“Joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal.” Anne Murphy Paul
I visit a lot of schools and classrooms in my work, and over the past years I’ve become increasingly concerned about what I’m not seeing enough of these days. I see precious little joy.
Now I clearly remember joy from my own school days, admittedly in a previous geologic era. For example, I remember creating a Paris café scene for the bulletin board out of construction paper and imagination, and learning songs in French and German for assemblies. But while schools themselves have not changed very much since then (sad to say because they should have, given the very different world we live in now), the spirit in classrooms and school buildings has changed, and it isn’t pretty. Joy has been sucked out of most schools on most school days. Classrooms have become relatively joyless places, focused on tests and standards. And that makes me sad.
But what is joy, and why should it matter that today’s children are often denied it as a significant portion of their educational experience?
When I Google joy, I find the following: “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness; delight, joyfulness, jubilation, triumph, exultation, rejoicing, gladness, glee, exhilaration, exuberance, elation, euphoria, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, enjoyment, felicity, joie de vivre, jouissance, ‘whoops of joy,’ delight, treat, thrill. The antonyms are misery and trial.
Recently, I encountered joy in a school; in fact, there were several hundred joyful students assembled together. And it was clear that it wasn’t a one time experience but something that has become part of the climate and culture of the school, even though the joy I witnessed was connected to a specific event I was there to see.
Picture joyful children for a moment. Joy suggests smiles with movement and sound. Movements like high fives, pumping fists, and a quick raising of both arms high in the air with maybe a jump thrown in, accompanied by “yes!” or cheering or “whoops.” Can you see them? Can you hear them?
Maybe this will help.
The students at Brentano Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s north side have been working on a STEM challenge for the past month. On November 12, every student in the school gathered in the auditorium to see the results of their work on that challenge, grades k-5 first and the 6th through 8th graders after. Their joy was something that had been building for weeks, and along the way there were failures and ultimately successes that also produced joyful moments.
The challenge was for each team of students to design a container that would protect an egg from breaking when it was dropped from a one-story height. The children worked on this challenge during their science classes and recorded data to help with redesign. Older students were challenged as engineers, having to cost out the materials they used with the lowest cost, most successful designs the clear winners.
Students created the posters announcing the big day, and those were hung around the school. Several dozen parents showed up to lend their support and to see the results of their child’s efforts.
Each grade level and class had a slightly different take on the challenge and somewhat different materials to work with, so the protective containers from an individual class had some features in common with each other. Clearly, in the process of prototyping their designs, students had learned from each other, and they’d learned how to protect a fragile egg. The majority of the containers protected their cargo, and students got to experience firsthand the joy of success. But there was an even wider expression of joy as students loudly cheered their classmates’ successes and had a blast watching the P.E. teacher drop the egg containers from the auditorium balcony. A representative from each team would retrieve their container and march it up to the front of the auditorium where teachers would cut away the protective covering to reveal whether or not the egg had survived the fall. When they did, it was high fives and whoops of joy all around.
Teachers also got into the spirit of the challenge. 5th – 6th grade teacher Emily Bartlett designed an egg container of her own and had a running debate with her students over whether or not her egg would survive a fall in what seemed to be a flimsy structure. She insisted that it would. Her students insisted that it wouldn’t. It did! Game, Bartlett.
This spring, Brentano students will take on a new challenge — to design a catapult for apples. Whole school activities like this are a natural in producing student engagement, memorable learning, and … yes … that elusive experience of joy. In an upcoming post, I’ll describe how one teacher kicked this activity up a notch for her eighth grade students.
In the meantime, kudos to principal Seth Lavin and iTEAM teachers Vy Nguyen, Emily Bartlett, Mark Harlan, Kelly Harris-Preston, Brittany Williams and their colleagues for everything they did to give their students the exquisite experience of joy in learning.
It’s my fervent hope that in the coming years, as Americans increasingly question the value of emphasizing testing over instruction and as we study the powerful impetus to learning that play has proven to be in Finland, for example, we’ll put the joy back into learning, where it belongs.
Learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.