image The Joyful Classroom


Bringing joy to the classroom is not only a healthy spirituality, it is also good pedagogy. We explore three questions: What is joy? Why foster joy in our classrooms? How do we bring joy into our classrooms? 

What is joy?
What do we understand by joy? Fr. Ron Rolheiser has insights in this in Meditation on Joy and Living in Joy is Hard Work.

Fr. Henri Nouwen in Here and Now wrote:

Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God’s love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.

Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together. That isn’t easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experiences, such as being present at the birth of a child or the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience. Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow. I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. I dare even to say: ‘My grief was a place where I found joy.’ Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.

Why foster joy in our classrooms?
1. Science gives us data on the impact of joy in the classroom in Judy Wallis’,  The Neuroscience of the  Joyful Classroom and the author’s  Teachers, Don’t Forget Joy in Education Week.

2. Joy is one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit and is also one of the major theme’s of Pope Francis’ ministry. See for example the Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. See also Fr Robert Barron’s video on the Joy of the Gospel. In May 2013, Pope Francis commented,

It’s the Spirit that guides us: He is the author of joy, the Creator of joy. And this joy in the Holy Spirit gives us true Christian freedom. Without joy, we Christians cannot become free, we become slaves to our sorrows. The great Paul VI said that you cannot advance the Gospel with sad, hopeless, discouraged Christians. You cannot. A certain mournful behavior, no? Often Christians behave as if they were going to a funeral procession rather than to praise God, no? And this joy comes from praise, Mary’s praise, this praise that Zephaniah speaks of, Simeon and Anna’s praise: this praise of God!

Text from page of the Vatican Radio website

3. Joy nurtures our vocation as teachers. The feeling of joy in helping young minds transcend challenges and push back their intellectual, moral and spiritual horizons nurtures our souls and tells us that we are working with the Holy Spirit.

How do we bring joy into the classroom?

1 Be a joyful teacher

The most important factor is the role of the teacher. Parker Palmer has written extensively about the importance of cultivating the interior life of teacher as an important factor in creating a healthy educational system. His colleague, Sam Intrator writes,

We can’t teach children well if our teachers aren’t well. It’s worth lingering on the cold implications of this teacher’s observation. If our teachers are unwell— weary, unhappy, or demoralized— then our children will suffer. Conversely, available, energized, and soulful teachers provide opportunities for our children to thrive because—as teachers—our moral energy matters, our idealism matters, our capacity to be fully present for students matters. In other words—who we are matters. Let me frame this encounter a little more broadly: if schools, youth groups, and other educational enter- prises are to be places that promote academic, social, and personal development for students, every- thing hinges on the presence of intelligent, passionate, caring adults working as teachers and mentors.

In his article “Joy in School” found on the ASCD website, Steven Wolk lists ways in which we can bring joy into the classroom. Among those most relevant for the Religious and Family Life Education classrooms are these:

2. Find pleasure in learning

The act of learning can be pleasurable and rewarding. When students have those “aha!” moments when they get something they worked hard to understand, that is joy. It is also the experience of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”: “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at even great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Our task is to find opportunities to create these situations.

3. Give students choice

When we give students choices in selecting activities we give them an academic freedom that is uncharacteristic of much of their schooling. Choice boards are one such differentiated learning activity that allows students the medium to express themselves. Inquiry based or project based learning can also accommodate student choice. The more students are invested in the task, the greater chance is that they will enjoy the task.

4. Let students create things

Wolk writes: “People like to make stuff. Having control of our work and using our minds and hands to create something original give us a tremendous sense of agency. There is a special pride in bringing an original idea to fruition. It empowers us and encourages us; it helps us appreciate the demanding process of creating something from nothing.” Examples could be PowerPoints, artefact exhibits, Picture books, or infographics.

5. Get Outside

One of the ways that Pope Francis advocated in bringing joy to our teaching was to follow the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty. One aspect of this was to be immersed in creation’s beauty.

Particular attention to nature helps discover in it the mirror of the beauty of God. Greater care needs to be given to creation and its beauty in human and Christian formation, avoiding the risks of reducing it to simple ecologism or a pantheistic vision. Some movements try to install in the youth an ability to observe nature and make them aware of the need to protect it. This helps people discover the project of the Creator God, by appealing to the sentiments connected to marvel, adoration and thanksgiving. We must carefully put in practice the twofold dimension of listening:

– listening to creation that tells the glory of God.

– and listen to God who speaks to us through his creation and makes himself accessible to reason, according to the teaching of the First Vatican Council (Dei Filius, Ch. 2, can.1).

Catechesis in its efforts to form children and young people can make the most of it by developing a pedagogy of observation of natural beauties and consequent fundamentally human attitudes: silence, interiorisation, listening, patient waiting, admiration, discovery of harmony, respect for natural equilibrium, meaning of gratuity, adoration and contemplation.

Concluding Document of the Plenary Assembly The Via Pulchritudinis,Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue

Other insights can be gained from studying the Gospels and the lives of the saints.

6. Serve others

St. Francis of Assisi followed Jesus in finding joy in service. Selfless acts can bring great joy. Find service opportunities. The first goal is to serve the needy, joy is a by-product of this work and a sign that the Holy Spirit is present in your work.

7. Practice delight in doing simple tasks

St. Therese of Lisieux taught us to do do small deeds with great love. But this is not always easy to do. The spiritual discipline of joy asks us to find delight in simple things such as washing dishes, cleaning blackboards or even marking tests! Anne Sexton is a contemporary poet who is eloquent in her expression of this approach.

Welcome Morning – Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne,”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.

8. Use funny stories and jokes

St Philip Neri practiced his ministry to the poor of Rome. He was a great lover of jokes and humour, based on humility rather than derision. The Holy Humor and More Holy Humor books by Cal And Rose Samra are a treasure chest of amusing but clean Catholic jokes and anecdotes. See also the storytelling books by Willian Bausch, many have a humorous twist. Fr. Jim Martin wrote a book called Between Heaven and Mirth which is another valuable resource. Watch Fr. Jim at the Religious Education Congress in 2013 in Anaheim and at Boston College.

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