A Review of Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness by Katie Egan Cunningham
Recently, happiness has been on my mind. I’ve been thinking about the importance of happiness and ways to be happier. My personal reading has included a few books about happiness, I’ve chatted with a friend about the idea of happiness, and I even attended a presentation at a local university given by the author of a book on the topic of happiness. When I saw that Katie Egan Cunningham had a new book, Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness, it seemed only fitting that I extend my exploration of happiness to include my professional learning. If the pursuit of happiness is so important in my life as an adult, naturally, it seems that it’s also important in the lives of the children I teach.
At the core of Start with Joy is the belief that students' happiness is as important as their academic learning. The purpose of the book is to show how students’ happiness can be supported during literacy learning. Cunningham stresses throughout the book that we should be intentional about supporting students’ happiness. We can’t just hope that students’ happiness is a by-product of the literacy instruction we provide, but instead we can design opportunities for students to engage in literacy work that is joyful.
In Chapter One, Cunningham provides a convincing rationale, which includes some statistics about the rates of depression and research related to students’ happiness, as to why we need to design our literacy instruction to foster students’ happiness. She also states, “A primary goal of becoming a strong reader and writer is to help one design the life they want to lead. A happy life” (p. 8). The next seven chapters of the book describe each of the pillars that can provide a foundation for our thinking around joyful literacy instruction and guide us in designing instruction that will support students’ academic achievement and their happiness. The pillars that Cunningham describes are:
- Connection: fostering social interactions among our students
- Choice: providing students choice so they feel empowered in their learning
- Challenge: supporting students as learners so they move beyond what they can currently do
- Play: incorporating a playful spirit into literacy instruction
- Story: encouraging students to find and tell their stories
- Discovery: building on students’ sense of awe and wonder
- Movement: inviting students to move to enhance their learning
For each of the pillars that Cunningham writes about, she provides multiple suggestions for ways that it can be incorporated into literacy instruction. Cunningham writes from the perspective of someone who has experience in the classroom and working with literacy learners, so her ideas are relevant and practical. In Chapter Nine, she encourages teachers to start small and reminds us that, “...change happens because of all the small things we do over time with consistency” (p. 148). In Part Two of the book, Cunningham offers ten “invitations,” possibilities for lessons, that will bring meaning, purpose, and happiness to our instruction. Like other ideas throughout the book, these invitations are easy to implement and practical.
For me, the best professional books are those that include practical ideas that can improve my instruction. As I was reading Start with Joy, I found myself making note of many ideas that I wanted to try out. In addition, I appreciate professional books that push me to think about my instruction in new ways. Reading this book has made me think more deeply about the necessity of being intentional when it comes to students’ happiness and the ways that I can make small shifts in my language and instruction to create more joyful literacy learning. Start with Joy is a book I plan to reread so I can process it more deeply. I also think it would make a great choice for a professional book club read because it will spark conversation about what is essential for our students' literacy instruction and the ways in which we can bring joy to our students' literacy lives.
Cunningham, K.E. (2019). Start with joy: Designing literacy learning for student happiness. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse.