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Exploring the Idea of 'Happiness' As Part of School Work

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Luca Nisalli
Luca Nisalli

Happiness isn't often a big topic of conversation in classrooms. Amidst the rush to meet standards, raise test scores, and provide engaging learning experiences, not to mention the daily chaos of students’ lives, many educators don't have much time to bring up issues around students' happiness.

But what if students could explore an important life lesson about how to identify and replicate happiness as they're doing school work? That's the premise behind New Tech Network's Global Happiness Project. The driving question behind the project is this: What elements contribute to a happy and healthy society? More than 240 teachers across in 43 states and 11 countries are taking up that challenge.

As part of the project, students will discuss what it means to be happy and how happiness manifests in their own lives. Based on their personal definitions of happiness, they’ll develop a survey to give to a wider community in order to gauge the community’s definition of happiness. Students will then analyze the survey results and design a local or global advocacy project to improve happiness in their local community.

The project’s structure is fairly simple, and teachers have modified it in lots of creative ways to better fit with their own curriculum.

A high school in urban Cleveland has taken a unique approach to the Happiness Project. Led by an ambitious teacher who questions the high-stakes testing culture at a low-income school, she's asking students to look within. And rather than integrating the project into her course, Melissa Svigelj-Smith, who co-teaches an American Studies course combining American History and English II, decided to test out discussions of happiness with her group of students during advisory time, which meets for 45 minutes each day.


“They all responded that seeing their friends at school made them happy, but school itself was not making them happy,” she said.

All students at New Tech West on the western side of Cleveland receive free and reduced price lunch, many are English Language Learners, and the student body is ethnically diverse.

“A lot of schools like ours are completely driven towards testing,” said Svigelj-Smith. “It inspired me to integrate some of that happiness and how to be happy and how to take control over your happiness into school.”

Svigelj-Smith’s students were constantly asking her why she was smiling, asking her about what she does outside of school. She also felt inspired by teenager Logan LaPlante’s Ted Talk in which he describes schools as places that teach kids how to make a living, not how to live life. “Part of what he defined as success was health and happiness,” Svigelj-Smith said. She wasn’t sure her students knew how to be happy. “It was something I thought might give students a sense of empowerment over their lives,” Svigelj-Smith said.

Svigelj-Smith is trying to forcibly change that, asking her advisory students to mentor freshman. “Sometimes just pushing them in a direction that you think will benefit them, even when there’s resistance in the beginning, in the end they’re grateful,” she said. Her students recently did a presentation on how the work with freshman is going and reported a feeling of satisfaction for giving back to someone else successfully.

One of the hardest, but most rewarding tasks Svigelj-Smith has been working on this year is helping students to have a growth mindset about their learning. Growth mindset is a term coined by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who found students who believe they can improve skills through hard work fair better. Some of Svigelj-Smith’s students with Individual Study Plans (ISPs) had never been told they were smart before. “That was really eye opening for them because they had been told prior that they were in this position and this is where they were going to stay,” Svigelj-Smith said.

She’s now trying to relate the idea of happiness to that of growth mindset, encouraging students to think about steps they can take to make themselves happier. She’s pushing them to set happiness goals and to imagine happiness as another mindset they can work towards. It’s a slow process, but Svigelj-Smith is glad it’s a topic that can take some pressure off the many tests 10th graders in Ohio have to take.


Sophomore English students in Valerie Hoover’s class at Rochester High School in rural Indiana, are reading the play Our Town and weaving elements of the happiness project into their analysis of the characters and setting within their reading. The driving question for Hoover’s class as they explore happiness is a quote from the Thornton Wilder play asked by Emily in the third Act: “Do any human being ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute.”

“I had this in my mind, what I wanted to do in terms of the Our Town book and that big question of, how do we make every moment feel important,” Hoover said. “I wanted to take that context and move it into the bigger community and how the little things we do everyday affect the community.”

To get at the question of what makes the larger community happy, Hoover’s students are researching the history of Rochester’s historic downtown to discover how the past might inform feelings about the present. Students will reach out to businesses owners for permission to post QR codes that will link to interactive descriptions of what used to stand in different local locations. That way community members can access students’ research.

Hoover wants to bring the whole project full circle by integrating individual happiness with community happiness. She’s asking her students to design and execute a community service project that will help increase Rochester’s level of happiness. “I’m really anxious to see their reaction to the research of our town and the community service aspect,” Hoover said. “I think they’ll run with it.”

Meanwhile the class’s deep dive into what makes people happy is surfacing again as students analyze Our Town. Students are discussing difficult, philosophical ideas like whether the characters are happy or merely content, if there’s a difference between the two, and does one need one to have the other? “There are all these big open-ended questions that we’re getting into,” Hoover said.

In Indiana, all 10th graders have to take an end-of-year assessment that determines if they graduate high school, so there’s a lot of attention on writing skills, understanding how questions are phrased on that test, and completing tasks on time. Hoover described it not as teaching to the test, but an overall awareness that it’s there. She said the Our Town happiness project has been a great way to get students practicing their analytical and writing skills.



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