Laughing and Learning: Create a Culture of Joy

A MiddleWeb Blog

A child comes home after her first day at school.
Her mom asks, “What did you learn at school today”
The kid replies, “Not enough. I have to go back tomorrow!”  

Teacher: You weren’t here yesterday. You missed school.
Student: No, I didn’t miss it one bit!

Okay, so maybe these aren’t the funniest teacher jokes. But, they made me smile and I hope they made you smile too.

Smiling and laughter matter. In fact, they matter a lot because they breed joy. Recently, I read the tweet below from school climate guru, Peter DeWitt. He says, in essence, that school climate isn’t another thing on our plates – it is the plate – the foundation that supports all we do.

Joy is a part of a healthy climate and in places where we spend huge chunks of time, like school, healthy climates are critical to the success of students and teachers alike.

Join me in pledging to bring smiles and laughter to our classroom cultures until the halls ring with joy.

The Case for Joy

Joyful classroom environments help students learn, and that’s the whole point, right?! Studies show that joy matters in school.

Skillfully Joyful

What’s fun for one person may not be fun for the next. The concept of a joyful classroom is deceptively complex. In hopes of working together to increase the culture of joy in our classrooms, let’s focus on three things: Smiling often, laughing more, and helping students to do the same.

Let’s be honest, we don’t always feel joyful at school. Sometimes a smile is hard to find, never mind honest laughter. And most teachers know that students often reflect the attitudes we put out. Given the science, we want our students to be joyful, and thus we must learn to skillfully cultivate joy ourselves. And, hey, teachers deserve a joyful environment too! It’s not only the kids who are in school for a large part of every day.

Here are some tips for getting your happy on.

1. Don’t feel it? Fake it, until you make it.

Years ago I had an incredible mentor who helped me see my role as the culture leader in my classroom. Once, after a night spent bailing floodwater from my basement, I came to school tired and grumpy and ready to frown through the day. My mentor, who did not mince words, said, “It’s okay to feel grumpy and to be tired. It’s not okay for you to put that mood on your room full of kids.”

She reminded me that it is my job to put things aside and jump into the joy of teaching. To fake it. To act as if I was happy. What she didn’t tell me was that by putting on the smile, forcing myself to tell a joke and to laugh, and basically pretending to be happy, I actually became happy!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a fake smile is a cure for depression, or that it made me happier about my flooded basement. I am saying that during the workday, teachers have the chance to lift up or bring down our students. We must choose to lift them up. Smile. Laugh. Act as if.

2. Laugh at your own jokes.

Even when they’re not funny, jokes are fun! When I taught seventh grade language arts, I started each unit with a joke. For example, before I started a study of science fiction, I told the following joke:

So, yesterday, I went to visit my husband in his man-cave. It was a mess. Among the piles of papers, books, and balled up dirty laundry, I found an ugly creature lying dead on the floor. I asked my husband what it was. He said, “It’s an alien.” I replied, “Oh it must have been one of those brain-suckers. Too bad he found your room first. It looks like he starved to death!”

Again, perhaps not the funniest joke in the world, but it served its purpose. And in addition to the giggles, outright laughter (and, okay, some groans), I had every student’s eyes on me when I said, “Guess what genre we’re going to study next?”

Don’t know any jokes? Google them. In fact, stop reading this post, open another tab, and google a joke to start your upcoming units right now.

3. Play music and shake your groove thang.

When I feel boredom or exhaustion creeping into class, or when I see kids need to take a break, or I note a need to celebrate, I transform into DJ Crazy-Teacher.

Throwing a two-minute dance party is a great way to bring the joy. There is nothing like music and movement to elevate a mood. Try it. I defy anyone to listen to Sam and the Womp or Katrina and the Waves and not feel happy! Make your own Happy Playlist and share it with kids or use it between classes when you’re priming yourself for full-on class fun!

4. YouTube it.

Cute babies, grumpy cats, and funny memes can all work wonders. It’s easy to find good stuff pretty quickly with Google Images and YouTube. Try this this funny verson of school rules with the Minions or this Kid Snippets on learning math.

5. Spread the good news.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to breed joy is to focus on the good in every student and emphasize successes. Keep your smartphone in your pocket and text or call a parent on the spot when a student does something wonderful. Similarly, reach out on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to tell the community about how great your students are. Quick messages like this mean a lot. Here are two I recently sent out, “Azalea rocked her science test today!” and “Ask Kenneth to tell you about the theme he came up with for Moby Dick, it’s BRILLIANT!”

Learning is the Bottom Line

Of course, it’s not all about sunshine and rainbows. At its very best, joy in the classroom serves to increase achievement. Almost anyone who knows me as a teacher knows that when it comes to learning I am hardcore. I hold my students to high standards just as I do myself. Students in my classes understand that demonstrating academic growth is the bottom line. Put in other words, as I tell my kids, smiles, laughter, and fun are a part of hard work, not the opposite of it.

Teachers must cultivate balance, and students must learn to walk that fine line between fun and a wild, off-task classroom. I do that in two ways. First I remind them of “Grandma’s Rule” (while also pointing out that I am in no way old enough to be their grandmother).

Grandmas can be summed up as, “First veggies, then dessert!” When at all possible, the day-to-day work of learning should have dessertish-qualities, but my students know that if they want some joy-making craziness, they have to not only be on task and focused most of the time, but they also have to be ready to come right back into the learning zone when the song is over, the video finished, and the last joke is cracked.

Some years, I start by blowing up dozens of balloons and leaving them in the classroom. Then, I challenge my students to not touch them, saying, “I love a joyful, fun classroom. But, I also love learning. You are going to learn a lot this year. You’re also going to have fun. Today, I want to see how much self-control you have. That’s important for me to know before I let my fun-side kick in.”

Kids get the message right away and, for the most part, they leave the balloons alone. At the end of that first day, I explain Grandma’s Rule and in the last two minutes of that first day of school we go crazy throwing and bouncing balloons and filling our shared space with joy! For more ideas on helping students practice self-control, check out Larry Ferlazzo’s resource page.

Choose Joy

There are deeper ways to weave joy into learning than flashing a smile or telling a joke. Offering students voice and choice, integrating academic engagement strategies, and celebrating the whole child all come to mind.

These topics and many others will be the subject of future Heart of the School blog posts. For now, let’s keep it light. Let’s smile, laugh, and have fun with our students.

Go back and reread the first joke. Notice that in it, the age-old question, “What did you learn at school today?” is asked. As a parent, I long ago ditched that question and replaced it with a new one, “Did you laugh today?” If students are laughing, they are open to learning.

Did your students laugh today?

Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a teacher-librarian, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and writes for We Teach We Learn.

10 Responses

  1. Hedy Kolb says:

    Beautifully expressed! These are my sentiments, as well, and I am becoming better at demonstrating them to the kids!

  2. Rita Platt says:

    Hedy! I am so glad that you enjoyed the article and feel the same way about a joyful classroom.

  3. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    You bet! “School climate IS the plate.” Good suggestions.

  4. Robert Ward says:

    Yes, yes, yes, Rita! Joy and engagement go hand in hand and lead to real student investment. This is a crucial component of honoring the needs of the whole child. This is a great back to school reminder!

    • Rita Platt says:

      I agree, Robert! I feel so terrible when I think of kiddos who do not have a joyful classroom to attend each day. I KNOW you provide that for your kids. Bless your heart!

  5. Marcia Dressel says:

    Once you’ve done some work balancing control and fun, it’s much easier to interject the necessary joy! Katie Mcky taught me that if students can exhibit control, the teacher can throw in some wild fun. If the kids get a little wild, then the teacher has to turn up the control a bit. Keeping that in mind has made it so much easier and more comfortable for me to have a joyful classroom. Thanks for this article Rita.

    • Rita Platt says:

      I love how you put that, Marcia, “if the kids get a little wild…turn up the control a bit…” That’ what I was trying to say, but not as effectively as you did. Thanks!

  6. Roy says:

    Joy and engagement go hand in hand and lead to real student investment. This is a crucial component of honoring the needs of the whole child. I KNOW you provide that for your kids.

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