Writing Workshop News

Issue 32: Joyful Learning

". . . teachers must strive in whatever ways they can to own their teaching so that each morning they can enter their classrooms knowing there will be golden opportunities for them -- as well as for their students -- to experience the joy in school." ~ Steven Wolk, Author of Caring Hearts and Critical Minds
A couple weeks ago, I started my journey with the Greater Madison Writing Project (GMWP). I spent all day Saturday with a group of amazing people. . . beginning and ending the day with writing, learning the structure of a typical summer day at the institute, choosing books I'll be reading to become a better writer and teacher of writing, and listening to a Teacher's Workshop presentation on joyful learning.


Sharon Daly is a teacher in the Cambridge School District and member of the 2014 GMWP cohort. Engaging us all, Sharon shared her research about joyful learning, defined in Engaging Minds In the Classroom: The Surprising Power of Joy by Michael Opitz and Michael P. Ford (2014) as "acquiring knowledge or skills in ways that cause pleasure and happiness" (p. 10). Through our discussions, we all agreed that joyful learning isn't just fun or fluff. Joyful learning is about achieving a goal and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, we don't feel joy until the hard work that's worth doing has been completed. The same is true for our students.


Through Sharon's research, she discovered the Joyful Learning Framework comprised of four parts: motivation, engagement, assessment and evaluation, and learning environments. She encouraged us to think about each part and then respond to the following questions:


  • What word and/or visual representation did we associate with joyful learning?
  • How would we define it?
  • What personal association did we have with joyful learning?


I immediately jumped to the last question, thinking back to my younger years. Of course I had many joyful learning experiences I could draw from, but interestingly enough, I couldn't come up with anything positive to say about writing from my days as a student. Quite the opposite, the one writing memory that stuck out in my mind was from college, and it wasn't a positive one. I took a required writing course as a freshman, and I don't really remember a lot of instruction, just a lot of assignments. No matter what I wrote about or how hard I worked, every paper earned a B. No comments. No feedback. Just a B. Talk about frustrating! It was definitely not a joyful learning experience.


Sharon then asked us to think about our students and share:


  • What writing tasks do we give our students that connect to the Joyful Learning Framework?
  • Which elements do they connect to?


My fifth graders always enjoyed writing six word memoirs, so I chose to share what this looked like in my classroom and connected it to motivation and engagement. Since this was a very personal and unique writing task, many of my 5th grade writers were motivated to share something more unique than their classmates. Here were some of my favorites:


  • I take action when others won't. ~ by Lily
  • Love to shop 'til I drop! ~ by Bella
  • Aggression helps in sports. Not life. ~ by Tysen
  • Books come alive when I read. ~ by Allison
  • NO sparkles, NO glitter, NO pink ~ by Trinity


This writing task stretched students' thinking, yet all writers, even those who struggled, saw it as attainable, probably because each line was short, and they had the freedom to write about whatever they wanted, as long as it related to their own life. Thus, the writing task was meaningful. Students took pride in their work, feeling as though they were providing others, students, parents, teachers, a deeper look into who they were as individuals. This type of writing task was much different than a worksheet that was simply hard. Without meaning or purpose, students did not gain a sense of joy or accomplishment.


Other writing teachers from the GMWP also shared their ideas with me. It was intriguing to hear all the different things happening in writing classrooms across Wisconsin with students of all different ages.


  • One teacher shared how she presents students with a wide variety of writing contest opportunities. Motivated by the thought of different audiences reading their work, her students are eager to enter because they have the opportunity to win real prizes, including money. They know this is a real possibility because others before them have won.
  • Another creative writing teacher spoke about students engaged in trying on authors' styles. She uses mentor texts such as The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and encourages students to rewrite it line by line. For example, in this book, there is a line that says four skinny trees. So the students write using the same format: a number, an adjective, and a plural noun. The hard part? The phrase has to make sense. Students continue on through a paragraph or a page doing the same type of work and are often motivated to try it in their own personal writing, excited by the thought of emulating another author's style.


It was powerful listening to all the ways teachers encourage students to share their writing out in the community either in person, via the tech world, or both. This is how we truly engage writers: by making writing purposeful and finding authentic audiences.


So how do we go about creating, or perhaps co-creating, joyful learning experiences in writing with our students here in McFarland, especially as we continue to learn the Units of Study in Writing? Sharon suggested posting a Joy-O-Meter in our schools and in our classrooms. It might look something like this:


  1. Joyless
  2. Rarely Joyful
  3. Somewhat Joyful
  4. Mostly Joyful
  5. Joyful, Joyful!


Then we must ask ourselves:


  • Where am I at?
  • Where are my colleagues at?
  • Where are my students at?


If individuals routinely score low, perhaps we need to be asking: What am I (or what are we) going to do about it? Creating and posting joy statements, "We take joy in. . . ", with our students and colleagues might be just what the writing teacher ordered. . . a gentle reminder to find and create joy with our students in every learning experience, including writing.

Looking for more on joyful learning?

Check out this article, Joy In School, by Steven Wolk.

Teachers' Corner

Are you looking for a place to showcase some of your own writing? Do you have a book you're reading, for pleasure or as a professional, that you'd like to recommend? Send me your work, your ideas, your recommendations, and I'll post them here to share with other colleagues. Let's work together to strengthen our professional literacy learning community!