Little Pieces of Classroom Joy

By Zac Chase

On the way out of a classroom last week, a middle school language arts teacher stopped me. To tell me about the joy he was seeing in his students. For the unit they were exploring, he had built in choice for the extended texts they were reading. Six titles, all tied together thematically, all appropriate to the age of the students, all presenting varied perspectives on their combined theme. “They are really enjoying selecting their own books,” he said.

I tried to maintain my stoic I’m-from-the-district-and-I’m-here-to-help facade. Inside, I was cheering.

Students in the room weren’t just choosing their texts, they were choosing their talk as well. This teacher, we’ll call him Juan, had built a lesson using the Say Something protocol where students ran their own conversations about texts and had control over what they were moved to say about what they had read. If you’re not familiar, Say Something leaves equal room for a student to say, “I have no idea what’s going on here,” and “I was intrigued by the apparent change of motivation for the protagonist in this passage.”

In addition to the choice of text and the control of talk and thought, students were sitting in community with one another. While Juan’s room had been rays of desks emanating from the “front” of the classroom near the dry erase board at the beginning of the year, arrangement and design had shifted between my visits. Now, students were seated in clusters of four, facing one another, in proximity and arrangement that lent themselves to collaboration. The “front” was wherever the learning needed it to be and students had immediate access to the thinking of their peers.

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Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Juan’s class was exhibiting an awareness of the situated motivation my co-author Chris Lehmann and I think through as part of our book Building School 2.0. Well, he was hitting three of the four C’s. Jaun had choice, challenge, and collaboration. For the fourth C, we’d need to look at how he came to design what was happening in the room.

What We Want for Students We Must Want for Teachers

This year, we are trying something new in the district. At the end of each quarter, but with enough time before the start of the next, we’ve been hosting unit design workshops. I bring coffee, doughnuts, and some chill music and teachers are invited to drop in anytime between 9 and 4 on a Saturday and are compensated at their hourly rate. It’s a chance to get the time and space to think about the learning experiences they want to design for their students in the coming quarters. It’s a bit of an experiment.

Juan attended our last workshop. Though he’d signed up to come for two hours, he stayed for six. Newly returning to the language arts classroom, he’s been working to familiarize himself with our district’s curricular resources. He wasn’t sure what we’d be doing that Saturday, but understood it was time and space to plan.

I should point out I have nothing planned for these workshops. Beyond the coffee, doughnuts, and music, I’ve got nothing. It’s not that I don’t have a million things I’d love to say face-to-face to teachers I know don’t have time to read the e-newsletters I send out. It’s that I’m working to create a space that puts into play the fourth C (and all the others) – control. I recognize that much of the professional learning opportunities teachers experience are packed with information, curated minute-by-minute, and rarely start with, “What is it you’re hoping to get out of our time together today?” This is to say nothing of adjusting our meticulously-designed agendas to respond to the answers to those questions.

So, when Juan showed that Saturday, neither of us knew his response to “What are you hoping to work on?” would lead to the two finding a roll of brown paper to chart out his next quarter’s work, intermittently conferencing with me and his other colleagues in the room to brainstorm and barnraise his ideas.

Remarkably – though not surprisingly – Juan left that workshop with a unit plan that included every piece of what I would have put into a Saturday class on unit design. The difference? He got their on his own. The pieces he was unsure of were uncovered as he worked, and he leveraged the power of the room to get the answers he needed.

While Paris and Turner largely speak to student experience in their work around situated motivation, the implications for the systems we build for adult professional learning cannot be overlooked. If we want our classrooms to include space for students to work together, to make informed decisions, and to own their learning, then we must build similar experiences for adults.

While this is normally a message for administrators and professional development staff, it doesn’t solely reside their. We adults in the education system must be advocates of our own learning. This might mean asking questions like, “Could I help design the next faculty meeting to include more hands on activities?” or “How might we make the next PD feel like what’s happening in the best classrooms in the building?” Increasing capacity, efficacy, and joy means building with, not for.


 Paris, Scott G., and Julianne C. Turner. “Situated motivation.” Student motivation, cognition, and learning. Routledge, 2012. 229-254.

Zac Chase is the pK-12 Language Arts Coordinator at St. Vrain Valley School District.  With Chris Lehmann he wrote Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need. Zac has worked at Science and Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and the US Department of Education in the Office of Educational Technology. Find him on Twitter @mrchase.

Author: CCIRAblog

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