Just Like Starting Over: “Sparking Joy”

Road Trip Mix Album Cover

Last Spring, my wife found out she’d been accepted to a PHd. program across the country. As we prepared to move, my mother-in-law introduced us to the work of “Tidying Consultant” and Netflix star, Marie Kondo. I am certainly no expert, having only read the pages of her book on how to best fold clothes (at my wife’s behest), and having watched a total of 5 episodes of her Netflix show, but what I have read and viewed had a major impact both on what we kept as we packed for our move from Ohio to Wyoming and on how we organized our new home as we unpacked our remaining belongings. It also had an impact on how I think about teaching…

Marie Kondo’s approach, aka The KonMari method, is a long and intense process, but the basic tenet is this: only keep what sparks joy, and organize your environment in a way that sparks joy–in other words, clutter free and easy to maintain.

So, as I started over with my new abode and teaching career in Laramie, Wyoming, the KonMari method was in the forefront of my thinking. My first semester beat for the 2019 school year will be all around the idea of starting over, keeping only what “sparks joy”, and developing systems that keep our teaching lives clutter free and easy to maintain.

This series is called “Just Like Starting Over” because there are points throughout the semester (breaks, starting new units, abandoning disaster situations, etc.) in which we are given the opportunity to start over. In this series I’ll be asking a few important questions of myself, and in turn, of you, dear reader: what if you could–blank slate–start over as a teacher? What would you keep? What would you change? Which lessons and systems would you, as Marie Kondo suggests, hold in your hands and thank for their service to you before sending them away?

1. Class Environment that Sparks Joy

As I decided what materials I wanted to start over with when it came to my new classroom, I had to literally ask the question Marie Kondo figuratively asks people on her show: “Is this something you want to bring with you in future?” I had the chance to start over with my class environment, so I had to go through all the trinkets and gifts and souvenirs and POSTERS, and I had to decide what really mattered for my class environment. The thing is, I have absolutely no eye for design, so I consulted a few friends.

My mother-in-law is professor at Northern Kentucky University, and her research focuses on the Reggio approach, a type of teaching that is very much grounded in environment. She advised that I need neutral tones with one or two accent colors. She also said, “Don’t go putting a bunch of junk up on the walls.”

Easier said than done.

I can’t tell you how tough it was to get rid of treasured possessions and memorabilia, but I just kept reminding myself of what Marie Kondo says, “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful.” If it didn’t connect directly to student learning, I pitched it (Okay, okay, I stored some of my stuff at home! I’m a work in progress).

As I tried to organize the stuff that survived my version of the KonMari process, I hit a serious block (Many teachers may have consulted Pinterest at this point, but, sorry, that site and I just don’t get along!). Then, it hit me: Art teachers have to find a way to store and organize more supplies than anyone. So, I visited the art teacher’s room, and I asked about how she stores everything, from supplies to student work. Sure enough, she had a system for everything. I retrofitted several of her ideas for my students and teaching style, and the result was the most elegant classroom environment I’ve ever set up.

If you are looking for ways to fit too much stuff into a small space, find the nearest Art teacher (certain exceptions, I’m sure, apply–if this is the case, Science teachers also deal with lots of supplies!).

Blank wall space allows me room for our anchor charts! Note: this may not look all that amazing to my well-organized friends, but you should have seen my class environment last year!

Books displayed in a way that looks inviting!


Mother-in-law Pro Tip: use a small splash of color for accent, and leave blanks space on the wall to allow the eyes to rest.  Work in progress note: sorry for my asymmetrical and messy anchor chart!

What Teaching Practices Spark Joy?

I’m lucky enough to literally be starting over–so imagine you were in the same position. If you could start over, what practices would you keep?

I had to really think about what was working in my classroom. Personally, I loved my workshop-based units, but I also knew that some of these units suffered were a tad bloated, and it was time to trim the fat. Lucy Calkins currently suggests 5 weeks is the right length for a unit–and, honestly, for some units, even that is too long. So, I mapped out the school year, and I calculated a number that represented “Teachable Days”–days that aren’t disrupted by testing, field trips, assemblies, and the like. Then, I tried to calculate, how long I could keep students engaged in a unit before we all start feeling the familiar inertia of a unit that outlives its usefulness. My current estimate is 4-6 weeks, depending on the content.

Then, came the tough work of figuratively holding each lesson in my hands, and asking if it still “Sparks Joy.” Many of these lessons were once useful, but like a joke you try to tell again, they no longer have the impact they once did. So, I asked of each lesson, do I enjoy teaching it? Do students get something out of it? Does it help them progress, or is it just filling time? It was difficult, and I definitely had to “kill my darlings,” but so far, the result has made it all worthwhile. As we bring our first unit to a close, I haven’t (yet) experienced a single, “Ugh, we’re still doing this?” eyeroll. The goal here is that my units will be lean, mean, teaching machines.

The key in this case was to calculate actual “Teachable Days”, set a hard-out deadline, and then leave some of my old plans on the cutting room floor.

My version of this process involves chart paper to map out units, lessons that spark joy, and “Teachable Days”

Sparking Joy in our Students

Most importantly, as I started over, I had to mull over what might spark joy in my students, namely when it came to the writing process. I wanted my first teaching interaction to spark the kind of joy that would lead to, not just engagement, but empowerment. I will go much deeper into this as the semester progresses, but for the sake of this post, I’ll just share my starting point.

Of course, Ralph Fletcher wrote a whole book about this very topic, and I’m sure I’ll use a lot of his ideas, too, but I also wanted to consider some ways in which I interact with students during reading and writing workshop, since our interactions may be students’ first impression of how our workshop operates. So, I asked myself, “What do I need when I’m writing?” (or, as Allison and Rebekah might say, “What would a writer do?).

I may be more hardheaded than some, but it occurred to me that I only listen to folks who recognize what I’m attempting. I need the person giving me feedback to see what one of my friends from Ohio calls “The statue lurking inside the block of marble”.

So, my first writing conferences of the year didn’t involve any kind of teaching point or critical feedback. I just focused on reading a student’s work and trying hard to see what they hoped I’d notice–and the result in nearly every case was exactly the kind of empowerment I hope for in all students.

If you haven’t already, try it, and then look for that spark of joy in your student’s eyes.

What sparks joy in your classroom? If you were to start over, what would you keep, and what would you toss? You can connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

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