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.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I turned down presenting near Cape Cod MA the first week of school.

Massachusetts? September? Oh, how beautiful it was, I'll bet!

Miss the first five days of school? I wouldn't. I couldn't.

Plus, I didn't write Shift This so I could go present. Travel is not my favorite thing (unless it's Hawaii in February - I can pack for that). I like consistency. I had already been presenting "plenty," sharing the benefits of Genius Hour learning, and lately the lessons I've learned from shifting the culture in my classroom. Since school has started, I've been totally immersed in school.

I've been trying to create a community of readers. We've begun our newest pilot, which results in me and my ELA counterpart planning day-to-day. It's tough feeling like a rookie again (and again and again - every year), but it is what it is.

I've been trying to shelter my students from anyone joking, "Just kill me now," teasing from so-called "friends," the stress of a test coming up in another class, and even the fear of getting a "B" in ELA. I've got many students I want to take home and protect from the world.

I've been trying to stay immersed with students in school because of all the pain that comes once I step back into the "real" world. Cars beep at me for not moving (even though I see the ambulance coming behind us), people tweet accusations at each other, perhaps because they feel braver not saying it to their faces, friends in Houston, TX are still battling flood damage, relatives in Naples, FL are helping neighbors clear roads, Puerto Rico is in "apocalyptic" conditions due to Hurricane Maria, and Mexico is coping with earthquakes! All this - only in the Americas. It's as if I can't find enough time to learn of all the other problems in the rest of our world.
Courtesy of Pixabay

My biggest lesson from Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess - be immersed in the moment.

So. What HAVE I been doing?

Well, Wednesday night this past week, I spent creating a new video for parents. We've got a new online gradebook, so I created NEW directions for parents. Hopefully, with this video "how to," they will delve into their child's classes on the new site and spend time looking at feedback and next steps.

My time this Saturday was spent getting ready for midterms in 7th grade. This is tough when you don't give marks/grades throughout the quarter. And how phony this seems! Why am I spending so much effort on this? Why do so many people still obsess about grades? Yet here I am, reinventing the wheel once again - because I don't want to cause waves with parents, and because I want students who want "As" in every class to be comfortable not knowing their grade. Yesterday, I created this midterm for this quarter this school year. (We haven't even gotten to writing yet! That unit is next in the pilot. I am excited for the day when we can mesh both reading and writing workshop... soon, I hope!) How easy it would've been to just look at that electronic grade book and KNOW who should get a midterm report?! Here is what our new midterm in ELA looks like (today - who knows how it will change by the time I decide to copy them tomorrow morning...):
This will be a mix of my information (I'll fill it in tomorrow) and the students' information (I'll pass them out and ask them to fill in the parts with the arrows on Tuesday).

Just thought I'd update readers - I feel like there's nothing I can do to help the rest of the world right now, so I'm focusing on what I can - my tiny corner of the world. I'm immersing myself in my classes, and hope to have some sort of effect on 68 students who join me for ELA class.

Friday, September 22, 2017

New Grading, New Parent Video

Our district switched over to PowerSchool.

Parents will not see a grade when they log in, because we won't have a letter grade until the end of the marking period.

So... I created this video so parents can see all the feedback we're providing in ELA class!

Last year I made one for Edline, in case you use that and are trying to go with feedback only!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

They Just Sat There

Our first few days of school are built around getting to know each other, and establishing some sort of routine. The first day I have students goes way too fast! We read First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, and I share that the first day of school is nerve-wracking for me, too.

The second day of school, I read to them part of The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. We discuss the "most important thing about an apple" before we read that page. At the beginning of chapter two in Shift This, I explain why I read this book to my scholars...

This year, I found myself going one step further. I went back to the page in the book where the author says that the "most important thing about snow is that it is white." WHITE?! I looked at my new seventh graders, and said, "You just sat there. You didn't say anything. Your faces didn't even give me any hint that you disagreed. You just SAT there. Is the most important thing about snow that it is white??" They immediately shook their heads and provided some of their own answers, which included wet, cold, falls from the sky, makes us have to shovel, great for sleds, for making snowballs, etc....

I nodded and repeated their ideas and then I felt myself getting agitated. I added something along the lines of, "Still. You just sat there. I think years of school have done this to you. Years of being asked to sit quietly and listen. To comply. For sure, I want you to hear my words - I feel as if I do have some wisdom to impart, but I also want you to ask questions - to share your opinions - politely, of course. When we are reading something you disagree with, I hope you ask us to stop for a moment and consider your thoughts and ideas, and we will, in turn, listen and respond to you."

I went on and on (rambling, ironically, as they sat there listening) until finally I said, "Thank you for listening and considering what this year could be like. I'll get off my soap box now."

As I reflected on it this weekend, it hit me - THIS is why my classroom management skills are lacking! THIS is why I have never gotten "distinguished" as a whole on the Danielson framework! I've been okay with it in the past - knowing I have tons still to work on, but now I know one giant reason why. I want my students to (eventually) run the class. It's messy!

I set the tone at the beginning of the year that I'm here to listen to students, and respond to their ideas. I'm here as a guide... a facilitator. I'll give them lots of time to practice, make mistakes, and practice again. I'm okay with the extra bit of noise or transition time if what we were working on was valuable to their learning or improving. Although I don't make working on my classroom management a priority, there's no doubt I'll continue to brush up on my classroom management skills year after year. However, that word "manage" may always strike a sore spot with me, due to personal reasons. I don't feel as if I need to earn "distinguished" in that realm. My students just sat there when I said the "most important thing about snow is that it is white." I don't want that. I want them to speak up when they think I'm wrong. I want them to stand up for something they believe in. I want to hear their ideas, and know that they're thinking - not just consuming.

I get many comments via Twitter. I'd LOVE to read your comments down below - keeping the comments all in one spot helps me when I revisit this idea. Please help me understand my position and help me grow by leaving me YOUR thoughts, ideas, and stories about this subject!

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Feedback Fix

I have to get my thoughts together for this book, so that meant I needed to write about it.

Joe Hirsch used to be in the classroom, therefore much of this book is teacher-centered. There are also very intriguing business stories in each chapter, however, that reminded me of how schools act so very different from business when it comes to change (that book is on my shelf, ready to go). Check out Joe's book trailer here. When you read on, feel free to substitute "employees" or "people" where I write about "students."

Here's my take-away and "next steps" from this book...

Too much feedback will shut down the learner. (Read the research on pgs. 35-37.)

Relaxing helps the mind's creative juices flow. Why do you think we get so many great ideas in the shower?! Stress (in class & from home) HINDERS learning. (64)

Three favorite quotes regarding student-directed learning:

  • "Managing a differentiated classroom requires agility and discipline, with teachers' roles wedged somewhere between symphony conductor and traffic cop." (66)
  • "In the time of Google, knowledge isn't the differentiator. Social emotional health is."
  • "Kids need to know how to think, not just what to think." (Michelle Kinder, 122)

Chapter 5 focused on teams, and because there was so much information in here, I thought I'd try my first sketchnote! (Are you proud of me, Carrie? I used Explain Everything for one idea on each slide, and then I merged them!)

Perhaps we should ask our students to have some "self-talk" before we provide any peer or teacher feedback.  We all have our own "coaching voice" if we take the time to reflect. Let's let our students practice that step FIRST, not after we've given them ideas for growth/improvement. This is one section I want to share with students. (80-82)

Putting some ideas together, I thought of this as a routine: Relax. Name your strengths (self-talk). With peer or teacher guidance, set a goal. Make/visualize a plan. Execute the plan. Reflect again. Repeat. (84)

Live in the moment. Each moment takes the same amount of time. Do not think negatively for a long time on one moment in the past. You are wasting the moments that are happening right now! Same goes for the future. Big presentation or evaluation meeting coming up? Don't give it the weight you think it deserves. EACH moment deserves the same amount of weight. Live in this one right now. (91-92)

Another favorite quote: "The secret to letting go isn't what you give up. It's what you give." We need to first hold up the mirror so students can see their strengths, then give students tools to grow/improve, and then check in with them to make sure they're doing alright. Our actions are controlled by ourselves - what a way to give ownership of the learning over to our students!! (121)

My first piece of feedback for students will hopefully look something like this... "Where do you feel you did well?" and "On what part would you like advice?" After hearing the student (and taking notes), I'll provide a tool or suggestion or two, and end with, "Have I given you the tools you feel will help you improve?" After reading this book, I realize (again!) it's the LEARNER that gives him or herself the toughest feedback, and the best thing we can do as their teacher is to hold up the mirror and help them by giving them tools to succeed in future endeavors. I want my students to believe "My ability and competence grow with my effort." (129)

As a result of this next step, I'm contemplating using Voxer (I thought of this in the shower - fancy that!) as a tool I can use to keep track of these conversations and add the feedback (feedFORWARD) narrative comments into the online gradebook... I've got to see if/how it will work, however, so you'll have to wait for any follow-up blog post!

Thank you, Mr. Joe Hirsch, for helping me see feedback as a way for students and I moving FORWARD. I'm looking forward to the growth my students and I show this next school year!

*Note: On page 68, Joe mentions our Genius Hour in action. He shares what we do, then added, "The project culminates in a class-wide presentation with members of the school board and city council on hand." Oh, how I wish! We have ended with class-wide presentations, but I haven't had the guts (yet) to invite members of the school board or the city council. One project - a little free library - needed approval from the village, but Tyler and his family did that on their own...

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Question of the Day - Magnetic Strips

I keep getting asked about how I use magnets with students' names...

And here is the original post with similar information. When I made this post in 2014, it must have been the year I transitioned from printed names (using the printer) to students writing their own names in a certain color for each class. As of 2017, students use the color of their choice. Some even choose to decorate this small space! They can also take their names home over the summer. If they bring them back the next school year, I let them in on the fun of answering the questions when they stop by to visit!

Please share with me what YOUR question of the day looks like in your class(es)!

Want to see more about the question of the day? Check out the Shift This blog posts about them here! More are sure to be added.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Social LEADia

Darn you, Jennifer Casa-Todd.

I was perfectly happy having class Twitter and Instagram accounts. We were sharing photos of what we were doing, adding hashtags to get more views, and every now and then we asked an author or an expert a question.

Darn you, student LEADers.

I was perfectly happy following my own students on Instagram, and giving them comments to support their positive posts. I hadn't a CLUE what you were capable of, and didn't have a clue how you could affect my own students with your examples. Now I've got my work cut out for me, because my students HAVE to see your ideas!

Darn you, #Hashtags.

I was perfectly happy adding teacher hashtags to our posts. Now I've got so many more hashtags I need to expose my students to... #KidsCANteachus will be the first one, since I met the almighty @thelivebits in Boston at the BLC conference while reading this book!

These are ALL good things - very positive steps for @KirrClass this next school year. But darn you, Jennifer Casa-Todd. I now feel an OBLIGATION...

  • to look through the myriad resources you cited so I may understand more.
  • to teach digital citizenship, aligned with face-to-face citizenship.
  • to expose my students to some of the best role models on social media EVER.
  • to share these ideas with every adult who says "social media is bad."

THANK YOU, Jennifer Casa-Todd, for lighting this fire under me. I had a shift ready for my next
school year, and now I know the next one. It doesn't have to be big - it will be inclusive. I will find ways to include the ideas you shared with my students, weaving them into our other lessons about "close reading," empathy, kindness, and every other place they fit!

One more thing... When you purchase Social LEADia on Amazon, make sure to use AmazonSMILE, choosing the charity of your choice! Mine is Soaring Eagle Academy - it's local, and it was started by a good friend of mine! EVERY time I use Amazon, I use the AmazonSmile link. It's right and good.
As of today...

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Scratch - Taste of Coding

Thanks to Michael Abramczyk & Megan Hacholski at the first ICE "Taste of Tech" session yesterday at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, I learned a teeny bit about coding using Scratch!
Find it on Scratch here. (Maybe I'm the only one who can see it in this link, but that works for me...

Some teachers at my own school think I'm "techie." I'm really not - I do love learning new tools, however! And yes, Michael, you're definitely "one more than ten." It's so good to know why your Twitter handle is what it is! For those who didn't get to watch this from in the 80's...

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Every time I come home from the Building Learning Communities Conference in Boston (BLC), ideas swirl around in my brain, and I have so many things I feel I need to share with other teachers. This year, however, our last keynote, Dr. Rob Evans, had the message I think all agents of change need to hear and understand.

He started by telling us (with much humor) who he was and what he does. The short version is that he is a psychologist and the director of Human Relations Service in Wellesley, MA. He used to teach HS and preschool students, and just can't imagine why anyone would choose to work with middle school students... (I LOVED laughing with him.)

Dr. Evans then dove in to share his wisdom about CHANGE. I believed him right away, because what he first shared, I share in my "Shift the Culture of Your Classroom" presentation --> We like the idea of change if it is OUR idea. When change is imposed upon us, we resist. So many conversations this week at BLC revolved around going back to school and meeting with resistance when we want the educational system to change. He threw in humor throughout his presentation, but this is the one gem I wrote down so I could quote him...

Because he has so much to share, this is going to be one of those bullet point posts - just laying it all down.

Points I need to remember and share regarding the reasons WHY change isn't easy in education:

  • Consider changes in your life - the ones you've wanted and the ones you have resisted. The "good" changes we wanted in life came with some unexpected consequences. Same for the unwanted changes - they most likely came with some unexpected consequences that were good. And, if we think of those changes in our lives and the lessons learned, the stronger lessons that were more valuable probably came from the changes that were NOT wanted. We learn in the context of loss, failure, and disappointment. Change is full of ambivalence. 
  • People resist change - ESPECIALLY if they were not the ones to come up with the idea to change. Our brains are hardwired to seek out patterns - even if we think we don't like the patterns, our brain wants them - they make life make sense. "We cling to patterns because they give life meaning, not necessarily because they make us happy. People often hate the pattern they're in, but also hate to change their situations."
  • When we're asking for colleagues to change, we need to consider this: What does this change mean to them? We think it means progress, growth, development, learning... Yet what it means to them often includes LOSS - grief and bereavement. Suddenly, an assumption they've had has been DEVALUED. So ask... what's the loss they will feel?
  • Resistance to change is NORMAL and NECESSARY.
  • Businesses deal better with conflict and problem-solving than schools do. Schools are more personal - and they should be! A school is "much harder to change than a business because a school is more like a house of worship." In schools we're skilled at congeniality (warm, friendly connections), but not at collegiality (which focuses more on growth and performance). Because of this, we have what Dr. Evans called "non-discussables" - things we don't talk about openly - only in the parking lot. "We get along great as long as we agree. When we stop agreeing, we stop talking TO each other, and start talking ABOUT each other." (He did add that if we were TOO candid, we would have a "collapse of society..." There's no need to go around telling people what you think every moment of the day!)
  • Side note: During this keynote, I was sitting next to Carol Salva, a teacher who is a brand-new author and who used to be in sales prior to teaching. (I'm sure she has a much longer story, but we didn't get to chat too much!) She said when she received harsh feedback, she would do what they suggested, get better at her job, and earn more money. It wasn't her nature to have thick skin - she grew it in this position. The feedback - although it meant change - was effective. Instead of taking the feedback personally, she used the feedback to improve
  • Too much pressure from agents of change will drive the resistance underground, yet pressure makes it harder for people to remain status quo. We need a balance of pressure and support.
  • Schools need more tolerance for conflict.
  • Teachers CHOOSE to spend time in the presence of children or adolescents. There has to be something inside us that helps us connect to these students (if we stick with the profession). Being in the classroom makes us happy. ... HOWEVER ...  "The characteristics (nurturing, sacrifice, kindness, etc.) that make us good with kids don't help us work well with ADULTS."

Mind blown right there.
WHY is this? Is this true?
He could have stopped, and I'd be satisfied knowing the reasons why schools aren't changing (fast enough - yet).

However, he kept sharing - and he got to the HOW...

  • First of all - and this notion is directed towards administrators - if you want teachers to lead change in your school, you need to tell the other teachers to listen to them. If these change-agents are not the boss, then others don't have much motivation to even begin to listen to the ideas.
  • "Buy-in" is an end state. It's not a beginning condition. Don't look for buy-in right away.
  • What matters is that people KNOW if they're going to be listened to during the process of change, or if the decision has already been made. The decision itself actually doesn't matter, even if people don't agree with the decision. It's the clarity of the process - who is involved, and who isn't - that matters. If we had to choose someone to work under, we'd choose someone who is clear about their decisions over someone we agree with but is not clear about who is deciding what. If you want change, be clear and truthful about who is involved in the decision-making process.
  • Be ready to support - What are people losing with this change? What will they grieve? 
  • When asking for change, change-agents need to be clear about the 
    • WHY - Why can't I keep doing what I've been doing? Why do I have to do this now? Why should I listen to you?  -- This is the stage where we cause the loss. This is also the stage that is often skipped. Change won't come if this stage is skipped.
    • WHAT - What do you want me to do?
    • HOW - How do you expect me to do it?
  • Difference between problems and dilemmas:
    • People solve or fix problems. People cope with dilemmas.
  • Remember that almost everything we're trying to solve in education was once a solution to something else.
  • The most productive, successful, engaged, happy people have someone who cares about their development. This is why conferences like BLC are so successful and invigorating.
    • Let's do with teachers what we do with our students...
      • Ask teachers about what they do well.
      • Build on teachers' strengths. This will help them cope with the loss and get them to where they're learning. Then change will be transformational.
THANK YOU, Dr. Robert Evans.

The Human Side of School Change is on its way to my house, and I'm sure it will be by my side when I go to the next conference where teachers wonder, "How can I get others at my own school to try this?"

And thank you to my online and face-to-face PLN who continue to challenge me. Whether I choose change or it is imposed upon me, this quote from George Couros is true...

Kudos to this teacher for sharing this mindset with her students!

I'll be adding more references to change below as I find them or they are shared with me:
     Overcome Resistance to Change with Two Conversations - Harvard Business Review
     Managing Change - podcast with Dr. Rob Evans (18 min)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

One Thing Differently...

"While we can't continue to do more things, we can do things differently." ~Unmapped Potential, by Julie Hasson and Missy Lennard, pg. 109

Ain't that the truth!

This is one point that made me go "Ooooh! I have an idea for our T-Wolves of the month!"

What? You might not know what I mean, so let me back up... First off, Julie and Missy (authors of the above quote) want teachers to uncover - and tap into - the limitless potential of their students. Secondly, this was in the chapter right after the chapter about better ways to lead a team. My brain, therefore, was on my team and a struggle we often have - coming up with "T-Wolves of the month."

We currently have six teams at my middle school (two in 6th, 7th, and 8th), and each team chooses two boys and two girls (I'm waiting for the gender stipulation to be lifted soon) to receive the designation of "T-Wolf of the month." Usually our team starts the year by making a list of students that have made an impact on their class right away, and then we go from there. Some months (March or April, anyone?!) are tougher than others, when it seems even the students who are excellent in character all year suddenly are... how should I put it... not living up to their potential. Remember - this is middle school. They have a lot of growing still to do. During our 40 minutes of team time, this decision could take up to 20 minutes - as we all see students in different situations, and (even though it's a team of ELA, math, PE/health, science, and social studies) we don't each see ALL students.

As I read the above quote, I had an "aha" moment - let's invite the students to help!

First, we'd have to explain to students what the process is that the team goes through to choose this person ("character counts" traits, consistency, etc.), and then we can let them know there is a spot for them to nominate someone - this form, ideally, would be on each of our homeroom web pages. When it comes time to choose, we can use their responses as a resource! Their ideas will be taken into consideration. We'll need to let them know that the team will look at every response, and the person they nominated may or may not be chosen that month, depending on our discussion and other student names we're bringing to the table.

You KNOW the kids see a lot of what we don't see - and I'm excited to see the more quiet students step up in this fashion. I've made the form only for students in our district (yes, it will collect their name automatically), so you cannot view it, but I took a screen shot of it here for you to see the simplicity...

Thoughts? Ideas to add? Wording to change? I thought I'd bring it to my online PLN before I share it with the team school in August, so let me know! Thanks for the spark of inspiration, Julie & Missy!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Unmapped Potential

Unmapped Potential by Julie Hasson and Missy Lennard (PurposefulPrincipals) went on my list to
read after a few quotes came at me from Twitter. This is not a review; this is simply one of my take-aways.

I think I got something out of this book that might not have been the authors' intent... I believe most of the focus (except for the stellar chapter 8 which gave GREAT information about how to lead your team) was supposed to be about the potential in our students. I learned better ways to work more effectively with colleagues that don't necessarily work the same way I do - to recognize and use my colleagues' potential. Bear with me here...

"If you want to change the world, start by making your bed." This quote, by Admiral Charles McRaven, came across my twitter feed a few days ago, and then I read it in Unmapped Potential - right on page four! The authors go on to say, "Simple steps done with consistency and conviction can create a big impact. And making a small, positive change in one area will positively impact all other areas." My thoughts went right to teacher interactions.

If you've got a pretty good rapport in class with students, in the hallways and after school, and you're anything like the readers of Shift This, the most difficult part of your day might be when you interact with other staff members. I've been getting many direct messages and emails from teachers who say that chapter ten on "Resistance" from Shift This resonated with them, because they feel they have no one they can go to during the day. They're thought of as the "crazy" teacher who has "loud" classes or tries "weird" activities, where no one is learning (grrr). And since there's only a certain amount of time during the day, these teachers that encounter this resistance decide to only focus on their students, and not on their relationships with their peers. Many of them have "given up." They'd rather put their energy into their students, because INSIDE the classroom is where they see the most collaboration and growth.

My mind was on these readers when I picked up Unmapped Potential, so I kept substituting "students" for "teachers" as I read. Next, I read, "...belief plus action helps you realize your goals." Julie and Missy went on to say that what we believe is what will happen. They shared a story about a boy who lost his eraser. He BELIEVED that another student had taken it, and he became very angry. Even though his teacher gave him another, he was still angry - at his BELIEF - not at the actual situation (which had been resolved). This story will stick with me for a long time, because I do this.

I do this. I think one thing about a person, and it stays with me. I've often that "that teacher doesn't want to change. That teacher is happy with the status quo." The authors say "Your struggle to connect with some people is likely rooted in your thoughts about them" (57). My thoughts/beliefs have driven a rut into my map about this person. It's so deep, and I don't even know if it's true. "If we focus on changing our thoughts about them, we can improve our relationships with them" (58). I realized I had to take a break from the book and come up with new beliefs. Stop reading here for a moment. Think of a person you believe "doesn't care" or "is negative" or "thinks my work is crazy." Then think of a POSITIVE belief you could honestly believe about that person. Once you've done this, please keep reading... 

If the person is a teacher, we can most likely be correct believing that "all teachers want their students to learn." Another belief - on our part - could be, "I believe this will be my best school year ever." I can see how saying this daily when you get ready for school could actually work!

We need to put up the "road closed" signs on that rutted road (belief) for now, hoping weeds will sprout through the cracks in the asphalt and that our new belief will take hold - a brand new road, clean, smooth, and ready for us to travel many times. (Did you know - this new road has stops along the way for refreshments? And most likely chocolate?)

What's next after creating a new belief? When we get agitated, frustrated, angry or worried, we need to repeat the new beliefs, and not let feelings influence our actions.

Prior to this happening, however, we need to visualize how we will respond to negativity if (when) it appears. At the end of each chapter there is a section called "Map-Changing Actions." The authors give great suggestions as to how to visualize your response (at the end of the fourth chapter).  "Close your eyes and see yourself successfully performing something challenging... (this could be a conversation with that teacher) ...Imagine the sensory details - what you see, hear and feel - as you perform the task. Envisioning your state may also be helpful. For example, seeing yourself in a calm state may decrease physical symptoms of stress when the time comes to perform it. Finally, envisioning success can enhance motivation and confidence, making you more likely to continue despite challenges."

Visualization has been used for how many years? For how many reasons? Yes. This could work. We need to make the time. (Heck, why not right now??)  When I think back on situations that might arise again at my own school, I can visualize how to keep calm and patient, and then what I might ask to get the conversation going. I'll try to ask more questions than give answers, and I'll put my focus into listening to responses.

If you've got an issue with a colleague, you've got your reasons - your purpose - for mending these issues. If it affects you negatively, you want that out of your life. You can only control so much. What you can control is your new beliefs. Spend some time shutting down those negative roads on your mind map. Spend more time setting up new beliefs to latch on to. Focus and apply your efforts on what you can control. Notice and appreciate the strengths in this person, and respond in ways that make both of you better, instead of bitter (29). If you try to avoid the challenge, "you cheat yourself out of an opportunity to grow" (50). And " will likely regret being angry, but you will never regret being kind" (61). "Your new way of responding to this person might just reduce the very behavior frustrating you" (64).

I can see how teachers can use the authors' messages to develop better relationships with colleagues. Looking through this lens will hopefully help those that encounter resistance throughout their day! Please share with me in the comments what beliefs you may have had and any new beliefs on which you choose to focus!

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Value of Vulnerability

When are you vulnerable?

I was asked this question once, in a marriage counseling session. I didn't know what it meant at the time. It took me awhile to process it. When I realized I had STOPPED being vulnerable with my ex, that's when I vowed to always just be me - vulnerable as heck - with any other new relationships. My second (and last, of course) husband and I are 100% vulnerable with each other, and that has made our love and life so much stronger. Being vulnerable means you have nothing to hide. My heart is on my sleeve, and I trust others. If people take advantage of this trust, I then learn my lesson through reflection, and close my heart back up with those particular people.

When are you vulnerable - at your school?

I'm guessing your answer would be every day. During the school day, you are in front of eyes that look up to you - you feel that you need to make a difference and do your best. You try, no matter how goofy you may feel, then you try again - with your students' best interests at the forefront.

When are you vulnerable - in your profession?

Many teachers have been debating starting a blog. Writing is a vulnerable act. I can see why many teachers are afraid of writing blog posts, much less a book! I've been there - I'm STILL there! Seeing that people I know and respect are reading Shift This is scary - I always say "eek!" when I see a tweet of the book in someone's hands. Writing every blog post is also a vulnerable act for me, as it is for countless others.

Yet it is important - now more than ever. We need to share our stories - our truths - and learn from each other. We need to share our own stories to combat any negative view of education.

New and veteran teachers are telling me that Shift This has made a difference and invigorated them.

I've got principals asking me for advice as to how to run school meetings or to provide a workshop on the ideas in the book. Teachers are sending me direct messages, confiding in me about the resistance they encounter at work, and how words I've written have helped them feel like they're not alone. These educators are reaching out and showing their vulnerability to me, which I respect.

I've been reminded of a few things since Shift This came out in May...

  • Not everyone you're connected to knows what you know, so SHARE what you know! There are teachers reading the book that have never heard of Genius Hour. There are teachers reading that have never considered not giving extra credit. Some teachers have called it eye-opening, or even career-changing! Even though I've shifted my ideas for awhile now, we still need to share the ideas out there, as there are still educators who are not aware of the possibilities. Consider this: If you share ONE idea that affects ONE educator, you are affecting countless children, as well. How many children will this educator teach, using this one idea you shared? How many other educators will learn about this one idea and thus affect their students, as well?
  • Teachers need to be doing what we ask our students to do. Whether it be the homework you assign, the reading for the night, or the writing in class on a subject, we need to do this alongside our students. Writing is such a vulnerable act - even writing a reflection to something in class! Even writing to give advice or feedback! I'm not even thinking about creative or narrative writing - I'm thinking about writing about Phineas Gage, for goodness sake! Or how about the writing done in science class? Or providing evidence to support or refute a decision made in history? MANY of our students are uncomfortable writing - much less sharing their writing. We need to do model it, show them our thinking, then ask them for feedback.
  • We need to ask everyone - students, their parents, peers, administration - for feedback. The more perspectives, the better. The stronger our work will be.
  • We need to REFLECT. Daily. Nah. We only need to ask for feedback and reflect if we want to improve. If we don't want to improve, we should find a new profession.

I've been humbled since Shift This has come out, as well. Teachers are starting blogs as a result of reading it, or even simply being in our book study chats. More teachers have found a larger voice - My words have affected others, and now their words will affect even more educators! On the Weebly, under chapter ten (titled "Resistance" - a favorite chapter among readers), I've added a new page for our new bloggers. The reason it's connected to the resistance chapter is because we will encounter LESS resistance once "crazy" (a.k.a. "innovative") ideas become more commonplace. It's my secret hope that Shift This will not be needed in a few years as more and more teachers are exposed to these ideas. This is going to happen if you share your words - be vulnerable - and let other teachers (and parents, too!) know what you're trying in the classroom.

When are you vulnerable? You could reply in a comment on this post, sure. That's one way of being vulnerable and sharing your thoughts with the world. Or you could write a blog post all your own.

This post was inspired by Aaron Hogan in a #tlap chat about his new book Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth. He and I are on the same wavelength - I finished his book after I wrote this draft. He's got an entire chapter devoted to valuing vulnerability, and another on the importance of blogging and sharing with the world!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Thankful for the Opportunities

I was reading a blog post about global connections and grades (or lack thereof) from a "new" connection I've made on Twitter recently - Monte Syrie. At the bottom of his post, he writes,

Do. Reflect. Do better.

That struck a chord with  me. Reflection is such a HUGE part of my learning, teaching me so much. I learn more from my failures than from my successes - as long as I reflect and plan how to tweak (or ditch)! I retweeted his post, and then told him - 

Bam. He hit me again. "Lucky to work in a prof. that gives me the opportunity to redo."


Some days we may be kicking ourselves for what we tried - and how we failed - in a classroom of students. And then... then we have the opportunity to reflect, revise, and redo...


If you are not yet reflective in your practice, it's time to begin. Begin right away, so you can learn from your successes and failures TODAY. This can come in the form of simply thinking, making bullet points, filling in plus/delta charts, journaling, or blogging. If we want our students to be reflective, we've got to reflect ourselves, share our reflections, and support a community of learners.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Feedback that Moves Writers Forward

If you teach ANY sort of writing (ahem, social studies and science teachers, too), you should read Feedback that Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing and take Patty McGee's ideas to heart and then into the classroom.

Where do I start?

As a teacher who is going into her second year of only providing feedback instead marks, I NEED to do this more effectively. I also need to model effective feedback for my students, so they can provide better feedback to each other, as well. I learned so much that will help me with these goals from this resource-full book.

I did not expect to get so much more out of it... after all, I just spent a school year giving ONLY feedback! Since reading, however, I have created a contract for students if they need that scaffold to help prove their grade at the end of the quarter, I have collected so many great phrases and routines to use when providing feedback, I have added these three peer feedback protocols to the Feedback in Lieu of Grades LiveBinder (Patty said it was okay!), and I've made a commitment to include a few minutes for reflection in as many days as possible.

Here is one way I make notes - I make lists of what I want to go back to in the book. You'll notice some I've crossed off because I already tackled them, and some I still need to do (um, quite a few I still need to do)...

Here were some of the gems I shared (via Twitter):

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Now go digging and find your own gems in this jewel of a book!

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Taking a Break from Control

It happens.
Sometimes it makes me late - to a meeting, to a party, to class.
It's human.

WHY, then... WHY is this story about Shanna Peeples' (who I totally respect) bathroom policy considered radical? Why is it even a discussion? You've gotta read this story!

Why do some teachers want control over when students use the bathroom?

Chapter four in Shift This mentions giving students control over when they leave the room. In room 239, we have a sign-out sheet that students can use - to visit the bathroom, get something from their locker, see the nurse, visit the library... They sign out and then they leave. I have seventh graders. They love this procedure. Do you think they don't take advantage of this?

Of course they do! So how do I notice this, and then what do I do? (And how can I look so casual about it?!)

First, I offer them practice. At the beginning of the year, I go over our sign-out system quickly, and simply ask that students are courteous about leaving. Try not to leave in the middle of a discussion or dissemination of important information. Try to NEVER leave when another student is sharing something. Some need to be reminded, but school is a great time to practice. I trust them until they prove me wrong.

At the start of the year, not many students take advantage of this system - it's as if they're not sure of it. Can this be true? But in another class, we get three passes for the quarter... I can just go when I need to?

Still, after four weeks in, I take home the sign-out sheets. I make tally marks on a roster to see who may be abusing the system. What does "abusing the system" even mean?? I have 80-min. blocks, with a four-minute break in between. Sure, they could go during break, but many other students are using that transition time so they don't have to use a pass... And for my class after lunch, should students be given more leeway? Who am I to decide this?? So what I do is I figure one time a week should be normal. (Right? Is it? I still don't know.) There are some students who never leave class. Then there are others...

After I tally, I jot down who I should talk with. In a quiet one-on-one conversation, all I ask is, "Is there a reason you need to leave our class so much?" Sometimes their answers will surprise me! And many times, they leave because they forgot something at their locker - this is a different issue, and this is what I use the tracking sheet for - that's (narrative) feedback that gets shared in my online grade book. I show the average for the class, and we - together - set a goal for the next four weeks. Usually this discussion and goal helps.

Does it not work sometimes?
Obviously. I have students who struggle in ELA. Leaving the room is an escape, and I'm aware of this. When the work gets tougher, this student will escape more often. The next four weeks I tally once again. We have the discussion again. And what do we do? We need to come up with a way to MEET the student's goal. We need to come up with a PLAN, since simply setting a goal did not work. This past year, my co-teacher and I simply used an index card with my initials on separate pieces that I cut partially for the student to tear off and then just leave - no questions asked. When the index card is gone, they're done for the four weeks. It works - and is still fairly discreet.

And yet... I need to tweak my own system sometimes. Last year, with three weeks left of the school year, I was tallying... and I stopped half-way through. Too many students were suddenly leaving a LOT from our class = 15 or more times in four weeks!! This was the first time I'd run into this. So... I went back to my old passes I still had on a document, and printed them out.
The new plan was for students hand to it to me, I initial, and they leave the room. When they got this paper, they GROANED! When I explained that too many people had taken advantage of the system the last four weeks, they nodded, giggled, and said nothing more. (Plus, we only had three weeks left of school - that's one per week!) I had to add this caveat, however - they could not buy or sell them. They could give them away to friends in need, but they could not buy or sell them. I knew this group of entrepreneurs...

They surprised me again - I found one that someone left behind, tucked it under the transparent desk cover thing-a-ma-bob, and a student used it and then returned it!! I love 7th graders. I want to treat them like the humans they are, and then tweak the plan when it's not working.

How do you handle bathroom breaks? Leave a comment with your idea we can all steal!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Creating a Culture of Feedback

I wish I'd have had this book prior to teaching without marks in class, but it was just published in 2017, so it came at the best time for me to digest ideas - SUMMER!

It took me about a month to read this skinny 64-page book, because I had to DO many of the things the authors suggested!  Much of what I was doing is on the right track and I simply tweaked some things, but of course I had to create while reading:

[My next step is to do the same with grammar standards, as I think we're still using daily grammar practice next year (?), and I need to figure out my own goals, in addition to what I expect students to do. Last year was the first year I stuck with the grammar routine, and it did give us a common language we could use with students. It's still not my favorite, as the research points against teaching grammar in isolation, but it's still only five minutes of class time.]

I then typed up the "Observation Vs. Evaluation" chart they shared so I can share it with my students prior to us practicing peer feedback.
I thought it would be perfect to share with them one of the first days of school when we practice speaking in front of our peers with our first tiny bit of writing. Last year, the class gave a quick "thumbs up, middle or down" on volume when speaking. How simple it would be to share this chart prior to this activity - and then again and again as we practiced giving and receiving peer feedback?! Pair this with the story of Austin's Butterfly, and the culture of feedback can start strong. (Haven't seen that one? Hurry and soak up the six minutes of visible learning!)

Another perk about this gem of a book is that they organize it into three chapters that make sense for the process of feedback, and they constantly use language that makes the reader think of IMPROVING, and not judgment -

  • Where am I going? 
  • How am I doing?
  • What are my next steps? 

Yes. Yes. Yes. I've highlighted and stuck notes on many pages, knowing I'll be keeping this book close at hand once the school year starts again. I'm going to use the language they use so that our class has an even better culture of learning and improving next year. I am excited for feedback in our classroom to lead to action and improvement. The goal "is to give students opportunities to practice making decisions about what's next based on feedback that they gather on their own" (52). My students and I have a long way to go. One step at a time...

Thank you, Bill Ferriter and Paul Cancellieri!

Update 8/14/17: Educator Bill Ivey reviewed this book here.

Thank you to Solution Tree press, who provided this book after I reviewed another of their books that will be published soon!

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Here's to all those who think teachers have the summer's "OFF"...
Sure - you wouldn't mind switching careers with teachers NOW... See if you can survive one week in the classroom come September!
Not bitter here, just realistic. Check it out:

Happy JUNE! Since school has been off for two days, I've been to Milwaukee and back for the USMSpark conference where I presented three different sessions and then hosted a Twitter chat last night, and today I already had breakfast with Twitter (and real-life) peeps Marialice Curran and Kristen Mattson (who, by the way, are doing WAY MORE than I could even imagine!!), followed by an interview with Kelly Croy for his Wired Educator Podcast. I even took a few moments to glance at the new curriculum we're piloting in August. Phew!


It's time for me to take a week vacation - oh, my! Hubby has a big birthday is tomorrow - and then get back to planning for next year!

And a HUGE THANK YOU to all those firefighters, EMS responders, nurses and doctors out there who work their tails off - often with odd hours away from their families - and don't get the break they deserve! Who else am I missing? Everybody's profession is valuable - we all work together to keep society humming!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2016-2017 Digital Scrapbook

I've realized the "Year In Review" posts I do each year aren't really about the year with students. They're just the big events or ones that happen outside of my regular school day. And it sounds quite a bit like bragging. I keep these just so I can go back - a digital scrapbook of sorts - so please take it with a grain of salt. I usually blog about small everyday successes and challenges, but I do post these once a year... Anyway, here are some events I thoroughly enjoyed this past school year - year 22!

The reason I had to start this post June 30th was this sweet tweet from Michael Buist:
- I attended my first #PatioPD, thanks to Sean Scanlon. I wish I had a photo of the seven of us! I even got involved in the PokemonGo craze (after just one week from its inception)!
- Boston - Building Learning Communities conference for my third time - second as a presenter!

- I approached the Burgess couple (DBC) about a book I'd like to get into the world.
- I was asked to be the Spotlight Speaker for ICE in March.
Matt Miller came to Tech Academy at AHSD 25! His message was clear - follow the students' lead, and keep them connected!

- EdCamp Illinois on 9/17
- Began NO GRADES in all three of my 80-min. blocks!

- I signed a publishing contract!
- EdCamp Chicago on 10/22
- I was able to renew my National Board Certificate - I passed!
- We executed our first Independent Inquiry Project (replaced Genius Hour - one full week, ending with a Cardboard / Creativity Challenge) while I conferenced with students about their learning!
- We all survived the Chromebook roll out at our school!

My district brought Dr. Tom Guskey to us! Most of our teachers were able to hear about the benefits of Standards-Based Grading. Of course I had to get my photo with him...!
- I found out I had successfully renewed my National Board Certification one year early (so... until 2027)!
- I turned in my first rendition of Shift This to Dave and Shelley Burgess!
- I found out I was nominated for a Golden Apple award - humbled!

- I was able to meet author K.A. Holt, thanks to our district for bringing her to our middle schools.
- Matt Miller hosted #DitchSummit online = nine great presenters sharing a wealth of information! Sign up here for the one in 2017!
- I achieved my goal of reading 73 books in 2016! (I read a total of 75 - all are here.) I didn't think I would, since I spent so much time writing this year.

- EdCamp Madison! We made a long weekend out of it for my birthday. My hubby knows what makes me happy!
- PubPD at Emmett's in Downers Grove (this one Hubby didn't mind attending the entire time)
- Conferring with students at the end of the quarter - my favorite thing to do this year!

- I volunteered at the SIT conference.
- I was notified that I would not be one of the 30 educators the Golden Apple committee would visit further. What more can I do? I could look for opportunities to Skype with classes and experts around the world. I could implement Genius Hour every week once again. I could be a stronger leader at my school. Our 7th grade ELA team is already implementing many changes, and my focus will always be on the students, no matter how much we do.

- I was humbled to share two presentations (twice each) as a "Spotlight Speaker" at the ICE (Illinois Computing Educators) Conference! David Karnoscak and I even won a #KidsDeserveIt book! I met a TON of wonderful educators here - my favorite parts were the small 1:1 chats we had.
- I received a Hokki stool from VS (school furniture) for our classroom! (Thanks Monica Hartman and Jen Smith!) 
- I received recognition from an IL senator for my National Board recertification - I then decided I probably need to let my district know!

- I joined my first panel on personalized learning at a NICE meeting on April 13th. Woah! Story here... 

- Did someone say another EdCamp?! Half-day EdCamp CCSD59 on April 22nd. Bonus - there were FOUR of us from my own school who attended - two first timers! Also, there were two parents there who have children at our school! Thanks for getting this together, Amanda, and thanks for another free DBC book - Instant Relevance! #MakeItReal
- I was able to share "Shift the Culture of Your Classroom" again during the morning of SLedCamp on April 29th.

- Shift This came to Amazon on May 7th! See Dave Burgess's post about it here!
- A piece I wrote about using feedback in stead of grades (last year!) was finally published in the IATE Illinois English Bulletin, Spring 2017 edition.
- MAP Scores - a lot of growth this spring!
- My phone cannot handle all the tweets about #ShiftThis. My TweetDeck can. ;)
- I've been on a Bitmoji craze, and it helped me to deal with all the talk and blogs about fidget spinners - oh, and to deal with the spinners themselves! ;)

- I was interviewed for the Principal Center Podcast.
- I finished my first year where all of my ELA classes went without marks in the grade book until it was time to put one (still quite arbitrary, but more accurate) letter on each grade report each quarter.
- I got the sweetest thank you notes from my seventh graders this year. Priceless.
- USM Summer Spark starts my last day of school (staff only), so I miss that day, but then I'm fortunate to be a "featured speaker" the next day... Oh, how excited I am to meet these educators and many, many more this summer! (Summer presentations: BLC (Boston in July), Taste of Tech (Aurora, IL 7/31 & 8/1), and Ditch That Conference (September 8th in Indiana.)

And what were the tiny successes this year? All the times I came home and was able to tell Hubby about all the small steps my students were taking through all the struggles we approached together...