Where’s the joy?

I can’t remember when I noticed that one of my blogging buddies, Jess, has an interesting little paradox between her blog url https://wheresthejoy.wordpress.com/ (“Where’s the joy”) and her blog name “Where There’s Joy”. I think about it at the oddest moments, and I’ve thought about it a lot this week.

On Thursday, Sept 30, Canada recognized its first National Truth and Reconciliation Day. I spent the week sharing various videos and articles about Indigeneity, trying to give my classes enough to make them think but not so much that they ignored me completely. On the day itself, our school board shared video opening and closing remarks by Monique Manatch, Knowledge Keeper Algonquin of Barriere Lake. Her remarks, along with the remarks of our Director, Camille Williams-Taylor, highlighted the ideas of belonging and of school as a place of joy and love. 

My students were incredulous – to the point of nervous laughter. “Joy? In school?” “That is not how I would describe school.” When Ms Williams-Taylor said, ““Let’s use this land for sites where… all students’ learning spirits are set free to develop and soar,” someone snorted. After a brief discussion, I let it go, knowing we would return to this later.

This week, thanks to our less-than-stellar Covid scheduling, I have an entirely different group of kids – in a class called “Understanding Contemporary First Nation, Metis and Inuit Voices” (aka grade 11 English) which I am teaching for the first time. As they trickled into the classroom on Monday afternoon, I scrambled to remember all of their names – after all, we’d been apart for more days than we had been together. When I asked, they let me know that they hadn’t done “anything much” the previous week in honour of Truth and Reconciliation Day and, as they slowly settled in to read their books, I realized that I didn’t even need to ask them if they found joy in school: I could tell that the answer was no, at least not in this class.

In her opening, Monique Manatch told us, “The Indigenous paradigm is based on relationships. Our whole reality is based on relationships…and with relationships comes reciprocity.” Can I be in relationship with people whose names I can barely remember?* Can I use this course to build relationship? What about joy? I honestly don’t know.

Honestly, I feel wildly underprepared for this course. Oh, I’ve read a lot of books by various First Nations, Metis and Inuit authors – quite a few, frankly. I’ve participated in a virtual book club with Indigenous speakers and attended trainings with our board’s Indigenous coaches. I went to the various PD sessions, and I have done a reasonable amount of research, watching, listening, learning. In fact, I think I’ve done just the wrong amount: I know enough to know exactly how little I know. Now, I’m trying to teach English skills and Indigenous voices, and I’m pretty sure I’m failing at both. It’s humbling.

More than humbling, it’s horrifying. I don’t want to get this wrong; I can’t get this wrong. I don’t want these students to leave the course with only a surface knowledge of these important voices. I don’t want their eyes to glaze over during the Land Acknowledgement, their phones to come out when we speak of treaties and teachings. I feel caught between what I know (English skills, the curriculum documents, the trappings of our white society) and what I don’t (enough about anything outside of my own narrow culture, really). 

I want this class to be joyful – though, like Ursula LeGuin, I am stuck with the question, How is one to tell about joy? What does joy look like in the classroom? What would it mean for these students to experience joy in this classroom on this day? How do I show them that they can do hard things, learn new things, work in new ways and experience joy? How do I convince them that the joy matters as much as the grades?

I don’t know. I just don’t know. But I keep thinking about the question/answer that I find in Jess’s blog.

“Where’s the joy?” 
“Where there’s joy.” 

Wish me luck and learning and maybe love and joy as I muddle my way through this course for the first time. May I do justice to the Algonquin people on whose lands I teach and to all others whose lands were stolen in the name of nation building.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who host bloggers each week.

* As someone who regularly forgets names, I would argue that I can, to some extent: I chat regularly with neighbours and coworkers whose names I have forgotten. Often I know quite a bit about them. Usually my partner or a kind colleague can enlighten me once I work up the courage to ask.

24 thoughts on “Where’s the joy?

  1. Wishing you luck as you grapple with the various ideas and explore challenging issues. I also wish that you and the students will find and purposefully look for joy at school.

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    1. Thanks, Terje. I think we’re about to go joy hunting – or, at a minimum, we’re going to talk about what that looks like for them. It’s something I’ve wrestled with before so I don’t suppose it should shock me that it’s back.

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  2. “I know enough to know exactly how little I know” now that is a powerful line. I am sure many many teachers share in this sentiment whether it be a grand course as yours or even a math concept that is unfamiliar. Our teaching is at it’s best when, as you point out, there are relationships and deep knowledge and experience with a topic. I have no doubt that you will build relationships with each student all while creating experiences with the knowledge you’ve gained all for engaging work as a community of learners — there will be joy — in time.

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    1. Thank you – I think what I’m realizing is just how little time we’ve really had together. I feel like the semester is hurtling forward (because it is) and I am running after it, just trying to catch up. I thought I had slowed my teaching down, but I think I might need to slow it again & make space for joy.

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  3. Something tells me you know both enough about the content to teach the class and enough about the art of teaching to make the class successful. What I think I hear between the lines is how Covid protocols have kept you from getting to know the students on a level that makes you feel comfortable enough to teach them. Put the content aside for a few days and just spend time with them. Get to know them as individuals. Then you will be able to teach them.

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    1. This is wisdom indeed. I am really chafing under the protocols. Inspired by your comment, I rearranged the desks today so that we are still *mostly* following the covid rules (rows, facing forward) but the students are better able to communicate with one another – and I planned for outdoor time tomorrow. Onward!

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  4. Amanda, your humility and transparency shines through here. I feel the same way. I know enough to know that, like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

    Keep taking the wee steps. Keep deconstructing the land acknowledgement. Keep remembering that our children have been taught that school is not a place for joy, not a place to be themselves, not a place to honour their passions, and that inviting them to do those things, and to be vulnerable about it, has to feel terrifying.

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    1. I had not thought about how my questions about joy might require vulnerability on their part. Thank you for reminding me. Oh how I wish children could arrive at school expecting to be heard & not fearing judgment. Baby steps… but always moving forward. Thank you, friend.

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  5. What a great goal for this course, build relationships and joy. I also started with the question, where’s the joy? It was in the question that I found the answer, there is always joy. I’m confident you’ll find it along with your students. Also, wow to this course and the bravery to take it on. I hope your students will see your vulnerability and you all learn and grow together.

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  6. The focus on joy in school is so important. Maybe put the question to your students- what would make school joyful? What would joy look like in our classroom? Maybe their responses could guide you towards a classroom that is filled with joy this year.

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    1. Oh, I’ll ask them. I regularly ask students to help decide what we’re learning. I’m not even sure this group will be able to answer easily after a year and a half of interrupted school. Still… I have no doubt that we have to wrestle with this question.

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  7. Your commitment shines through and I expect that you know enough to do a fine job. There are so many challenges in school augmented by things outside our control–like Covid, schedules, etc. Although I expect you are far from incompetent, remember that to be consciously incompetent is further along in the process than being unconsciously incompetent. I’m sure this will be a rewarding journey for both you and your class.

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    1. “to be consciously incompetent is further along in the process than being unconsciously incompetent” – this may be my mantra for a while. I really am not incompetent, I just feel very out of my depth. And I think my desire to communicate the importance of this content – my awareness of just how much we need to learn – is making me overcautious or underconfident or… anyway, thanks for the mantra!

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  8. I’m in a similar place. I know enough to know I don’t know enough. I want to do a really good job of incorporating Indigenous voices in our class but I also sent at least one kid home the other day grappling with the idea that the world might be on the back of a giant turtle. lol The time you spend making sure you know your students had to count for something. They must know how much they matter to you!

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    1. Ok, this made me laugh. I have never thought about the turtle conundrum. Guess I take metaphorical thinking for granted. And I don’t know if this group knows me yet – not really. We’ve only been together for 8 days, if you can imagine that! The every-other-week schedule is the pits. Blah.

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  9. Ananda, I am fascinated by the keynotes that spoke on opening day and the title of your class. I have spoken about bringing joy to classrooms through the building of community and the honoring of all voices. From our own relationship through writing, I know that you always strive to be a caring teacher who guides her students in respectful ways. May your journey this year continue to help your students thrive in an active, joyful environment.

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  10. Well, I know this feeling well. I feel that way about a lot of the anti-racist and DEI work that we’ve been trying to do (or talk about doing). I think probably this is another one of those places where David Sedaris’s advice to writers might be fitting. He said “abandon hope.” He meant ti to be partly funny, but he was also serious. Writers can’t write honestly if they are thinking too much about whether something is going to be good enough to get published. I think it fits with teaching, too. We sometimes paralyze ourselves by worrying about doing something that’s really worthy. It may be better to just speak from the heart and from where we are right now.
    As for the “Where’s the Joy?” “Where there’s Joy” collision, I think I commented to Jess several years ago that her original blog title (with the question mark) sounded almost like a complaint. (like, “C’mon, where’s the love?!). She changed it shortly after that, but now I think maybe keeping that question as a mantra, like something you’re always watchful for, makes a lot of sense. It is sometimes really hard to help kids see the joy in school, but it’s a worthy quest.

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