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What If We Made Joy the Focus This Year?

Posted by Katie Egan Cunningham on Aug 27, 2019 4:57:08 PM

by Katie Egan Cunningham

This summer has brought extraordinarily difficult national events. It can lead me, at times, to wonder, “How can we be joyful in times like this?” But, then I remember the excitement of children opening crisp marble notebooks for the first time, the power a well-told read-aloud has to make children laugh out loud, and the privilege we have of witnessing new friendships form in the first days of school. Then, I wonder, “How can we not be joyful in times like this?” if joy is the greatest gift we can give our students, even in the work of social justice teaching.




Yet, as a teacher, I haven’t always stopped to notice what brings my students feelings of joy or sustained happiness. In her blog post for the New York Times, author and educator, Jessica Lahey, wrote that “When happiness strikes in my classroom, I relish it as I would any other rare anomaly, like thundersnow or a two-faced calf.” Now more than ever, we are at a cultural crossroads that begs us to make happiness more than a rare anomaly. Fortunately, today, we have the science of happiness to help justify the choices we can make as educators to prioritize joyful learning in the name of student happiness.

But like anything worthwhile, finding joy takes some practice. The more we turn our attention to joy, wonder, and delight, the happier we become. Research by Shelley Gable and Jonathan Haidt suggests that we have three times more positive experiences than negative. Further research shows the more we share our positivity with others, we heighten our well-being, life satisfaction, and energy as well as for those around us. Joy begets joy.

It also turns out, when we invest in joy we invest in learning. Research by Christina Hinton out of Harvard Graduate School of Education found that happiness, motivation, and success are intertwined and that student happiness was positively associated with intrinsic motivation and GPA. In the years to come, research will continue to show what many of us have known in our hearts all along--that joyful learning and a focus on students’ sustained, lifelong happiness are our primary responsibilities. When we start with joy, learning is stronger because of it.

So what does joy look like in our literacy teaching? It’s three boys, heads in a huddle, talking about the series Wings of Fire. It’s the smile on every students’ face during the read aloud that launches the year (my favorites: B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures and Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin). It’s the bravery of a student reading aloud from a poem they wrote when asked about what makes their heart sing. Finding joy can be simple, but sustaining it is not necessarily easy.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King reminds readers and aspiring writers that What if questions are the source of all fiction. Any creative act starts by having the courage to ask What if questions. As the school year begins, I have been thinking about the What ifs that drive me to start with joy, especially in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and injustice.

What if every student heard their name aloud every day for something positive from their teacher or a peer?

  • What if every read aloud opened up discussions of how we can live a happy life?
  • What if every conference with a reader or writer left students feeling agentive and capable?
  • What if every small group experience inspired students to think, “Wow, I never knew I could…”?
  • What if students had opportunities every day to affirm who they are, where they are from, and who they want to be through writing workshop?
  • What if every minilesson offered opportunities for genuine discovery?
  • What if teachers could band together to make joy the unequivocal right of every child in every classroom?

While King argues What if questions lead to better fiction, these what ifs don’t have to stay in our imaginations. They can become our reality. More importantly, they can become the realities of our students and change the very institution of school. If every lesson, every day, has to start somewhere, why wouldn’t we start with joy?

Katie Egan Cunningham is the author of Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness and Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of The Classroom Bookshelf, a School Library Journal blog. She is also an Associate Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. Most importantly, she is the mother of two boys about to start second and fifth grades. You can find Katie at as well as at her sessions at ILA, LFA, and NCTE this fall.

This blog post was inspired by listening to On Being with Krista Tippet: Tending Joy and Practicing Delight with Ross Gay.

Topics: Classroom practice, Literacy