The Greatest Gift

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. and Cara Riggs

 (#6 in a series of blogs focused on Equity, Excellence in E-learning)

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Whenever NCUST visits high-performing urban schools, we interview students. While we learn a great deal by observing classrooms, interviewing principals, watching teachers work together to plan lessons, and listening to the perspectives of parents, often we acquire a deep sense of the reasons behind student success when we listen carefully to the words of students. “Don’t you just love writing?” one middle school student asked as she started explaining how writing provided her an opportunity to help others understand why her large, extended, bilingual, bicultural, binational family was so amazing. At an elementary school, we heard another student explain, “It is up to our generation to save the planet and repair the ecological damage that has occurred over the past 100 years. And, we’re starting right now by learning about carbon emissions and the things kids can do to reduce them.” Similarly, a high school student explained, “I never realized how almost every news 

Teaching Practices from America's Best Urban Schools Second Edition Book Cover

event is influenced by issues of race, gender, and class. I love being able to come to school and analyze current events in ways that are relevant to me and my community.” The high-performing schools NCUST has awarded are fantastic not simply because they lead students to high levels of academic proficiency. They are awe-inspiring because they provide their students the precious gift of experiencing the joy, beauty, and power of learning.

Neither students nor teachers at these schools suggest that every lesson is engaging, exciting, and inspiring. Nonetheless, it is clear that teachers work hard to drain some of the drudgeries out from the traditional classroom day and replace it with learning experiences that students perceive as relevant to their lives and connected to their interests. For example, a student at Dayton Business and Technology High School explained:

At this school, every day, in each class, teachers do something to make the subject real. They show you how what you’re learning is practical. They show you how you can use it. They help you see why they love it. So, you start to love it, too.

Teachers use a variety of strategies to lead their students to love learning. Most importantly, teachers exhibit a sincere enthusiasm that adds energy, value, and meaning to lessons that might have otherwise been perceived as dull or routine. Hattie (2009) acknowledged, that while teacher enthusiasm is rarely studied empirically, it has a powerful influence on student learning. In high-performing schools, teachers exhibit enthusiasm for the content they share, but they also exhibit enthusiasm as their students develop increased fluency with concepts and increased proficiency with skills. Students of all ages thrill when their teachers get excited as they demonstrate mastery of challenging, meaningful objectives.

Additionally, in high-performing schools, teachers lead their students to love learning by highlighting the relevance of lessons to their student’s current and future lives. At schools such as World of Inquiry Elementary in Rochester, New York, Rose Park Math and Science Magnet Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee, or Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, Missouri we found teachers making lessons come to life through problem-based, project-based, or experiential lessons. In dozens of schools throughout the country, we have been impressed by the efforts of math, science, social studies, and literacy teachers to integrate art, music, drama, robotics, physical education, dance, and technology in ways that have led students to find deeper meaning and joy in their academic experiences.

Johnson et al. (2019) described a variety of strategies that teachers in high-performing schools used to help their students develop a love of learning. The chart below highlights some of the practices observed and describes contrasting practices that often fall short of helping students find joy in learning.

Leading students to love learning



 Teaching in a manner that demonstrates a sincere enthusiasm for the content being taught.

Teaching in a manner that suggests to students that the content to be learned is boring to teach and boring to learn.

Helping students see how the content being taught has relevance to their current or future lives.

Telling students that they need to learn the content being taught because it will appear on an upcoming test.

 Teaching in a manner that demonstrates enthusiasm as students make progress toward mastering challenging concepts and skills.

Teaching in a manner that barely acknowledges students as they make progress toward mastering challenging concepts and skills.

Engaging students in projects that require the application of lesson concepts and skills.

Assigning traditional worksheet pages.

Finding opportunities to integrate art, music, drama, and other subjects into core academic instruction.

Avoiding the integration of art, music, drama, or other subjects into core academic instruction because of time constraints.

Promoting student-to-student interaction, as students work to learn important concepts.

Preventing student-to-student interaction, so that students are more likely to remain “on task”.

When educators must use e-learning as the primary mode of teaching, it might be easy for teachers to focus on more conventional lessons. Certainly, it can be more challenging to create lessons that lead students to love learning. Nonetheless, we find many teachers in high-performing schools adapting distance learning lessons to ensure their students see learning opportunities as rich, engaging, and even exciting. For example, we have found teachers:

  • Taking extra time to help students understand why the concepts they are learning are important to their backgrounds, their current lives, or their future lives
  • Engaging students in conversations about how they can use the concepts they will learn in ways that empower them to influence real change in their communities
  • Expressing sincere enthusiasm for the content being taught and explaining the reasons for your enthusiasm
  • Expressing sincere enthusiasm as students demonstrate progress toward learning challenging concepts and skills
  • Allowing small groups of students to act out story plots, mathematical word problems, the interaction of chemical elements, or other phenomena related to the lesson objective


In e-learning, as with face-to-face learning, it is probably easier to serve our students the standard fare of lessons grounded in lectures, textbooks, and work packets; however, those lessons are far less likely to generate deep levels of understanding and mastery and even less likely to generate a real love of learning. In contrast, committed teachers and courageous leaders will commit to providing their students with more meaningful, more powerful, and more lasting gifts: the gifts that go beyond proficiency to ensure that students develop a true love of learning.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Johnson, J.F., Uline, C.L., & Perez, L.G. (2019). Teaching practices from America’s best urban schools: A guide for school and classroom leaders. New York, NY: Routledge.

Concourse Village Elementary School
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