We Don't Have to Sacrifice Joy for Rigor in the Classroom

Voices | Diversity and Equity

We Don't Have to Sacrifice Joy for Rigor in the Classroom

How radical Black joy transformed student engagement and academic performance in this teacher's classroom.

By Deaunna Watson     Sep 27, 2023

We Don't Have to Sacrifice Joy for Rigor in the Classroom

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

A joyful class is a rigorous class.
A rigorous class is a joyful class.

I wrote this mantra on a sticky note and placed it on my desk as a daily reminder that my students’ right to access joy is just as important as academic rigor. During my third year of teaching, I struggled to envision what rigorous learning looks, sounds and feels like without joy. I had to ask myself: What is rigor? Why do we sacrifice joy for rigor in our classrooms? More urgently, why did I have so much anxiety about my Black students experiencing this joy in the classroom? We live in a racialized society that shapes our thoughts, practices and behaviors. None of us are exempt from the power of this influence and internalization. This is why our work of unlearning and relearning is important.

My experience in the classroom has taught me that educators who work with diverse student populations must interrogate our thought processes and internalized biases to transform learning environments from spaces of compliance to spaces of joy. In my classes, Radical Black Joy not only sustained us in our learning, but it became necessary to create liberatory spaces for students and transform relationships within the school community.

Cultivating a Culture

One day during my English class, Khalil, one of my sixth grade students, created a live soundtrack to accompany my lesson on mentor sentences. His musical equipment? Two pencils and a school desk he used for drumsticks and a drum:





Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I grew up in a house where music blared from the speakers in our living room; our ancestors danced inside picture frames as beats reverberated throughout the walls of our many homes. Despite my love for music, I thought, there is a time and a place, right? Several questions ran through my head as I thought about how to respond: Did he have to do this while an administrator was observing me? How do I regain control? Give a warning? Take the pencils away? Redirect him? Of course, all eyes in the classroom were on me, anticipating how I would respond. I took a deep breath, preparing for the power struggle I expected to happen:

“Khalil, if you gon’ drop a beat, at least do a better one so I can drop a verse.”

“Oooooooh,” my twenty-eight students roared in unison.

“Aight, I got you,” Khalil grinned, accepting the challenge. Even Devon, as quiet and shy as he was, lifted his head to take in the action.

“After we get through this lesson on mentor sentence and all of you pair-share for edits,” I emphasized, setting the conditions.

“Bet!” the classroom agreed.

The students eagerly began working together to accomplish their tasks while I visited students who needed more support. I was quite sure that the administrator sitting in the back of the room felt that I had given in to chaos. A rigorous class is a busy class, but busy can be joyful, too.

My student taught me the power of Radical Black Joy and how it can be used to fuel belonging and learning performance in a community. Similarly, Sequoia Thompson and Eric Rey of SoCal Grantmakers said that, “Radical Black Joy means coming together to uplift what has been historically shunned. To return to the collective happiness that white supremacy insidiously corrupted to separate us from each other and ourselves.”

As educators, we must ask ourselves what we can do within our capacity to co-create a cultural landscape that decenters the white gaze and allows the full breadth of the human experience. How do we accomplish this? We allow students to co-create a space that prioritizes their joy with as much intensity as it prioritizes academic rigor.

Creating a Song

In the summer of 2017, rapper Cardi B dropped the Diamond-certified single, “Bodak Yellow”, and my students couldn’t get enough of it. The song activated their inner joy as well as their confidence, so I used this opportunity to establish our English Language Arts anthem, "Bodak Goals":

Said I got major plans

So I make major moves (Look)

I got major plans

That’s why I come to school

I got dreams so I work real hard

To make them come true

You got dreams

What you waitin’ on

We got work to do (ayyye)

We performed this song daily – sometimes in the lunchroom, at the start of class, standing on chairs, and even at school assemblies. We all set reading goals, including myself, and we worked rigorously to fully realize our goals. We measured our reading achievement using the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, which uses Common Core standards to measure what students know and how they grow in math and reading. After taking the assessment, our class report revealed that we had achieved almost two years of reading growth. The combination of our classroom culture and reading growth achievement earned our class the 2018 Southwest Ohio Teach For America Classroom of the Year Award. More importantly, radical Black joy brought an air of magic to our classroom that was uniquely ours to hold and nurture.

Building a Movement

We live in a society that stories the Black experience with struggle, strife and death. Radical Black Joy gives students an opportunity to bear witness to the full expanse of Black humanity and community. In the summer of 2020, not only did my students bear witness to a catastrophic pandemic that uprooted their sense of normalcy, but they also bore witness to the power of the Black Lives Matter Movement right after the murder of George Floyd.

With so much uncertainty and sorrow in the world, how could I center Black Radical Joy in my classroom,- particularly with the looming concern of learning loss that consumed the education community? The short answer: we dance. As administrators, educators, parents, and students, we found joy in our bodies. For Black History Month, students were not permitted in the school building due to public health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consequently, the Black Culture Classic was born at DECA Middle in which staff members performed songs by Black artists that have brought joy to the world.

Despite not being able to meet in person, we shared this joy with our school community via social media and invited them to use dance to capture their own joy in the midst of chaotic and uncertain times. It is no surprise that Franky Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go” accompanied our electric slide dance in the school parking lot as we launched our first district-wide Juneteenth celebration that same year. Students danced next to parents who danced next to teachers who danced next to senators. This was Black. This was radical. This was joy.

A classroom that centers joy is a classroom that centers leadership, culture and academics. Radical Black Joy sustains us in a society set up to restrict our humanity and limit our lived experiences. Though I was the teacher, my students taught me to yield to joy on our terms – without permission and apology. We do not always have to perform labor before we access joy. Joy is not something to earn but something that is ours to hold onto, regardless of our external conditions. While many societal conditions threaten the welfare and culture of our classrooms, we must create opportunities to experience authentic joy. This is where students come alive and engagement blooms. I challenge every stakeholder to reimagine how learning looks and feels. Our Black students’ learning experience depends on it.

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