Category Archives: joy

Connected Kid Moments

As the school year winds down, with tests out of the way and spring vacation either here or arriving shortly, we can perhaps begin to catch our teaching breaths and reflect on the past school year. But, because it’s spring and the weather is nicer now and because we have a bit of a breather in this period of winding down, there are also opportunities to be explored. Many teachers take advantage of this time of year by planning special experiences for their students, activities they might not have had time for earlier in the school year, but that students will eagerly anticipate, thoroughly enjoy, and have fond memories of in years to come.

With that in mind, I want to offer you, by way of inspiration, some reflections from past participants in Golden Apple’s STEM Institute program. When we asked a group of iTEAM teachers to tell us about one instance during the past school year when their students were genuinely connected to learning science … “connected kid” moments … they shared some beautiful memories with us.

Here are some of those special “connected kid” moments:

“A special education student who glowed when we did hands-on experiments.”

“When Rayana was dying to know if water was renewable or nonrenewable.”

“I brought a beta fish to class and they began to change their attitudes about me as a teacher and themselves as care givers.”

“A special ed student who didn’t participate much in class jumped right in when we had a hands-on science project, making parachutes.”

“When a student with behavioral problems was so engaged he became silent and still as he explored! I was able to enjoy his presence and loved watching him learn.”

“A problem student who ‘shined’ when allowed to do a demonstration.”

“My kindergarten students were so excited when we did ramps and rollers last year. They were so excited to get to explore in groups and develop their own questions.”

“When kids say, ‘Can I take this home? Can I take this and work on it at home?’”

“When I taught lessons from Project Wet at the beginning of the year and the kids in the last month of the school year remembered all of the activities and what we got out of them. They retained all the water information.”

Project Wet Activities at Durkin Park Elementary

“One connected kid moment I remember is when my first group was able to make a bulb light up. They were all so excited. They wanted to share their knowledge with the rest of the groups and one of the students was able to explain the process.”

“When a student looked at me and declared, ‘I like this class. You make it hard because you don’t give us the answers. You make us think and record. I like that I feel like a scientist.’”

“When taking some of these activities from last summer and doing them with our staff in professional development and watching some of the non-science teachers faces light up with enthusiasm!! Non-science means teachers I know didn’t teach any type of science the previous years. Now they want to incorporate more science in their classrooms!”

“I love when a student or multiple students say, ‘This was the best day ever!’”

When moments like these occur, we know we’re on the right track instructionally. And aren’t momemts like these why we got into teaching in the first place … to make a positive difference in the lives and learning of children?

Please share a “connected kid” moment by leaving a comment. And why not explore using the idea of “connected kid” moments to inspire your future planning? How could you get your students to really connect? After all, spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Happy Spring!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute here.


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Grist for the Mill

“The Finnish National Board of Education has confirmed the new core curriculum for basic education. The new core curriculum emphasizes the joy of learning and the pupils´ active role.” FNBE website announcement, 2015



In exploring the landscape of Finnish education, one can’t help but make comparisons between what has been called “the best education system in the world” and our own schools, many of which seem to be limping along, having been “underperforming” for decades. It’s easy to grow discouraged. There are so many factors beyond our control. The five thousand pound gorilla in the room, of course, is poverty. We won’t look too closely at that apparently as to do so might require actually taking action to alleviate its symptoms and ultimately to eliminate the underlying causes of the disease, for disease it is. And that will take both political and moral courage, intelligence, and will, as well as a totally reformed tax code generating lots and lots of money. Then there are the current solutions on offer in the form of huge education bills hundreds of pages long that focus on diagnosing and eliminating educational (read economic) disparity, while also punishing it. The weapon of choice is the system of standardized tests and standardized curricula, which have been making some corporations an awful lot of money, money they aren’t likely to want to give up raking in any time soon.

So, given what a hopeless cause it seems, why would anyone even bother taking a look at Finnish education, particularly if we are powerless to change education policy? Isn’t it rather like pouring salt in our wounds? On the other hand, perhaps it can be helpful.

Finland offers a lens through which to view our own schools, but more importantly it offers grist for the mill. That’s a rather old and outdated expression that harks back to the days when farmers would bring their grain crops to a mill to be ground. Grist was the name of the unground grain, so the phrase came to mean anything that can be made useful or valuable by being processed — in this case by your brain, rather than an old-fashioned water mill. So, all the information and stories about Finnish education are grist for the mill of your brain. Reading about, experiencing first hand, or talking with others about how the Finns do school might yield something valuable, if you allow your mind to process and apply its millings to your own situation. Even one idea could make a difference.

For example, let me pick up on one of the questions I posed at the end of a recent post on Finnish education: “What difference would it make if we were to be very intentional about making joy part of our planning in schools?” And while we’re at it, let’s tie that to STEM, which is, after all, the primary focus of this blog.

Right away I think of Lydia Arriaga’s third graders at Byrne Elementary doing experiments with M&Ms and water, noting their observations in their science journals, and Lydia’s wonderment at how eager her students were to do science, completing their homework to insure that they could be scientists again that day, because “scientists are responsible people.” There was joy in her classroom.


A Few M&Ms Trigger the Joy of Discovery (Byrne Elementary)

I remember the Brentano Math and Science Academy auditorium filled with cheering children as they launched their egg carriers from the balcony to the floor below and eagerly carried them to the front where a teacher would open each carrier to determine whether or not the egg had survived its Humpty Dumpty adventure. Most of them did because the students had been prototyping and learning from their own and other students’ initial failures in the weeks before this all-school STEM activity.

Small Moment of Joy at School (Brentano and Nightingale)

Small Moments of Joy at School (Brentano and Nightingale)

And I remember the excitement of a group of students in Rebecca Kornack’s 6th grade class at Mozart Elementary as the little green scientist made a visit to their table because they were acting like scientists. The little green scientist was nothing more than a repurposed Happy Meals toy that the creativity of their teacher had turned into a reward for doing good science. And he made their day!

The Finns place a high value on how children experience their schooling. They want them to feel joy. They want them to have fun learning. They know that the only way to create lifelong learners, a ubiquitous goal in American school mission statements, is to make school an enjoyable experience for children. They honor the childhood of their children; they respect their need for play and fun.

An article in last October’s The Atlantic explored the idea. Author Tim Walker recounted one exchange he had with a Finnish educator.

“‘Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,’ she told me. ‘And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.’

The word “joy” caught me off guard—I’m certainly not used to hearing the word in conversations about education in America, where I received my training and taught for several years. But Holappa, detecting my surprise, reiterated that the country’s early-childhood education program indeed places a heavy emphasis on “joy,” which along with play is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept. ‘There’s an old Finnish saying,’ Holappa said. ‘Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.’”

And, as we can all attest, our students forget a lot quite easily.

So here’s where my grist for the mill comes in. Reading about Finnish education has made me wonder “What if, like the Finns, you were to do everything in your power to infuse your classroom with joy? What if you were to write at the top of every lesson plan a note to yourself, a reminder to find something that could elicit a joyful response in your students? What if joy were to become an explicit part of your lesson plan?”

Perhaps teaching for joy is subversive. As Neil Postman asked of teachers way back in 1969 in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, “Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as capacity to learn? Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?”

And that leads me to wonder, “What if American teachers en masse were to take just that one idea from the Finns, the idea of incorporating joy into their lessons. What if they were to ponder it, to talk about it amongst themselves, to brainstorm, strategize and even plot together to disrupt an essentially joyless system and find ways to inject opportunities for joy and play wherever they can in their classrooms? The Finns built their extraordinarily fine education system on one concept: Equity. And that decision and focus made a powerful difference. It led to excellence. But they had consensus on the importance of guaranteeing every child an equally excellent education, and the entire government was behind the idea and provided the necessary resources to accomplish that goal. We don’t have anywhere near that kind of consensus or will, and certainly one teacher, or even many, can’t introduce equity under the current system. But perhaps we can shift schooling using a different fulcrum, one centered on joy.

High Five Collage

From Investigating to High Fives: So Natural with STEM

Teaching STEM is a natural for instigating joyful learning experiences, so if STEM is part of your gig, be grateful. Think of all kinds of animals there are in the world, of nature in all its variety, of unimaginable tininess and hugeness, of things that light up or explode or that have a serious yuck factor. Think of the wonder of the human brain, the devastation of natural disasters and the recovery afterwards both by nature and humans. Think of all the marvelous stories, the play of exploration, the fun of learning cool things. Think of all the possibilities for hands on, creative investigations, and, in engineering, for building things that solve challenging problems. High five to that!

Some teachers already do this. Others of your colleagues never will, but that shouldn’t stop you. Your students have one year in your classroom. You owe it to them and to yourself to make it the most joyful year possible for you both. That’s all they have — one year with you. They will never forget. And this upcoming summer, a joyful season anyway, might provide you with both the time and the inspiration you need to think about how to make joy a touchstone of your planning, almost as if it were one of the learning standards. What an idea!

There is one caveat: Joy isn’t engendered by free candy and unlimited recess or no homework. It isn’t fun activities simply for the sake of the fun. Joy isn’t the junk food of education. It doesn’t emerge in a teacher popularity contest won by the teacher who, in an effort to be liked the most, expects the least from students. Getting something for nothing doesn’t nourish students and won’t last very long. Joy arises when we meet challenges and lose ourselves in learning. But you already knew that.

Joy Sometimes Arises from Concentrated Effort in Meeting a Challenge

Joy Often Arises from Concentrated Effort and Meeting a Challenge

What have you done in your classroom of late to make it a more joyful place? What will you do in your classroom next year? Please share.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.


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The (Often) Missing Ingredient … Joy!

“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.

Student made signs like these were all over the school.

Student Made Signs Were Posted Throughout the School.

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.

High Fives!

High Fives!

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.

Students Didn't Think Ms. Bartlett's Container Would Survive the Drop.

Students Didn’t Think Ms. Bartlett’s Container Would Survive.

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.

~ Penny

Learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Brentano Math and Science Academy, engineering, inquiry science, joy, Uncategorized