My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve our lives through research based on our interests. What will we learn? What message will we share? This is a log of our learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

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 left 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?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Feedback In Lieu of Grading - Quarter One

We made it through the first grading period without ANY grades for all three of my 80-minute block classes!

My students and I met to discuss their learning two weeks before the grading period ended, and we came up with a grade together. Students were asked to bring this document to the table, and some did. Others did not fill it in. I had the evidence on a spreadsheet, however, so we still had proof of students' current skills.

Statistics from first quarter:

  • I have 66 students
  • 61% of students earned an A
  • 31% of students earned a B
  • 8% of students earned a C
  • I gave audio/video feedback on 230 pieces of writing
  • I gave more feedback on 97 revisions from 36 students
Here's what my spreadsheet finally ended up looking like for my own notes regarding writing and grammar pieces (it will be refined for next quarter):

Yellow highlights mean that student should be revising that piece. Dark rectangles mean the student decided to not use that piece for evidence. NI = needs improvement, D = developing, P = proficient, and M = mastery... Only my co-teacher and I saw these "scores." The YouTube links are unlisted links - they are not public. The question marks are because I neglected to jot down my own thoughts on their achievement! This happened with a couple of the first pieces I was giving feedback to. I was still working on a documentation system that would work for me. You can see it didn't at first!

What I learned from one-on-one conferences:

  • At least one student didn't know what "revise" meant. He thought he had to re-write pieces or start anew.
  • Students that I hadn't really connected well with (yet), have approached me more since we've met.
  • Students who did "A" work and had all their evidence ready ahead of time had very quick conferences. Students who were not reflective about their work took approximately 10-12 minutes to conference.
  • One student said she thought she deserved a "B+," but wanted to put down an "A-" for her final grade. She said her parents expected it. She then agreed to accomplish the goals she set for herself for next quarter, or she'd give herself the "B."
  • I need to send home the goal setting sheet in the report card envelope.
  • I need to send home student reasons for choosing the comments they chose.
  • I need to copy the last two pieces of documentation so I can remind students of their own goals throughout next quarter. Heck - I need to give a copy of their goals back to them!!
  • I needed to make a new document for students to keep track of their reading and writing. Here's the new reading documenting sheet, and here are the new writing and grammar sheets (thank you, Yvette!!).
  • Now I need to make sure students update these three documents when we're in class together...

A fact that totally surprised me:
       I have never had so many entries into the gradebook!!
Check 'em out:

Each one of those dots is a written comment... Some have narrative feedback regarding enunciation and volume, some include a YouTube link to the audio / video screencast feedback on their writing, the comprehension checks have scores separated for literal and inferential questions, "book shares" have narrative feedback from this feedback form, and some are behavior notes (using ind rdg time wisely, preparation, goals...). Yes. I've been busy taking myriad notes and documenting them on the online grade book - without any grades but the one in the final slot.

After we met one-on-one, I asked students to fill in an open-ended survey. The question: Please let me know how the first quarter has gone. (I will ask parents to fill out a survey the day report cards are sent home.)
Here are student responses I received regarding grades (copied & pasted):

  • we did not have as much stress as other classes and you could always inprove your grade
  • If someone wants to see their grade, I would let them, but if someone wants to not see their grade then write comments. If you have grades, you could see how you could improve but without you can struggle a bit.
  • I really liked how the students had to show evidence form their grade. I think it was good to learn. when you get a job you do monthly check ins and many adults don't know how to handle it. Once we are old enough to get a job we will all be great at this which will help us in our life. I also liked how we got all quarter to write different stories and we got to pick our three favorites. I also feel that many students tried very hard for the grade so they worked their best. I don't think i noticed many negatives personally. I think that everything was handled the right way by teachers and by students.
  • I think grading ourselves is an educational good idea and that would help us realize what we need to work on.
  • I think this was a good quarter, and it went by fast. I'm happy with the grade I got and the grading system is pretty good. At some points I really wanted to know my grade and I would get frustrated. I think our ELA class is fun, and has is different from other classes. Based on how the first quarter went, I thing the rest of the year will also be good.
  • You are not as pressured as other classes to get a good grade on it but, you still get a grade. which is awesome. 
  • I think this quarter has been really fun! I really like how we're learning how to give our opinions and back it up. It actually reminds me of debates on CNN when they have to back up what they're saying or else it's not true. Being able to say what we think our grade should be is a really good way for us to learn from our mistakes and do better next quarter. I guess the only thing I would like to do is do more creative writing than narratives.
  • I like how we get to chose our own evidence because if you have one bad assignment it won't bring your grade down a lot like it usually would.
  • I like how we don't have to stress over grade and can work at our own pace.
  • I really like how the first quarter has gone. The grading system is really good. You have to grade yourself, but you need to support why you deserve this grade. So it's almost like the grading itself is a lesson of some sort. It's also sort of stress-free. There is a little, but it's not that stressful.
  • I think first quarter went well for most people the no grades think was amazing. I think the no grades thing grades lots of people by not giving them stress helped lots of people have stress from other classes. Their were no real pit falls. 
  • one benefit is that we make our own grades but we need the evidence, it is beneficial because it shows that you need to work for a grade.
  • This quarter has helped me a lot with writing, grammar, and revising. It is also helping me become more organized and independent. I have gotten more into reading, I have found a genre that I love, and I have also found some books that really interest me. This quarter has been really fun and it has become my favorite subject in school. I do feel I need to read more and improve my vocabulary. I love the fish bowls and I hope we do more of them. I want to improve my debate skills for high school. I also love the "grading" system. 
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, October 30, 2016

Do It Anyway...

We had two parents come in for a conference last week. After talking about her child, the mom thanked me for the ELA updates on the blog. She said she loved the photos, and loved what the class looked like.
     She turned to the dad, and said, "Do you see the updates?"
     He replied, "No."
     "Do you get the emails?"
     "Yes. I don't read them."

It happens! No worries. If our message goes out to 50% of the parents, that's 50% more than it used to get out to!

Martina McBride is my favorite country singer. (Jennifer Nettles is a close second!) She's got this song that I love to belt out... "Anyway"

I spent one entire summer (2013) building our class website, and I continue to edit it practically each month. I'm going to keep building it! Every two weeks, I send an email out to all the parents, leading them to the part of the website that has our two-week updates.
I do this for me, and I do it for my students and their parents. Some may never look at it outside of our ELA class, and I am okay with that, because some actually do find it useful!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Benefits of Comprehension Checks in a "No Grades" Classroom

They are not called quizzes in a "no grades" classroom. They are called by their purpose - to check comprehension. They also do not have the downfalls of typical quizzes. They do NOT affect a student's grade.

The first comprehension check I passed back had mixed responses from students.

     "I thought you said you weren't going to grade us."      (I'm not.)
     "Does this go in the grade book?"      (As a comment.)
     "Will we have more of these so I can raise my grade?"      (Yes... and no.)
     "Can I retake this?"      (No.)
     "What does this mean?"

The first comprehension check had five questions. In my spreadsheet, these were the possible comments students received in the online grade book:

Yes. It looks like a mark, but it does not get computed in the gradebook.

As a result, it is ONLY INFORMATION. It is feedback for the student and parents.

As a result, we had a valuable conversation about literal vs. inferential questions.

As a result, students were curious about why they had one or more wrong.

As a result, their final grade does not get knocked down a notch (or boosted).

As a result, students read more closely the next time we had a comprehension check.

As a result, students were not inclined to cheat.

As a result, students do not groan when I hand them out. They know they are checking their comprehension on this one piece of text. They do not have to use this piece for evidence in their final grade if they have better evidence from which to choose.

As a result, I have never given so much formative assessment. I used to despise how it kept raising some grades and kept knocking down others. I felt guilty putting the grades in the grade book. Now I truly view it as formative assessment in its pure form.

Three comprehension checks later...

I am "grading" the four literal questions. The backside of some students' work was not completed. One wonderful benefit of this type of learning - I do NOT feel guilty marking it as "2 out of 4 literal questions answered correctly." Students will know it is because they did not follow the directions.

Hopefully, as a result...  they will follow directions more closely next time. In ALL of their classes.

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, October 2, 2016

Grade Book Help for Parents - Without Grades

Help for parents (and students)!

I've created a video helping parents see how their child is doing in ELA class - without any grades in the online grade book! I hope this helps parents better understand the system (which will be constantly evolving, I'm sure).

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Parent Questions

I'm starting to get parent questions - our fifth week in of school.

Image from Pixabay
I need to create a Frequently Asked Questions page for parents to help them understand our "feedback and revisions" (AKA "no grades") system. Sure, I've got pages on our classroom website here and here and myriad blog posts about it here, but the answers to the questions they're asking are not there.

It's time to create a new page of FAQs and answers.

What would YOU ask if you knew your child was going to have to give evidence for his or her own grade? The FAQs page is coming soon - after I read and provide video feedback on 62 more pieces of writing this week. In my spare time...

Oct 1, 2016 Update: Here is our FAQs page!

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, September 11, 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name...

I'm not going to call our time "Genius Hour" this year.

Catalysts for this change:

  • No longer will we have one day (= one hour) a week dedicated to this time.
  • Last year, my priority was getting this whole "no grades" routine to work, so I feel that our Genius Hour time suffered as a result. I need a fresh start, with a new focus, so it is more successful for more students this year.
  • I needed to move this time to the end of the quarter, so I could have time for conferences with students about their choice of final grade, and look through the evidence they'll have collected. The time allotted students will still be the same amount.

What was NOT a catalyst of this change - the name "genius." I've written about it before, and still stand by these ideas. I do believe you have to buy into a name before you can expect students to do the same, so this was a difficult endeavor for me.

So, after scouring this page on the LiveBinder for other people's ideas (yes - I not only curate ideas on that behemoth of a binder for parents and teachers, but for myself as well), I've decided on "Independent Inquiry." I'm wondering why it wasn't already on the list! We're going to break the year into four different Independent Inquiry projects. Quarter 1 will be focused on creativity - and may end with the Cardboard Challenge. I'm not sure of the date for it yet, or how it will come about, but I'm going to try and see if students can focus on creativity. Quarter 2 will be focused on teaching their own talents, or teaching a new skill. Quarter 3 will focus on a 20-day challenge, or ways to improve ourselves, and Quarter 4 will be more wide open. Hopefully students will be able to use something from their "wonders" that we'll be accumulating through our articles of the week. All of these are very, very sketchy plans, and I'm ready to change them when I see a different idea I can steal! (Comments below are ALWAYS welcomed!!)

Since the focus will be the last two weeks of each quarter, plans will be structured differently, and hence the different themes, if you will, for the learning focus. I do not have it planned out yet, but my goal is that it be structured as such: A mini lesson / reason for learning each day, then time to work independently. Each day will also include a reflection or exit slip. The last day or two of the quarter will be reserved for sharing our learning.

Whatever the focus will be - it will be based on student curiosity.
Whatever the focus - it will be independent for the most part.
Whatever the focus - my goal will still be to encourage students to be life-long learners.
Whatever the focus - students' ideas will be honored and celebrated.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Introducing Feedback in Lieu of Grading to 7th Graders

One full week of school was finished. This was the year I was not going to put one grade in the "grade" book until the end of each quarter - with EACH of my ELA classes! I'd already put in two pieces of evidence in the online grade book - with feedback on enunciation and volume (from their short presentations) such as these:

There had been no talk of grades yet - we were building classroom culture! It was time to let students know that there would be NO GRADES in the online grade book this school year, as I felt I needed to give a heads up to parents prior to Parent Night. How I would approach the subject took some planning, as I wanted to make sure students knew WHY we were going this route.

Step 1: Let students know we need to have a serious discussion. In order to have the discussion as a large group, we need to first hash out how each person feels by having smaller discussions - where every voice can be heard. Show them how "Marker Talk" ("Chalk Talk" from Making Thinking Visible edited by Ron Ritchart) works, and show them what valuable comments and not-so-valuable comments look like for this activity. Inform them that after this quiet activity, everyone will have time to voice their questions and concerns with the class.

Step 2: Execute the Marker Talk activity. I used these four questions: What do you think about coaches? What do you think about learning? What do you think about points on school work? What do you think is unfair about grades? I put these questions on large pieces of construction paper so that students could write around them.

Step 3: Bring everyone together - no tables or chairs - all on the floor in a group. Display the construction paper discussions on the board. Share Dylan Wiliam's ideas about feedback.

Step 4: Ask how this idea relates to the questions they were asked during the Marker Talk activity.

Step 5: See where the discussion goes, and address concerns and questions... And hand out these two sheets to help us keep track of what we've done, what we've asked feedback for, and what we'd like to keep for evidence.

The first two classes before lunch were so quiet! One student "wants grades." One student figures after he gets three pieces of writing back that are good, he's done working for the quarter. One wonders if she'll have help along the way, so she can get the grade she wants.

I AM SO EXCITED. I recorded reactions, but my last class gave me this priceless screenshot from the video - right after I said I would not be putting any letter grades in the grade book...

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

Monday, August 22, 2016

Be Your Best

The humidity had broken. It was 60 degrees, sunny, and the moon was still out on my morning walk. Watching a plane leave O'Hare - against the blue of the sky and alongside the sun, I thought back to the days without a plane in the sky. Thoughts of the last children's book about 9/11 I'm reading this summer (Eleven by Tom Rogers) came to me, and I wanted to get back home to finish it today. As I rounded the corner, I noticed the backpacks. Oh, my! School has started for District 214, and students of all shapes and sizes were walking to Elk Grove High School. I slowed my pace so I wouldn't pass them up, knowing that I was probably more of a happy camper than they were. I wondered about their day ahead. Their youth, their fears, their friends, their classes... I even took a picture and put it on my Instagram account, wondering how my own previous students would spend their first day in high school.

The kids veered off into the parking lot behind the school while I walked further along the sidewalk bordering the school. Minivans and SUVs were in line to drop off their children in the front of the school. Where were the buses? Do they come earlier? Traffic was horrendous, and I wondered if they'd let me cross to the other side. I did get across safely, and then continued to walk the sidewalk on the opposite side of the front of the school. I noted to myself to never go East on Elk Grove Blvd on a weekday morning! Cars were backed up, then many made u-turns to get back on the main road. More cars started appearing from side streets - high school kids with their licenses and "new" cars with their loud mufflers. I wondered if this was the way of the mornings to come, or if there was any other system. I had to cross a small road that led into the side of the school lot. The next car in line (looked to me to be a high school student, but I'm no good with ages - it could have been a brand new teacher) let me go, and I waved a thanks.

I crossed, heard the revving of yet another engine and then BOOM! I found my hand covering my mouth in surprise as I turned and saw the car that had let me pass had hit another one in this intersection leading into the school. Ugh. Cue stomach drop. Since I didn't see the accident, I didn't cross to the other side to help - there were already many in line who had seen what had happened, and I would be a hinderance.

As I continued my walk, questions bombarded my brain...
  • How will those drivers' days go as a result of this?
  • What will this do to their attitude at school (as a student? as a teacher?)?
  • How will this affect their families?
  • Do they have insurance?
  • Who was at fault?
  • Will they be without transportation for a bit?
  • How long will it take them to get through the paperwork and into school?
  • Will the staff scold them when they walk in?
  • Will they remember their schedule or locker combination? (I STILL have these dreams!)
  • Will their teacher give them "the look" when they appear well after the first bell?
  • What will the other drivers' (now waiting for a clear path out of traffic) days be like from here on out?
  • Will they be late for important meetings?
  • What will this do to their attitude at their jobs?
  • What will the parents say to the kids when they got home?
  • Who will judge all those affected as a result of their attitude this morning?
  • What other repercussions will come of this one incident?
Too many questions to list.
No answers. Just speculation.

I looked around and tried to soak up this last Monday of my summer. I saw a bicyclist, and even a unicyclist heading to EGHS. I saw a few more stragglers walking. Turning the corner towards home, traffic just kept coming. I wondered, as my husband and I often do, "Where are all these people heading?" They all have a so many stories. I wonder what has already happened to them this morning that will affect their day ahead?

If you're getting ready for the year to start, or you're in your first, second, third week already, or even if you're "down under" and have been teaching for a few months in this school year already, you've got lots of plans. You've got so many stories to share. Your head is full of ideas. You've had many things happen TO you, and have reacted in many different ways. There is one thing we need to make sure we do in school. Every day. For the kids, and for the adults just the same. No matter what our own day is like.

Just be your best.

It's all we can do. We cannot always know when an accident has happened in the morning. We cannot always know when a beloved pet has died. We cannot always know when a child has written a note that explains why he doesn't want to live another day. We CAN - be our best. For everyone we encounter.

How do we do this? I have three ideas, knowing I'll fail at these throughout the year, but I'll keep coming back to them as reminders, and I'll keep practicing. It's all I can do.

Suspend judgment.
Ask, "How can I help?"
Let others know they matter.

What will you do today - and tomorrow - to be your best? Please comment. In this crazy world, we all need all the help we can get, and we are better together.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Recording Booth

All too often we want students to record in class. How can this be done without asking them to work in the (busy) hallway not under supervision? It's time to make a recording booth for INSIDE the classroom! My husband is the man in my life who can make (and fix) ANYthing. Thank you, Bob, for helping make this small dream come true for our 7th graders!


  • 5 pieces of acoustic tile, 12 inches square (I found 6 pieces for $16.99 on ebay.)
  • Thick cardboard (Bob has ours saved in the attic from the washing machine back in 2014.)
  • Box cutter
  • Packing Tape


  • Design it so it's 12 inches tall and deep, and 16 inches wide, with the front (12 x 16) open. (Easier said than done, I know. Bob is the expert I go to.)
  • Cut, bend, and tape.
  • Stuff in acoustic tile.
  • Place an iPad in it.
  • Begin recording!

Voila! Half an hour's work in the living room on a Saturday! As Ryan O'Donnell pointed out to me in a tweet, it will reduce ambient noise, provide personal space, and give a sense of professionalism.  I'm excited that the scholars in room 239 will be able to use this recording booth for book talks, reflections, movie making, and more!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Does AdSense Make Sense?

When ads began appearing at the bottom of posts of educators I respect, I got turned off.

When ads began appearing on posts of educators who had just recently begun blogging, I was put off even more.

When teachers ask me to retweet their request for Donors Choose, I have to decline. It's one of my unwritten personal policies for how I use Twitter.

I'm not in it for the income. I'm in it for the outcome.
These are the thoughts running through my mind this morning. I have not promoted anything on Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram, or my blog that I have not read, questioned, or supported. I do not put requests on Donors Choose for my own students, as my district is fairly affluent and I do not want to take away from those who are struggling. I have donated to Donors Choose, and been rewarded knowing that I could help in small ways. These are all personal preferences everyone has to consider in their careers - whatever background we come from or circumstance we're in currently.

So seeing the ads on other blogs, although they turned me off, the message of the educator posting their thoughts was more important to me. I could overlook the ads. I have no clue why they added advertisements (that this world already has so much of) to their posts, but I realize it's a personal preference. Yes, they may lose some readers, but they didn't lose me. I know how to skip over the distraction. I've often wondered if AdSense would ever make sense to me.

Then it came to me today - I've learned how to skip over the distraction pretty well! How many of us who use tech daily have learned this skill?

It also came to me - I don't need the money that might come from having ads, but I could use it to help OTHERS. What if...

So I've decided. I, too, will add to the list of myriad educators who are adding advertisements to their posts. I am going to do this for GOOD. I resolve to donate any earnings generated (I have no clue how little or large they will be) from AdSense back into education. I will use any funds earned to help teachers on Donors Choose, to donate to schools themselves, or other causes for education that I believe in. Perhaps I can use the funds to help classroom libraries grow, or to give backpacks to those without, or to support children with no access to technology at home.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hacking Literacy - My Take Away

I am on Gerard Dawson's (High School English teacher) email list to get updates to his blog, so I was able to get a PDF copy of Hacking Literacy before it was published! I then proceeded to read this gem in two days...

The first three hacks (focus on the reader, develop a reading culture, and develop a classroom library) assumed that the teacher is a reader him/herself. I almost feel that a chapter was missing - how to read A LOT as a teacher. If teachers who are non readers (of children's / YA literature) actually read this book, they may get the hint that it's pretty imperative they start reading children's books. These three hacks validated what I've been trying to accomplish in my ELA class, and would benefit those who are on the edge of turning their classroom reading culture around.

The fourth hack - Implement Assessments that Build Community - is where, suddenly, my brain began thinking, "What if?" If you've been following my blog at all, you'll know I'm focused on feedback instead of grading. How DO teachers assess independent reading? How can my students use their independent reading to prove that they're learning? As Gerard was talking about the various ways students can share their reading with the class, I nodded my head as I notice familiar ideas, such as Penny Kittle's Big Idea Books, book talks, book reviews, and so on. I then added some of the ideas to the document I'm going to give students next year to keep track of their writing, grammar, and reading comprehension. This portion looks like this:
I then had an "aha" moment! I am so focused on feedback - how can I make it easier for me to give specific feedback about what students did well sharing publicly, and on what they can improve? Create a simple Google Form to fill out! So... I did. Here is my first attempt at creating a form that I can use to quickly check off boxes that apply to students sharing their books publicly - whether it's a book talk, video, on Instagram, etc. - Feel free to copy it and make your own!

What makes me geeked about this form is that I can copy and paste the information as a narrative into the online gradebook as feedback for my students. I'm excited for this short cut! The more feedback students receive on the books they share, the more they may try to improve by sharing even more books with their peers.

As the author states... "Building a culture of readers is not easy. It takes time, patience, and consistent application of effective strategies ... It means empowering students to manage their own learning and measure their own progress. As the teacher releases rigid control and invites students to collaborate in building a culture of readers, the energy of the classroom transforms itself..."

Monday, July 25, 2016

Feedback in Lieu of Grading in ELA

The link to this video will be sent home with parents, to help explain our grading in ELA for the 2016-2017 school year.  See this video and my full philosophy at our classroom website here.

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, July 24, 2016

Boston Full

I have one of the best lives... I was able to make it to Boston for the third time in my life this past week. (My lessons learned from the other three trips are posted under the tag "BLC.") It may seem sad to some, but Alan November says we need help if we think of BLC as a vacation...! We love learning from other passionate teachers, and I have found many people from my tribe here. Of course, Hubby came along and enjoyed the history of Boston - and helped me brush up on history lessons my own teachers didn't make stick!

I'm just going to share quick take-aways, or this post would be ten times as long... I'll try to not share all the great stories, but if you want to hear them, let me know!

Tuesday -
My Passion-Based Learning (Genius Hour) workshop this year had 19 participants! Oh, it was so great to have many voices sharing with each other. I enjoyed the four hours, and felt I was able to convey many messages, and share the myriad resources I've collected. Let me know if I can host this workshop somewhere near you! I've been invited back for next year, so put it on your calendar!

We then spent many hours in the North End! Cannoli, "One if by land...," a peek at the water, and a talk with a mailman about the relay boxes still in use.

Tuesday evening was a quick meeting for presenters... here are some of the presenters at this conference: Kathy Schrock, Kathy Cassidy, Kristin Ziemke, Karen Lirenman, Joyce Valenza, Reshan Richards, Laine Rowell, Amy Burvall... How did I get here?!

Wednesday's keynote -
Dr. Eric Mazur - Ask students to apply concepts, to DO the teaching, and get out of lecture mode as quickly as possible. He shared a great tool - Perusall - that ANY teacher who uses text in their teaching can use, as long as students have tech at home (or give them time in school).

Wednesday's sessions -
After the keynotes I presented twice today - and I learned from my audience! Mary Lou Buell came up to be at the end of my sessions, and thanked me for sharing the struggles I've encountered with Genius Hour, including the parent that thought it was "crazy," the students that hurt your heart because they'd rather "learn from the teacher," and the teachers who ostracize you. I was also very fortunate to meet and chat a tiny bit with Michael Albert (Al?!), as well - he's the only one in his school who's trying Genius Hour, and he, too, has the same issues. These are my people!

I needed a way to advance my slides on Google presentations, and I hadn't purchased a clicker. I downloaded and worked with Demobo at home. It didn't work on game day. My phone did not like the same wifi that my laptop liked. I asked Brian Mull what he used in his presentations, and then ordered this clicker before Friday's keynotes. Another issue I had was that my videos didn't stream beautifully the first round, but worked fine during my second hour. I received a tip from Jim (tech help!) I can use next time - download the videos first onto my laptop. (I hope I can do this with my two videos from TubeChop, as well.)

We then spent many hours at Fenway... what a blast! Red Sox won big against San Francisco.
Big Papi
Thursday's keynotes -
Prior to the keynotes, I was able to chat with Sylvia Tolisano once again - she updated me on her amplifyEDucation site - such possibilities!

Homo Sabet Tavangar - I need to find out where her grandparents are from - she told us an amazing story of their rebellious acts that led to her mother and herself being able to read and succeed. We need to learn other people's stories from around the globe so we can promote empathy.

Mike Pennington - He's a "wasabi mix of all the people's ideas here... at BLC." YES! Aren't we all a mix of the people who we surround ourselves with? After a shooting at his school, Mike started worrying so much about his students' frustrations that his teaching took a nose dive. After a few more months of dealing with this stress, he decided he had to move on and become an administrator. My take-away: Teach kids to notice and create perspective. Every child will struggle. Let them struggle, and teach them how to overcome struggles that they will encounter.

Kristin Ziemke - Listen to children. You need to know what's going on in their lives so that they can actually learn when they're with you. First grader Diego's blog post and father's response meant that they "preserved our next 7 hours" of class together, as Diego's fears were alleviated. What are our students thinking while we just go on with our curriculum? Even I was worried about when/where I'd get lunch on this full day! Destiny, another of Kristin's students, came up with this six-word story after reading about Ruby Bridges - "Segregation seems like it's never-ending." LISTEN to children's stories. They can teach US every day.

Jordyn Zimmerman - Attends Mentor HS in Ohio. Before attending Mentor, she'd previously struggled throughout her educational career at other public schools. Jordyn has autism, and has difficulty expressing her thoughts through speech. She has since been introduced to an app on her iPad that can help her communicate. She used this app to give her presentation. Some of her speech is on this Periscope, but the tears in the audience and the standing ovation proved how moving her message was. I had a tough time when she said she was suspended multiple times and then moved to a new school where she was being asked to touch her nose and head and given candy if she complied... This was AFTER she had mastered certain skills at her schools. She shared about many of her feelings in school, which were mostly a "combination of anger and devastation." Her five lessons for teachers: 1. Students want to learn. 2. Don't assume you know how your students feel or what they think. 3. Have high expectations for ALL students. 4. Always be kind. "Special" should never mean "separate." Say hello in the hallways, even if you don't know the student or the student doesn't respond. 5. Know one way or another, you will be a part of your students' lives forever. I was fortunate to thank Jordyn in person at the airport. She needs to know she matters!

Again and again, we were reminded of the significance of practicing empathy in our schools. I had a good cry with Rik Rowe after these four speeches!! Oh, so great to see this friend in person once again. Lesson - Take TIME to talk with children and listen to their stories.

Thursday's sessions -
Aaron Polansky - GeekSox: Beyond the Curriculum - When we focus on connections, test scores improve. Connection drives attendance and learning. The most important letters are: R. U. O. K. ? He told us about a freshman's story of eating by himself, and what his school did about it. In his school, they have three rules - Be kind. Be honest. Improve the situation. We should all walk around with bags over our heads so that we judge people by the exchanges we have, not by how they look. May your insides always outshine your outsides. (Our outsides could change in a moment.) When fear stops showing up in your life, it's because you are nearing your true self. ~Brendan Burchard. Treat people as if they're good. ~Todd Whittaker

Starr Sackstein - Empowering Learning Through Mastery - I'm on the right track. Others feel the "fingernails on a chalkboard" when they are surrounded by teachers who still use points as punishment and rewards. We come to BLC and are surrounded with teachers "just as crazy as us," and teachers who deal with the same struggles. Dan Welty and Rik Rowe were in this session - my tribe!

Brian Mull - Making Thinking Visible with Nearpod - I can now see the uses of this tool and would love to try to implement this type of instant feedback in class! I'm also thinking of using this in my next workshop or sessions on Genius Hour.

Sara Wilke - Q2 - Don't have "bogus inquiry" lessons - give students time to pursue what they want to know! Books to read: Make Just One Change, A More Beautiful Question, Blink, and Thinking - Fast and Slow. We go too fast. Stop. Listen. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Sara led this the way we should lead all sessions - if we want our students to learn / do in a certain way, our leaders need to do the same. I need to learn how to incorporate more DOING in my one-hour sessions about Genius Hour.

Friday's keynotes-
Bob Goodman - Get there early! (And borrow furniture!) Do not deny students science and math.

Linda Liukas - There is always something else to get excited about! Girls can do anything! Linda's character Ruby teaches kids about coding! Computers can never give an opinion or have a feeling.

Then it was time to go home... and I was drained. (And FULL!)

My big take away...
This year will be my best yet. I've come to realize my angst doesn't come from the classroom very often. Yes, I struggle with many things, but I see those as challenges, and I work on decreasing those struggles. My true angst comes from teachers (who are never IN our classroom) who don't think what I'm doing is right, or even best practice. I realized this week that I haven't taken the time to sit with them and explain the reasons WHY I still have Genius Hour or WHY I'm not grading my students' work and only giving feedback instead. That's on me. I cannot expect them to buy in to ideas or think I'm sane if I don't take that time to explain. I focus on the reasons why in the classroom so students can buy in, but I haven't done so with teachers in my own school. Instead, I react - and often with frustration. I know I let other people's opinions get to me. I have for years. It's become a habit. Well - I'm ready to break that habit. I am doing what I'm doing for the KIDS, and not to please the teachers. My goal for the upcoming year? When working with adults, do what I do with my students: Listen first. Take the time to process. Take the time to plan what I'm going to say, if anything. Say what I hear them expressing, then say what I feel/need slowly, and perhaps in question format to get them thinking further. If I cannot do this, I will ask that we finish a discussion on another date, so we all have time to think about certain aspects of it for a bit more.

One theme I work into my workshop = Let It Go. I advise participants to do what you know is right for the kids, even if other teachers ostracize you. I will be taking my own advice. I will work to find the balance, so that I do not end up being one of those veteran teachers who hide in her room all day and stop talking to anyone because we don't see eye-to-eye. Instead, I would still like to be a person who leads by example, and question other ideas. If other teachers are condescending and are open to discussion about the reasons why, I'm ready and willing to take time out of our busy days to share. If not, I'll just let it go, and be happy I'm able to do what I can to make my classroom culture of trust and inquiry thrive.

Find all of the session notes here.

Want my tweeted notes? There are some gems / quotes in my notes here in Storify.

Thank you to November Learning and administration in my district for supporting me on this journey! I've been asked to come back to host another workshop next year, and if you need a nudge to begin something like Genius Hour, I hope to see you there!