The Joy of Learning

I spent the last year (2016–17) at Summit Public Schools, California, designing and teaching an explicit 90-minute weekly course on social-emotional skills such as empathy, self awareness, self management, and cultural competence to middle school students. Five months into my teaching career, it was not new knowledge to me that a majority of my 220 students did not enjoy my class. While some students didn’t see the relevance of a class on social emotional skills, many others did not like to be placed in situations where, in their words, “we have to talk about feelings”.

Having had negligible curriculum and assessment frameworks to go by for said class, no prior teaching experience, and 220 restless pubescent pre-teens to teach for 90 full minutes every week, it was taking all the grit I could muster to keep my head above water — and work overtime to create curriculum and assessment frameworks over weekends and be an effective teacher during the week. I was persistent and not about to give up in my first year of teaching. In that relentless pursuit — of making conversations of self awareness and empathy meaningful and relevant to my adolescent students’ turbulent lives, and accessible and appealing in formats and language that would appeal to their diverse sensibilities — I had no mind space to think about “joy”. In fact, I remember feeling pleasantly surprised when halfway through the school year, one day, Mr. B, our school principal, mentioned the phrase ‘joy of learning’ in a faculty meeting; for me, he had named the missing piece in my teaching practice, one that I had subconsciously guessed at but could consciously acknowledge only now that someone else had articulated it.

Thank God for Summit’s high quality and frequent professional development opportunities for teachers, because within a week of Mr. B having brought up the topic, I was able to attend a workshop on “Joy of Learning in the Classroom”.

The first thing I realized while attending the workshop was that joy of learning for students is correlated to the teacher’s joy in teaching. This doesn’t sound like rocket science — and I certainly had intuitively and theoretically always known this — but what it immediately meant for my teaching practice was that I show up with a smiling face, every day, for every class. If I feel unprepared before or anytime during a class — which truly was the number one condition that threw my smile and joy out of the window — I must find an appropriate way of dealing with that emotion. In no way should I let my emotion translate unnoticed and uncontrolled into frustration at self and/or students. Thereafter, I took on accepting my imperfection when I’d notice it in class and practice smiling — and smile a lot! I also decided to vocally start expressing “I am so happy to see all of you!” and “I am excited for what we are going to do in class today!” Did I honestly feel that way at the start of every class? No. But this is one situation where I soon grew to find that the phrase ‘Fake it till you make it’ really works. Students need to know that the adult authority figure who is about to give them directions for 90 full minutes is at least happy to be there. Moreover, vocalizing this at the start of every class gave me the moment I needed to acknowledge that hey, I truly am happy to see them: I work grossly over time to design high quality content for these kids, I’ve dedicated most of my wakeful hours in the last five hours to thinking about education reform, and now I have the privilege of being at the epicenter of reform — in the classroom! Of course I’m happy to see them! This is what I live for!

The second thing I learned was that joy shows up as a manifestation of certain human needs when met — and that when those needs are not met, they tend to look like stress, anxiety, or boredom. Here’s an infographic I designed to remind myself of the human needs that the joy of learning draws on, and what designing for joy can look like in the classroom.

The third thing I learned was this: Because joy has so much to do with personal connect, and this applies to me as the teacher in the classroom also, I am free to choose those strategies that connect with me, come to me with ease, and bring me joy! This learning liberated me a great deal from self-imposed pressures of what my classroom content and pedagogy should look like, and allowed space for classroom content and pedagogy that I naturally enjoyed creating and facilitating.

Here I share examples of some strategies from the infographic above that I used in my teaching practice, and the influence they had on students’ learning and joy. The module that I am sharing these examples from, I called ‘Identities and Empathy’’. Since Summit schools are by design very diverse in their student population, the objective of the module was to help students gain an awareness of their own and their peers’ identities, and be able to share boldly, listen attentively, and respond empathetically to each other.

  • In this four-week module, for the third week, I had designed an assignment for students which required them to reflect on their own lives, identify a stereotype they have personally faced, and create a product that smashes the stereotype. I drew on the ‘Human Need for Connection’ and used the strategies of: “Opportunities to connect class content to what the students value and care about”, and “Allowing student autonomy to choose the form in which to display learning”. Below you can see the product created by one of my students.

As is evident from her cartoon strip, this student cares about equal treatment for boys and girls, and wants to smash the stereotype that girls can’t lift heavy weights. She chose to display her learning through a cartoon strip. The detailing evident in her illustration suggests to me that she enjoyed the process of creating this product.

  • For the final week, I wanted students to share their products with the rest of the class, offer each other active listening, validation and feedback, and debrief on what we’d learned through this exercise. I designed the pedagogy of the final class, by drawing on the ‘Human Need for Variety in Work Styles’, and used the strategy of:“Variety in classroom pedagogy”. Our 90 minute lesson involved: A gallery walk — in which students viewed each others’ products, Individual work — in which students wrote notes of validation and expressed empathy for their peers (find example picture below), and A whole-class debrief in the form of a Socratic seminar. Here’s a picture of notes of validation and expressions of empathy that students wrote for a peer in the class:

These examples suggest to me that designing for joy in the classroom has immense power.

Simone Weil, French philosopher, says that the joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. I am glad I am beginning to discover that.