Manifesto for Joyful Teaching, Leading, and Parenting

As this unusual and uncertain start of the school year begins, my husband and I returned to a manifesto we wrote for how to prioritize JOY in our family life and in our classrooms. We drew on the seven pillars from my book Start with Joy as a guiding framework to help us think about what matters most to us as parents and educators. When we inevitably face personal and professional challenges this year, we know we can return to this to remind ourselves of what we believe and whether we are being true to those beliefs in the way we live, love, and teach. Since we have to start somewhere, we believe we can start with joy.

We believe…

In Connection

-in assuming the best and seeing the good in all people, especially children

-that “please”, “thank you”, and “I’m sorry” are the most important words to make a habit

-that we all seek connection and belonging 

-that all children deserve to feel unconditional love at home and in their classrooms

In Choice

-that children can be trusted to make choices about their bodies, their clothing, how they use their time, and what they are interested in

-that having choice and agency is a child’s right

In Challenge

-in instilling a love of challenge as a basis for finding courage

-that having real, authentic challenge is a human need

In Movement 

-that our bodies shape our minds 

-that movement is a powerful tool for learning

In Discovery

-that feelings of awe and wonder make learning memorable

-that discovering something about ourselves, others, and the world helps build a happy life

In Play

-that everyone–kids and adults–should play more

-that play is always purposeful and educational–even if we don’t know what the purpose or learning might be 

In Story

-that we are storytelling creatures who want to be heard, seen, and valued

-that our lives are full of stories

In Joyful Parenting

-that our children should feel unconditional love

-that we are responsible to our children but not for them

-that when we face doubt we can focus on what is simple and sustainable

-that all behavior is a form of communication 

The Professor & The Principal Podcast, Episode 3: What’s Worth Learning, Part II

We are on week three of homeschooling since the COVID-19 crisis hit our community and every day is starting to feel remarkably the same while also feeling immeasurably different. I’ve started a list titled “It’s Worth Learning” that I keep in the kitchen to help remind me what’s most important right now. So far the list includes things like:

  • how to tell a good knock-knock joke
  • to wait for others at the dinner table table before eating
  • how to do a Google search that gets you the answer you want
  • that taking a bath with a good book and some Epsom salts can make a lot of things better
  • that a better response to “I’m sorry” is just “Thank you”
Continue reading “The Professor & The Principal Podcast, Episode 3: What’s Worth Learning, Part II”

What’s Worth Learning?

The generosity of this moment has been extraordinary to witness. In my small town, a local cafe is giving out free breakfast and lunch to anyone who isn’t able to work right now. People are cleaning out their closets to find masks to donate to hospital workers. Neighbors are saying hello and introducing themselves–albeit from six feet away. And teachers, authors, illustrators, coaches, and organizations have made available a world of online learning that we never had access to before.

If you are like me, you might be starting to feel a little flooded by all of the e-learning possibilities. Why haven’t we gone on a virtual tour of the Louvre yet? Shouldn’t we be joining authors online for live read-alouds? What about the swim team coach’s workout at 1:00 on Facebook Live? FOMO apparently rears its pervasive, anxiety-fueled head even in a social distancing world.

In our house, we are on Day 10 of homeschooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that a simple routine has been established, my husband and I find ourselves looking at the detailed plans their teachers have worked so hard to create, the extraordinary online possibilities to learn something new, the gift of time before us, (and our own work responsibilities) and we’re wondering…So what’s worth learning?

Most of my career has been about asking similar big questions in my work with schools and teachers: What are students learning? Why are they learning it? and How are they learning?

I’ve tried to take a step back during the last ten days to ask the same big questions about our own makeshift family schoolhouse. We are grateful for the plans our children’s teachers continue to make, the adjustments they are making along the way, and the world of possibility that now exists online. Yet, one of the gifts of this moment is the potential for a hard reset and conversation about what’s worth learning.

As our two children seesaw between contentment and frustration each day, we’re wrestling with the questions of What’s worth learning? and Who gets to decide?

Right now, if you’re a parent trying to Laura Ingalls Wilder this homeschool thing or you’re a teacher trying to figure out how to translate the magic that happens in your classroom to something on the screen, you’re being asked to make learning happen. Some of it will happen. A lot of it won’t. And that’s okay. Most of what our children will probably learn won’t be planned. But maybe that’s how most learning happens anyway.

I have a doctorate in education and my husband won Teacher of the Year once before becoming an administrator. Day One of homeschooling felt like our big moment had arrived. We could finally show our children what great teachers we were. By 2:00 both boys had moments of tears and our grand plans for inspiring our boys to become historians and for turning our kitchen into a science lab quickly dissolved. Thank God. Since then, we’ve doubled down on what’s simple and sustainable.

Now, we’re giving ourselves permission to strive for the bronze some days. We’re also quickly learning that supporting our boys to tear apart the couch cushions to make a reading nook is sometimes more valuable than forcing them to watch a videorecorded minilesson. Learning to pump their own bike tires is probably more important than watching the science video, especially if they already learned about the topic last year. Measuring out flour for homemade cookies may have more math applications than a workbook page especially when everyone in the family gets to benefit by eating warm cookies. It counts. It all counts.

What’s worth learning is a question that ancient philosophers pondered, Harvard’s School of Education has their answer to, and teachers in all forms respond to often minute-to-minute. The answer is both remarkably simple and deeply complex.

The Simple View

The simple view of what’s worth learning is by asking what’s relevant. This moment reminds us that it’s worth our children learning how to become more self-driven. To make decisions about their use of time after giving them some structure and choice. To deepen their own interests. To try something new. To take a break. To move when they need to. To realize it’s okay to waste a weekend binge-watching Naruto. To lock their brother out of the house and suffer the natural consequences. To find freedom in boredom. To help others when they can. To decide what’s relevant to them.

Learning to make a bread starter became relevant because the store is out of commercial yeast.

The hopeful part of me believes that this historic moment could help children learn some of the secrets of how to live a happy life by determining their own purpose.

A Little More Complex View

Some things worth learning are a little more complex. There are arguably certain bodies of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that give you more power if you know them. The more background knowledge you have about a topic, the easier it is to read and comprehend texts about that topic and to share your knowledge with others. If you know how to spell words conventionally, more people will read your ideas and take them seriously. If you know math facts with some level of automaticity, you will find more joy in solving complex operations because your brain won’t be taxed by the first step. If you know a bit about historical events, you are likely to ask questions and then find joy in the search for answers. If you have practice making art, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident making art.

Grateful for Art.Simple on Youtube for daily drawing class

That said, the most important metric for determining what’s worth learning is to watch your own child’s response. Notice what’s working and worth repeating and what is simply too frustrating and should be let go. Try to notice and recognize the ways your children are outgrowing themselves in small ways and let them know you see them.

If you’re trying to decide what’s worth creating routines around and what’s worth letting go, here is a quick (and imperfect) cheat sheet. Here I focus on reading, writing, and math for now.

Reading:

  • a love of stories: knowledge of how stories work will be useful for almost anything your children want to do in life; set aside time for daily read-alouds, share stories over meals about times when your children were little or before they were born, or listen to audiobooks together–Audible just launched a free collection for kids
  • getting curious about the world: if your children have been assigned nonfiction reading through online sources try to link what they are learning about to a bigger topic that might be of interest to them–have conversations about what questions the reading sparked for them and share anything you might know about the topic
  • how characters are just like us: have conversations with your children about the characters in their books, what the characters’ lives are like, anything that’s different from their own life, or what the characters make them think or feel
  • the sounds letters make: if your children have been given ways to practice phonemic awareness (the sounds in spoken words) and phonics (the sounds represented by letters in print) and they are still learning how to read it’s worth setting up short bursts of practice to maintain these skills

Writing:

  • our ideas and stories are worthy of sharing: sustaining free choice writing can help children realize they are writers even if they are using scribbles, drawings, and invented spelling to convey their ideas; set aside 5 or 10 minutes for freewrite time in a blank journal–imperfection is part of the writing process
  • how sentences work: sentence fluency is the ability to craft a variety of sentences for different purposes. Try using question words to help children write stronger sentences from simple sentences (for example, if they wrote Harry Potter played. Who did he play with? Where did he play? When did he play? Why did he play? How did he play?) Almost any writing in any genre can get stronger by using the 5W1H questions as a guide.
  • spelling: help children notice the patterns of how words in English are spelled by talking about how words are alike and how they are different. Try using sticky notes for matching word parts or to create a memory game. Use magnetic letters or a white board to dictate words or sentences and to have children write them in a way that isn’t permanent and where mistakes are meant to be learned from.

Math

  • automaticity: the more automatic fact retrieval is the easier more complex operations become. Use dice or numbers cut up on paper to practice mental math. Make three digit numbers together and practice taking away or adding five or ten. Use the same basic fact math practice sheet 5 days in a row so children experience the joy of getting stronger each day.
  • fluency: the more number sense we have the more we understand how operations work. Support children to draw or diagram their solutions to problems. Talk about how numbers can be represented different ways (for example, 587 is 500+80+7 and 400+180+7). There might be a correct answer to math problems but how to get there can take lots of different paths.
Independent reading routines at home have their benefits–namely, jammies, comics, and snacks.

Lastly, here are a few more tips that are helping me keep things simple and sustainable:

  • Choice blocks built into your day can help children discover what they want to learn or get better at –a predictable structure helps them anticipate the time for choice and even look forward to it
  • Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build connection, grow vocabulary, and build a love of stories–it is always time well spent; video chat with relatives to share snippets of books (our favorites are weird animal facts and joke books)
  • Use online resources like virtual tours and live author read-alouds if it is something your children want to try
  • Evaluate suggestions by your children’s teachers and ask yourself if there are any things your children already do naturally that may not need to be “assigned” right now
  • Use tactile materials when you can (sticky notes can become letter tiles, a cookie sheet becomes a magnetic surface for magnet letters, the dry erase board you use to write your shopping list can become a writing surface) especially for children in preschool-Grade 2.
  • Short bursts of daily practice (sometimes of the same repeated skill) is often better than longer practice sessions that lead to more frustration
  • Support children to set daily or weekly goals for themselves as a personal challenge–What do they want to try? What do they want to get stronger at? How do they want to outgrow themselves? How can they help others?
  • Not all screen time is created equal. Encourage screen time that supports creation. A new favorite in our house is Art.Simple.
  • Cookie breaks help.
Making sentences using Who, What, Where, When, Why, How

What Are You Making?

If you are like me, many of the moments you remember most from childhood might involve making something. There’s the pillow I made by hand in elementary school that I still have stored in a plastic tub in the basement. The Madonna-inspired music videos I made with my two best friends. The pumpkin bread each Thanksgiving. The project posters. The mix tapes.

As our modern world often demands 24/7 connectivity, there has been a surge of interest in making things as a way to unwind, release our creativity, and even to combat addiction: cooking from scratch, knitting, woodworking, essentially anything you do with your hands that focuses on repetitive actions at a skill level that can always be improved upon. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as entering a “flow” state where we reach a balance between skill and challenge that fosters in us an almost unconscious drive to keep trying. To keep making. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the secret to happiness.

In schools, we’ve seen the Maker Movement and project-based learning bring renewed focus on making. Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research and Head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, explains that the Maker Movement is about more than gadgets and technology. It’s about making things you care about, things that are meaningful to you and meaningful to others around you.

Children are really the best makers. My eight-year-old makes flip books, comic books, lists, and marble runs. This week, while getting out the frying pan, he said, “I want to make my own quesadilla.” The urge to make is always there especially when the process and the product go hand-in-hand.

As we get older, the things we make sometimes change. Our eleven-year-old likes to make lists of basketball drills that he writes in a journal dedicated for this purpose. He made a Top Ten Basketball Players of All-Time slideshow just because. He doodles and draws, but mostly when no one else is looking over his shoulder.

Throughout our lives, we never lose the urge to make things. My mom is an avid and skilled needlepointer. Her favorite things to make are ornaments. Small projects that she can finish in a week or two. Thanks to her devotion to making things for the people she loves, we have dozens of ornaments that bring us joy at every major holiday. Her love of making ornaments is consistent with research that shows that the act of doing for others gives us an immediate sense of satisfaction unparalleled by things we can buy for others.

Of course, the act of creating can be frustrating. The lines we want to make straight may turn out squiggly. The drawing we hoped would be perfect may turn out “ish”. The building might collapse. And the cookies may burn. But when we try to make something and it fails we learn it’s okay to try again.

Writing as Making

It’s easy to forget that every piece of writing we craft is an act of making. In writing workshop, the question “What are you making?” is a more joyful alternative to “What are you writing?” This shift in language is subtle but significant. When we reframe writing as making, we free students to try and experiment much as they would when making something in the kitchen or in a laboratory or in a workshop.

Memoirist and writing teacher, Suzanne Farrell Smith, explains in her book The Writing Shop: Putting “Shop” Back in Writing Workshop that we can reclaim writing workshop as a method that draws from its namesake–the shops of craftspeople like carpenters, quilters, visual artists, architects, or cooks. She explains that a true writing workshop offers much more than technical expertise. It also offers “self-awareness, impulse control, seeking help, listening carefully, cooperation, conflict negotiation, appropriate risk-taking, grit, initiative, courage, [and] consideration of the health and well-being of others.”

Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play

When designing things you care about is the goal, it doesn’t matter what the materials are: wooden blocks, paper and pencil, seeds and soil, a keyboard and screen. What matters is the opportunity to design creatively and to play with the materials to see what happens. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab has developed a set of principles around making that, well, make a lot of sense.

First, when we make things, the joy factor increases when we are involved in a project, ideally of our choosing. I was visiting a school this week and the science posters I saw captured the immense creativity of these fifth grade students . They were free to choose a topic within their unit on the solar system that they wanted to learn more about and were free to display what they learned using a variety of materials. I had never seen three-dimensional student posters til now.

Second, when we make things related to our passions, or the things we care about, we are more willing to keep going when the learning process gets hard or we run into obstacles.

Third, when we make things with our peers, we learn to collaborate, negotiate, and make group decisions–all of which are essential for finding happiness. Of course, part of the beauty of making anything is that you can choose to do it alone or to make something with others.

Finally, the play involved in making is about more than fun. It’s about experimentation, creativity, and getting in a flow state all of which lead to greater overall happiness in our lives.

An Invitations Approach

I’m a believer in the power of an invitations-approach to learning. Giving students the invitation to make something with materials allows students to tap into their sensory selves, to embrace the mess, and to discover something new about the making process and themselves. In my classroom, I had a corner of recyclables especially paper towel rolls and plastic containers. One week’s worth of recycling led two boys to spend a month building a rollercoaster and another to design a playground. When we make something, we know we have the power to create again and again. There weren’t step-by-step instructions for things to create. The materials were the invitation.

At home, our kitchen table is often designed as an invitation to create with paper, pencils, markers, and other making tools handy. My boys are fortunate to be ongoing penpals with their great grandmother and great aunt who send them handwritten letters with questions that invite a response. They’ve grown up knowing first-hand that a personalized letter means more than an email or text and that the recipient will love it no matter the spelling errors. The letter is an invitation to write back.

A kitchen table can be an invitation to create, to write, and to make something

This past week, a big box arrived with an unexpected gift for my husband from a friend. The box was a bigger hit with our eight-year-old than the gift inside. He spent two weeks decorating the box, making holes in it, turning it into a make shift chair for his desk, and building a fort with it. He finally put it in his closet so that he can pull it out when he needs to release some creative energy and make something out of it once again. He has learned that he can create an invitation for himself for the future.

We Are Always In the Process of Making

Try a little experiment. Over the course of the day, take notice of all the ways you make things. Meals. Coffee. Writing. Friendships. Even mess. The more we are mindful of the things we are making, the more it helps us recognize we have purpose and meaning. Support the children in your life to notice the things they are making that have meaning to them and that have meaning to others.

Try These Simple Tips:

Reframe the writing process as a making process

Model things you are making in your own life

Create invitations for children to make things with a variety of materials

Embrace the mess that making inevitably creates

Read aloud books like Not a Box by Antoinette Portis, Ish by Peter Reynolds, and Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg that let children know making is worthwhile and imperfect

The Simple Joy of Sidewalk Chalk

No directions. No prompting. No explicit instruction needed.

When I handed a group of fourth and fifth graders a big box of chunky sidewalk chalk, they simply started to write. Dream Big. Anything is possible! Dreams come true! This is what hope looks like.

If you haven’t held a piece of sidewalk chalk lately, I recommend it. It may reignite in you a sense of possibility or maybe even a gnawing sense of doubt. What do I write? Who will see it? Is it any good? The roots of our biggest hopes and deepest fears all rise to the surface with that chalk in our hands. But, what chalk really represents is the sense of freedom that comes from writing or creating anything. Seeing your mark on the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a box of sidewalk chalk in your trunk or a little baggie of chalk in a bag you carry. It’s a simple way to spark joy when waiting for a sibling to finish an activity or in between errands.

Pair sidewalk chalk exploration by reading aloud books like Peter Reynolds’ creatrilogy The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color. This trio of texts celebrate the freedom and pride that comes from making your mark where there is no guarantee. For an extended read aloud, try Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Chalkbox Kid. This early chapter book is ripe with possibilities for discussion about finding hope in unexpected places.

If you are a classroom teacher, stock up on sidewalk chalk for spontaneous days this fall when you take learning outside. Watching what children do with sidewalk chalk gives us enormous insights into the literacies young people feel most comfortable using. Who draws? Who writes? What words do they use? How do they spell them? Who partners together to create? Who asks for help? Make chalk available throughout the year during recess. This also allows students who just want to create a chance to feel as proud on the playground as the student who wins the foot race.

This summer, pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and see what comes to you. Draw. Write. Dream. Play. Then, carry that joy and energy with you into your life with children.