10 Tips to Make Your Classroom More Joyful

10 Tips to Make Your Classroom More Joyful; Removing the Stumbling Block

You can’t teach joy.

It’s true. I can’t give you the magic lesson or the simple trick that will make your classroom a wonderfully joyful place.

I can, however, share what I think every teacher needs to do to create a joyful learning environment for their students. (It's worth noting that these same elements will help you to create a more inclusive classroom.) Embracing these ways of thinking, teaching and living can help you to build the kinds of lessons and experiences that can help your students (and you!) find joy.

Be mindful.

Be flexible.

Be realistic.

Focus on relationships.

Pay attention to details.

Laugh often.

Forgive others.

Don’t give up in the face of adversity.

Forgive yourself.

Allow yourself to experience joy.

What else would you add? 

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Blogging Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month - #JDAIMblogs

#JDAIMblogs 2016; Removing the Stumbling Block

For those of you who have been following this event for a few years or more, you will note that the acronym has changed. Since 2009, Jewish Disability Awareness Month has taken place each February with the tagline “From Awareness to Inclusion”. In keeping with that trend, the various organizers of this annual event have added “I” for inclusion right into the title: Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.

In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) I am launching the third annual JDAIMblogs. It is an opportunity for us to collectively shed light on the wonderfully inclusive things that are happening in our Jewish world. 

Here’s how to join JDAIMblogs: Tag each blog post you write with JDAIMblogs. Use the hashtag #JDAIMblogs on Twitter and Facebook. Tweet me (@JewishSpecialEd) and tag me (Lisa Goldblatt Friedman) on Facebook so that I can help to promote as many of these posts as possible. Come back to this blog on February 1 where I will include a place to link various other blogs and articles. This will allow readers to find one another’s posts, spread the word about their own and generally serve as an online gathering space for the JDAIM blogging efforts. Feel free to come back often and link each of your #JDAIMblogs posts.

But really, there are no rules. Use the prompts in the image above, or simply write about Jewish disability inclusion in any way you choose. You can blog daily, if you want; but you can also draw, share photos or even a make a video. You don’t have to be an inclusion expert or a Jewish professional to contribute. In fact, I hope that parents, loved ones and self-advocates will participate. You don’t even have to be Jewish! EVERY voice matters. Isn’t that the point of inclusion, after all? All you really need is a desire to contribute in some way. Blog once or blog every day. Tweet. Share a Facebook status. Share your voice.

Building Trust in a Classroom

Students must trust that there is no penalty for not knowing; Removing the Stumbling Block

How can we build this kind of trust in our classrooms?

Rarely use the word “wrong”
Students need to know that you won’t press a buzzer every time they make a comment or ask a question, no matter what. Accepting their errors and misgivings means that you’ll get to know your students and their styles of learning. Also, you'll demonstrate the way that you will respond to questions. The word "wrong" in a classroom is a non-starter and can inhibit further participation. We have so many ways to say that an answer is incorrect without using a word that leads a student to think, "I might as well not."

Don’t just talk about trust, develop an atmosphere of trust
Talk about yourself and your interests; become a person to your students. Take an honest interest in their lives and demonstrate it by asking them about their interests. Even better, remember what they are involved in and follow up after a sports game or a special event. Have the students share the responsibility for decorating your classroom; doing so shows that you trust their instincts, their sense of design and their desire to contribute. Ensure that students understand why they are doing assignments and that you are not just assigning busywork. And wherever possible, involve them in classroom problem solving.

Demonstrate emotional constancy
Being emotionally constant earns students’ trust because they know you are under control. Students will come to count on this constancy and begin to demonstrate it themselves. Our goal is learning, not teacher-pleasing. Therefore consider swapping phrases like, “I am disappointed in you” for, “The expectation of this class is that you give it your best effort.” 

Create a joyful classroom
Bring your energy, passion and humor into every learning environment. Laugh together and share stories. Infuse art, drama, song & dance, suspense & surprise and joy into all of your lessons. You can't directly teach joy, but you can cultivate it.

You Can’t Teach Joy

Allow yourself to experience joy via Removing the Stumbling Block

I recently wrote about the difference between joy and fun. I feel strongly that as a society we continue to conflate the two, leading children and others to believe that fun is necessary or “required” in order to experience joy. This is felt particularly keenly, I think, in the world of education. Too many educators are spending their time figuring out ways to make their lessons more fun rather than considering what would help their students experience joy. As I shared in that last post, I don’t care if my students have fun in my classroom.

I don't really care if my students are having fun; Removing the Stumbling BlockBy the way, I know that they often do have fun, because many have told me as much. But I still don’t care. This is not my goal. My goal is to find ways to help my students experience joy.

So I guess now you are expecting me to write a post that will tell you how to do it. Nope. I can’t.

Because you can’t teach joy.

I can’t say, “Try this – it will bring joy to your students,” or “This is a sure-fire technique to bring joy to any classroom”. The experience of joy is a personal, individual experience. It is unique to each person. No two students will experience joy in the same way, at the same time or for the same reason. And even the same person won’t experience joy in the same way twice – no matter how similar the circumstances.

So what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to make it possible for our students to have such experiences if all of the variables keep changing?

helping children to experience joy; Removing the Stumbling Block

Here, my friends, is where the link between joy and being committed to inclusion comes in. Helping children to experience joy will require an individualized and nuanced approach based on meaningful goals and is dependent upon a trusting relationship. Sound familiar? If you are committed to being inclusive, you can be committed to helping students experience joy (and, I believe, vice versa).

Just because you can’t teach joy, doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate it.

Be mindful. Be deliberate. Focus on relationships. Be flexible. Pay attention to detail. Breathe.

Most importantly, allow yourself to experience joy. Your students will follow.

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Making Your Congregation Inclusive - The High Cost of Exclusion

The High Cost of Exclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

So often, when we have conversations about the inclusion of people with disabilities in synagogue life, the conversation turns to money. It is inevitable that well-meaning leaders will wonder what accessibility and inclusion might mean for their bottom line. Yet, when confronted with this concern, rather than rattling off the items on my long list of affordable options, I have taken to responding with a question of my own; “How can you afford to NOT be inclusive?” (Read more about my thoughts on this in the two-part series Affording Inclusion). To be clear, when I use the word “afford” there is certainly a reference to finances. But it is essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means. When I say we can’t afford to turn anyone away, it’s because I believe, genuinely and wholeheartedly, that there is a place for every person in the Jewish community.
Those who argue that inclusion is detrimental to the bottom line also tend to find it difficult to consider building programs and making necessary accommodations for a seemingly invisible population. Maybe you even find yourself thinking that you don’t need to do these things because you don’t have anyone with disabilities in your congregation. For argument sake, I will accept that notion (I really don’t. So many disabilities are not visible.), but if it’s true that your congregation has no members with disabilities, then it begs the question, “Why not”?

Most individuals with disabilities are not within our congregations because they can’t be – they are not physically able to enter, they are not made to feel welcome, and their needs are not met once they are there. 

The imperative of affording inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

We must remember our moral imperative as Jews to make our synagogues fully inclusive. Exclusion, intentional or not, causes us to be a less desirable community. As we learn from Pirkei Avot: “Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” Each one of us, created in God's image, has a gifts to offer and a right to belong.

Isn't it time to make the shift from wondering how we, as synagogues, camps and Jewish institutions, can afford inclusion, to recognizing that exclusion costs us so much more?

What Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy Can Teach Us About Inclusion

MLK - I have decided to stick with love; Removing the Stumbling Block

As we celebrate the life of a man deeply committed to equality for all people, I can't help but think of the ways in which his impact can be felt by those who love, support and advocate for people with disabilities.

I challenge you to think deeply about how the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. can inspire and shape your inclusive practice.

MLK - Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; Removing the Stumbling Block

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do keep moving forward."

MLK quote - keep moving forward; Removing the Stumbling Block

MLK - I have decided to stick with love; Removing the Stumbling Block
"I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

We can all quote MLK Jr. today, but how will we be doing his work tomorrow?

Which one will move you to action? 

Joy Isn’t Fun

Joy and fun are not the same thing, Joy Isn't Fun; Removing the Stumbling Block

I think about joy a lot; which is likely why I chose it as my focus for a year of blogging. That, and because I actually want to be thinking about it more. I think about what joy is, what it isn’t, how to find it and how to tune in so that we can truly experience it. It’s not as simple as you might think.

Let’s clear something up. Joy and fun are not the same thing. One might experience joy when one is having fun. Or maybe not. But simply having a good time and doing something that is fun is not automatically going to mean that you will experience joy.

I think people confuse these ideas a great deal. It’s a lot like the way people confuse the concepts of fairness and equality (read about my ideas on that if you are curious).

Fun is defined as “enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure”. I think it is worth noting that some synonyms suggested are enjoyment, entertainment, amusement and pleasure. Not joy.

joy; Removing the Stumbling BlockJoy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”. And while there is overlap in the use of the word “pleasure” in these definitions, you should note that the various synonyms - delight, bliss, glee, elation, euphoria, rejoicing, exultation, happiness and exhilaration - make no mention of “fun” or “having fun”.

And yet, one of the things I hear A LOT as a school director surrounds the notion of having fun. In particular, because I run a supplemental (part-time) religious school, I have listened to many discussions over the years about finding ways to make school “fun” for students. I suppose the concept there is that if it is fun, kids will want to come and therefore, by some magical osmosis, if they want to be there AND they have fun when they are there, then, by default, they will learn. Ugh.

Students say, “This is boring, why can’t we just have fun?”
Parents ask, “What can you do to make religious school fun for my child?”

Teachers say, “I need ideas to make my lessons more fun.”

It’s a terrible cycle, actually. The kids complain so the parents do, too. Or worse, the parents bring their own baggage to the game (yup, we are a faith-based school after all) and recall that they didn’t have fun and assume (you know what they say about assuming, right?) that their kids won’t have fun, either. So we end up with teachers who figure that if they make their lessons more fun no one will complain. Again, ugh.

Here’s the thing folks. Fun isn’t joy.
I don't really care if my students are having fun; Removing the Stumbling BlockAnd here is a revelation. I don’t really care if my students are having fun. (GASP!) I want my students to experience joy. I want my students to connect to something we do or discuss or argue about in a way that makes them feel elated, exhilarated and gleeful. I want them to have a moment (or many moments) that they experience in their whole bodies, in their souls and that sticks with them long after they have left my classroom.

It’s time to move away from fun. We need to figure out what we can do to help our students experience joy.

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Teach Diversity Using Oranges

Teach Diversity Using Oranges; Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the things that I am asked to do most often when training teachers or teens in ways to become more inclusive is to share specific activities that can be replicated in the classroom. I believe that some of the most important activities for those who want to be more inclusive involve teaching the difference between fairness and equality and teaching the value of diversity. Here is another simple activity to teach the value of diversity to students of any age.

Teach Diversity Using Oranges; Removing the Stumbling BlockTeach Diversity Using Oranges

1.     Give each student an orange.
2.     Direct each student to study their orange carefully by sight, touch, smell, etc.
3.     Put all of the oranges into a bag or a box and shake it up.
4.     Dump out all of the oranges into one contained space.
5.     Direct each person to find their orange. When everyone has found theirs, they return with it to their seats.
6.     Have students explain how they knew which orange was theirs.
7.     Make a point to highlight the unique features they identify, noting that each of us has them, too.

The conversation around this activity will be most rich when teachers use it as a jumping off point for students to share their own gifts and imperfections. There is also the potential for an interesting conversation around the last few to find their oranges and why this happened.

Finally, this activity could be easily extended by adding an art project, using it as an introduction to teach colors or foods in Hebrew, cooking something with the oranges (what a great way to connect this to an Israel lesson - Jaffa oranges!) and/or creating a classroom bulletin board.

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We Have To Teach So We Can Employ

You are hired; Removing the Stumbling Block

Jewish professionals (educators, rabbis, cantors, youth directors, camp professionals, etc.) feel great pride when “one of their own” goes on to a career in the Jewish world. I know that I am thrilled when “kids” we have raised in our congregation come back to teach in our Religious School. And when asked, most Jewish professionals will cite meaningful Jewish experiences such as camp, trips to Israel or youth group participation as well as specific relationships that they formed with “their” rabbi, educator or youth director as the reason why they pursued a Jewish professional life.

And so I continue to feel proud that we are, at my synagogue, giving all children and teens the opportunity to have those experiences and build those relationships.

But there have been quite a few discussions of late about the lack of employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. It’s disconcerting. Jay Ruderman recently wrote:

“The American Association of People With Disabilities recently reported that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice the national average. During the recession, people with disabilities lost jobs five times faster than people without disabilities. In addition, only 25 percent of people with disabilities are meaningfully employed, while 75 percent are unemployed or underemployed. Contrary to popular belief, this in large part is not due to a lack of desire or capability to work.”

That individuals who are otherwise capable, qualified and eager to work are denied opportunity based solely on disability is infuriating.

So, of course, I return to the Jewish world. It’s clear to me that the only way that individuals with disabilities will find jobs in the Jewish world is if they have access to the same education, experiences and relationships as everyone else. The following, written by Rabbi Lynne Landsberg in an article for the NY Jewish Week's blog on disability issues, illustrates this point:

“It would be very hard for our communities to discriminate if the job seekers presented outstanding Jewish resumes. But the only way that Jews with disabilities can build such resumes is by being offered a great Jewish education, beginning at an early age and continuing through Jewish schools of higher learning.”

School is important; a critical starting point. But we have to take it farther.   
When we open the doors to our synagogues and religious schools and when we make camp, youth groups and Israel trips accessible; are we then equipped to make Jewish professional life a reality? Our colleges and graduate programs must teach accessibility and inclusion while being accessible and inclusive. And then there must be accessible and inclusive jobs in the Jewish world.

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