A Culture of Joy: Part 1

Two places I spend a lot of time in are schools and airplanes. What I’ve noticed after the time spent in these places is that cultures are pretty easy to identify. In Canada, the two major airlines, Air Canada and Westjet have very distinct cultures. I mostly fly Air Canada for a number of reasons and must say I’ve had very good experiences. However, if you ask most Canadians about these two airlines, the general belief is that Westjet offers the better customer service. Air Canada is the more formal, serves the business traveller and Westjet has a more inclusive approach that’s focused on a great customer experience sprinkled with fun. Look through their Youtube channel to see what I mean. Air Canada does have a channel too but with a very different focus.

I’ve thought about this before but it struck me after I hopped on a plane after speaking at TEDxWestVancouver on the topic “Whatever Happened to Joy”. On the flight the attendant was so focused on the regulations and walked through the plane literally scolding several people for not taking out their earbuds and talking during the safety presentation. At that moment I recalled a flight on Westjet where the crew smiled and teased passengers doing the same thing but got their attention with a little kindness and persuasion. I wondered, does Air Canada care about joy?

My definition of joy is that of the emotion of well-being and success as wells the expression of that well being.

As I said, Air Canada has been good to me but their reputation is not that of Westjet. I see schools with very similar characteristics. Not bad schools, but schools so bound by traditions and formalities that they have little time for joy. They take themselves very seriously. So serious that they see no time to express well being. I as talked about in my talk, joy is a wonderful ingredient for community. Creating shared experiences that generate smiles brings people together like no other strategy. For Westjet, this is a priority. For many schools, this is not. I know there are some schools but many more classrooms are actively pursuing joy as a cultural standard. Air Canada has many employees that are kind, caring people and offer a great experience but it’s not really valued and consistent as a culture. With Westjet, joy is the standard and it’s the culture. . Their organizational frameworks also reflect a different approach to business. Air Canada is a traditional, hierarchical business while Westjet employees are also stock holders and thus owners. Westjet employees understand more deeply how their performance and attitude impacts everyone.

What about our schools? Again, I shared lots of examples of teachers and classrooms that value joy and make it a regular part of the day. I take the stance that Alfie Kohn does that joy is and end unto itself and not a means to something else. It need not be justified as leading to student achievement. This starts with leadership, leaders who intentionally and actively pursue and choose joy not as an occasional break from the daily grind but as an embedded part of the day and thus the culture of the school. I don’t think there’s a recipe or a strategy for joy but I do think you have to be intentional and aware of the message you communicate to students. It’s easier to identify single classrooms that embody this but whole schools or districts, not so much. All schools and districts have a culture. Many are very positive but I’ve not seen many that would describe themselves as having a culture of joy. I can’t say that Westjet would use that language to describe their culture but I would.

This isn’t just about fun although the expression of well being is often associated with fun, particularly as viewed by children. I know I’m still working out exactly what this looks like and how to help schools move to cultures of joy. But it certainly has become a resolve of mine to move from the idea that joy is nice, but not really necessary for schools to something that is actively pursued and celebrated.

I’ll write a second post this soon. But I want to leave you with this quote I shared during my talk.

Whatever Happend to Joy TEDx.019-003


I.S.S. The Collaborative Lip Dub

I love this song.

I love what Commander Hadfield has been doing as part of his mission. He’s done an outstanding job in bringing us into the world of space travel and along the way reminding us what a wonderful world we live in.

I love lip dubs. I’ve been part of making a few. While they’ve been around for a while I think they represent the power of connected media and storytelling quite well. If you’ve ever participated in one, the weird sense of community and joy is palpable.

I love how my class works and connects young pre-service teachers with great teachers and classrooms around the world. This continues to be one of the most important things I can give my students: the opportunity to work with teachers doing interesting things and sharing openly.

So I decided to combine these things and create a collaborative lip dub. I simply invited interested students and classrooms to sign up for a line or two. Without mandating, it worked out quite well with about 25 participants. I then assigned them a line or two and had them send me their files. They all chose how they wanted to sing their lines and we had some nice creative performances. I  used iMovie for this project and don’t think it took more than an evening or two to edit. I don’t claim this to be the greatest work of art or greatest video but I do suggest it’s a fabulous thing to do to create community and a great memory.

I want to thank all my students and those classrooms and teachers that participated.

I.S.S. The Lip Dub from shareski on Vimeo.

Stephen Finds Joy

There’s nothing quite like watching someone’s passion and dream being fulfilled. Last month I got to see it in front of my eyes. ears.

During my time at Unplugd, I got to meet and know Stephen Hurley. Stephen is an arts consultant in Ontario and all around interesting, good guy. Stephen and I were in the same grouping as we did our collaborative writing. Stephen began by sharing this story.


The part of the story about his love of radio wasn’t even the core of his writing or story but it wasn’t hard to tell that Stephen had a passion for airwaves. Everything about it fueled his passion. What struck me was his determination despite the roadblocks and discouragments. Stephen’s story was heard a few times by others including Bryan Jackson and Giulia Forsythe, The two of them have become quite involved in the DS 106 Radio community, which in a nutshell is a off shoot of a course taught by Jim Groom in Virginia, and a collaborative idea with Grant Potter in Vancouver who started an internet radio station that basically is open to anyone to broadcast. (Read that sentence again and you realize what a world we live in). Guilia and Bryan introduced Stephen to DS106. These people, along with the rest of the community, would open a big fat door for Stephen. 


The event ends on Sunday, and on Monday I find myself in Michigan City, Indiana on route to Minneapolis to spend time with family. While killing time at a outlet mall as my wife shows it who’s boss, I fire up twitter and see that Stephen is about to take the wheel and host his very first radio show live. Although my wireless connection was wonky, I was able to listen in a bit and hear Stephen. You would swear you were listening to a radio veteran of 30 years. This guy was made to speak into a microphone. As I sat on that bench in the image, I had this goofy grin on my face and kept whispering “awesome” as shoppers passed by. 

Talking to Stephen about it now you can sense the new found joy he has for what he’s doing and how blessed he feels to have been given this gift, which in a round about way is the best story or example for the essay I wrote. For me, watching this unfold was joy as well. 

If you want to listen to Stephen, you can follow him on twitter and wait for some late evening when he finds another bottle of Glenfiddich and takes to the air. it’s gold. 


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Can Failure be an Option?

Over the past several years, I’ve attended many conferences and workshops where speakers have talked about how all kids can learn and the importance of that belief. They also talk about how, if that’s true, it’s our obligation and duty as teachers to make sure all students learn and have success.

Okay, I get that. We all love kids and want them to succeed. If fact we want to design systems where no child is “left behind” and no child fails. Full proof schools where everyone is a winner. They unintentionally paint pictures of kids “not getting away with not doing their work”. These are not places of joy but places where come hell or high water, kids will succeed and if they fail, it’s the teacher’s or the school’s fault. What if it is the kid’s fault? Can they ever choose not to be successful? Should a 5-year-old even be considered a failure? Should a 17-year-old be allowed to fail? How do we create a gradual release of control or do we ever relinquish that control? The other huge misconception that is rarely explored under this philosophy is that all children, while they are capable of learning, aren’t all capable of learning the same thing at the same time in the same way. 

I’ve heard lots of talk about reducing the dropout rate. What I continue to see is a focus on changing the supports for these students and little in the way of making school, in general, a place that doesn’t suck. But really my question continues to be if we believe (maybe you don’t) that the kids should own the learning, shouldn’t they own the failure too? I’m not suggesting we simply create a smorgasbord of learning and then watch them sink or swim but I’ve witnessed educators spending countless hours hand holding and walking students through painful exercises designed to help them ‘get through” the curriculum. It reminds me of parents who do their child’s homework. To that end, it also reminds me of a quote from one of my favourite books:

“Information will be learned slowly and doomed to rapid forgetting unless they are quickly attached to a framework of knowledge that we already possess.”

The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith

In some ways, this returns me to a previous post about personalization and standardization. I don’t have many answers and am really inviting some conversations, help me see what I may be missing but I’m frustrated with both the “no kid can fail” attitudes and the “kids own the learning but not the failure” thinking too.

The only thing I can think of that helps me work through these ideas is my own parenting. I obviously want my kids to succeed and yet they’ve all experienced some failure. My kids have all started into sports and music programs they decided they didn’t like and quit. Sometimes we made them persevere and on occasion, they discovered they liked it. As parents, we felt all our kids needed a basic proficiency in swimming and music. They didn’t have a choice. Some of them choose to go beyond the basics, others met the basics, then quit.  As they got older they chose their own paths. Altogether my kids have quit/failed at many things. Big deal. None of these endeavours, like school, are on the same level as Apollo 13. It’s not life and death. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t matter but whether or not a student passes algebra shouldn’t carry the weight if often does. I’m sure others will disagree. Feel free. 

Alright, I’ve been all over the map here, not my best writing but I hope I’ve started a few ideas we might talk about together. Should kids be allowed to fail? Under what circumstances? Go. 

Barbers and School


My son, for whatever reason, has chosen to let his hair grow while at college in Toronto. His mother and sisters and I have been trying to get him to get it cut for months. On Friday he did. 

He Skyped me to tell me the good news and relayed how it was a rather lovely experience. The barber, who was recommended by a friend, was a little ways from where he lives in Toronto. So he took the subway and made a day of it. Not only was he describing the best burger he ever had but also the haircutting experience itself. Apparently the guy who cut his hair totally ignored my son's suggestion and proceeded to do his own thing. I guess he knew what he was doing and my son was quite pleased with the result. After he finished, he asked that Sam stay and play a game of chess with him. The barber schooled him. My son left feeling quite pleased with the whole day. It was indeed much more than a haircut. It was an experience and a time well spent with a stranger. From the tone of that conversation, he'll be back. 

During this call I was on hold with Alec as we were planning an upcoming event. I briefly shared this story and he told me of a friend of his who decided after taking his share of university classes to open up a barber shop in his home town and cut hair for a living. Alec told me how his friend loved to cut hair and visit with people and painted a picture of one of those places "where everyone knows your name."

The idea of devoting your life to a job like cutting hair somehow doesn't seem like it fits in with all our conversations about global connections and shifted learning. Nor does it fit in with standardized testing and rigorous curriculum. (by the way, I hate the word rigor to describe anything about school)

Which lead me to consider a couple of questions:

1. What could be better than finding a vocation that you enjoy and that allows you to spend time with people connecting and sharing life while providing a useful service?

2. Do our schools help our students seek such a life or do we see a hairstylist as somehow a lesser profession?

3. How did their schooling contribute to the life they lead now? Did it help them become the person they are or did they become that in spite of school?

4. What if we began to measure our schools, not simply at the end of a term or year but for the quality of individuals it serves? Do we want to or need to measure happiness or quality of life?

A Saturday twitter conversation with Will, Bud and Brian got me thinking about the what we need to be paying attention to. Will is currently looking to the edge. I like the edge too. I spend much of my time trying to reach it and see what new opportunities and accordances might be useful to help us learn better and learn more and learn differently. The edge is an important place to explore but these barbers would hardly be considered living on the edge. But in many ways, it's hard to argue they aren't living well. Really, really well. It seems like a nice way to spend a life.