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Wonder = Joy. (And Joy Should be Shared!)

Longtime Radical readers know that there are few people who have influenced my practice as much as Dean Shareski.  Dean has pushed my thinking around everything from the role that humor and humanity should play in our digital spaces to the role that students should play in assessing their own learning.  When I look back at the practices that I use in my classroom, I see elements inspired by Dean everywhere.

That’s why I was completely jazzed to sit down and read through his first book — Embracing a Culture of Joy.

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Dean’s argument throughout the text is that in our quest to bring more rigor and accountability to schools, we’ve stripped away much of what it is that makes learning spaces inspirational — and without inspiration, genuine learning really isn’t possible.  Dean goes on to share several practical ideas about the steps that teachers can take to bring joy back into their classrooms.

The idea that resonated the most with me was Dean’s argument that a sense of wonder is often a prerequisite for joy.  Dean writes:

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do in our classrooms to create a greater sense of wonder is to simply value questions more than answers.  This is certainly contrary to how we’ve traditionally viewed schools.  Schools are places to learn things, find answers to questions, and leave with knowledge.  Questions suggest doubt, uncertainty, and mystery.  Yet the idea that we learn to ask really interesting questions is indeed what sustains us and what makes us true learners.”

As a science teacher, those words ring true.  After all, science is inherently about asking interesting questions about the world around us.  And I’ve always tried to push my kids to take an #alwayswonder approach to the world around them.  In fact, the only homework that I regularly give students is writing two interesting wonder questions per week in a journal.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve never made time to celebrate those wonder questions during our regular class periods.  The reason is simple:  I’ve always believed that sharing those wonder questions steals minutes from an already short class period — and given the fact that we have an end of grade exam covering an enormous curriculum, the pressure to push forward has always won out over my belief that wondering matters.

What Dean forced me to wrestle with was that by giving lip service to the value of wondering, I was robbing my kids of the opportunity to revel in the joy that comes from curiosity.  NOT knowing the answers is a helluva’ lot more interesting than having to memorize a never-ending stream of answers delivered by the classroom teacher.

So I made a decision on Monday that I think is going to breathe a little more joy back into my classroom:  Now, we are going to start every single day wondering together.

Here are the details:

When my kids roll into class, they know to get out their wonder journals and have them ready to go.  Some kids are journaling on paper.  Others are using a Google Doc or a set of Google Slides to record their thinking.  I’ve simply told them to figure out a system that works for them.

As soon as class starts, I set a timer and ask students to write for five full minutes.  My hope is that they will write a new wonder question each day — but they are also allowed to polish previous questions or look for answers to a question that really moves them. The only rule is that they have to work for the full five minutes.  I’m finding that sitting in their own thoughts isn’t a skill that every student has — so building intellectual stamina is another goal of mine for this task.

When the timer goes off, students spend two minutes sharing their wonder questions with their table mates.  I’m emphasizing that “sharing your wonder questions” doesn’t mean simply reading them to one another.  I ask students to build on the questions asked by their partners — adding related questions, making additional observations, providing predictions or theories as possible answers.

Finally, I ask three students to share interesting wonder questions with our whole class — but they have to share a question asked by someone else!  That accomplishes two things:  First, they learn to see and to celebrate their peers as interesting people with interesting questions — which I hope will build community in my classroom.  Second, it gives me the opportunity to model the process of building on questions asked by other people.

That whole sequence takes about 10 minutes at the beginning of every period — and that’s 10 minutes that I’m more than happy to spend simply because the questions my kids have been writing are really, really cool.

Here’s five of my favorites:

“I wonder how brains work, like how do they send things to your body saying like your hurt? Does your brain also control how you move?”

“In class my teacher was talking about space and I woundered if space doesnt have oxygen and earth does how does the oxygen from earth not flow all the way to space does it just die out and stop flowing? It cant just stop flowing and die out it has to go somewhere and since we have already been to the moon and outer space there is no force that is keeping the oxygen from not flowing to outer space.”

“Today I was printing something for my mom, and I wondered how does an image that originated from the computer pas over to the printer and then the printer magically knows what colors to blend together, were to put them, and what shapes to make? I know that printers only come with 4 or 5 colors, pink, light blue, yellow, black, and maybe grey, so how does the printer create red and lighter colors, with only 4 inks?”

“I’ve always thought fingernails were weird. But, I wonder about is the process of a growing fingernail. Do they grow at the tip (like the white part) or, do they grow near the cuticle part.”

“I read every night, last night I didn’t read before I went to bed and I had a hard time going to sleep. I wonder what effect reading had on my mind before I went to sleep. And does reading help, or hurt your mind?”

All of that in and of itself seemed like a pretty good start at prioritizing wonder in my classroom until I had the chance to hear George Couros speak on Wednesday at the Convergence conference here in Raleigh about building the digital presence of your school .

George made a simple point that stuck with me:  When working in social spaces, your goal should be to make the positives so loud that the negatives are impossible to hear.  If we consistently share the best things that are happening in our classrooms, we can create a culture of outward celebration and build stronger relationships with the stakeholders that we serve.

George’s examples were all incredibly approachable:  Teachers using Twitter to record video reflections after days of professional learning, principals using YouTube to share videos of students reporting on the academic happenings at different grade levels, teachers using Instagram to post pictures of classroom activities.  “As a parent,” George asked,”what would you rather have:  A paper newsletter to hang on the fridge or a video of your child sharing what they’ve learned in class that day?”

So I decided to take my wonder project one step further:  I’m going to record short videos of students sharing their wonder questions and post those on Twitter using our school’s hashtag.

Here’s our first:

My primary goal with our #gnomeswonder Tweets is a simple one:  I want my students to recognize that it is okay wonder out loud.

I also want to give parents the chance to see the curiosity in their own kids and to see my classroom as a place that prioritizes questions over answers.  Finally, I’m hoping that we’ll get some dialogue started between my curious kids and experts in our community that might be willing to post answers to my students online.

Of course, I’ll have to check the video/photo permissions list before choosing kids to record daily wonder tweets — but my guess is that as more and more parents see what we are doing, they will be more than willing to sign our video waiver in order to have the chance to see their kids wondering live, too.

So whaddya’ think of all of this?

Will setting time aside for wondering be worthwhile — even if it means I have ten less minutes of instruction time every day?  Is encouraging my kids to share their wonders publicly a good idea?  Is this something you’d consider trying with the kids in your classrooms, too?

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Related Radical Reads:

How Limited Technology Budgets Failed My Students Today

More on the Challenges of Wondering in Schools.

This is Why I Teach:  They Always Wonder