The following is a guest blog post from Katie Egan Cunningham, author of the new book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness about how to infuse your literacy instruction with the science of happiness.
As my own two children head back to their elementary and middle schools, masks in hand, my hopes for them this year largely remain the same. I hope they find connection with their teachers and a feeling of belonging among their peers. I hope they walk away each day recognizing something new they learned that they didn’t know before. I hope they encounter stories through read-alouds and independent reading that ignite their imaginations and make them better humans. And I hope they feel recognized for the ways in which they are willing to outgrow themselves in a world that feels increasingly unsettling.
Their teachers are being called upon to be more courageous than ever before. They will have to walk into classrooms not only focused on learning objectives and the children in front of them but they will inevitably experience moments of doubt and fear amid viral outbreaks. They will have to lead lessons for children seated at home with parents in the background inadvertently observing how a teacher handles a disruption from a student let alone how they deliver content. They will have to prepare for lessons face-to-face, online, or a combination of the two ready to pivot at a day’s notice.
Nothing about the start of this school year is ideal. But, I do believe that if we have to start somewhere, we can choose to start with joy. Here are some ideas for how to start with joy whether you are virtual, face-to-face, or a combination of the two.
Foster Connection with “Soft Starts”
I first encountered the term “soft starts” in the book Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Sara K. Ahmed. Soft starts are classroom rituals that allow students to transition to learning and the school environment in a way that honors their humanness. Soft starts allow students to connect in ways that feel meaningful and personal and give students a reason to look forward to being there.
Take a few minutes every day whether virtual or face-to-face to connect with students about their lives outside of the classroom. Let students know you want to get to know them as people first before getting to know them as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, artists, or athletes. Use “Getting to Know You” surveys to spark conversations about what students do in their spare time and how students are handling boredom. Find out things about students you might not have realized, like, who can solve a Rubik's cube and who has a pet hamster. Leverage these in lesson warm-ups all year long.
If you are in a physical classroom, find a way to greet students at a safe distance to address students by name and to check in with them. Have an emotions check-in available for students to indicate how they’re doing whether that’s putting a sticky note on a permanent anchor chart, using a quick gesture, or logging in to a Google doc to post an emoji. Follow up on patterns you notice about students’ feelings through one-on-one conversations.
If you are in a virtual classroom, invite students to respond to a warm-up question by responding in the chat, doing a quick gesture, or unmuting to share a quick response. I like to use questions, like, “Read anything good lately?”, “What’s a smell that reminds you of home?” and “What makes you laugh?” Consider virtual routines that welcome students to the day, like, having a day of the week dedicated to telling jokes, riddles, animal facts, scavenger hunts, ink pinks, and other word games.
In either case, find out from students what brings them joy at home and in school. Invite students to jot, draw, and share with one another. Use books like The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald to invite students to share the best parts of themselves through photographs, drawings, poetry, and other writing. Find out who likes to share their thinking through writing, drawing, audio recording, or making videos and make those choices available as often as possible.
Consider having a song each day that welcomes everyone to learning. Use the song lyrics as a way to integrate shared reading and invite students to make song suggestions. Create a class playlist that grows all year long.
Create journaling routines that allow students to take to the page in a way that strengthens their inner reserve. In Start with Joy, I suggest the Five-Minute Journal practice that has transformed my own life and that I frequently share with schools.
Each morning, invite students to jot for themselves their responses to:
I am grateful for ______
What would make today great?
I am _______
Each day during a closing meeting, invite students to jot:
3 amazing things that happened today:
How could I have made today better?
How did I help others today?
Rather than a single event, use these prompts as a daily touchstone for students and invite (rather than require) them to share in a virtual chat or in a physical Morning Meeting. Mix up the routine with songs like Will.I.Am’s “What I Am” to expand affirmations students write about themselves.
Curate Captivating Content
Connection is essential but students also want to learn something new each day. They want to experience the feelings associated with discovery. When we cultivate knowledge building about the natural world, historical time periods, and social issues, we spark inquiry and engagement whether we are virtual or face-to-face. Supporting students’ knowledge development can authentically support students to ask questions and seek answers. Knowledge also speeds and strengthens learning, comprehension, and thinking.
This year will require streamlining of content to what seems essential. Ask yourself “What’s worth learning?” Consider what content exposes students to a variety of words in a variety of contexts to support student vocabulary development. Use the content you curate to help students understand issues and perspectives, express their viewpoints, and take action in the world.
If you are in a physical classroom, consider the ways the classroom space can still foster curiosity about content through your classroom library display. Consider labeling nonfiction bins with labels like: Who? What? Where? When? How? instead of the standard Nonfiction. Or better yet, invite students to label bins based on what they notice are logical groupings of books. If handling classroom books isn’t possible, create a virtual pile of books using Google docs with the covers of books available and invite students to sort and label them with inviting names like Amazing Animals and I Never Knew!
If you are in a virtual classroom, use sources like the “Nonfiction Minute” by the iNK Think Tank to invite students to read, listen to, and in some cases, view accompanying multimedia curated by a collaborative of nonfiction children’s book authors. Select images to invite students to jot what they see/think/wonder in the chat or using a physical whiteboard at home. Have a few students share their thinking with the group. Share “This Day in History” facts with students that might draw upon knowledge they have or spark interest in a new topic to research on their own.
In either case, leverage the read-aloud as a sacred time in the schedule to foster content connections by selecting various types of engaging nonfiction that varies by type. Model your own curiosities about the world and its history and how you are seeking answers from a variety of reliable sources. Start lessons with captivating images that introduce students to famous paintings, historical documents, and other parts of the world. Use sources like National Geographic’s Learn at Home resource to find interesting nonfiction articles for shared and independent reading and to find interesting images. Use multimedia in ways that captures students’ attention and invites important conversations about how to be anti-racist with videos like ESPN’s video of Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s Caldecott-winning picture book, The Undefeated.
Maximize Social Practices
Whether students are virtual or face-to-face, learning is more memorable when we have an opportunity to rehearse or share our thinking with someone else. We are social creatures and time spent together in a physical classroom or in a synchronous learning space should maximize our natural tendencies for social connection.
If you are in a physical classroom, prioritize opportunities for students to turn and talk at a safe distance. Rethink what might have traditionally been independent practice and consider collaborative (and safe) possibilities. Before the pandemic, there were researchers calling attention to an epidemic of loneliness. Now more than ever, our connection to others has never been more pressing. Balance independent reading and writing with partnership when possible so that students are guaranteed some form of social connection as a part of learning every day.
If you are in a virtual classroom, invite opportunities for students to share their thinking through the chat feature, by holding up physical whiteboards at home, by engaging in break-out rooms, and by participating in virtual small-group experiences. Be mindful of the greater need for wait time in virtual environments and the need to interact with everyone in some way over time. It’s not necessary to call on every student in a whole-class, virtual lesson but it is important to offer opportunities for every student to interact in some way.
In either case, consider the optimal learning conditions and what environment best supports independent practice, partnership, small-group, and teacher-student interactions. I’m a big believer that when it comes to our decision-making as teachers, there isn’t a single best method. Especially right now, the structures you choose will depend on what engages your students, maximizes learning, and offers a humanizing approach. That said, if you can, air on the side of social.
If Not Now, When?
In Start with Joy, I ask readers to consider children’s happiness as a central goal of literacy learning. More than anything, I want the children I work with and my own children to have the childhood roots for adult happiness. I want their inner voice to be strong and optimistic in the face of adversity and challenge. I want them to have memories of learning that are joyful and meaningful.
This is the year of face masks, social distancing, and virtual learning. But it can also be the year of new connections, new curiosities, and new memories. We can still ask ourselves what we can do to start with joy.
About the Author
Katie Egan Cunningham is the author of Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Instruction for Student Happiness and Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning. She has twenty years of experience as an educator in many different roles including classroom teacher, literacy specialist, literacy consultant, and teacher educator. Katie is an Associate Professor at Manhattanville College in Literacy and English Education.
Also by Katie Egan Cunningham...
Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning
In Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning, Katie shares her story as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, staff developer, and professor. She shows teachers how to create classrooms of caring and inquisitive readers, writers, and storytellers. Katie explains specific ways to build a classroom library that reflects our diverse society through rich, purposeful, and varied texts. She also provides numerous examples of multigenre and multimodal stories from children's and young adult literature, poetry, songs, and multimedia. The practical toolkit at the end of each chapter demonstrates how to make stories come alive in any classroom.