4 Ways to Bring Joy Back into Your Classroom

In the age of education where buzzwords like “results,” “standardized,” “self-control,” and “college prep” are dominating the conversation, some educators say that we’re falling out of touch with the true purpose of education. One of those voices is Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist and Psychology lecturer at Williams College. In her recent Atlantic article Joy: A Subject Schools Lack, Engel argues that in our singular pursuit of making kids college- and workplace- ready, we’re overlooking their immense capacity for joy, and importantly, how we can use that joy to better engage kids in the classroom

Last week, as TYO’s Core team busily prepared for the start of our Spring 2015 4-5 year old program, we took some time to discuss Engel’s article. Two of our teachers shared great insights on how they are encouraging joy in their classrooms.

From TYO Core teachers Ahmad and Shireen, here are 4 ways to bring joy back into your classroom:

1. Offer choices.

On day one of Shireen’s class, the first thing children do when they enter her classroom is make a choice. She has three different warm-up “teams” represented by different colors and symbols (stars, bumblebees, etc.) and the children choose the color and symbol to represent them for that day. It sounds simple, but the choice immediately empowers children and gives them a sense of belonging and camaraderie with their “team” members – ultimately, a sense of joy. And it doesn’t stop there. Throughout the day, Shireen’s lessons are filled with choices for children of varying needs, interests, and levels of cognitive and emotional maturity. She says, “Everything we do – every activity, every rule – is ultimately a choice; it’s my job to offer options and guide our kids to make good choices for themselves.”

2. Teach through play.

A staple of TYO’s Core curriculum is experiential learning – and what better experience to offer 4-5 year old kids than play. In Ahmad’s class, more than talking about respect, he offers a number of fun physical activities where respect for one another yields positive outcomes, and disrespect, negative outcomes. For example, his students play collaborative games, work on teams to create art projects, and participate in activities that require respectful and clear verbal communication. Because his students experience the positive and negative outcomes of their behavior in the context of play, they associate joy with lessons about important life skills, like respect and communication.

3. Model joy for your students.

We’ve all experienced how easily children pick up the adult behavior that they see (for better or for worse!). For Shireen, her children’s eagerness to emulate adult behavior is a great teaching tool. “I honestly love our sports activities myself,” says Shireen. “The kids can read my genuine excitement and they internalize it.” Laughing, she recalls how her students are always surprised during a specific relaxation/imagination activity in which she and her volunteers share the funny and strange products of their imagination. Her students see adults who love learning, adults who value their own unique thoughts and imagination, and they quickly internalize that.

4. Give students a central role – and responsibility – in everything you do.

In the first week of Ahmad’s class, children come up with their own classroom rules. Ahmad asks his students to imagine a positive and happy classroom, and together they brainstorm the rules needed to create that. His students are eager to voice their ideas, and they even come up with a number of disciplinary rules to ensure safety in their learning environment.

By participating in the process, rules become empowering rather than restrictive. “Everyone is responsible for creating the space that they want,” he says. “Because they are shaping their own experience as learners, there is always a feeling of self-value and joy around practicing our classroom rules.”

- Niralee, TYO Core Child Program Manager