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Thursday / January 20

Intentionally Creating “Joy Moments” in Classrooms that Center Humanity

Undoubtedly, all teachers enter the classroom desiring to serve their students best. The question is: what do teachers do intentionally and “on purpose” to ensure each student has “joy moments” as a regular and routine component of their daily instructional learning experience? Joy moments are occurrences that honor students’ identity and/or lived experience as they interact with their peers, the content, the teacher, or another adult member of the school community. These are moments that center “who students naturally and authentically” are  in this world. Literature content reflects students’ physical, mental, and social-emotional attributes authentically with affirming messages that integrate counternarratives to existing stereotypes of student groups. Visuals within the classroom and school community celebrate positive figures known in students’ homes, communities, and extended families. Teachers intentionally include examples and activities that highlight students’ interests and strengths. Students feel seen and heard throughout the day. There are several “joy moments” when students are intrinsically motivated to smile and laugh due to a classroom connection that validates their experience—that honors their cultural traditions—that tells them they are valuable members of the school community. Bottom line, “joy moments” are those every day, non-dramatic, yet overwhelming moments that signal to students they unequivocally deserve to be in the space!

Teachers endeavoring to do this work should consider these four questions as they plan their daily lessons:

Question 1: How am I using my “why” to plan my daily instruction?

Why did you become an educator? What motivated you to be an influential leader in students’ lives? What was the moment you decided to be an educator? What are the ongoing moments that drive you to continue engaging in this work? Even in this moment of returning to work during a global pandemic, reconnecting to your why (big or small) is important as it should be seen in how you engage students.

Question 2: How am I remaining a student by learning more about the students I serve? How am I leaning into knowing their lives, experiences, understanding their multi-identities? How am I challenging perceptions about what I think I know about students from various backgrounds and lived experiences (racial, cultural, family demographics, and special program – special education, multi-lingual learners, free and reduced meals, 504 plans)?

As an educator during this dynamic time in American history, maintaining a current understanding of the curriculum, best social-emotional learning practices, and child development literature is an absolute given. However, there is also a need to be a “forever student” of your students. What this means is that every student is a distinct individual; every student’s experience is uniquely their experience. Cultural knowledge is a living body of work. Understanding these mores is essential to being a “forever student of your students.”

Question 3: How do I understand national, local, and school-based data trends? Does the data in my classroom align with these data trends? Why or why not? What am I doing differently? How am I integrating student voice with the national, local, and school-based data trends to personalize instruction and lay the foundation for multiple “joy moment” experiences?

Understanding data trends relative to student groups in your classroom, school, and the school district is essential as it will assist you in purposefully planning for instruction. Using this data, you can create multiple pathways for students to access the grade-level standards because you are leveraging the data to begin “just right” instruction from day 1. Equally as important, you can collect some of the most valuable data from students during individual student conferences during the first couple of school days. During these individual conferences, you are not only connecting with students and cultivating the foundation of a positive teacher-student relationship, but you are also seeking invaluable student voice data. You are asking students about their interests, their favorite foods, the people who encourage them the most, and other emergent questions that give you information about who the student is as an individual. Bringing who the student is as an individual into the classroom is, in fact, centering their humanity. Intentionally honoring their lived experiences through authentic connections in the teaching and learning dynamic signals to them that they belong.

Question 4: How am I creating a learning environment that requires students to honor each other when I am and am not around?

Like the need for educators to explicitly teach the parts of a sentence, educators must do the same for promoting a shared understanding of what means to a student in a classroom that centers the humanity of each classroom community member. Creating classroom agreements relative to communication – spoken and unspoken – is necessary to establish a classroom of care that centers humanity. Cohering community norms must be planned through activities and ongoing conversations, reflections, and opportunities to address situations that present an affront to care and collective humanity.

Using these four questions as you plan your lessons will certainly assist you in intentionally creating “joy moments” for students in a classroom that centers their humanity. In doing this work, consider how you might memorialize your efforts. After obtaining approval from parents/guardians, capturing moments of joy through pictures, and displaying them in the classroom and/or sharing them with parents/guardians can serve to uplift this work, continuously build community, and keep your purpose for doing this work highlighted. Also, using “joy moments” visuals as possible free-write experiences are a wonderful way to connect joy, writing, and personal connection. Moreover, “joy moments” visuals can be used as opportunities to assist in reconnecting students, if needed, throughout the teaching and learning dynamic. Leveraging these moments to remind students of who they are as an asset-based strategy to bring students out of a difficult space to a more reflective space is aligned with a classroom that centers humanity. Since this work is emergent, create space to grow into it. Remember to lean in with curiosity as, for many, it is inherently counter to how they have traditionally thought about the teacher-student dynamic. This is okay! Give yourself permission to start slow as you understand, as you grow, as you learn, but please just start the work. Our classrooms, students, relationships with students, and collective humanity depend on our ability to start intentionally creating and solidifying “joy moments” as authentic and natural occurrences in the classroom!

Written by

Kendra V. Johnson, J.D., Ed.D., is a national speaker on instructional leadership and intersectional racial equity.  Kendra has served as a teacher, department chairperson, assistant principal, principal, instructional director, chief academic officer, and superintendent. Currently, she is a community superintendent in a K-12 public school district. In October 2021, she, along with five amazingly talented co-authors – Brinkley-Parker, Durant, Taylor, Toe, and Williams – published, Humanity Over Comfort: How You Confront Systemic Racism Head On from Corwin Press.

Latest comments

  • Wow! Such an inspiring article! In today’s world we need literature that teaches us how to treat students like human beings and not just “data.” The 4 questions are key in helping us to be intentional on creating “joy moments” in the classroom and beyond! Great read!

  • Thank you, Dr. Johnson for reminding us about our “why” relative to our purpose for teaching. As educators, our “why” should be often revisited, especially during this difficult time as we navigate the uncertainties of a global pandemic. As educators and students reenter brick and mortar buildings to access learning this school year, our “why” will assist all of us with remembering a sense of belonging, connection, trust and validation.

    The teacher leader must prepare lessons and learning spaces to provide authentic, cultural and relevant experiences which Dr. Johnson has coined as “joy moments” for these moments are crucial to student learning. In order for students to thrive in the learning space they must feel a sense of joy, connectedness and belonging. The four questions that Dr. Johnson pose are intentionally asked for teachers to remember when they plan their daily and long- range lessons. “Joy Moments” is something that teachers should create in their classrooms consistently. Kudos to Dr. Johnson for authoring an information and timely article.

  • This is a must-read article for every educator. More importantly, school administrators should use this article as a starting point to personalize professional development. Having returned to school from a pandemic, our students desperately need the “joy moments.”

  • Excellent article! As a recent career changer to education, I am taking in a lot. My “why” for teaching in CTE are these “joy moments”. I will definitely keep these questions handy in my lesson planning! Thanks Dr. Johnson

  • This article is so relevant and poignant, especially in our current times. We hear so often teachers are burnt out, and the result of this burnout has led to a shortage crisis in education. As educators, we feel like we have lost our way. In this article, Dr. Johnson has illuminated the real problem. Teachers haven’t lost their way. They have lost their joy. “Joy moments” for students are intertwined with “joy moments” for teachers…for us all. I appreciate the practicality of the four reflection questions and the encouragement to start small. As a principal, this article challenges me to create the school culture and environment that prioritizes this mindset, as well as, challenging me to use these same questions to reflect on how I model and create “joy moments” for my staff. Thank you, Dr, Johnson, for your practical wisdom and for reminding us all about the heart of our work for learners (students and staff). I appreciate your work.

  • This article speaks to “how” teachers should be approaching the whole child in the classroom. The examples given were insightful and explicit for all students. Too many times, educators are linear in their thinking and do not consider how the children are suppose to be factored in their lessons. This is a small map for many educators to follow on their journey towards “joy moments.” Bravo to the author Dr. Johnson, Esq.

  • Excellent article and a great tool to utilize for Professional Development Training among educators. The 4 questions presented helps us to look deeper into how we approach learning and our students. Creating “Joy Moments” is essential to the Social and Emotional well being of every child.

  • Awesome! This a great article and refreshing to read. We became educators to hear their giggles, see their smiles and make connections. This article reminds teacher to be intentional when they are planning so the students and teachers can experience “joy moments” and experience the why they became teachers. Thank you Dr. Johnson, for highlighting the questions teachers should consider as they plan their lessons. Love the catchy phrase “joy moments”! I will be sharing this article!

  • Another great read and perspective from Dr. Kendra Johnson. “Joy Moments” are paramount to student success especially at this moment in time as schools re-orient diverse student populations back to in person learning . “Joy Moments” are critical , substantive, and strongly aligns to the continuing discussion for schools and educators to shift to culturally responsive instruction.

    Thank you Dr. Johnson for your courageous and insightful lens on this topic . I look forward to sharing this article with my teachers as part of our ongoing work to support equity and culturally responsive instruction.

    Eric Boateng

  • My Aha! moment, “…there’s a need to be a ‘forever student’ of your students.” This thought is so powerful. If we’re truly inclusive practitioners, understanding who our students are globally must be prioritize. Great read!

  • Wow. Such powerful questions to guide us and call us to be reflective practitioners. Reconnecting with
    Our “joy moments” is critical in order to create “joy moments” and for our students. What a powerful message. Students need to feel connected, seen, heard, and validated for who they are. As we think of the dynamic times that we find ourselves in as educators, it is important for us to be reflective, understand our current context, and use data to guide our decisions. This article provided many personal reflection questions and reflection questions to guide many group conversations. I will be thinking about these as I interact with staff and create professional learning opportunities for others.

  • Excellent article! As an Assistant Principal, I will definitely utilize the 4 questions posed as I coach teachers and observe instruction. I work in a building that has put a heavy emphasis on equity and a sense of belonging for all students, yet those “joy moments” aren’t happening building wide and finding the root cause behind the “why” is key. It starts with us (faculty and admin) and our “why.”

  • Excellent points made! We need more “joy moments”.

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