In these challenging times, it seems that we are all yearning for some way to incorporate moments of joy into our lives. Some have picked up a new hobby during quarantine; others have begun a new fitness routine. These are personal solutions to a problem that affects all aspects of our lives—including our professional lives (or maybe especially our school lives).
We teachers are struggling in ways never before dreamed of, ranging from teaching entirely remotely with no contact with our students to “room and Zoom,” where our attention is split between analog and digital versions of our kids. Short of a vaccine, there is no immediate solution to these problems, but there are ways to mitigate the stress and to inject (pun intended!) some joy into our lives, and just as importantly, into the lives of our students.
My middle name is Joy. It really is, so I often feel as if I have some right to write about this topic. Joy in the language classroom is one of my favorite areas of research and exploration, because it is at once so simple and so deeply rooted in research and data. Stephen Krashen famously posits the affective filter hypothesis, in which he describes the role of comfort, motivation, and self-confidence for students of languages. These things are not merely important for learning languages, he says, but rather essential for effective language learning to take place.
In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink refers to the importance of play in work and in life. The ways in which play manifests in one’s life include games, humor, and joyfulness and are essential elements for a 21st-century learner. Carl Jung also referenced play in his book Psychological Types: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” We have all experienced students playing with language in our classes—and witnessed the joy that it brings to the language-learning endeavor.
Getting to Know Students
Humans are social beings. Part of what we find so very challenging during COVID times are the restrictions on interpersonal connections. Not only are physical interactions verboten, but even talking with others is challenging through masks or face shields. What we—and especially our students—crave most is that connection to others.
Last spring, educators around the world began teaching online. Most of us already knew our students well and were able to build on personal connections with them that had been established throughout the beginning and middle of the school year. This year, we’re going in cold. How can we replicate those in-person experiences with a whole new batch of students—most of whom we don’t know at all?
Google Form surveys: My colleague Verónica shared her “Todo sobre ti/All about you” Google Form with me. She used this student survey at the start of the school year as a means of getting to know her kids. It is in English, and it includes questions about their favorite snack foods, their families and pets, and my personal favorite: “If you could have one super power, what would it be?” After tweaking the survey a bit, I shared it with my eighth-grade students and then met with each one individually to discuss their answers, share commonalities, and talk about their goals for the year. If we were in person, I might have tried to use Spanish for this conversation, but with these novice high students it would have made the communication less open and fluid. This is one of those trade-offs that we have to make during these times—for now, making sure that my students feel seen was the main goal.
Student of the Day: A few years ago, my colleague Marissa in our elementary division designed a fantastic digital presentation for their FLES classes. One student was chosen every day to share their likes and dislikes with the class. The language was scaffolded, giving students choices such as “¿Qué te gustan más, los gatos o los perros?/What do you like more, cats or dogs?” For use with my middle school students, I recreated the deck and added more open-ended questions: “¿Cuál animal te gustaría tener como mascota?/Which animal would you like to have for a pet?” Giving students the opportunity to share their preferences with the class helps them to connect with each other and also provides them with interesting topics to discuss in the target language.
Mystery Object: By now you may be sensing a theme! We tend to feel happy when we are sharing information about ourselves in a comfortable and safe environment. Mystery Object is an activity that leverages that desire as well as the fact that kids are at home, surrounded by their favorite things. I asked students to pick an object and “bring” it to our Zoom class. The student then describes the object in three to four sentences (the color, the shape, what it is used for, etc.), and then classmates guess by asking yes/no questions until we uncover the object. This is a fantastic way to practice basic vocabulary, and oftentimes, the objects that kids show help to tell the story of that student’s passions, interests, and hobbies.
Playing Games with Students
It is not new to say that play is a huge part of bringing joy into the language classroom. This has always been true but is even more imperative during these uncertain and stressful times. In play, people often describe the sensation of time and space dropping away and a total focus on the task at hand. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this feeling a state of flow. It happens when we are so absorbed by a task that it becomes a singular focus and we lose ourselves. Despite sounding intense, this focus can be quite freeing and enjoyable—just think about a time when you created a piece of art, worked on a puzzle, or read a really great book. As we know well from our students and their relationship to videogames, gameplay can also put you into a state of flow.
Kahoot and Quizlet: These ubiquitous tools can contribute to a sense of controlled chaos in the brick-and-mortar classroom, but in a Zoom room, they can bring a familiar sense of playfulness and joy to your classes. I like to ask students to create their own games for use with their classmates, which serves the purpose of helping them review class material while also creating some ownership over the competition.
Breakout rooms in your breakout rooms: This year, I share a class of MS Spanish with my colleague Carmen. She is a huge proponent of games, and we often stage interclass competitions, which our students absolutely adore. One area of passion for her is the use of virtual escape or breakout rooms in our Spanish classes. Students get placed randomly into traditional Zoom breakout rooms and then are given a series of tasks to accomplish in the target language. When they achieve all the requirements of the challenge, they can “escape” from the breakout room and return to the main room (and earn a digital prize).
Curating Curricula for Students
During quarantine, so many of us have taken advantage of the time at home to clean house. I know I have. We have cleaned out corners of rooms, basement shelves, and garage spaces and can feel happy in the subsequent orderliness and calm of an uncluttered space. Organizational expert Marie Kondo famously encourages us to look at the things we own and ask if they “spark joy.” Suffice it to say, there were a lot of things in my home that did not, and so, we have a lot to donate! This sort of intent and thoughtful evaluation of our “stuff” can be a really useful frame for our language programs. Our programs tend to continue along, year after year, with the same textbook or materials or vocabulary units. Unless asked to do so for a departmental review or other such administrative project, we often don’t have the time or energy to really examine our curricula critically, let alone check if they spark joy in us and in our students. I suggest that this weird time in our lives is exactly the right moment to review what we teach and to strive to curate curricula that are engaging, that address important social justice issues, and that engage us in joyful work.
Focus on interpersonal communication: In the spring, one thing I noticed during remote teaching, especially in smaller group and pair meetings with students, was how much more students were willing to speak up. Student production in the main/full-class sessions was not quite as robust, but in one-on-one meetings or triads, I started to hear student voices that I had not heard nearly as much in full-group activities. So I began to design more tasks that allowed me to work with small groups while other students had asynchronous tasks to accomplish in the language. We started focusing on helpful communicative strategies like circumlocution, interjections, and the use of filler words in conversations. Students loved this focus and reported feeling excited about how much they were able to communicate. ¡Qué bien!
Diversity of materials: Whether cleaning out a home or a curriculum, one easy place to start is with outdated or inauthentic materials. Now’s the time to replace some of those didactic resources and readers in favor of culturally authentic ones, wherever possible. This is the opportunity to find readings, memes, advertisements, and other interpretive reading materials that address social justice topics and center on the stories and lives of Indigenous peoples and people of color. Students need what educator Emily Styles calls “windows and mirrors” in the classroom—they need to see themselves and their identities reflected in the curriculum, and they also need windows through which to see and learn about cultures other than their own. An honest assessment of our curricula can help restore balance and ensure that every student feels joy in a respectful, thoughtful, and inclusive language program.
Who knows when we will return to any sort of normalcy? We have already grown so accustomed to this “new normal.” As teachers of languages during a global pandemic, we all have so many competing responsibilities. Life is stressful right now, and our students feel that stress keenly, even if they don’t show it.
In my mind, this is the perfect opportunity to seek out and incorporate elements of joy in our classes. By infusing our work with bits of fun and frivolity, we can accomplish so much. We can establish a comfortable and safe classroom environment for our kids, when they are likely uncomfortable and quite unsafe in real ways. We can incorporate games and play into our classes, when most everything else feels way too serious. And we can share a personal moment with our students by seeing and loving them and all their identities—and be seen by students as people, not just teachers.
In his masterful novel Love in the Time of Cholera, Colombian author and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez wrote: “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” Once we are all back in school and we can go back to high-fives and hugs, we will look back on this time, magnify the good, and move on. It is my hope that my Spanish classes will fall into the category of the “good” that students will choose to remember with a sense of joy for years to come.
All About Me Google Form Example: https://tinyurl.com/allaboutmegoogleform (thanks to Veronica Valentín)
Authentic Resources: www.grahnforlang.com/authentic-resources.html
Curriculum as Window and Mirror: https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror
Escape the Classroom Ideas on Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/chrissystar/spanish-class-breakout-ideas/
Puppets and Games: PuppetED website, www.puppeted.com (thanks to Carmen Campos, @puppeted.com)
So You Want to Build a Classroom Escape Room: www.weareteachers.com/build-a-classroom-escape-room-lesson/
Student of the Day Example: https://tinyurl.com/elestudiantedeldia (thanks to Marissa Coulehan, @srtacoulehan)
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
García, M. G., and Grossman, E. (1988). Love in the Time of Cholera. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Jung, C. G.  (1971). Psychological Types. In Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 6. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kondo, M. (2014). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition.
Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Riverhead Books. Styles, E. (1988). Listening for All Voices. Summit, NJ: Oak Knoll School monograph.
Dr. Lori Langer de Ramírez is director of the World and Classical Language Department at the Dalton School, NYC. Her website, miscositas.com, features free resources for English, Spanish, French, and Chinese teachers.