Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Quick Tip #25 - Teacher Growth

Ask for feedback - then implement it, or at the very least - RESPOND!

Full Transcript

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

How To... End the Quarter When You're Not Giving Marks

There are so many steps when you're teaching without marks. I only use narrative feedback as of this year with my 7th grade ELA students, so I needed to create a spreadsheet with the list of items that need to be done during the quarter and then what needs to be completed at the end of each quarter.

The spreadsheet is located HERE, and an explanation of how I use it is in the video below. It's long, and it's not perfect, but it's finished. I hope you can use it or the documents included to begin something like this with your own students!

One of my "geniuses" is being organized. (Thank you to Angela Maiers for asking me on a Skype call one time!) It takes some sort of organization to take on something like this. I've tried to make it easy on you, just in case you'd like to join me in this wonderful adventure...

My resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                    Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect
                                    My own reflections on this journey

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Challenge Your Own Ideas

I just finished reading The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening true story of a whiz kid and his homemade nuclear reactor, by Ken Silverstein, from 2004.

David Hahn lived in Commerce Township, MI (a suburb of Detroit), and loved science. He wanted to collect each element on the periodic table. He wanted to... well, you can tell by the title of the story. Feel free to read it for details, but this is not a book review.

This is what caught my eye, from my teaching viewpoint:
If he'd been interested, David would have found it a simple matter to learn about the cons as well as the pros of the atomic age. But as with newfound converts to any cause, David wanted his ideas reinforced, not challenged. Certainly, the Curies and some of the other nuclear pioneers had suffered as a result of their labors, but that hadn't kept them out of the laboratory. For David, as for his heroes, the thrill of discovery made worthwhile any risks. (p 56)
Myriad stories of nuclear disasters and failed breeder reactors later...
Hence, despite coming of age at a time in which all the assorted screwups and accidents of the atomic age had generated a powerful antinuclear movement, David remained comfortably cocooned within the confident optimism of the 1950s and 1960s. His passion for the atom was fueled by the conservative family and community environment in which he was raised, as well as a natural aversion to intellectual challenge (which does not bode well for a career in science). "I tried not to read anything that would disappoint me or make me negative," he said candidly of his research strategy. "If I knew it had a critical perspective, I wouldn't even pick it up." (p 133)
YES. I remember when I first started learning about Genius Hour, I would NOT look at any blog posts or articles that went against what I wanted to hear. After awhile, however, words written against this type of learning really stuck in my head. I started to leave comments on their blog posts, sharing my thoughts. I really didn't want to see what they wrote back, but gradually I became interested more in the conversation than the one-sided "echo chamber" that I had fallen into. I created a new tab on the LiveBinder for opposing views.

My seventh graders experienced something similar this week. No matter how much we stress that we discuss ideas so that we may LEARN from others, I have a few who believe in one way or the other and will NOT budge during a fishbowl discussion... yet. They do NOT want to hear the other side... yet. They say they are listening, and yet they keep going back to what they'd already said before, or they share more of their own ideas, not even taking time to acknowledge that someone else spoke. They wanted to continue the discussion in the next period because, "I just have one more thing I need to say."

My last class, however, came to find peace in their fishbowl discussion on Friday. They admitted that there are different perspectives, from different times in the story. I happened to catch it on camera.
After this was said, their discussion petered out, and they agreed to disagree, without any animosity afterwards. They're learning to accept different opinions - so difficult at this age. I have a plan to help my other two classes see different perspectives the next time we conduct a fishbowl discussion... I'll let you know how it goes in a future post!

As teachers, we NEED to research. It's our duty to seek the opposition. Seek out other educators who have tried what we want to try in the classroom. Read or hear their stories of triumph, and of failure. Read about successes they celebrated and pitfalls they endured.

I believe it's also our duty to share what we're trying, so we can INVITE opposition. I share with parents every two weeks (our class updates are here). When parents express that they are not happy about something I'm doing (or not doing) in the classroom and my ideas are challenged, I become more reflective. I see through another lens and question the ideas once again. I conduct more research. I ask more questions. When educators challenge my ideas on Twitter or on this blog, I can now see it as an opportunity to GROW.

Here's my challenge for you: Start a blog if you haven't already. Write about what's important to you. Share your ideas. Watch your reflection become more useful, and watch your ideas develop and change. Do not become like David Hahn - in jeopardy of hurting yourself or those around you. Share, and seek responses - positive or negative.

Ready to start your blog? Here are seven tools compared by Richard Byrne!

Monday, January 30, 2017


Talk. Talk. Talk.

So much negative talk on television. On Facebook. On Twitter.

It can get to me sometimes - I need quiet. Solitude. And then Monday rolls around...

How am I supposed to be my happy camper self around others when I'm so bummed by what I'm seeing on television and social media? First, I thank my parents for my first name, and then I do what I'm really good at - start a new day with a fresh perspective. This attitude has always helped me through what life may throw my way.

So what do I do? Well, first I tweet out what I think is a beautiful message...

Only it has a terrible error for an ELA teacher... SEW?!   REALLY, JOY?!?!   SOW!! SOW!!
I don't see it until I'm at school when I'm on the class Twitter account and see that my superintendent retweeted it! Yikes!! It has 30 retweets! Oh, my... there goes my reputation!

Anyway... I get to school and say "good morning" (with a smile!) to all I see. One response sets me back five paces, however...

"There's nothing good about it" is one response as this person continues down the hall, obviously not wanting to talk. Sigh. I'm back where I was Sunday night. Thinking about all the negativity.

Since I've resolved to try to complain less this year, I don't say anything until I confide in a friend at the end of the day. She listens (she's one of the best listeners I know!), and offers something to this effect... "Maybe there's something else in their life that really is getting them down."

Bam. It hit me. I should have listened. I should have not thought about my OWN thoughts. I should have turned around and followed this person and LISTENED.

I'm good at listening to students. They are my focus throughout the day. I need to truly listen to coworkers. If I want more for our world, it starts with listening. Why didn't I take my own advice and show kindness by simply listening?

I made up my mind to chat with this teacher tomorrow morning - to see if I can help in any way. Even if it's just to LISTEN.

More Here: 3 Reminders on How 'Just Listening' Is Sometimes the Best Approach

What Do "Real" Readers Do?

"How can we prove we're reading?"
A common question from students when you are not giving marks in an ELA class and students have to give evidence for their grade at the end of each quarter...

I began my first version of Genius Hour in 2012 because I was upset with how little my students were reading. Come to think of it, this was probably my first attempt at classwork without a grade attached, too. Instead of requiring a book project for ONE book a quarter (and many being able to get that "A" without actually READING the book), students were now reading what they wanted one day every week, and sharing what they read somehow (their choice). This was the first way I included independent reading DURING class. (It was my 15th year teaching, but only my 2nd year in an ELA classroom - forgive me for not including independent reading prior to this!)

This School Year...
Fast-forward, and my classes have no grades until they provide evidence to me at the end of each quarter why they should have a certain grade. I currently ask students to keep track of what they're reading on the in-class log we pass around each time we read independently in class (15-20 min a day). I take these home at the end of each Thursday and decide who I will have a conference with that Friday. (All other times, I'm reading alongside them.) These conferences could be to ask what they're reading at home (since the log shows they are NOT reading at home), to ask if they could give more book talks (as the log shows they are finishing books and not sharing them), or to ask them to challenge themselves or even a simple, "Have you read ___ yet?" The in-class log has proved to be valuable, and they pass it around (on a clipboard with attached pen) without much distraction each time we read.

They are not fans (yet) of keeping track on their own of what they're reading. They don't see the reasons why. I have provided a log for each student in the past, but it seemed a chore for them to write down what they finished, and what they abandoned. I never had a log when I was a student, and I've read about the negative effects of reading logs, so I don't require them to have one at this point in their lives. These logs were great to help me have conversations with students about what genres they enjoy, or encouraging them to branch out of their comfort zone, but the fact that it was a "chore" and that some students would lie on it was detrimental to the entire independent reading experience. What are our goals? Read MORE. ENJOY reading. That log did not help us reach our goals.

Some students feel fine speaking in front of the class. I record their book talks, add them to our Weebly here, and we're currently practicing giving feedback (that only I used to give) using this form. This feedback gets copied and pasted into the online grade book, so they receive same-day feedback and something to focus on the next time they share.

I ask students to provide evidence to prove that they are reading at least 20 minutes each day outside of class. The in-class log is the only resource we have right now that is a constant for all students. Then there are the students who don't mind giving book talks. My other students want to know what else they can use to prove that they are reading outside of class.

The true question I need to address, however, is this:
     How can students share what they're reading?

If they are sharing the books they love, they'll be proving that they're reading. More importantly, their peers will soon be reading those books. (That is the hope! That is the goal!) It's the great circle that gets them reading more and more. I am excited for students to add more books to their "to read next" lists! (Ahem - like "real" readers do!) So maybe the even BETTER question is...

What do "real" readers do?
     1) Being a "real" reader myself, I keep the books I've read in two places - a Google doc for each year (so I can keep track of my "gaps" - I still don't read "enough" mysteries), and on Goodreads, so I can keep track of what I've read - organized by categories I establish. (I also love Goodreads to keep track of books I WANT to read. My "to read next" list is on Goodreads, accessible from my laptop, iPad, or phone. I ask my students to create "to read next" lists - most are currently on the last pages of student binders.) Goodreads is not an option for many of my students, as they are not all yet 13. I've heard good things about BiblioNasium, and I've just created an account...
     2) As a "real" reader, I also blog about books I love. Sometimes I give a book review, other times a brief synopsis, and still others I blog about what I did as a result of reading the book.
     3) As a teacher / reader, I give myriad book talks, and share book trailers with my students.

Because I want my students to be life-long readers, I'm suggesting these
Blog (or Paper to post in the room)
     -Book reviews
     -Thoughts or actions after reading a book (reading response options listed below)
     -A letter to the author
Book advertisements
     -Movie clip / book trailer / commercial
     -Book talk (in class, or for announcements)
     -Book blurb right IN the book or ON the book, and put on a "student recommendations" shelf
     -"What I'm reading" - tape a picture of the cover of the book on their locker or on a wall w/their name & picture
Big Idea Notebooks
     -Thanks to Penny Kittle's Book Love, we have these themed notebooks to share our reading.
Reading Response Options
     -These are such fun for me to read, too! Students post these on our bulletin board (unless there's a spoiler...)
BilioNasium (or Goodreads!)
     -I will see what I can do to include this resource into our days.

How can I tie these into gamification? More points for more authentic audience reach, of course! 1st time advertisements get the most XPs (experience points). Too many students sharing about the same book gets old for students. I dabbled in gamification last year, and am willing to try again. I just REALLY want reading to be its own motivation. I know there will be seventh graders who do not love reading, so I'm keeping the gamification route open...

Thanks for the push from Sara Wilkie tonight, who shared with me Shaelynn Farnsworth's post on Alice Keeler's blog about "6 Alternatives to Reading Logs..." She's got more ideas here! Thanks to Sara, it was time for me to hit "publish" on this older draft! It doesn't have to be perfect to publish...!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Feedback In Lieu of Grading - Quarter Two

My reflection this quarter is for my students... I'd like to share with you your thoughts and suggestions, and how I'd like to proceed. Let's keep having the much-needed conversations about learning!

First class, block 2/4 Responses:

Let's address the concern in the last comment. (Yes, I moved the comments I wanted to address down to the bottom in each of these photos so I could see them better and be able to share them with you in order to write this post.) When we meet in our 1:1 (one-on-one) conferences, I let students know if I agree or not, and why. There were only a handful of students this quarter that I did not agree with, and those students didn't have evidence to support the grade they chose. In those cases, students created goals (or in some cases, we created small contracts) so that next quarter the student would be more accurate in his or her reflection. I also stated on those students' sheets that I did not agree and reasons as to why we had disagreements. In eleven (out of 67) instances this quarter did the final grade a student gave him or herself not match my own assessment of those students' reading, writing and grammar skills combined. The parents were made aware through the comments on our 1:1 conferencing sheets. I usually share something along the lines of "Your child was very reflective in his assessment of himself this quarter" or... "Your child and I disagreed on her grade for writing (or reading, or grammar), and have created goals to help her more accurately assess herself next quarter." Since we need to focus on learning, those eleven students have stricter guidelines now that, in fact, promote more learning through revisions or showing their skills during comprehension checks.

As a result of similar feedback from a parent last quarter, I added a small spot on our 1:1 conference sheet so parents would have a better idea of what I thought. Since I believe that school should be focused on learning, and that grades will reflect that learning, what I added was a reflection scale. This scale is to communicate to parents how reflective and how accurate student evidence was. I will continue to revise our 1:1 conference sheets to reflect parent and student suggestions.

Second class, block 5/6 Responses:

That last comment - "...sometimes I want to know what my grade is during the quarter..." Let's do it! Let's use the documenting sheets I provided each person, and figure out the midterm grade half-way through the quarter! The reason for creating the documenting sheets was so that students can pretty much always know what their grade is at any moment. Also, at any time during the quarter, you and I can meet to discuss the current evidence. Just ask!

Third class, block 8/9 Responses:
The last three comments here caught my attention. "It is challenging..." I like the challenge aspect - proving your claim is what so much of writing in our class is about. Proving it with evidence that students choose seems fitting for ELA class (and social studies, and science...)

The fact that "some students will truly benefit... and some will not because they will slack off" seems to be true for any type of grading.

"I prefer teachers grading us so that it is definitely the grade you are getting." Since we agree on a grade together, that is definitely the grade you are getting. If I truly disagreed with the final grade, I would intervene, parents would know I did not see the same evidence the student provided, and we would create a plan for the next quarter that would help the student be more reflective and accurate in his or her self-assessment.

Suggestions from all three blocks:

Line 2 & 9: Here are more writing prompts that you can use throughout the year. These are on our class Weebly under "Student Resources --> Writing Challenge" and also under "FAR --> Writing Guidelines." ;) It may seem as if I have not been giving more encouragement to write in class. I try to balance our reading with our writing, and it's always in my plans to provide more time for writing in class. Some students ask if they can write instead of read during independent reading time. That is an option for those who read on a consistent basis at home. You can always choose to write outside of class, as well. Add it to your independent reading practice at home.

Line 3: Let's remember to provide time IN class for this to happen. (Note: Some students already do this on their own.)

Line 4: I'm back and forth on "participation" points, as I've read a lot about introverts and how they are still retaining content from the class even without participating. Participating can cause introverted people actual, physical pain. We will have times when we need to present, but the culture of our classroom is trust, and I do not think it is fair to grade oral participation in this class.

Lines 5, 11, and 12: I will provide a mid-term check in this next quarter. We will use our documenting sheets to do so. This may be a good time for me to provide you with what I think your grade should be for reading, writing, and grammar at this point in time.

Line 6: Sorry. I have read too much research against traditional grading to go back now. Until our district uses standards-based grading, this system is more accurate and fair than how I used to grade.

Line 7: One time I made a change in a student's grade - by accident. I typed in the wrong letter on the wrong line. The parent gave me a heads up and I was able to correct it before it appeared on any final grade report. I have triple-checked our 1:1 conferencing sheets this time, so as to not repeat that error again (I hope!).

Line 8 & 10: I'm aware that for some students this type of grading can be "nerve-wrecking." I ask you this - can "traditional" grading also be nerve-wracking if you're at a 89.6% or if you have a test or a project due on the last day of the quarter? Use the documenting sheets to their full potential. They're with you so you know where you stand at any given moment and have more control of your final grade. Share more books with the class (orally or written) so you counter-act any "low" comprehension check data by proving you understand what you read. Submit more writing than is assigned so you have more choice as to what evidence you'd like to use for your writing and grammar portions of class.

I hope this is what students will feel by the end of this school year...

My resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                    Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect
                                    My own reflections on this journey

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Going Places

I have a dear friend who lost her mom last week. My friend is the epitome of the word "woman" - strong, vibrant, and full of life. She joined the estimated 250,000 in the Women's March in Chicago this weekend. She posted a quote from her mom on her Facebook page the morning of the march.

Previously posted on February 3, 2012...

What if...?

It made me think of a conversation we had at lunch the day my friend returned to school. We were commenting on a video that had her youngest child in it. Her daughter, as we said, is "going places. She'll do whatever she wants to in life." We all nodded, and I thought of my friend as I saw her agree, as well. Guess what? SHE, too, is "going places." She has done, and can do what she wants to do in life, as well.

She's in her 30s, and found her loving husband in the science department. She has worked tirelessly to achieve her doctorate. She is currently raising four children, and works way more than 40 hours a week. She is a leader in her department, and on her team. Her voice is valued in any committee or meeting she may join. She is looked up to by many. Some day, I fear, she will leave us for what she wants to do next - whatever that may be. She can do whatever she wants to in life - she is that kind of woman.

Next, I thought of all the other women and teachers I surround myself with. So many of them (us) are "going places," and doing what we want in life. Why do we sometimes feel as if we aren't? I believe it's the words we hear...

"She dresses like a teacher."
"She teaches middle school."
"She has children."

These three sentences could be translated like this:
"She's a hero."
"She's a hero."
"She's a hero."

Why don't some of us hear those words in our heads? I have realized I'm a fairly insecure person. I've been trying to "fake it 'til I make it," but it's a daily struggle. I know if I act confident enough, my students will believe I am confident, and I will be a better role model for them. So I continue to share what we do in the classroom that I believe is right for students. I continue to share others' ideas in order to give them a voice. I continue to be that person that quotes leaders and inspirational people.

Because we NEED the positive words in our lives. We NEED the support.

If you don't already, start leaving the room when the negativity seeps in. Smile, and then excuse yourself. If the meeting or family time has turned into a complaint fest, either try to offer a solution, or find those who will work with you on one. "Leave the darkness behind..." We are what we speak. If we sow seeds of what we CAN be, the fruit will start to grow. Focus on "hope and peace, empathy and kindness..." We need to start with ourselves.

What if we did "live in the light..."? Change your inside voice to say, "I am going places. I have already succeeded in my life. I am ready for more success. I am open to new ideas and insights. I am a hero to my children. I am a hero to my students. I spread good messages. I speak with kindness and compassion. I am an ear if someone needs me. I am passionate. I am confident. I am qualified. I am determined. I am strong. I am able. I am blessed."

Don't let those whispers of doubt in.
You can't think negatively and expect to live a positive life.

After the march, my friend said she felt "empowered."
Shouldn't we all? At all times? Don't we have a choice to be what we want to be?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Made with Fotor

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Whispers of Doubt"

I was fortunate to meet and eat with Sara Donovan at Panera last summer. She chooses her words well, and I envy her skill. Read her thoughts on her blog: Ethical ELA.

Three words she said to me rang something deep in me. 
"Whispers of doubt." 
I wrote them down when I got in the car. I needed to process them and write about them some day. Today's the day.

Whispers of doubt seep in...
   when we try something new
   when we want to say "no"
   when a "good morning" is not responded to
   when a student rolls her eyes
   when students struggle
   when the timing is off
   when a coworker sighs
   when we feel alone
   when we don't feel we can commit
   when we work for 12 hours on a weekend
   when we get one negative parent remark 
          (even alongside six positive)

Whispers of confidence creep up...
disguised as an EdCamp
full of passionate teachers
   foster parents
supportive - ALL...
If it's best for children.

If it's best for children,
shouldn't you...
   make time for what you believe works
   stand up and defend what's right
   speak out to the world
   share the ideas
   work on prioritizing the problems
   then work on solving the problems
   speak what you want to happen
   listen when others share

Even if you have whispers of doubt.

I love my career. Job. School. Coworkers. 
I wish we could get together in edcamp fashion more often.
I also love these "edcamp junkies" who are a special tribe.
Thank you Rebecca, Carrie, Maggie, Ben, Josh, Megan, Andrea, Michael, Heidi, Aggie, Ashley and Chuck Taft ;) for another stellar #EdCampMadWI
I am blessed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Will They Work?

January and February in seventh grade... I think these are the two months students work the least. If I remember correctly (and I think there's something that helps me forget every year), these are the two months that we think "seventh graders just don't care about their grades." (Heck - even with Genius Hour! Have you seen Karl Lindgren-Streicher's "The Suck"? It was written on this date in January, two years ago!)

Well, in a no-grades classroom, they seem to care even less.

Because really, they're coming up with their own grade, right?

Yes... and no. Yes, in our ELA class, they tell me what grade they believe they've earned for reading, writing, and grammar, and then average these. (I know - still not a perfect system!!) However, they have to give evidence for each, and also set goals for the next quarter. These goals will be reflected upon and used towards their grade in the next quarterly conference.

I often hear doubt when I talk about not having any grades in the gradebook until progress reports come out. "Why will they work if they don't get a grade for it?"

And THIS is why I went all in - because many seventh graders WON'T work if they're not getting a grade for it - in a TRADITIONAL classroom that includes points for large and small assignments. 

Thank goodness I do not have a traditional classroom.

If we don't stress *** and follow through *** that it's all about the learning, they will not work (as much). How can we mean that it's all about the learning if we're assigning points?

I'm preparing to write on our walls. Yes, write on our walls. The cement blocks, to be exact. (I received permission last year and will this year be brave enough to do it!) We're going to create reading goals that will take us into June. We'll paint our progress towards our goals on the cement blocks. (In fact, I just found a great ONLINE tool to do so! Check out this spreadsheet via Flippity!) My seventh graders don't think that our homework to read for 20 minutes a night is as important as their other homework. I know this and am reminded of this weekly when I sit with students and talk about their reading during tiny conferences on Fridays.

So what do I do? I go back and talk about the importance of reading. I go back over the reasons WHY we should read every day. Today I did it via Penny Kittle's way in Book Love. During our reading time in class, we took down the pages we read in ten minutes, then did the calculations listed here.
After we did some math in ELA class, we reviewed again just WHY we should be reading.

We need to have a rock-solid WHY, so when students struggle with the HOW, they have motivation to put forth more effort.

Sure. Some of my students won't do the work - regardless of whether there is a grade attached or not. That won't stop me from striving to get the message of WHY out to each child I meet - so we use our 180 days to talk about LEARNING, and not spend any time talking about points or grades.

In the comments, please share the ways you motivate your students to learn - especially if you're going sans grades!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Don't Wait - Do It Yourself

I love quotes - would have them up all around the room if I could. Wait. I DO! Because I CAN!

Monday, I signed up to get notifications when George Couros posts something new. As fate would have it, his first post of the year was to share inspirational quotes for 2017! This one from Pharrell Williams struck my fancy...
Created with
When my husband and I were emailing each other (he lived in Detroit suburbs, me in Chicago suburbs), he'd often end his letters with a P.S. ... "If the stars ever line up, you're the one for me!" (Then he'd add the sparkling star emojis - too cute!) Was it too much to dream? Oh, it was a dream of ours, but it seemed so very far out of reach! It seemed impossible that we'd ever have a life together.

Well, guess what? We MADE those stars align. We reached for them, and rearranged them the way we wanted. One. Step. At. A. Time.

And this is the key. Whatever you're dreaming of, it may seem way too overwhelming. Too many things need to be done in order to ever contemplate really making it work!

It's NOT too big.
It's NOT too big - IF... If you take it one. Step. At. A. Time.

So... make the list. Oh, it's a mighty list, for sure! Then begin checking things off that list. What can you do TODAY to help make your dream come true? Tomorrow, do the same thing. Focus on what you CAN do, not what seems impossible. You'll keep adding to the list - even as you check things off. Focus on what you can do today.

And when you hear yourself complaining about how someone else is doing things, remember Sebastian's lesson...

Monday, January 2, 2017

Literary Graffiti

Each time I read a book, I am on the lookout for quotes that resonate with me. I LOVE good quotes. Our classroom has a "Literary Graffiti" board, and it warms my heart when students write on it!

When the board is filled, I type them out and put them on the ceiling tiles, and we add even more.

To spur more writing on that chalk board, I created a slide show of my favorite quotes from books I read in 2016. (All of mine - since I started really collecting - are here.) After finishing this slideshow, I decided to create another for our class - for EVERYONE'S quotes - to be added to our class website's life lessons (because really... that's what they are). When you're finished enjoying, please type one or more of your favorites in the comments below! Feel free to pause the show if it's too fast - the next setting was WAY too slow!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Books of 2016

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2016 like I have the past two years. I read a bit for myself this year, along with books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy.
     2015 Favorites
     2014 Favorites

Here are the books I would most recommend from my list of 75 books I've read this year... I tried to whittle it down to one or two per genre, but I read some genres more than others! Check out the complete list for this year here, including the five I abandoned.

Biography / Autobiography / Memoir
...for the kids
     Connor Franta's A Work in Progress - middle schoolers love YouTubers! Connor Franta is a great role model who shares many lessons learned in his 20-something years on Earth.
...for your spiritual self
     Todd Burpo's Heaven Is for Real - I needed this during this past summer. It filled me with hope.

...girl protagonists were strong this year!
     Victoria Aveyard's The Red Queen (#1)
     Rachel Hawkins' Rebel Belle (#1)
     Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys (#1) And then I read the next two in the series! Not like me at all anymore. I REALLY liked this series, and loved listening to them in the car, as well as reading the text.
...boy protagonists that need to be celebrated
     Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book
     Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls

Graphic Novel
     Svetlana Chmakova's Awkward - This competed with Ghosts (Telegmeier) this year, but I think this one has a better message.

Historical Fiction
...from 9/11
     Tom Rogers' Eleven - It's the perfect September 11th book for my 7th graders.
...from what's happening in the world NOW
     Tara Sullivan's Golden Boy - Pretty unbelievable. The story needs to be told.

...for readers (tons of references to other books)
     Jennifer Chambliss Bertman's Book Scavenger
...for reluctant readers
     Gordon Korman's Masterminds

Nonfiction (for kids)
     Susan Campbell Bartoletti's Terrible Typhoid Mary

Poetry / Prose / Novels in Verse
     Stasia Ward Kehoe's The Sound of Letting Go

     Ron Ritchhart's (and more) Making Thinking Visible - (My review --> here) All four professional books I read this year were great! This one can be applied to ANY class ANY where, and it really made me look at my goals for my students. Do THEY know our goals? Can they buy into them? What can I do to show them what we are learning? I needed to make our thinking visible, and this book has shown me many ways HOW. (I need to revisit my notes on it now!)

     Leslie Connor's All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook - Don't judge it by the cover. Perry's story is sweet, heartbreaking, and hopeful. An easy read that even reluctant readers will want to experience.
     Jason Reynolds' & Brendan Kiely's All American Boys - Mature language with a mature theme. Students who read it come away knowing that things need to change in our society. Stories like this need to be shared.
     Gary Schmidt's Orbiting Jupiter - Just jump in and let the story come to you.

Science Fiction
...for the kids
     Louis Sachar's Fuzzy Mud
...for adults
     Andy Weir's The Martian

     Jason Reynolds' Ghost - One of the fastest books here, this one will appeal to sports fans and reluctant readers alike.
     I really need to read more sports books! This is definitely a gap in my reading!

I just can't choose one favorite. Please link your post regarding your favorites in the comments below so I can grab some new reads from you!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Even Evangelists Ask for Help

Four days left of Winter Break... This is when the pressure hits. Did I do enough over break so going back to school feels alright? Did I do all I could in the house and for my health?

I cleaned today. Mostly so the behemoth of a desk I have could be repurposed - so I actually USED it.

I found this note...

I remember some time last year asking Mr. Stocco if I could quote him, otherwise I wouldn't have found this note. "Genius Hour is the only time I see them thinking." I know his students think the rest of the week, but there was some reason he said this at the time.

I held the paper, and I sighed. It made me happy that he has implemented Genius Hour in his 8th grade science classes. As far as I know, he's the one teacher in 8th grade that does this. Hey, that's half the 8th graders at our school! That's a win.

Then I felt another sigh coming. I was sad. No. Disappointed. No. Wistful, perhaps. We hosted a Cardboard Challenge this year, first quarter, for our Independent Inquiry project. However, we are not planning a project for this quarter, and we have not planned for Genius Hour yet.

My focus this year has been on learning over grades, feedback, and reflection. I haven't gotten it all figured out yet, and I know I never will. Genius Hour has taken a back seat. I haven't made it a priority, because I truly feel that we are actually further than where Genius Hour would take us... We are choosing what to read, and many times what to write. My students are focusing on the learning, and not just on what I deem important. And yet... I don't have that dedicated time for them to pursue their own projects.

What will I do to resolve this angst? I realized today that I need to talk to the ELA teachers on the other team and ask for their help. I think I remember them saying they were going to wait until second semester to incorporate Genius Hour. My ELA cohort and I haven't had the time to plan with them this year - we currently plan only two days ahead of what we need. I need to do what I don't like doing, but what I advise other teachers to do - ask for help.

My problem is this - as a "Genius Hour Evangelist" (zealous advocate), I feel that I should be the expert. Until I give myself the time to do so, I relinquish that role at my own school this year. Sure, I'll be "all in" when I present at ICE in March and when I host another workshop in Boston in July. I'll dedicate the time to do so. Right now, however, I need to take my own advice and ask for help. I am still a firm believer in the benefits of Genius Hour, and it rubs me wrong knowing we haven't started yet. I will go to the two very organized, forward-thinking women on the other team. I'm sure they'll be happy to oblige!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Two Favorite Tools After a "Break"

When I decide to take a break from Twitter during extended breaks from school, I have two saving graces that help me get back in the swing of things - slowly. I used to just start over from scratch - that's a good method, too! However, when I have a day or two during break where I feel I need a shot of my PLN, these tools help me believe I didn't miss anything. I secretly know I've missed a ton, but the "really good stuff" will come back around eventually! With these two tools at my fingertips, I don't experience FOMO (fear of missing out), and break is as close to a break as I can get. (Now I have to figure out how to eliminate nighttime dreams about school!)

I've already written about how TweetDeck saves me time and energy - making me more efficient - when I want to use Twitter on my laptop. When I come back from a week off of Twitter, TweetDeck saves me once again. (If you haven't read this post, please do so now, or the next two paragraphs will have you wondering what I'm talking about!)

Before break: I make sure to shorten my "first" list (those educators I do not want to miss each day). I temporarily move some of these wonderful educators to a "first 1" list or other silly name. This list, too, is locked, so they have no clue they're being put to the side for a week. Really, EVERYONE is put to the side for the week, so it doesn't matter! Note: I often update lists using - I find it easier than using TweetDeck. After break, I can easily add these people back. Too many people in my "first" list after a long break gets me overwhelmed when I come back. I want to avoid that feeling!

To keep from being overwhelmed even more, I often just look at the last five tweets from each of my other columns, and then "clear" them so that I have a blank slate once again.

I used to use Feedly to keep up with student blogs. We are not blogging (yet?) this year for various reasons, but I use Feedly to keep up with other educators' blogs - usually on a daily basis. Here is a very detailed post from Sylvia Rosenthal Tolisano (@langwitches) about how to keep up with student blogs through Feedly. You don't have to get that organized!

Before break: I just make sure I'm caught up with what was in Feedly before I leave. What's great about Feedly is that all the posts you "miss" will be there when you get back - no matter how long you're gone! Just keep hitting the checkmark at the top of the page until you've seen them all. I love browsing and weeding out the posts I feel I really need to read after break. It goes by quickly on Feedly, as I have them categorized.

See how the organization helps you keep tabs without being overwhelmed:

Here is how Richard Bryne (@rmbyrne) uses Feedly...

I hope these two tools help you eliminate FOMO. How do you keep up after taking a break to be with family? Let me know in the comments below - we can all learn from each other. We truly need to take breaks during our breaks!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Holiday Help

In order for students to learn the last week of school before break, they have to THINK. Thinking seems to be "too hard" for them this week!

So... to help them this past week, we did a couple of things...

1) We had a shelf of holiday picture books for those who forgot their independent reading book. Here is the list of the books I checked out of the library. Some kids picked them up, and some had no interest. They helped, however, when a student forgot their book at home, or was in between books and didn't want to start a new one just yet. Where YOU can help is by commenting on this post or on the list of books which ones YOU love to use around the holidays with your middle school students!

Clearing off this shelf for these books makes me want to bring in more picture books each week!
2) We invited parents in on the last day before break. Oh, how we all love this! This year we only had two - Grammie (a grandmother I've written about before here) and one other mother. We reserved the rocking chair for them, sat around them in the front of the room, and basically just enjoyed good stories they brought. Since my first class didn't have anyone sign up, I asked one of our assistant principals (who'd been wanting to come), and she gladly came and read as well.

3) My co-teacher Yvette suggested we put on the "fireplace." So... this video was shown through most of the day! You gotta love it.

What do you do to help with the holiday fever in your classes? Please comment below - we could ALL use a little more help engaging kids this time of the year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Reflection On 2016

In August, I had a revelation of sorts.

It applies to everything in my life - 
     teaching, friends, and family.
Since August, I've been focusing on...
Some days I do much better than others.
I know I have many faults. I am reminded of them constantly!
However, I am "on the potter's wheel."
I am NOT done. I'm not finished "becoming."
I have a long road ahead of me. 
We all do, hopefully.

I've got many things going for me...
     I am loved. By my husband, family, and I hope - my students. 
     I am healthy.
     I am reflective.
     I want to be better. In every aspect of my life.
     I have people I can go to for guidance and support.
     I am grateful for the little things that make up this life.
     I am "on the potter's wheel," and I've got a clean slate every day.

May 2017 be just as good. I will work towards improving myself, and keeping patience, kindness and caring at the forefront. We are all truly blessed each morning we wake to face a new day. May 2017 be your best year yet!

*This phrase is from Joel Osteen's broadcast this past Sunday.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Extra Credit

I haven't provided extra credit for a few years now (even before I learned from Rick Wormeli), but I thought I'd stress how WONDERFUL it is to not see these memes as even remotely funny anymore now that I'm only giving feedback in lieu of marks throughout the year!

Some teachers still provide extra credit - because it helps students learn. 
Isn't the work you already assign helping students learn? 
What's the reason you're not willing to allow students to redo or revise something they've already done? 
Is it time to re-evaluate the quality of your assignments and assessments?

When will this attitude that it's "all about the grade" diminish?
When can children truly start to believe that it's all about the LEARNING?

Reposting this photo of a painting done by one of my former students... Maddie M.
"It's not about the grade. It's about the learning..."

Saturday, December 3, 2016


I just wanted to quickly jot down all the blessings I can remember from this past week:

  • After Thanksgiving break, one student called me "Mom." Since I don't have kids of my own and consider these my kids, it always makes me feel loved.
  • We were able to read an article of the week that a STUDENT brought in - and all the kids were engaged when reading and beginning to discuss it. --> Online Behind Bars
  • The fishbowl discussions we had on Friday were spectacular. Students were respectful of each other and their opinions, built on their ideas, and asked more questions that kept the conversation going. I LOVE that we give them this discussion practice time this year - it's paying off! We are learning about how to communicate better!
  • The question of the day Wednesday was - "Are you a lefty or a righty (or ambidextrous)?" One student told me, "Mrs Kirr! I'm a righty, but I'd give my right arm to be a lefty!"
  • I told my coworkers at lunch Thursday about the massive tension headache I had (how do people deal with migraines?!), and one suggested I lay down in my room. I DID! It got me through the rest of the day.
  • I've connected with middle school ELA teachers on Voxer, and I feel like I've got my own little coffee clutch - on my own time.
  • Kids are picking up books I've shared.
  • When a student asked me, "Do we have to annotate?" I replied, "You don't HAVE to do ANYthing." He replied back, "But you strongly encourage it because it will help us understand what we're reading better."
  • One student, on her way out at the end of homework club, said her favorite part of our room was the picture (disclaimer) on the door. This is a student who struggles daily, and I was so happy to know she'd read and appreciated it. We were able to talk about it down the hall and out the door to the activity bus.
  • I was able to send some good notes home yesterday before school got out, and I've received the most beautiful replies already. Parents truly appreciate hearing good news about their children!
  • I am fortunate enough to have the time to attend EdCampLakeCounty today to meet and learn from other teachers in the area.
Just a few simple blessings I remember from the week that keep me loving life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

5th Annual Cardboard Challenge

This was the fifth year we had a Cardboard Challenge at TMS.

We changed it up a bit from last year - and will make more adjustments if we decide to do this again!

  • This year, we called it the Cardboard / Creativity Challenge. It was the first of our four (hopefully) Independent Inquiry projects.
  • Students had one full week to plan, prepare, and present their work. We changed it so that I could have my 1:1 conferences (regarding their evidence of their quarter grade) with students during the planning time.
  • Students were asked to create something (without purchasing anything) that could either benefit themselves or others (or both).
  • Nobody made anything on the day we presented - it was all ready ahead of time.
  • We hosted it on Halloween (not too bad of a choice)!
  • I asked Grammie to come in - and she did! - the entire week we planned. What a benefit to the kids and to me!
  • Our two associate principals and our superintendent popped in during the week to listen to students' ideas and give feedback.
  • Students could reflect in four different ways. See the document here. I also accepted other ideas. I learned a lot from their reflections.
  • I decided to create a "How To" document for myself - for next year's planning!
  • I used and modified someone else's (I'm sorry I forgot your name!) project proposal template. (Of course... I found it on the LiveBinder!)

  • Once again, we had many parents visit! You've gotta love the authentic audience!
  • Only THREE students didn't have their work (less than a handful this year)!
  • Explanations on the games / projects / art were much clearer than in years past.
  • It was much less messy on the day of... The projects were DONE and the students actually wanted to KEEP them this year!

Adjustments that need to be made:

  • We will not have any technology allowed next year. There was one project that students in the last class were clamoring over...It was not pretty. 
  • As a result of the technology, some other students were upset that "no one" saw their projects.
  • I need to let them know of the project a bit more ahead of time. Some students were upset because they "didn't have enough time" to make what they wanted to make. They didn't know how to work within the constraints given to them.
  • I need to let them know more of the reasons WHY we do this. A couple were upset because they felt we "wasted time." They said they "didn't learn anything." I need to help them realize what they did learn, and I need to help them understand my reasoning for this project.
  • I need to find a way to have EACH student see EACH project.
  • I need to find a good way for them to give each other feedback during the "gallery walk." We had "shout outs" to various work in two classes, and they loved giving each other kudos.
  • I need to find a good (and efficient) way to share the feedback given to them. (Adults who came to visit filled out this survey.) My coworker Karen suggested we create a checklist where students need to find a game, an organizer, a maze, artwork, etc., depending on the projects our students are creating.

Of course, this activity did not appeal to some students who like quiet, rubrics, and other aspects of traditional school. Sometimes it's our job to help them get out of their comfort zones. This will be the biggest "messy learning" in ELA we have for the school year. It's hard on some of them. I think it would have been difficult for me, as well.

I now share with you my quickly-created video of what the kids answered to my question: "What did you learn from this project?" I had my portable sound booth (also made of cardboard - and acoustic foam - thank you, Mr. Kirr) up, and the sign on the top. Many responses were not about the question, so I left those out. At least the sound was better than without the box! Here are the responses that work:

And here are the life lessons they mentioned the very next day (in writing):
You can make just about anything from cardboard.
Spray paint sticks to duct tape.
Duct tape hurts your fingers.
If you don’t give up on something, it will eventually come together.
If the cardboard gets a little wet, it doesn’t work.
Perseverance is key.
If you’re impatient, your project will fall apart.
Elmer’s glue takes forever to dry.
I can make things on my own without help.
If you are good at something, make it and see if you can help someone with theirs.
It is hard to create something you think everyone would like. Once you figure that out, it’s easy to do. You need to think about what other people would find interesting.
Things don’t just come. You have to be patient.
You need patience.
There is trial and error.
I can unleash my creative side and make cool things out of cardboard.
Next time I can make it better.
Glue is very messy and hard to work with.
Making things isn’t always perfect.
You have to work hard for something you want.
I learned how to think of solutions to my problems.
When we use our imagination and stick to what we will do, the outcome is awesome!
I never really share my creations, and this time I could.
Creativity is even more important than I thought.
Be careful where you put your hands, or you may glue your hand to your project.
I learned how to draw a big design.
You should start projects as soon as possible.
I can use my abilities.
I learned how elevators work.
It’s hard to make bottles on to cardboard, and cardboard is as fun as regular activities.
I need to be more organized with time.
If things don’t work out the first time, don’t give up.
Try new ideas / things.
Be proactive.
Stay focused at all times.
Be more decorative.
Be prepared.
Don’t leave stuff at home.
Think of all materials needed.
All projects cannot be complete, so you might change it and make something you want people to see.
Failures motivate you.
Work hard, or don’t work at all.
If something doesn’t work right, fix it / go with it.
It may not seem fun, but judge it AFTER you try it.
If you work hard, you can be more successful.
It is good to help others.
People may be excellent pretenders.
Creativity has endless possibilities.
Cardboard can build cool things.
A box can be used to make anything.
Have a back-up plan.
Hard work pays off.
You can make something out of anything.
Don’t wait until the last minute to print something...
Think of a good structure before you build things.
Don’t put off a lot to the end.
Not everything in your head goes perfectly in real life.
You can never have enough duct tape.
Too much duct tape can be bad.
Success can’t be achieved without hard work.
It’s okay to mess up a few times.
Bring what you need on time.
Patience is KEY.
Tape doesn’t fix everything.
If you have to work on something for a week, you have to like it.

These lessons make me feel as if the planning and executing of these plans was all worthwhile... What are your thoughts?