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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

Cultivating Joy, Healing, and Wellness in Learning

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By using culturally and historically responsive education practices, educators can create spaces of joy and transformation for students.

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Social-emotional learningInstructional Strategies
Cultivating Joy, Healing, and Wellness in Learning Header Image
Credit: Muhammad_framehay art / SHUTTERSTOCK
Educators’ work can sometimes feel joyless, whether from the perpetual rush of the school day, inflexible demands on our content, or just not enough time to get it all done. Similarly, students may experience joyless spaces and systems in their schools, leading to increases in mental health challenges. If staff and students had glimmers of joy embedded intentionally into our days, we’d likely experience learning alongside each other with a greater sense of purpose and meaning.  
Joy should be the ultimate goal of teaching and learning; it lifts our spirits and promotes feelings of vitality, appreciation, and positive energy—leading to learning spaces that hum with creativity, reflection, and hope. So, how do educators cultivate and embrace “Joy!” (yes, it is deliberately capitalized and exclaimed!) in their classrooms and schools so that students can begin to “uplift beauty, aesthetics, truth, ease, wonder, wellness, solutions to the problems of the world, and personal fulfillment” (Muhammad, 2023, p. 17)? How do we create spaces for learning that are authentic, ­purposeful, and joyful? 
To start this work, educators must ensure they are intentionally creating culturally and historically responsive education (CHRE). We believe that students must be able to see themselves in the curriculum and also see who they can become. When students see the genius of their ancestors through historical examples that reflect their identities, they connect the beauty and intellect of those who came before them with what is both present and possible in their own lives. Through primary source documents, art, poetry, music, and other examples of genius, students have opportunities to understand cultural and historic truths of the world and respond to those truths.  
In addition to CHRE, educators must provide high-quality social-emotional learning to promote Joy! within their schools. But SEL work must begin with the understanding that all emotions are valid and meaningful, even the tougher ones, like sadness, anger, or rage. Whether it’s through staff meetings, PLCs, or one-on-one meetings with educators, doing the “self-work” is essential. When leaders ask teachers questions such as, How’s your heart? Who are you? When did you know you wanted to be a teacher and learner?, teachers can begin to do the work of uncovering what is in their hearts so they can teach, lead, and learn with a greater sense of purpose. The work of high-quality SEL begins with adults first, so leaders should prioritize CHRE and Joy! in staff meetings, schoolwide efforts, and in course teams. When adults internalize this work, prioritizing Joy! in curriculum and instruction leads to increases for students in all five of the CASEL SEL competencies including self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. For example, a teacher who develops greater self and social awareness by planning a thoughtful CHRE unit, or by attending staff meetings focused on amplifying Joy!, is well-positioned to explicitly teach self-awareness and social awareness to their students through ­activities that promote the same skills.

Joy should be the ultimate goal of teaching and learning.

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There is one important caveat, however. Simmons (2021) argues that SEL without criticality ignores the sociopolitical context in which young people and adults are being social, experiencing emotions, and responding to the emotions of others. Sometimes SEL efforts alone can neglect racism and other examples of harm affecting mental health. The need for SEL and criticality together led to CASEL’s updated framework of Transformative SEL (tSEL), a form of SEL implementation that includes a focus on identity, agency, belonging, collaborative problem-solving, and curiosity. Through tSEL, both students and staff “develop social and emotional skills needed for school and community engagement, with a focus on rights and responsibilities for creating learning environments that are caring and just” (Jagers, Rivas-Drake, & Williams, 2019, p. 162).

A Framework for Joy!

Combining tSEL (transformative SEL) and CHRE (culturally and historically responsive education) can help schools center students’ mental health while still focusing on academic achievement. Unearthing Joy: A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Curriculum and Instruction (Muhammad, 2023) recommends crafting lessons around five pursuits of culturally and historically responsive education: identity, skills, intellectualism, criticality, and joy. Because the CHRE and the five pursuits encourage students to deeply examine their identities and how their lives connect to the greater world, students are equipped to engage in the transformative work of creating classroom communities focused on care, connection, and justice (tSEL). Educators can look to specific CHRE templates in Unearthing Joy to craft lessons, units, or an entire curriculum. In each of the following examples, educators can use this framework to teach and lead in responsive ways without sacrificing tSEL—or joy: 
Identity: Teaching students about self-awareness, self-regulation of emotions, compassion for self, setting healthy goals for self and for mental health, and cultivating ­cultural competence.  
The focus on identity fosters the learning of individual, family, cultural, and community identities and histories. Identity also teaches students to know, respect, and value the identities, cultures, and practices of others who may differ from them. 
Skills: Teaching students about relationships, communication, and reflection skills; and cultivating reflection, active listening, collaboration, and positive decision making.  
These are content-based proficiencies that empower students to read, write, evaluate, speak, and act confidently. Skills are what we want students to be able to “do” across content areas, such as cite textual evidence, solve for x, and draw conclusions.
Intellectualism: Teaching students about emotional intelligence and mental health in the context of the world (people, places, histories, current events).  
Students use intellect to connect and apply skills to a variety of contexts, both in school and out of school. 
Criticality: Teaching students about problem solving, compassion, transformation, and social awareness while understanding and cultivating empathy for others toward building a better humanity.  
Criticality pushes students to ask how they can liberate themselves, their communities, our nation, and our world from discriminatory and oppressive forces. 
Joy: The goal of teaching students about wellness, hope, healing, and how to (re)claim peace; seeing beauty in self and world.  
Joy is an essential ingredient in ­education. When conditions are created to foster joy, our students experience beauty, empowerment, and positive mental health.

When conditions are created to foster joy, our students experience beauty, empowerment, and positive mental health.

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Educators can use these five pursuits to create lesson plans infused with Joy! One example we’ve tried is asking educators to pick any object within sight and try to create a lesson plan around that object that addresses each of the five pursuits. For example, a teacher might use a cup of coffee to teach ­students about people who cultivate and harvest coffee beans (identity); the physics or chemistry of coffee using the scientific method (skills); locations where coffee is grown across the world (intellect); the extent to which financial wealth is returned to communities of color that cultivate and harvest coffee (criticality); and the link between coffee (when consumed in moderation) and stronger cognitive functions and a more positive mood (joy) (Muhammad, 2023).

Activating Joy and Promoting Positive Mental Health

When educators use the five pursuits in this framework, learning spaces can center students’ innate genius, curiosity, and mental health. We suggest the following ways to move tSEL and CHRE into practice to support students’ psychological and emotional wellness. We hope these practices will help create new norms in schools that allow students’ joy to flourish.
1. Infuse learning spaces with ­mindfulness for students and teachers to pay deep attention to their breath and bodies while increasing self and social awareness. Mindfulness practices allow for individual nervous system regulation and co-regulation as a group. As an educator, being explicit about neuroscience (such as teaching students how mindful practices allow space for their nervous systems to feel safer and more ready to learn and connect) can lead students to a greater understanding of the impact of focused attention practices. We recommend using “I” statements so that students know immediately what genius they are capable of!
Identity: I can learn about my nervous system and how to identify when I might need to calm or energize myself. 
Skills: I can learn specific practices to calm my nervous system through breathwork. 
Intellect: I can learn the biology behind how the nervous system works. 
Criticality: I can learn about how Indigenous people have used breath as medicine for centuries. 
Joy: I can experience the joy that comes from understanding how to better care for my body and mind.
2. Use restorative circles as meaningful ways to connect students and build healing communities. Educators can ask students in the circle: How do you define joy? Where do you ­cultivate joy in your life? 
Identity: I can explore how my identity relates to my definition of joy and how my identity relates to others in the circle through our shared ­experiences of talking about joy. 
Skills: I can use specific emotional language to describe how I am feeling so that others can get to know me better. 
Intellect: I can learn about joy as an emotion, and how it connects to other emotions. 
Criticality: I can become aware of how language might limit the ways I can express emotions. 
Joy: I can engage in an activity individually or with others that cultivates my/our joy.
3. Bring movement, play, and dance into the classroom to increase energy and joy. Educators can consider trying a “Joy Dance Party” with students and teachers together. Students can make a community playlist that reflects the emotions they’d like to feel in the classroom. Teachers can encourage students to move their bodies in ways that bring joy, energy, playfulness, or other emotions.
Identity: I can identify songs that connect to my own definition and experience of joy. 
Skills: I can collaborate with my classmates to compile a playlist that brings us joy. 
Intellect: I can explore how musicians create lyrics or melodies that create emotions for the ­listener. 
Criticality: I can learn about Black musical traditions and explore how music can be used to connect humanity. 
Joy: I can experience joy by moving my body in ways that feel good, singing, and being part of a collective process. 

When students can witness the joy of their teachers, experience joy themselves, and be in community with their peers, they are able to reach their greatest personal and academic potential.

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Through these practices, educators and children can both experience tSEL and CHRE learning that centers their humanity while giving them access to deep learning about their own social-emotional lives.

Joy to Keep Going

That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. —Zora Neale Hurston 
We conclude with Zora Neale ­Hurston’s words (2018) about working toward justice and still centering joy. She calls attention to the state of the world, which often can be heavy on one’s heart, yet still reminds us that joy can (and does) exist amid sadness, heartbreak, and pain. It is joy that keeps us going—that gives educators the vigor to continue doing educational work. When students can witness the joy of their teachers, experience joy themselves, and be in community with their peers, they are able to reach their greatest personal and academic potential. Their genius has an opportunity to flourish. And the students can be well.  
References

Hurston, Z. H. (2018). Barracoon: The story of the last “Black cargo.” Harper Collins.  

Jagers, R. J., Rivas-Drake, D., & Williams, B. (2019). Transformative social and emotional learning (SEL): Toward SEL in service of educational equity and excellence. Educational Psychologist, 54(3), 162–184.  

Muhammad, G. E. (2023). Unearthing joy: A guide to developing culturally and historically responsive teaching and learning. Scholastic.  

Simmons, D. (2021). Why SEL alone isn’t enough. ­Educational Leadership, 78(6). 

Robyn Corelitz is the SEL instructional specialist at Deerfield High School and a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Chicago, where she studies healing-centered SEL, practitioner reflection, and mindfulness in educational spaces.

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