Today, Friday March 20, is ‘International Happiness Day’. In celebration and solidarity with the event, I would like to advocate for adopting happiness as a legitimate goal in our nation’s public schools. I know this is a controversial wish. Not so much with parents. What parent doesn’t want their child to be happy? But perhaps with policy makers and those entrusted with school improvement and our never ending quest to Leave No Child Behind. For some, ‘happiness’ would fall into the category of ‘touchy-feely,’ a soft outcome, which, while desirable, should only be sought after all other touchstones are achieved.
In response to those naysayers I could cite brain research indicating how a students’ emotional well being is a prerequisite for achievement, something good teachers know intuitively (see below). Instead, however, I want to argue that our children’s happiness is a good thing – in and of itself.
The study of happiness is a relatively new subject of research, but one that is booming. There are a great number of studies, classes, books, and Ted Talks all devoted to this topic. In 2013, Tucson’s UA Downtown Lecture Series focused on Happiness with record attendance. From what I can tell, however, the vast majority of this work focuses almost entirely on the adult emotional life. I wonder why my happiness at age 50 is more important than it was at 10? Why shouldn’t we have as a collective goal that our children experience joy on a daily basis?
Now, I am not advocating that happiness as a goal be separate from students’ academic life and I do not see a ‘Happiness class’ added at the end the day. However, teachers should reflect on how to bring joy into their classrooms and their daily lesson plans. Paulo Freire said, “The great difficulty (or the great adventure!) is how to make education something which, in being serious, rigorous, methodical, and having a process, also creates happiness and joy.” I have seen this in action – kids wildly enthusiastic about a book or deeply invested in the outcome of a debate. I see happiness accompanying pride at work well done and publicly acknowledged. When students have an epiphany – when they finally get a difficult lesson or create their own metaphor to explain a nuanced concept – they experience joy.
And of course there is humor. There is so much that is funny about what goes on in schools, but our learning pace is so quick, we almost have no time to laugh – literally. If you have not yet experienced the joy of watching one of John Green’s ‘Crash Course’ videos on YouTube, google it immediately. They are perfect examples of marrying the academic and comedic. My students cheer when we announce a Crash Course video is coming. Laughter goes a long way in buying good will and establishing community. One of our students said of our school last year, “PFFS, where you can always hear laughter down the hall.” Seize the moment and “Allow the Giggle!”
So what makes kids happy? Here is my quick brainstorm:
- Friends (of course) but within a culture that is kind and supportive.
- Teachers who like kids, like teaching, like their subject and have fun.
- Subject matter that is interesting, engaging, relevant (debates, discussions about ethical issues, participating in simulations, incorporating art).
- Classrooms that involve social learning, movement, and multiple intelligences.
- Technology and manipulatives – kids love to use their minds and hands to build.
- Being outdoors and active.
- Perhaps the most important but most intangible – the space to learn how to become the best and most realized version of themselves.
This is the first year that Tucson will be participating in International Happiness Day. We want to do our part, but the holiday falls on the last day of Spring Break. A happy occurrence, for sure, but in order to honor to the spirit of the event, I’m committing to working on keeping joy in our schools for the entire rest of the year and I invite everyone to join us!
Here is some reading on happiness in schools to get us started:
Huffington Post: Putting the Joy of Learning Back Into the Classroom
Educational Leadership: The Neuroscience of Joyful Education
And here is what happiness in our Paulo Freire schools looks like: