—a river-like path—moves in a clear and unified direction, a direction that is determined in part by the qualities of the children, flowing in response to the nature of its tributaries. When children’s learning opportunities are responsive, rather than rigid, there is more possibility for joy.
Cultivating joy often requires space and the freedom to follow the direction of one’s bliss when engaging with the world. This joy can be cultivated in students’ questions, curiosities, and elected experiences. It requires a deep knowing and celebration of oneself and of others, and compassion for the things that make each person unique. Like a river, developing joy requires a willingness on the part of students and teachers alike to go with the flow, to change course, to slow down or speed up, to accept new ideas into the collective perspective, and to merge divergent thoughts into larger understandings.
Henry David Thoreau reminds us that we should “[…] pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.” Often, both the mountain path and the river path share a clear direction and destination. Yet it is the flexibility and universality of the river path that allows for true joy to develop—and let us not forget that joy is an essential part of the journey.
Below, are several examples of fluid, joyful learning that happened in our classrooms over the last two weeks.
Interactive Reading in 2nd Grade
In Jen’s 2nd grade classroom, the students are reading The Year of Billy Miller as a class. The book recounts the story of a child who is just entering into 2nd grade and all of the interesting challenges that come up for him in making the transition. As you can imagine, the timing is perfect! In addition to reading the story to the class, Jen dedicates time to checking in with the students in thoughtful ways as the story progresses. For example, at one point the class was introduced to the term, “cocoon of concentration.” When the students heard this term, they paused the reading and each shared different sentiment about what they thought this term meant within the context of the story. They also discussed why the author might have chosen to use this language when describing this detail. Other check-ins included time to stop and speak with a classmate around emerging themes (have you ever had a time when you did not get along with a sibling?), as well as using hand gestures (thumbs “up,” pointing from me to you when making a connection) to convey feeling without interrupting the story. These types of interactions give the children the opportunity both to solidify their understanding of what was being read, and develop personal connections with the material. Several are also tools that you can use at home when reading with your child!
Let's Be Friends
Marcia has been working with the children on developing the complex concept of friendship. This work has taken many forms, involving class conversation, reading, writing, and, most recently, acting! Over the last two weeks, the students have been working with scripts that introduce situations where conflicts emerge. Each of the scripts have characters who seem to be expressing some sort of need: fun, freedom, power, and belonging. The children first read the scripts as a whole class and discussed the needs each character seems to hold. Next, each child signed up to work on a scene with a partner. They had time to work on their own and to present the scenes to each other as a group. These scenes were also recorded on an iPad. When presenting, the class discussed four important attributes of public speaking that can make a presentation meaningful. These attributes were:
- Projection (“My voice reaches out and can be heard by the audience”)
- Clarity (“I can understand every word when I listen back”)
- Expression (“My voice matches my character’s feelings”)
- Movement (“Nothing blocks my face when I perform”)
Following the recording, the students then watched the scenes as a class. Viewing the scenes together gave the students their first opportunity to reflect, assess, and make note of improvements they might make when using the techniques in the future.
Not only did this acting activity further the students’ knowledge about friendship, relationship building, and public speaking—it also encouraged the exploration of these themes and skills in a fun, engaging way!
In a recent 1st grade Spanish class, students began their learning with music. Music is a tool that can be used to boost engagement, help with long-term memory, and introduce material that can be built upon as a lesson unfolds. The interactive songs shared on this day invited the children to practice their Spanish vocabulary. One of these songs reviewed the Spanish alphabet while following along with a dog named Cosmos. Cosmos did his job, as our 1st graders were smiling ear-to-ear as they remembered the words and sang along. Following the song, the class examined different objects representing food to review Spanish vocabulary words for color and fruits and vegetables. Students enjoyed examining the objects and deciding upon the correct language. Finally, instead of using a more traditional approach like worksheets, 1st graders ended the lesson by playing a variety of dynamic matching and concentration games. These types of games provide Spanish literacy reinforcement—specifically in the area of phonics (diphthongs) like AU, AI, EI, and EU. In order to make a correct match, students were required to turn over cards two-at-a-time and look for pairs of similar foods. Once a student found a pair, s/he had to name the food, describe the color, and say if it was on the top or bottom of the diagram of cards. It was helpful to the students to learn to use this vocabulary in different ways, all the while actively participating in activities that piqued their interest and enjoyment.
The Four "Cs": Communication, Collaboration, Compromise, and Cooperation
Last week, 3rd graders planned trips to Paris, Iceland, New York, and the White House. They worked in small groups to decide their destination, chose a type of transportation, picked exiting activities, selected a chaperone and souvenir, and thought of the best word to describe their vacations. The purpose of the activity was to practice the skills they agreed are most important when working in small groups: communication, collaboration, compromise, and cooperation. They also believe that listening is critical. One student in Marcia’s class felt that “if you don’t like someone else’s ideas, it is still important to continue to listen to them.” Another emphasized that when we talk, we “don’t step on other people’s words.” In Mary’s class we were reminded to “listen with all of our senses.” At the end of the activity, time was given for careful reflection as students discussed “making sure everyone is included and has a chance to participate, share ideas, take turns, and be heard.” Some children climbed the Eiffel Tower; others went to the Statue of Liberty. They baked chocolate croissants, had a delicious dinner with the President, and many had an “awesome” time. Mostly, they experienced essential components of respect and teamwork.
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