How I Brought Back Joy in My Classroom

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I continue to ponder the concept of joy in schools and more so the seeming lack of it.  Yet, I look at my own classroom and I know that we have a lot of joy.  Not all the time, not in everything we do, but there is a lot of joy in what we do.  It wasn’t always like that, when I taught traditionally, joy was not on my priority list when I planned.  If something happened to be fun I felt rather guilty since it probably meant I wasn’t getting the educational value across to my students.  Now I know better.

Joy is something I try to create, as funny as that sounds.  Yet by now I know what makes my students happy and I try to incorporate it as much as possible.  So what are some of the things that bring us joy?

  • Picture books.  Many 5th graders think picture books are for little kids but not in this room.  We cherish the arrival of new ones and laugh outloud whenever we can.  Taking 5 minutes to share a great one can boost us all.
  • Making mistakes.  I make the stupidest mistakes at times but I laugh outloud about it too and make sure the kids know.  We have to be able to giggle about ourselves for others to realize it is okay to laugh with us.
  • Challenges.  I try to concoct bi-weekly challenges for my students that focus on community and perseverance.  Often they are inane and I make them hard, not to test my kids but to push them further.  Our latest boat challenge was a blast and I am already rummaging through my closets trying to think up the next one.
  • Meditation.  After being inspired to bring back more mindfulness we have been doing 3 minute meditation sessions after math to center us for the rest of the day.  I know it is supposed to be quiet breathing but we have hard time not cracking up at some of the instructions.  Why shush them when laughter also centers them?
  • Dance breaks.  Singing and dancing are something I relish as an adult so if we are feeling down or extra restless I know what we need.

These things may seem like extra things and you are right, what about my core instruction, what’s so joyful about that?

The one thing that has brought more joy into our classroom is simply giving shared control to the students.  These few changes have had an incredible impact in our room:

  • Student voice.  Meaning that students have the right to an opinion in everything we do.
  • Student choice.  Whether it is what they are creating, how they are creating it, or who they are creating it with – student choice is essential in my room.
  • No punishment.  My students don’t get punished, I tend not to take things away such as recess, field trips or special moments.  It’s not that they are angels, we just figure out a way to work through bad moments.
  • No grades.  My students don’t work for grades, they work for understanding.  There is a big difference and it is something we cultivate throughout the year.
  • Lack of knowledge.  I don’t know everything and I tell my students that so we have to figure it out together.
  • Curiosity.  I am very curios as are my students so we have to take time to explore some of the things we are curious about.  Whether it is through genius hour, project time or simply stopping what we are doing to veer off the path, we allow it and we embrace it.
  • Global connections.  My students reaching out to teach others or ask others is a big part of our room and something that brings us happiness.  We try to incorporate some sort of global connection in most things we do, as long as it makes sense.

Yet I am not there yet.  There are still moments of dreadfulness in my classroom.  Spelling used to be one of them,  and because of that I have completely revamped the program starting Monday, I will let you know if it makes a difference.  So while not everything is joyful yet, I feel like we are on the right path.  Are you?  Is there room for joy in your classroom?  How do you teach for it?

The student who memorized the most numbers of pi got to throw a pie in my face on my birthday

I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” can be pre-bought now from Powerful Learning Press.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

40 thoughts on “How I Brought Back Joy in My Classroom

  1. To me this is always about being intentional. I think there’s a lot of joy in schools that could be recognized and amplified but is ignored because either people don’t notice or they are ashamed/afraid to call it what it is.

    My argument continues to be that we don’t need to justify it but that it’s a really essential disposition to have for a successful life. It includes identifying and celebrating all kinds of successes, in all kinds of ways.

    Thanks for all you do to bring joy to your own kids and others around the world.

  2. I love your post. Very inspirational. I’m curious about how you said you don’t have grades though. Is it a school wide/district wide initiative or just in your classroom? Do you still have report cards?

  3. Your work really supports igniting that inner spark of curiosity that is so refreshing. I am wondering how this spark can be maintained into the secondary panel – minimizing the importance of the grade is the place to start but it is such an engrained concept that it will take a collaborative effort to shift the thinking. Love to hear more about how you are doing this

  4. Love this post Pernille. Wanna come to Texas ? I love the dance breaks and making mistakes (freedom to fail). I started playing song “happy” 5 minutes before fist bell in the morning… Gets us going in right direction .

  5. HOw many of your students were te “thug types”? Just curious. This may work with some students, but not all. Otherwise, this could be used with great results in ALL schools.

    • Not sure what the thug type is really, however, I teach a broad variety of students coming from both ends of the socioeconomic status. My angriest students do really well with this type of classroom too.

      • You know what I am talking about. The “thug type” is the student who is always disrupting class and a bully to those who want to learn. The socioeconomic status does not always predicate how a particulr student will act in class, but most times the culture does. Students usually emulate those who trained them at home.

      • Aah ok, I have never called them that before. That type of student has done really well in my classroom as well, the style seems to work particularly well for this type of students because they start to get some control over aspects of their lives. Those type of students are the type we tend to clamp down on the hardest and so they fight with us more, I have learned by giving them some control they don’t fight you nearly as much.

  6. Reading something like this at this time of the school year is good and refreshing for me. I’ve definitely felt bogged down lately. I read the post about grades too, but I’m still curious about what you put on report cards since you said you’re required to put something there. I’ve thought about trying a different grading system but have no clue how to make it fair/acceptable.

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  9. I would love to know your plans for spelling. I felt this way about spelling a few years ago so redesigned my program. Now I teach the standards I’m required to teach each week, choose five words to represent that spelling strategy and then the students pick their own five words to add to that. We spend time on Mondays choosing our own words from the stories we write, content vocabulary, vocabulary we’ve found in our read alouds, etc. Each student then has his/her own list, but it’s words that they are using in their own writing. They have responded well to having a choice and I am able to differentiate because I monitor all of their choices on a wiki. I’d love to hear what you are thinking about doing.

    • I will absolutely blog about it after I have tweaked it with my students. It is root word based and a whole class team challenge approach so I am looking forward to hearing their reaction ( and ideas!).

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  11. I enjoyed reading your article. Curiosity is such a key component to learning. I love when my students ask questions that allow us to search together for answers. I encourage them to come to class and share new things that they learn outside of school. This makes learning relative.

  12. I really enjoy that you shared specifically how you inspire joy in your students. For newer or tired teachers, it was wonderful that you shared specifics that bring out a starting point from which to launch. Thank you for being so authentic and transparent in your post!

  13. We have no more spelling words starting this Monday, too! To be honest, I’m REALLY happy about that! However, the kiddos are responsible to spell the words we’ve had so far this year correctly in their writing!

    We love to read together, too, and share our reading! We also celebrate our math victories together, and I’ve found my kiddos to be amazing teachers for each other!!

    Thanks, Pernille! Love your great ideas and the joy you obviously have from having great relationships with your kiddos! 🙂

  14. This article was so inspiring! I would love more details about your strategies. I really appreciate shifting the focus from production to joy. The point about laughing about mistakes seems like such an important part of the learning process. It’s a nice reminder to not take things so seriously.

    • This will sound strange but this is exactly what my book discusses, how to bring back joy through changes to the classroom. It has to do with changing your role as the teacher and empowering the students.

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  16. I can’t help but notice the ethnicity of the students in the photo. I see four students of color, one who is off to the side and not smiling. While I appreciate the topic of bringing joy to teaching, the reality is that for many students in high poverty areas, joy for learning is often overshadowed by outside influences like hunger, parents who work 2-3 jobs and are not around for their children, siblings who are in prison, etc. In this age of standardized testing and evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students, joy is becoming a rare commodity. The best we can do as teachers is to share our love of learning with students. However, I also know that for some of our most at-risk students, that’s not always enough.

    • I think you have a lot of facets in this comment. It is so true that joy is often not important to students when their outside world is heavy with worry but that does not mean we shouldn’t strive for more joy. Often some of my most at-risk students are the ones that need to have a place to come and forget it all.
      I find it interesting that you notice the skin color of the one student standing off to the side, her and I actually cracked up a lot about the picture, but what is interesting ishow it leads you to discuss some big issues facing some students. I wonder if she had been another skin color whether it would have prompted the same reaction.

      • Probably not. What I noticed is that kids of color are the minority in this classroom. That is the exact opposite of our school community, where white students comprise only 5%-10% of our population. We have students from all over the world, 41 different languages being spoken in school, and a wide range of family situations and circumstances, which leads to a very different classroom (and school) climate. Having a background in culturally responsive instruction, along with ELA strategies, brings an entirely different perspective to teaching practices. I know I’m getting a little off topic, so forgive me. The real issue facing schools is poverty and the fact that socio-economic status and race plays such a major factor in the type of educational experiences students have in school, and what causes one school to be labeled a “success” and another a “failure.”

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  20. Great ideas enjoyed your blog. Have you heard of Gonoodle it is great for brain breaks and a great mindfulness CD is Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children.

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