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For the second year, my Adventure Co-op class is studying the idea of happiness in the English language arts component of the course.  The inquiry question that is guiding this process is, “What does it take to live a happy life?”  I’ve seen students’ lives changed in the process of better understanding this question because everyone is pursuing happiness in one way or another.  It’s perhaps the most relevant idea to study in school, especially as my students are currently laying foundations of being that will shape their decisions and interactions as they move from their high school context into other realms of life.  We started out by looking at some of the science and research that’s been done on happiness as well as some of the big ideas that contribute to a person’s level of happiness.  We are now starting to dig a little deeper.

Yesterday we delved into the importance that relationship has on a person’s happiness.  To do this, I started off by showing my students the final scene of the movie “Into the Wild” – a true story about a young man who starts a three year journey from America’s east coast to Alaska in order to fulfill his fanatic idealism.  Along the way, he cuts every meaningful relationship out of his life, including his parents who don’t hear from him for two years.  Unfortunately, when he arrives in Alaska he experiences a series of events that ultimately leads to his death, but not before he has a profound insight into what it means to be happy.

After watching the clip and having a short discussion on the connection between relationships and happiness, I got my students to record their thoughts in a journal reflection.  What I thought would take maybe ten minutes took forty.  What I thought might be a paragraph for most, turned into a page for many.  For young adults who are in a very visceral process of identity building, understanding who their friends are and the impact they have on their lives is a very real process.  One student wrote:

Even though I only watched a short part of the video, it hit me like a ton of bricks… the relevance of this story to my own life, today and in the past week has been on my mind for a while now.

Another wrote:

I’ve never had an opportunity to open my fun side and didnt get an opportunity to connect with people the way i do now, its like a whole new me i can now do things that i couldnt do before.  I make my own choices, i do whatever i want, because i found a set of friends that know what the meaning of life means, the friends that i had before didnt care about school…

It was made very clear to me in the all of the journal reflections I got that my students are very much thinking about their relationships and understanding what they mean.  They know and are surprisingly articulate about how much their friends influence their level of happiness.  For some of my students, having the opportunity to think and process some of these ideas may lead to real change.


About five years ago I came to the startling realization that my teaching lacked direction.  I didn’t really have any idea where I was going pedagogically and, as a result, my students didn’t either.  I was the captain of a ship that was guided by the whim of temperamental winds and leaderless currents.  Interestingly, none of my students ever really questioned me about where they were supposed to be by the end of the course – they simply assumed that I knew where I was going like sheep following a blind shepherd.  If a student ever did question the direction and purpose of a course, I could easily pull together some pat answer about learning how to read and write better.  Boring.  Uninspiring.  The hardest part about this realization was that I would’ve hated being a student in my class.  I would’ve hated not knowing where we were going and would’ve quickly lost motivation.

It was through backwards design and inquiry that I began to find direction in my teaching.  Backwards design helped me understand what I wanted students to know or be able to do after they completed a course with me and inquiry gave me the framework to reach these goals.  It took me four years to refine an inquiry question that had the longevity to inspire and engage my students for a whole semester – a story for another post.  To make a long story short, I found that the questions themselves need to engage – they can’t simply inform.  As such, I’ve tried to make my essential and inquiry questions somewhat provocative – questions that would capture the interest of a room full of teenagers.  The question that my students and I have pursued this semester is:

How can I live a happy life?

I also have four questions that guide the learning in my classroom:

1. How can I accurately interpret a text for meaning?

2. How can I manipulate others through effective communication?

3. How can I avoid being controlled by the media?

4. How can I become a powerful reflective and critical thinker?

These questions challenged, guided, and engaged my class this last semester and  there is still lots (LOTS) of room for improvement.  However, I feel like my class has a direction and purpose that was seriously lacking in my early career as teacher.




This is the first of many article reviews that I’m going to be posting on my blog.  As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have to write reflections on the different articles I read as part of a masters program.  Instead of keeping these reflections to myself, I have decided to share one article reflection per week.  This week’s reflection is from a chapter on qualitative research.

When I realized that the first reading was one dealing with research, I thought to myself, “Oh great.  The first one has to be the most boring.”  I’m guessing that if you’re anything like me, the word ‘research’ falls into the ‘four letter word’ category.  When I think about doing research, I think about sitting in a room in the library, florescent bulb buzzing just loud enough to be annoying, with an arsenal of boring books that my eyes seem to want to protect my brain from because they keep on closing every time I try to read them.

When I read this chapter from a book about qualitative research (sounds like the ultimate torture right?  Doing research on research…yikes) – surprisingly, my views on research started to change.  The introduction from The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln was a surprisingly engaging and inspirational read.

The authors describe qualitative research as:

A situated activity that locates the observer in the world.  It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible.  These practices transform the world…Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study; personal experience; introspection; life story; interview; artifacts; cultural texts and productions; observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives” (p.36,37).

This makes sense to me, and more, this is what I want to do.  I want to transform the world.  If doing research is one of the ways I can do this, then maybe this is something I need to consider more seriously.

In this chapter there are two metaphors describing researching that really stood out to me: researching as filmmaking and researching as montage.  Both of these images have important things to say about researching.  The process of creating films or a montage requires many different shots, perspectives, and sounds that are edited and then put together in a way that makes sense.  In the same way, qualitative research takes many different forms of information gathering and then, through the process of analysis and interpretation, pieces them together to create a deeper understanding about the topic, question, or inquiry that was the focus of the research.  Although the idea of research seems cold and dispassionate, the aesthetic of putting together a film or montage is something that appeals to me.

The process of using many different forms of data collection to inform your research is called triangulation which “reflects an attempt to secure an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon in question” (p.5).  It is the “simultaneous display of multiple, refracted realities” (p.6).  Although qualitative research is at it’s heart a subjective process (which is why it is often scoffed at by those engaged in quantitative research),  triangulation allows for a greater degree of accuracy and objectivity.  However, this being said, “qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry” (p.10).  I appreciate that the authors don’t try to make amends for the subjective nature of qualitative research but see it as offering a deeper, perhaps more honest reflection of reality.

Although this chapter has much more to say about qualitative research, the above mentioned ideas had the greatest impact on me.  I personally connect with the idea of research as art; realizing that research is subjective and open to different interpretations breathes life into the process for me.  It makes the whole process more authentic.  That’s not to say that I won’t strive for objectivity, but it recognizes that my subjective being and perspective is part in parcel in the act of researching.  After reading this chapter I felt much more excited about gathering data and starting my inquiry research.  I also look forward to sharing this information with you!


Denzin, N.K., and Y.S. Lincoln.  ‘Introduction’.
The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research.
US: Sage, 2005 ISBN: 9780761927570, pp. 1 to 32, 32 of 1232 pages.
Copyright: Sage, 2005


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