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Why We Need Hygge Classrooms in America

This blog started with the ubiquitous FB meme:

In Iceland, books are exchanged as Christmas Eve presents, then you spend the rest of the night in bed reading them and eating chocolate. The tradition is part of a season called Jolabokafload, the Christmas Book flood, because Iceland, which publishes more books per capita than any other country, sells most of its books between September and November, due to people preparing for the upcoming holiday.

Nobody ever responds: That sounds awful! My family prefers watching our individual TVs!

Generally, commenters reply wistfully, longing for a country where learning is valued and books are ideal gifts, where the dark and cold are counterbalanced by intellectual curiosity and conversation.

Thanks to the Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland, they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded, every print-run is sold. Being a writer in Iceland you get rewarded all the time: People really do read our books, and they have opinions, they love them or they hate them. At the average Christmas party, people push politics and the Kardashians aside and discuss literature.

Perhaps because I live in a region that gets 135 inches of snow each winter, these cozy, fireside literary chats are enormously appealing to me. As is the Danish concept of hygge:

 "The Danish art of contentment, comfort, and connection...a practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of very real life." 

Hygge (hoo-ga), which has no direct translation into English—surprise!—is many things to many people: Woolen socks. Candles and other gentle light. Board games. Comfortable couches and cozy quilts. Warm drinks.

Although hygge seems to have Scandinavian roots, it's not exclusively a cold-climate thing, evidently. A rustic cottage on a lake, with its beat-up furniture, mildewed paperbacks from the 1950s and second-hand bathing suits is very hygge, according to Meik Wiking, author of "The Little Book of Hygge" and, not coincidentally, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The mere fact that there is a Happiness Research Institute, somewhere in the world, makes me—well, happy.

The interesting thing about hygge and Jolabokafload is their inherent intentionality. Citizens in Iceland and Denmark take contentment, comfort and connection seriously, and pursue them with deliberation. Choosing the right book for someone means you know that person, and what they might enjoy reading. Playing games with your family means connecting with them, laughing and teamwork.

So why don't we pursue this, here in the land of the free, home of the brave? What keeps us, a nation that often proclaims itself the best country in the world, or at least on its way to becoming "great" again, from choosing to embrace contentment and connection?

Perhaps Scandinavians are better able to appreciate the small, hygge things in life because they already have all the big ones nailed down: free university education, social security, universal health care, efficient infrastructure, paid family leave, and at least a month of vacation a year. With those necessities secured, according to Wiking, Danes are free to become "aware of the decoupling between wealth and wellbeing."

That decoupling between wealth and wellbeing is well-reflected in this headline: Children Need Homes, Not Charter Schools or Standardized Tests, and Definitely Not Tax Cuts for the Wealthy.

That's where our intentionality lies in the U.S., where we're spending our hard-earned tax dollars—canned curricula designed to raise test scores and alternative school governance models, endless expensive tests—when over 100,000 New York City schoolchildren were homeless last year. According to Senator Orin Hatch, we don't even have money for poor children's basic health care.  As a nation, we have linked simple human well-being to wealth, and sealed it with the tamper-proof cap of low opportunity.

Many teachers try to add hygge touches to the classrooms where their high-poverty students meet and work every day—from beanbag chairs to classroom sets of snowpants for outdoor play, from little free libraries to Cocoa Day. If school can become a place of connectivity, warmth and safety, they reason, students will keep coming back.

Happy Hygge-days, Teacher in a Strange Land readers.  Thanks for all you do for your students.

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