Magical moments, surprises help students find joy in the classroom

Some time ago, I spent a few extraordinary days with teachers celebrating accessible, delightful ways to help kids fall in love with learning. The university sponsoring the workshop titled our session “The Joyful Journey.”

Now, the arrival of February—with its Valentine's Day sentiments, candy and parties—is a perfect time to remind ourselves that falling in love with learning is a good activity for every month. Despite many obstacles that can inhibit the ability to share creative, arts-rich, playful experiences with our children, many outstanding teachers manage to invite their students on that journey.

Rarely do we read about the everyday, magical moments that teachers and students share. Often, those special times are like lifelines to children who are living through their own challenging, traumatic experiences. I'll never forget the note a child wrote to my friend Mary Sue Garlinger, of the Artists in the Schools program, after she spent an hour dancing with primary-grade classes. It read, “Thank you for coming today. You made me happy for the rest of my life.”

Teacher Dawn Heyman spent more than 35 years teaching elementary school in high-poverty neighborhoods. When students came to her class, they experienced joy through storytelling, books and discoveries. One child said, “Miss Heyman, do you know what my four favorite things in the world are?” She couldn't guess. The child smiled, held up four fingers and counted, “No. 1 is school! No. 2 is school! No. 3 is school! No. 4 is school!”

Creative teachers know that there is no single way of learning. The multiple intelligences theory is the reality of the classroom journey. Some children learn with worksheets and charts. Some are swift at getting the idea of numbers. Some can learn anything through music and song. (Can you write our 50 states in alphabetical order? Folks who learned that song, even 20 or 30 years later, will astonish you with their ability to compile that list.)

We need the stories, the songs, the surprises and discoveries that delight us. We need the warmth and caring, the respect and feeling of safety that is the culture of our classrooms. We need to wake up in the morning and be excited and happy to hurry to school.

A first-grade teacher in Indiana scrounged a huge ice cream container from a local store. After washing it out, she decorated it, cut a little hole in the bottom and every day wrote a note to one of her students from a pretend mouse that lived in that box.

One day, very early in the morning, the student's dad heard footsteps in the downstairs hall. Ready to defend his home against an intruder, he shouted, “Who is that?” Dressed in a coat, hat, mittens and boots, his daughter was standing at the door. “Daddy, I can't be late today! I have a funny feeling that I have a letter from the mouse!”

I could fill a whole issue with true stories like these. I wonder, 30 years from now, will that now-grown first-grader remember tests, worksheets and curriculum standards, or will she remember her letters from the mouse?

This year, add one message to your Valentine greetings—the motto of Reggio Emilia, an Italian town that highlights the arts in all its schools: “Nothing without joy.”

Happy February!

“Mamaloshen” is the Yiddish term for “the mother tongue” and we have adapted it here to represent the wisdom of Columbus arts educator, author and all-around inspiration Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld, who is on a mission to help parents raise happy, healthy, creative children.