Writing With Ross Gay’s BOOK OF DELIGHTS to Teach Positive Psychology

Today’s guest post is from K. Keener. K. Keener (www.kakeener.com) has taught English in a variety of contexts across four continents and all levels for 21 years in total.  She began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe and most recently taught at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York. Currently, she is taking a year off to travel and write a series of novellas about a digital nomad. (See EscapeHatchSeries.com for more info.). 

Each year I teach an 11th grade English class called Psychology in Literature.  Many of the texts are straight-up depressing; Classics such as The Bell Jar and 1984 are not known for their happy endings.  In order to try to counteract the sink-hole effect of reading about mental health struggles while in the churn of teen angst, I try to start the year off with a unit in positive psychology.  Much of the research I present in the unit (see my slides here) is inspired/stolen from this free online course in positive psychology

After students learn about habits that could increase their sense of well-being, I ask them to read and imitate the mentor text Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (here are the excerpts I use from the text). Written in short prose (which I teach the students to call vignettes) Gay’s writing takes delight in everyday occurances such as strangers waving to each other when driving past one another in small towns to flowers placed in the hands of statues in parks.  While Gay does not discuss the helpful habits endorsed by positive psychology, many of these habits must be exercised in order to write one of his vignettes of  “delight.” 

In a year where students felt isolated even more than they may normally feel as growing and shifting young adults, these mentor texts buoyed us.  One of the main habits that positive psychology has shown us can lead to a greater sense of well-being is savoring.  I love this habit.  It is free.  It can be done anywhere.  It can be done while you are doing other things.  As a teacher who belongs to a team that barely chews their food in a 20 minute lunch pause, I needed the habit of savoring more than I realized.  

In the lesson on savoring there were two key components:  

  • Slowing down and using all senses to notice an experience
  • Thinking actively about the experience ending in order to intensify the present moment

In my class, we practiced savoring before we started reading Gay’s work.  There are many activities to encourage students to slow down and be mindful, but here’s a few to get you started. 

  • The Raisin Experience A mindfulness activity to encourage students to mindfully eat a raisin, but this could be used with any small food. I have more success with dried mango.
  • Box Breathing An activity that breaks breathing down into four parts which can encourage students to feel each of the four parts of our own breath.
  • Mindful Music Listening This includes four steps to try to listen mindfully to the layers of music in a song. This might be great to turn into a homework activity.

Next, I ask students to manipulate their enjoyment of a moment by considering the finite nature of the moment.  This may not sound like the most upbeat move, but according to one study on what is called temporal scarcity in the journal Psychological Science asking students to think about the end of things can lead to them valuing the present more.  Dr. Jaime L. Kurtz designed a study that asked college students to reflect on graduation and found that they then reported greater subjective well-being in their college experiences after such reflections.  

After the raisin experiment and several reflections on the temporal scarcity of their time in high school, I ask students to write a vignette inspired by Ross Gay as a mentor text.  They are well-primed by all of this savoring to consider the joy in everyday things.  

As they read Ross Gay’s work, they notice some of the following moves he makes that they can also imitated: 

  • Long sentences to express exuberance
  • Short sentences and intentional fragments to give a increase the impact of a small point
  • Sensory descriptions of a setting that inspired the delight
  • Metacognitive moments about how his observations mean something about humidity as a whole

We weren’t the only ones crushing on Ross Gay’s text; This American Life also interviewed him after they inspired to produce an entire episode called “The Show of Delights.”

Some Resources: 

Here’s the task sheet that I gave the students.  

Here’s a student exemplar from the class. 

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