What are we celebrating today?

I asked the above question at the beginning of every one of my classes, whether I was teaching kids or adults. Sometimes I asked it a little differently, as in, "Who has good news?" or "Who has something good to say?" However I worded it, it always meant the same thing. It was a call for celebrating life, for focusing on what’s right and what’s good. And it was always fun! It was part of a life-affirming ritual that started by accident in the 1970–71 school year and continued until I stopped classroom teaching in 2001—thirty years of celebrating! By a conservative estimate, I asked one of these questions at the beginning of class about twenty-seven thousand times. And every time I asked, I got five or more positive responses. That’s a lot of celebrating!

Believe it or not, this little ritual started as the result of two things that usually have a negative connotation, especially with kids: current events and homework. At the high school level I often taught courses in United States history and in American government. Whenever I taught either of these two subjects, there was a nightly homework assignment in current events. The average high school kid is woefully uninformed about anything unrelated to music, sports, and other forms of entertainment, so reading the actual news section of a newspaper was a completely new experience for most of them.

Within a few weeks they got the hang of it and were actually surprised at their newly developed ability to carry on an intelligent conversation about what was going on in a world they hardly knew existed just a short time before. Just as we were settling into our routine, a student’s innocent observation jolted me. He said, "You know, Dr. Urban, for being such a positive guy, you sure give a negative homework assignment." Somewhat startled, I replied with, "What do you mean?" He simply stated that most of the news was bad news, and he added, "It’s kind of a downer." He had me.

We had a long class discussion about this, and I was surprised at how involved the students were. While we had several theories on the reasons for so much bad news, we all agreed on one thing: We needed to receive more good news. This is something I mulled over for quite some time. I was requiring my students to read all this bad news and at the same time jeopardizing my reputation with many of them as "Mr. Positive."

I was now more determined than ever to prove to my students that there was something to celebrate every day and to work a daily dose of good news into our learning environment. So the next day at the beginning of class I asked, "What are we celebrating today?" They thought I meant that it was some day of historical significance, and they should know it. So I said, "Let me ask it a different way: Who has good news? Who has something good to say?" Since this was the first time I’d started class that way, they were a bit mystified. I said, "Since you’re having such a hard time finding good news in the newspaper, let’s see if we can find some in our own lives." They thought it was a great way to start class, and it developed into something that had a profound and lasting impact on both my students and me.

Over the years of doing this, we heard just about every bit of good news possible. Some were small things, some were huge things. But most important was that my students learned to look for the good in everyday life and then to share it with others. This simple little ritual also had a buildup effect. Each day we added to the good news of the previous day, and so on. And each day my students increased their awareness of all the good news going on around them all the time. They looked for it, they found it, and they celebrated it by sharing it with others.

Over the years I added three more choices as ways to celebrate the day. My students could share something or someone they were thankful for. We called this "perpetual good news." Another option was to say something complimentary about a classmate, and the last one was to share something funny—as long as it was clean. I’ll discuss each of these additional ways to celebrate in chapters to follow. They have implications for all of us—at school, within our families, in the workplace, among friends, everywhere.

Since this little ritual of celebration was so popular with my high school students, I thought I’d try it with my adults at the university. My fears that they might be too hardened by life and cynical were quickly allayed. They absolutely loved it and had even more good news than the kids did. Several of these people were in management positions, and they said they liked the idea so much that they’d started opening their regular meetings in much the same way. Their employees also loved it.

As enjoyable as it was to hear good news at least five times a day, I originally had no idea that it would have such a lasting impact on all of us. At the end of that first year of celebrating at the beginning of every class, I received some surprising and valuable feedback on my final exams. Part One of the test was a comprehensive review on all the subject matter covered during the semester and was done in class. Part Two was a take-home exam and allowed the students to express themselves more fully about their learning experiences. These were the instructions: "What are the three things you learned in this class that were of the most value to you? Why? Write one page on each topic."
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