The Joy Project: build engagement, community, and joy in learning


(Originally posted on the TIIE website)

Do students have enough joy in schools? Or do they simply rush from task to task because someone told them what to do and how to do it?

With increasing levels of student anxiety, depression, troubling world events and screen addiction, I think it is time for be more purposeful by integrating more JOY into the school curriculum. And I am not alone. Take the incredible book Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning by Gholdy Muhammad, where the author advocates for integrating joy, art and play into teaching units and our regular practice. One way to do this is with the Joy Project.

The following post and project I created during the pandemic, when teachers were looking for projects fueled by purpose and joy in an uncertain world. Those factors certainly have not changed. I used this template and resources with my 5th graders, who presented meaningful, engaging, and purposeful projects to our school and community. In a fractured world, students need more joy and creativity to build up their sense of selves, their resilience, and connections to their communities.

A student-driven, thematic project can provide this.

Hear us out: it’s time for Joy Projects.

You may have heard the terms before: genius hourspassion projectscuriosity projects. But for this moment in time, we feel like we need:

  • a student-driven interest-based project
  • that can be done remotely
  • featuring analog and virtual options
  • focused on JOY + CARE + RESILIENCE 

Take a moment with that idea, because it’s a big one.

How can educators and families support students in doing personal interest projects done with flexibility, creativity and curiosity? What kind of guidelines could students use to provide structure and direction for passion-based learning?

The Basic Recipe: 7 Steps to Joy

We want to help educators and students do personal interest projects that feature the following seven steps.

1. Discover your interests

Students, what brings you joy during this time? What do you want to explore? Will your Joy Project be wide open and free choice? Or will you focus mostly on one subject area, or a Global Goal, or a student-determined theme? And educators, what kind of joy do you see relating to where your students were, as a group, or where you’re all going on this new journey?

2. Discover your community.

Who are the people around you? And who do you see pulling together as a community right now, what do you notice happening? Who is in your community during this challenging time, and what are some of their strengths and some of their needs?

3. Find the overlap.

This one’s key: where are the places where your interests as a learner overlap with the needs of your community?  Think of this in terms of finding a key that unlocks learning in your community, or that of your students. Your community’s needs are a lock; when the needs are met, they unlock better health and happiness in the community. Your learning interests are a key: you can use them to unlock that better health and happiness.

4. Enlist help.

We are all stronger together: as you undertake this learning project, who are some of the people or organizations in your community who can provide you with support. Are they some of the same people with the needs you’re trying to meet? Or, are they people who simply have strengths that you may not have explored, who could lean in a little?

5. Choose a reflection.

As you learn, you’re going to want to keep track of what you’re learning along the way. You could use a learning journal, or a scrapbook. You could create a podcast, or start a YouTube channel. Or could you could free-write, or explore mixed media? Or create a class padlet for all the students in the group to document their learning? Choose a method in advance, then…

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Salamander Sky is Back with McSea Books!

Some news from over here in Vermont, just as the salamanders are making their way back to tree root homes and burrows for the winter, Salamander Sky will be re-published by McSea Press, out of Maine!

This small but mighty press brings you award winning books about the essence of New England with wonderful titles like Find a Moose with Me by Buzby Hersey and illustrated Ashley Halsey; How to Tap a Maple by Stephanie Mulligan and illustrated by Connie Rand; and Walk in the Woods with Me by Patice Phinney Turner and illustrated by Emily House.

We are delighted to join this publisher of fine picture books that describe the beauty and spirit of New England! This new publication will be available in early December, and is available for pre-order now. For all nature centers, community groups, and citizen scientists, you can have this in your hands by the next crossing season! And please be in touch if you would like to schedule an author’s talk or salamander migration learning experience for your school or group.

New School Year, New Reality: Start Slow, with Strengths, Place, Meaning

Here we go! Starting the school year back up again. But this year, things are different. We have faced one of the greatest upheavals in society. Ever. 

While most schools might LOOK like normal, with no mask mandates and few restrictions, let’s be clear, we are all changed from experiencing the last three years. Many students have lost something: a loved one, a rite of passage (likely many), social interactions, experiences, hours of schooling, and special events. They’ve been faced with a society that is fractured, confusing, and contradictory, and a host of persistent global problems. A 24 hours news cycle tells them constantly about crisis after crisis. Many of them have been under stress: some have done hours of summer homework that was assigned (!!!), or worked three jobs, or did not get enough food over the summer, or have faced countless other pressures. 

This is who we are welcoming back to school. Things are not normal, things are forever changed. Students face more mental health challenges than ever before and are having to learn and relearn social, collaborative, and problem solving skills. How can we react to this moment and not get bogged down by all the news (falling standardized test scores, increasing mental health problems, rising acts of hate in our country)?

Student Strengths. One way we can start is to give more moments of connection and humanity. What are your students’ strengths? What did you learn about yourself this summer, or last year? What lights you up? Starting with strengths centers the class community on assets. What we have. Who we are now?  It’s not looking for deficits, or assuming non-compliance. It’s building a community based on strengths, especially ones that students might not have ever considered until they were asked. 

Focus on Place. Strengths do not stop at the individual. What are the assets, the strengths, of this place? Begin grounded in these. Is the campus surrounded by trees? Is there a river nearby? What businesses or historical features are close to school? Let students find a sit spot to reflect, read, draw, and be, or design an experience on school grounds, one that connects them to this place they are about to spend so much time in and around. 

Starting academic study and teambuilding  rooted in place also builds community. How can you use your local place to teach your social and academic objectives? Almost everything teachers teach can connect to a school campus. 

Slow it Down. Think about pacing. Too much of the time in schools there is a frenzied state of rushing. Line up here! Go there! Stop this, start that! This is a lot for overwhelmed nervous systems. Try putting some space into the schedule and systems, allowing immersion, some rest, and moments of connection. Every single second doesn’t have to be productive. This model is outdated and based on a factory model of education. 

Purpose and Meaning. No busywork, disposable work. Link to wider purpose and meaning. Students need context, to understand the why, of everything they do. It matters. Pedagogies like project-based learning, service learning, and connecting to current issues facing students roots students in the WHY, often led by their own choices, passions, and interests.

I’ve got a new post over at We Are Teachers with more ideas on how to start the year to focus on student mental health.

Best wishes for the new school year. Take good care of yourselves.