Educator Practice

Bringing Joy into the Classroom

April 7, 2022
Culturally Responsive Teaching
Social-Emotional Learning
ND McCray
Relay student

Teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic has had teachers reevaluating how they show up in the classroom. In order to make connections with students who are going through a tremendous amount of stress, anxiety, pain, and loss, we have had to analyze classroom management techniques, student learning strategies, and social-emotional skills we’ve honed over the years.

Gone are the days of teaching one lesson, one way, to all classes via lecture by a teacher and note taking from students. Student learning loss during the pandemic has made it mandatory that teachers learn new technology, recommit to self-evaluation, and figure out creative ways to bring joy into the classroom, in order to make students feel safe, secure, and engaged.

Strategy #1: Build Relationships through Selfie Letters

In wanting to create a welcoming social studies environment and to begin building positive student relationships, I had my students write “Selfie Letters” on the first day of school. It’s a concept I believe I first discovered on YouTube over the summer, after finishing a graduate course on culturally responsive teaching at Relay Graduate School of Education.

As we learned in the course, being a culturally responsive teacher means teaching through learning and thinking differences (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD). It’s also grounded in connecting students’ cultures, languages, and life experiences to lessons within the classroom. These connections help students develop higher-order thinking skills, but it also taps into social-emotional learning (SEL), by helping teachers get to know their students better.

Selfie letters are simply written, typed, or printed communications where students share factual and interesting things about themselves. There are really no guidelines but to write. However, I did create a Prezi slideshow filled with writing prompts to assist in the creative process. 

They wrote letters on notebook paper, sharing some of their favorite things, including music (Tejano, hip-hop, pop, R&B, K-Pop), movies (Marvel Comics), books, (manga, anime and science-fiction), food (hot wings and seafood), candy (all kinds of chocolate candy bars and Sour Patch Kids), chips (Takis and Flamin Hot Cheetos), and video games (Call of Duty and NBA Jam). Some students shared what they did or where they traveled over the summer, while other students shared personal things like how music helps with their anxiety or that they identify as a trans student. 

By sharing a short letter about myself, students discovered my love of roller skating, traveling, and teaching. It was a cool exercise that helped build student connections at a time where social distance is the new normal. 

Strategy #2: Build Relationships through Music

After planning a lesson on culture and how different immigrant groups came to the United States in the early 1800s, I had students revisit their “Selfie Letters” at the beginning of the second semester, in January.

Upon giving students back their letters (which I kept filed away), I had them add key details about their families; where their parents and/or grandparents came from, namely which country. Students could also share where they want to go to high school, what college they’re thinking of attending, and/or what career they’re thinking of pursuing.

I teach at a Title 1 school, meaning a high percentage of students come from low-income communities. 70 percent of our students identify as Hispanic, which includes students from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Columbia; 23 percent identify as African-American, and 3 percent identify as Asian, including students from Vietnam.

Once I returned the selfie letters to students, that's also when I thought of trying something different, as a way to bring more of the students’ culture into the classroom.

I’m a music head myself, as I did freelance writing for different magazines, blogs, and websites years ago covering live shows, reviewing albums, and interviewing singers, musicians, and songwriters. 

Thus, I came up with the idea of a Spotify playlist for each class. But I wasn’t going to be the one to pick the songs - the students would.

Joy in the Classroom

The Spotify playlist had to be diverse in order to represent the energy, culture, and interests of 160 students, ranging in age from 13 to 15 years old. It had to be songs they enjoyed and that we could play in class. 

With my Spotify Premium Account I created playlists and labeled each one with the class period (1st Period, etc.) Then in the last 10 minutes of class one day, I let students write down at least two to three songs of their choosing on a sticky note. Could they choose more songs? Absolutely. 

Before adding songs to the playlists, I listened to the music on my own and ensured students knew the guidelines: school-appropriate songs and content only, and no profanity. 

Throughout that first week of creation, some students gave me upwards of 5, 10, 15 songs to listen to and possibly add. Most every music genre was represented: pop, soul, country, gospel, R&B, hip-hop, rap, reggae-ton, Tejano, Afrobeats, K-Pop, J-Pop, indie rock, and alternative pop.

  • Levy (not his real name) added gospel singer Kirk Franklin’s “I Smile” and begs to have it played on repeat once a week. 
  • Another student “Jill” added tons of songs by Pittsburgh indie musician and songwriter Jack Stauber, and told me I should listen to him too.
  • Several students requested Compton R&B musician and singer Steve Lacy, formerly of The Internet.
  • Students love hearing Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and continually asks if I listen to him. 
  • While “Lose Yourself” by rapper Eminem and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and “Mi Gente” with Colombian singer and rapper J Balvin and French DJ Willy William gets a lot of play.
  • Even “Let It Go” from the Frozen soundtrack, “Hola Casita!” and “Surface Pressure” from Encanto made its way to a playlist. 

The Results

It’s been nearly three months since we started creating playlists, and some classes have amassed 40+ songs that we can now play at random at the start of class, during Independent Practice, and sometimes at the end of class. 

I was even introduced to new artists, including Canadian musician, singer, and songwriter Mac DeMarco, Japanese-American singer Mitski and Nigerian-born, Chicago-raised rapper and singer Tobi Lou.

The playlists have brought a lot of joy, conversation and a stronger sense of community in our classroom. I often hear students whispering "That's my song!” or whispering while singing the song. They’ll even ask “Who sings this?” or “What kind of music is this?” I even get asked: “Ms. McCray, did you add this song?”

As students continue to add to their playlists (they can add songs until the last day of school), what I’ve learned from this social experiment is that when teachers bring joy into the classroom—no matter how big or small—students will respond.

ND McCray

ND McCray is a graduate student at Relay Graduate School of Education, where she’s earning a masters in secondary English Language Arts. She’s been in education since 2015 and taught English for two years in Beijing, China. She currently teaches 8th grade social studies in a Houston-area middle school.


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