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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Ray Bradbury in 2018

The students (7th grade ELA) and my co-teacher and I are reading Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed by Ray Bradbury. For this story, we'll read most of it aloud, and then stop at certain points and let students ask each other any clarifying questions. In the story, the Bittering family arrive on Mars and decide to establish a home there. They are then forced to stay on Mars, as the atom bombs on Earth made it so rockets cannot come back for them.

One of the questions stemmed from the line in the story that says the newspaper was warm from that day's rocket.
Here's how one of the quick conversations went:
Student 1: "Why didn't they just look on their iPad or phone?"
Student 2: "They probably didn't have wifi."
Student 1: "Why didn't they just make wifi?"
Student 3: "How do you make wifi?"

I was cracking up, and soaking it in. I love seeing their learning so visibly. I had to stop the discussion for a moment and let them know that this story was most likely written before the Internet.

They looked at me like I grew a horn. I love these kids.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

"Salon with a View" Spin-Off

When I read Stories in EDU, I took notes for my blog post about it. One of those notes was that I absolutely had to use ideas from Jason Bretzmann's "Salon with a View" in my last class.

You know the class. It's after lunch. It's two-thirds male. (Should this matter? No. Does it? Sometimes.) This class has a cluster of friends that are pretty loud, and there aren't enough corners in the room to separate the ones with the urge to chatter for the few moments they're supposed to be listening.

This class this year is also the class that did the best when we had our first fishbowl discussion. So... here's my spin-off of Jason's "Salon with a View..."

I sat down in my mom's rocking chair and spoke very quietly with my last class of the day. I had blue scratch paper, and I ripped it in half to show them that it didn't matter what was on the one side - the other side was for THEM to write on. I praised them for their listening and turn-taking skills in our first fishbowl discussion of the year, and told them that they were my best group. I emphasized that it wasn't easy to talk about that subject, because they were all in agreement, and yet they brought to the table research that the other groups had not, and they really made it an interesting discussion for me to observe. I then told them that my other classes were NOT going to get this special opportunity...

They were great listeners up until this point. Then they started asking questions and talking over each other again, so I waited in my mom's chair with my eyes closed and pointer finger over my lips until they were quiet. Next, I explained that they just witnessed what I see often in this class - many of them want to talk at once, and no one is heard. What if... what if... I explained... what if this class worked really hard and then were rewarded with more discussion time - with questions THEY wanted to ask?

As they got excited and asked more questions, I started passing out the scratch paper. I showed them where we keep it on the student station, and then found a gift bag we could use to keep them in. When the students who did not want to join in the discussions looked at me forlornly, I added that they did not have to participate - they could read their independent reading books. :)

We've been able to discuss a few since then! The first was a favorite of mine - "Reading or writing?" I loved how they debated the value of each!!

Next came "What is your favorite movie?" which really was just a chance to share their own favorites, and the latest was "Is water wet?" which got a bit heated...

Ahhh... seventh graders. I love the mix of crazy ideas and growing maturity! Thanks for this great idea, Stories in Edu!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Forest App

I don't get a ton of apps for my iPhone. I can get addicted to games very easily, so I make sure they work my brain, and then I hide them together in one group.

At one EdCamp, I asked about teacher stress. It was a particularly stressful year, and I needed tips. One of those tips was to download the "Forest" app. Since I didn't think it would help me immediately, I put it off until recently.

At $1.99, I love it. Their advertisement says "Stay focused. Be present." It does helps me focus on what I NEED to do first. It helps me be more in the PRESENT. It helps me look around and enjoy the NOW, and not have to share instantly on social media. It helps me read more. I have "killed" a few of my fake trees in my fake forest because I had to take a photo of something I think I'd never see again, or because I had to text my coworker about the library book sale (today), but most of the time, I let it go. The phone CAN wait. I love how it's helping me be more patient and it's actually helping me get other things accomplished.

There are a bunch of cute trees for your virtual forest you can "buy" for 500 virtual coins, but another reason I love this app is because I can save my coins and plant an ACTUAL tree. Granted, I haven't done the research yet on where this tree will go, but I have faith in it.
I am not spending my fake money for cute trees in my virtual forest until I have planted five REAL trees. I'm excited to save these virtual coins to plant more trees in the world.

So... I'm not getting paid to sell this app, but if you feel you spend too much time on your phone, and you'd like to help the environment a teeny bit, you would benefit from it like I am.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning

Solution Tree sent me a book to review, and I was happy to - I've been following Scott McLeod's blog for awhile, and I love Scott's way of thinking and sharing. I quickly followed Julie Graber on Twitter after I read the start of this book.

This book is short, but hard to read all in one sitting. I needed to let the ideas sit. Everything in the book revolves around the "4 Shifts Protocol" found on page 13 and also here on the blog. The 4 shifts are guides to help teachers produce deeper learning - they do NOT focus on the technology used. This was the first thing I loved about this book. They took time to explain the TPACK, SAMR and a couple of other models I'd not heard of, and they also shared a list of many other frameworks they'd researched. They wanted more explicit guidelines about HOW and WHAT to change when we wanted students to use technology more effectively in our curriculum, so they've been working on these 4 Shifts for awhile.

The 4 Shifts Protocol focuses on A) Deeper Thinking and Learning, B) Authentic Work, C) Student Agency and Personalization, and D) Technology Infusion. Educators are encouraged to use ONE domain at a time to improve their lessons.

As I read through the specific lessons, I kept thinking of genius hour... and of what genius hour has done for my thinking (hence the reason for Shift This)... Sure enough, in the last chapter, the authors mentioned PBL. It's true - if you're not ready for full-blown PBL or something like genius hour, these shifts will help you get there some day. If you want to go big, and include a lot of deeper learning (that can very well mean more time), use all four domains of the 4 Shifts Protocol. If you are not ready, simply try just one. Each one will help you see how you can make your lessons more student-centered, more relevant, and more authentic.

After reading the explanation and ideas shared, my favorite part of the book was the last chapter - with tips as to how to better implement the protocol. In Scott McLeod's fashion, he goes back to pedagogy and relevance for teachers. This book will help educators "think more deeply and critically about instructional purpose." It's NOT about technology. It's about how to make lessons... BETTER.

What will I do with what I've learned? Look at one aspect of my lessons - I, personally, am going to look at the standard to which we attach our "article of the week." I could, possibly, totally revamp it, but I'm going to look at one domain at a time... When I do, I'll blog about it and share out with the hashtags #4shifts and #makeitbetter.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Stories in EDU

I will admit - I know Jason Bretzmann and Kenny Bosch. I've learned from both of them at edcamps or conferences in Wisconsin. I've eaten with one or the other at lunch! I traded Shift This for their Game of Stories. I feel they are good people.

Therefore, when asked if I would read and review Stories in EDU: Sail with a Fleet, I said, "Of course!" I knew some of the teachers who shared their stories in this collection, as well, so I was excited to begin reading.

What I loved about this book is that I could (and often did) read two stories in one sitting, and they could be from anywhere in the book. I chose them by author, then title, then section of the book. The sections include "Overcoming Obstacles," "Relationships," "Hooks," "Educational Technology Use," and "That One Kid..."

While I noticed Jason wrote seven of the 29 stories and Kenny wrote two, I also learned from both of them. Here's a snippet of what I will use after reading this book...

Because of Jason's "Salon with a View" story, I'm going to try something similar with my last class as a reward - they proved to me they're so good with fishbowl discussions, that I need to provide more time for them to try them - with their OWN questions! (My blog post about it is now HERE.)

As a result of reading Kenny's "You Had Me at Hello" story, I've added a link to the book to the #1st5Days LiveBinder because his idea is perfect for those who despise ice breakers.

If you are a Kahoot! fan, you'll love Jason's story titled, "Triple Moving Kahoot!" and if you know him, you'll be able to hear his voice in each of his stories.

Teresa Gross has me wanting to talk with our eighth grade teachers to see if I could be there when they read "The Monkey's Paw." I already know Josh Gauthier, but reading his "Hello Kitty" story helped me know him a bit more. Tracy Kelly reminded me to keep using sign language in the classroom. Brianne Neil and Leigh Anne Geib both reminded me of those students I wish I could take under my wing, and Patty Kolodnicki and Aubrey Jones remind everyone that our students need a clean slate each year. (Or each month. Or week. Or day.)

This is a quick read. One that you won't need to annotate. One that you can pass on to other teachers when you're finished. One that reaffirms some of what you're doing, and may challenge some of what you've done, as well.

My wish... I hope that their next book includes Twitter handles for the teachers sharing their stories, so we can connect further. I also think it would be possible to split these stories. The "Educational Technology Use" could be its own book, along with "Overcoming Obstacles," etc. Personally, I'd like to read an entire book about "That One Kid."

YOU can be part of Stories in EDU! Head to the website and submit your own story. Share your own lessons learned, so readers can benefit.

Side Note: Fueled by Coffee and Love is another anthology of short stories from educators. Check out Mari Venturino's post about how it came about and where the proceeds go. I have not yet read my copy, but will be sure to post about it when I finish!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

I Have Confidence...

Well... not as much as I could.
In fact... I've learned to "fake it 'till I make it" when it comes to confidence.

When I was becoming an adult, before every interview, I'd blast Julie Andrews in the vehicle - "I Have Confidence." You know the one...

It continued with, "What will my future be... I wonder..."
I used this song to remind myself that I may, in fact, not get this particular job, but then it may not be right for me. I was going to go in, however, with the confidence that I SHOULD have this job! And, really, the only job I was not offered after singing this song was the job at Payless Shoe Source. 😉

"I've always longed for adventure - to do the things I've never dared..."
And I'm doing the "things I've never dared" - I've been able to jump into Genius Hour, I'm currently going through the year without marks/points during each term (until the end when students and I come up with one letter for the parent report), and my colleagues and I are trusted to determine the curriculum (for now). I have a dream job - three 80-minute ELA classes of seventh graders.

"Captain with seven children. What's so fearsome about that?"
This song is also blasting in my vehicle the first day of school. Believe it or not, I get nervous about meeting children! After the first day, the nerves disappear.

I've realized, lately, that my nerves and my lack of confidence arise every October. When the grade is posted for my class, and I dread parent responses. (Oh, how I look forward to the day we have standards-based grading throughout the school!)

You see, even though I make it a point to send two-week updates and good notes home to parents, often the only time I receive emails from parents is when there is a problem.

Grades are personal. Sometimes parents care / worry / stress about their child's grade more than their child. And they let you know it.

Last October, I had a parent who hadn't read anything I'd sent home regarding how we were doing grades. I received the first email on a Friday after school. I finally felt mentally healthy enough to write in response to it this past January. My stress had manifested itself into a migraine, and they've come and gone since then. I had one this past week, in anticipation of backlash of what I've been practicing in class during parent/teacher conferences. This should NOT be the case. These conferences are for teachers and parents to discuss how each student is doing so far. Yet I get worried. Because I'm doing things differently from the other teachers. Even if I believe it is right and good for my students, I worry worry worry. The attack I received via email last year hit me hard. Since I don't want to give that parent any (more) power over me, I have got to learn to let the worry go.

"I must dream of the things I am seeking... 
I am seeking the courage I lack.
The courage to serve them with reliance. 
Face my mistakes without defiance. 
Show them I'm worthy, and while I show them, I'll show me. 
Soooo... Let them bring on all their problems.
I'll do better than my best.
I have confidence they'll put me to the test, but
I'll make them see I have confidence in me.
Somehow I will impress them. 
I will be firm, but kind."

I used to think this part of the lyrics were about the children (and they are, really). This year, however, I see them as referring to the parents when we meet - IF any issues arise.

What I've tried in the '17-'18 school year:
  • I don't check email after 4pm or on the weekends.
  • I take time to stop. And breathe. I had an app for a bit, but now I just need to remind myself to sit and focus on my breathing.
  • I go for walks.
  • I sing at the top of my lungs.
  • I dance around the house.
  • I get eight hours of sleep each night.
  • I focus on all I have in this life.

What I'll try during this '18-'19 school year:
  • All the things from the list above.
  • Stretch every day.
  • Repeat a mantra of some sort when I start to feel the stress.

I've got to remember...
"All I trust I give my heart to.
All I trust becomes my own."
I am so very passionate about teaching! So why do I dread a parent attack? Supposedly "no teacher goes unscathed," and I understand that parents SHOULD have a vested interest in their child's education. I have even received emails or hand-written notes in the past from parents and students that have melted my heart. I need to stop hiding them, and instead, bring them out and read them when I start to feel the stress in my neck that reaches around my head, makes me want to throw up and go back to bed. When this continues into a day or two literally full of physical pain, I need to stop and DO something about it. I do NOT have to have this stress build like this. I'm tired of this. I don't want it to become something that IS. I need it to be over and done. I need to have more confidence in myself. 

I need to make my mantra.
  • I do what I do for the children.
  • I am very passionate about my profession.
  • I give my students 103% every school day.
  • I make sure parents are kept up-to-date on all we're doing in class.
  • I've written a book on reasons WHY I've shifted my teaching.
  • I am a professional with 23 years of experience.
  • I have the support of my administration.
  • I read professional articles, books, and teacher blogs to help me learn and decide what's right and good for my current students.
  • I have been a pioneer at my school, helping other teachers try new things when it's right and good for their own students.
  • I will remember those parents who have thanked me profusely for teaching their children.

And IF. IF parents do get upset (which history shows they just might)... if it's my fault, I'll learn from my mistake. Big time. If it's not my fault, I'll have to wonder what's going on in their lives that they feel they need to attack. And then... I'll have to let it go (quicker than I've done in the past). After all, I'm not a surgeon. I don't watch to be sure a boiler doesn't explode. I'm not in charge of any part of the military. Lives are not at stake. I'm still doing all I can for the children in my charge.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Conference Musings

Seventh graders - what a mix of minds!

I've conducted thirteen one-on-one "grade" conferences with students this week. I need to meet because even though I've gone all quarter without points or scores averaged together, I still need to put a final letter grade in the online gradebook. The end of the term is next week Friday, so I've reserved five days to have 5 min. conferences with students. Some go faster, and some go slower, and they leave a paper trail for students to take home and explain to parents. The first conferences about grades are always tougher than the rest of the year. Students have never done this before, and it's quite the learning curve for some! We use this document (the first two pages) to discuss evidence so far.

Here are some snippets (all names are changed)...

Evelyn - 
     I see, on our documenting sheet, that she has earned an A. It's solid. She's gotten proficient or mastery on her writing skills, and she's got 90% or higher on her reading comprehension checks. I ask, "What do you think your grade should be?"
     Her response - again and again - "I don't know."

Cassie - 
     She knows she should get an A. I ask, "What is your evidence?" She can't find it. We need to look through everything and write it off to the side, so she can see what I see. We end up deciding a B- is more representative of her learning right now. I look at last year's grades when I have time. Uh oh. I might be hearing from parents. She had all As last year...

Jimmy -
     He starts by saying, "I've never done this before, so I'm going to do my best, but I might make mistakes. So...." and he goes on and on about his skills, how he's doing, where he could improve... He's got three goals for next quarter and wants to narrow it down to one that will have the most impact... I don't have to say a thing.

Norman -
     Has been in trouble this year. Only once from me. I "let him get away" with things that do not impede other students' learning. I pick my battles, and I think we have an "okay" relationship. He seemed scared, yet put on his tough face. He seemed surprised to know I agreed with his assessment of himself and did not bring behavior into the mix. Behavior doesn't belong in a grade. If it did, however, he'd have an "A" for looking me in the eyes the entire time we talked.

We have different seating options in our room. I make sure to sit on a chair that is the same height as the student's chair. I want them to know this should not be scary. It's just a conversation about how they're doing right now, and where they can improve. I LOVE these conversations. Some are tougher than others, but I feel like I learn so much about the students, and I feel that we build more of a bond of trust with each other. If (when?) we do go to standards-based grading, I'd love to keep these conversations going at the end of each term.

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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

SBG Committee Meets!

This week, before I headed out to our district office to be in the "Middle School Standards-Based Grading Steering Committee," I found post-its on my desk at home. Post-its from our class discussion on August 31 this year.

I hadn't taken the time to read them, so I'm going to post them here to see if there's something new I can discover.

In the "positive" column...
  • hardwork, persistavitivity (sic)
  • I try my hardest to keep them all A's!
  • A+, school, doing my best, working hard
  • A+ the best grade, 100%, 10/10
  • A's and B's, 4.0, GPA
  • Getting As and 4.0 GPA
  • I like to get grades can se it shows your progress (sic)
  • Are very important
  • letters / numbers
  • They may be important.
  • important
  • letters, important
  • more import things

In the "neutral" column...
  • homework
  • important, work hard, do good, meaningful, try your best
  • A+, subjects, stressful, prepared, honor students, quiz, worried, tests, study
  • low? high? good? bad?
  • school, classes, teachers, parents
  • parents, school, A
  • A, B, C, D, E, F, Ma, Pr, De, Be, Work
  • Grading policy, As, Bs, Cs, Ds, Fs, parents, school
  • GPA, school, homework, stress, tests
  • hard to get
  • school, academics, my classes, my teachers
  • How your doing in school (sic)
  • importun and useful, can help U (sic)
  • important, harsh, good, GPA, Pennstate (sic)
  • good, four point o
  • They make you anscious, some people care and people don't care about them. (sic)
  • Important, Good grades, you have to work hard
  • try to keep them high I think trying is more important
  • Grades are what you get in school, they can be bad or good, A, B, C, D, F
  • I care about my grades, but I also believe you are not a letter or #. You do not define what your grade is.
  • Powerschool, A, B, C, D, F ("F" is circled, with a check mark and smiley face by it)
  • Good and badd (sic)
  • grades are something that are different.
  • important, something you work for, assignments/tests
  • A, B (good), C, +, - (average) F, D (Bad)
  • Something that measures your academic ability, but it also defines you with a letter.
  • classes
  • A+, B, C, D, F
  • hard work, should be good

In the "negative" column...
  • Worrying about grades
  • There ok I don't stress about them too much but when I do its not good (sic)
  • As Bs Cs Ds, I hope I don't get any bad grades
  • Intence, scary, change (sic)
  • I think they're kinda stupid. I'm getting graded on stuff I don't really like and people kinda treat them like they're this super important thing.
  • Burn it!!
  • stressful (x 2 post its)
  • F (see pic)
  • G3 = Get Good Grades
  • A-F, A=good, F=you're a failure
  • Stress, anxiety
  • Wait, what are my grades like? When will this grade come in? Do these people all have better grades than me?
  • Pressure, stress, homework
  • Something that shows you what understanding your in like a scale. But also can make you feel very sad & happy. (sic)
  • I don't like them when they are lower than an A-. They are good when you work hard.
  • 6th grade report card / PowerSchool. Meh.

I love this.
I remember these feelings. The successes and the fears.
Their quick thoughts / writing brings me back to when grades mattered to me, personally.

And this is the reason I wanted to be on the Standards-Based Grading committee for our district. The elementary one is finished, and they'll have their first standards-based reports coming out in this fall.

We had our first half-day meeting this week, and I had a difficult time not throwing my two cents in after every person spoke. We chatted about how we felt about it, what it was, read some research (how reliable was it?), and came away with this book we'll be studying:

I'm excited for this next part of my journey in this profession!

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

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fire Drill Frustration

It was time to exit. Didn't matter where you were or what you were doing, it was time to leave the building. The fire alarms were singing their song...

I went down a different exit this time. I'd never been out this side of the building during a fire drill. I followed the swell of students down the hall, down the stairs, and we got jammed up a little heading out the double doors. No shoving at all - the students were calm, quiet, and orderly. Suddenly a coworker was just to the front left of me, yelling "GET MOVING!" turning her head (and voice) - right - in - my - face.

I didn't hesitate. I yelled back, "WE ARE!" and kept moving forward.

I could feel the smoke coming out of my ears. I was furious. Furious with her yelling in the midst of the calm, with the message of her words (we were moving just fine - we're not supposed to run, correct?), with the irony of making sure kids are calm and quiet, and with myself.

I yelled back at a coworker. What is WRONG with me?! I hadn't been emotional lately. I hadn't been stressed out. I hadn't been under the gun when the alarm went off. I wasn't worried that it was a real fire. I was just... royally ticked off.

I tell my team that I may be in trouble (or at least get some flack) from this coworker. I relayed the story. I guess I was preparing them for if they heard otherwise. I went home. I processed with Hubby. I fell asleep. (I'm a very good sleeper!) I woke up. And I felt guilty.

I tweeted this out to my PLN:

I went to school, hoping I wouldn't see her, even though I hardly ever do. I forgot about it for most of the day. Then, I received an email from an educator (I've never met in person) from my online PLN. She sent me a sweet message that included this video from Brené Brown:

I teared up when I watched it (no, I have NOT been emotional lately!) at school, then shared it with  my husband at home. This is how I'm trying to live my life. I've got a HOST of "permission slips" in my pockets. I am uncool. And I am okay with it.

When that teacher wants to chat about it, I'll be able to chat calmly.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Tidbit of Success

In the first quarter of the school year, many teachers don't have a lot of grades. When you're "going gradeless," or not putting points or marks to be averaged in the grade book as I am, it's even fewer. Going into our sixth week, we currently have six assignments that have narrative feedback attached.

The "Article of the Week" actually already has three pieces of feedback embedded in the one assignment. I change the date on that one and move it up to the top when we have a new one to add.

I've got 7th graders, and first quarter for them is all rainbows and unicorns when they're not getting points or marks averaged.  In fact, I saw this on a locker the other day and thought, "Yup. That's where we are right now."
Time will come soon enough when I sit 1:1 with each student to look at their evidence and put it all into one little letter. So far, however, there has been no mention of grades. No extra credit, no late penalties... we've just been working at learning how to be better readers, writers, and grammarians.

Here's the tidbit I need to share that I heard from a student when we they went into the feedback they had for their article of the week...

"It worked! The feedback you gave worked, and I did better this time!"

THIS is why I put myself through the extra work of adding "next steps" to each student's personalized feedback.

That's really all I wanted to share today. Thanks to Jimmy Casas's latest post about blogging.  "Write like you talk. Start writing. Write for you." Tag - you're it! Time for YOU to share another story!

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

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Another Shift to Curriculum Night

I don't remember when we started calling it "Curriculum Night" vs. "Parent Night" or "Open House," but I'd like to share what I tweaked this year, and how it went. (Previous posts about parent night are here from 2017, and here from 2013.)

I kept the same question of the day (night?) for parents to answer with their child's magnet - they seem to like finding the magnet and moving it, then discussions continue as they sit down while I'm greeting more arrivals. (How much did YOU enjoy 7th grade?)

One thing I felt I NEEDED to do was to cover the white board tables. I went for - and received! - grant money four (?) years ago for IdeaPaint for my classroom tables. We'd painted 12 of the 15, as some students didn't want it. Since then, they've been scrubbed with some super-amazing cleaner that has now washed off the protective layer they used to have. So... those goofy drawings of odd faces? Yup. They now look pretty permanent. The questions about the text we're reading? Yup. Still there. It doesn't seem to bother the seventh graders, but it bothers me. Hubby went to the dollar store and bought me six white table cloths, and we folded them twice to place on six of the nine whiteboard tables that are left (I swapped out three of them for two smaller - and square - tables last year - students decided which tables needed to go). If I don't get the gumption to purchase this whiteboard contact paper a colleague recently used to cover his tables, I'll go with the table cloths again next year, too!

Then I collected many books from home. I wanted parents to understand that I keep up with professional development. I also thought - what if THEY read what I've read? They may understand my teaching a bit more, and perhaps share with other parents. So.... I created check out slips for the books I thought parents might enjoy reading. (Here they are - make your own!)

Some books I kept at home, thinking they would be more beneficial to teachers than parents, but I did bring over twenty, so the box was heavy enough as it was. ;)

Was my plan successful? Three points that make me think it was... I was able to share that The Power of Reading really simply stated, "The only way to understand reading more is to READ MORE." One parent (who also teaches ELA) said I had some "awesome books" there, and another parent CHECKED ONE OUT!! Yes! The Feedback Fix by Joe Hirsch was the winner of the night.

Side note: My husband and my co-teacher were the ones who said I should bring Shift This. I just couldn't! Plus, it was not a text that had influenced my own teaching. It was a result.

The rest of Open House / Parent Night / Curriculum Night went very well. I let parents know I was available after the night was over for further questions, and no one showed. (I figure the ones that need to ask weren't able to show this night.)

The next day, one student shared with me that his dad said we had a "touchy-feely" class. He said this right after I had touched his shoulder to say hello when he walked in to class. So I sprang back and said, "Oh, I'm sorry - I just do that automatically!"
He replied, "No. He means it's a comfortable class." I'll take it!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The "G" Word - GRADES

For the life of me, I can't remember how I introduced going without grades at the start of last year. I guess I skipped writing about it, but two years ago I wrote about the day I introduced this idea to my seventh graders HERE. This year, the "discussion" (really - just me going on and on and on about how passionate I am about this subject) lasted 15-20 min. at the end of each period Friday.

First, when students walked in, the question of the day was regarding grades. "Who cares more about your grades?" Answers were - my parents, both / equally, or me.
Courtesy of @MrsSalsinger
Next, they answered how they were feeling (based on "energy" and "pleasantness") on our mock mood meter (thanks to Marc Brackett at BLC18 - more to come on this in a future post), and then we read independently. After we read, wrote about our books with a prompt, and quickly reviewed genres, it was time to talk about the G word... Grades.

I began this discussion this year by asking students to not say a word... I was going to give them ONE word, and I wanted them to write the thoughts that came to mind on a sticky note. I asked them for silence because I wanted 25 different ideas, not all one idea because someone said something aloud. They were fabulous, waiting for the word. I said, "Grades," and they all got to work. Some wrote just one word, some wrote phrases, and some wrote sentences. When pencils were down, I asked students to come to the board and categorize their sticky note as either positive, negative, or both/neutral. (Want to see what the students wrote? I share the sticky notes in a later blog post here.)
Courtesy of @MrsSalsinger
I then asked if they would've written different things on their sticky, thus moving them, if I added words to the one word... such as "Grades - in ELA," or "Grades - in P.E.," etc. Many hands went up each time I said something different. In one class, almost all hands went up when I said, "Report card grades." I continued the discussion by explaining how grades are very complex, and can be very personal. We all have stories about a grade or points, or a particular teacher. Our parents and their parents all have stories they remember - some still bring up angst, and some are positive. Either way, grading can feel very personal, and I don't want it to be. I want grades to reflect LEARNING. I want grades to reflect ACHIEVEMENT. Not behavior. And not an average.

We went on to talk about averages. How, when one week you may receive 0/5 on your article of the week, but you learn from our reflection of it, and the next week you may receive 2/5. That's a 40% increase, and yet the grade is averaged out to be 20% overall. I had many different numbers on the board, and students saw how, if they were averaged, they wouldn't be able to overcome their first attempt quickly. However, if we did not average them, and instead just worked off of feedback and "next steps," they could show me how they'd learned. What if their last four assessments showed 5/5? What does that mean?

Then came the explanation of our 1:1 conferences at the end of each term. We'll be looking at all the evidence, and talking about what it means. We'll be looking at growth, revisions, and how students took feedback and did something with it - in order to learn, not for a better grade.

During these 15-20 minutes in each class, I did most of the talking, that's for sure. I had eye contact with all students, however - most seemed to be paying attention, and trying to soak it in. I asked for questions, and they were few, at best. I asked for thumbs up, middle, or down, and got quizzical faces and unsure thumbs. So... I passed out the newest parent explanation and asked them to look through it and share their thoughts or findings. One observation was, "This side (the back page right side) has more words on it than the other side."  Yes! That led me to explain that our way of grading this year is more work - on me, on them, and on their parents.

This was the time to ask them to talk with their parents about the grading procedure, as they are able to opt out if they'd like. I may have said, at the end, that, "After talking with your parents, you or they decide you want to opt out, that's fine. You can go back to having the computer average your grades, just like it has for years." It sounded a bit snarky, and I could feel it in my bones, as well. I don't drink coffee, and yet I was BUZZING with passion about how I felt we need to do this in order to portray a more accurate grade to reflect their learning. Phew! This was a LOT. I still need to refine how I present this to students - This may have been overload for many of them. Should I spread it out over a few days?

I had one more thing to try (new to me, but I'll be doing it again)... On the door, I quickly put up a green, yellow, and pink sticky note. (I've seen this same idea with green, yellow, and red hands on the door, but I didn't think of it ahead of time, and stickies work just as well!) On their way out the door, I asked them to high five the one that best fits how they're feeling about the idea...
  • Green = Good for now. I may have some questions later.
  • Yellow = Okay - I have a question or concern.
  • Pink = What are you doing to me, Mrs. Kirr??!!

And how am I feeling after this fabulous Friday with this new group of 7th graders? Ahhhh... I am pumped up once again believing that I'm doing the right thing for me and my students. I am still worried about parent night (this Wednesday), but having this current discussion fresh in my mind, I can let parents know that I understand grading can feel very personal - to all of us. My principal said he'd stay late during parent night so I could tell parents I will stay late to answer their questions and concerns in person. My hope is that they feel comfortable enough to ask me any and all questions now and throughout the quarter, so they come closer to understanding the reasons WHY.

Want to know what those sticky notes said? Visit this post...

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

Thursday, August 30, 2018

"Teachers have to do their job better."

This was the response I received from someone on Twitter.

I'm bothered, so let me back up.

I wanted to lend one high school student some support. Another person replied to this high school student who was tweeting with the hashtag #MyGradingStory.

This person said...

I wanted to support the other student, so I got involved. I'm not one for confrontation, yet I felt I could share without being a jerk about it.

I replied that the student was not the "only one who has a...

I thought this would lend some support, and also share some resources.

I couldn't let it go. So on my way into school, I replied...

The person replied very rudely, so I replied (one last time - Joy, when will you just let it go?!)

Snotty? My mom would think so. ☹️

Now that you have the background...

I believe teachers all around the world are trying to "do their job better." What's with the animosity over trying new ideas to help kids learn? When averaging points is out of the equation (standards-based grading, anyone?), educators can report a more accurate picture of how students are doing.

Once we know better, we're supposed to DO better, yes?

This morning I woke to another reply from this person...

And this just makes me have a gazillion more questions. Is this just the perception of this person? Is this true? What is the percentage of teachers who "don't care" about their students? How could it be "most" when it's their profession - why would they stay in this profession? Do non-educators think teachers are not trying their best?

We've just finished with one week with students. Teachers are making connections with them, are in the hallways saying hello to everyone who passes, stay late to chat with former students, and plan with peers to make lessons as relevant as possible for all students.

I wonder... how many of my own students think this? How can we change the tide if (since?) it's not true? At least this person kept the conversation going a bit. I didn't know how to respond to the last reply, so I left it. I didn't think any response would be helpful. I have a reply in my drafts... Any ideas as to how to make it better?

I DO know that there are a LOT of teachers (my heart wants to believe "most!") who want to do their job better and better each year. When I write like this, I know I need to switch my mindset to one of gratitude, so I can let the angst go by the wayside...

Thank you for all of you who read other educators' thoughts through this avenue we call "blogging." I am truly appreciative to those of you who keep the conversations going by sharing your thoughts, opinions, ideas, and questions. You help make me a better educator, and keep me motivated to do my best each day.

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

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Getting to Know You...

Asking students for feedback is always a double-edged sword. You're going to get answers that you love and cherish, but they might as well be invisible, because the answers that are tough for you to read seem to eclipse anything bright and cheery.

This year is no different. I've got a fairly (very?) long survey I offer students. (It changes from year to year, but click here for this year's version.) Some complain about it, and some seem to enter their most deepest secrets as they type, type, type their answers.

Here are a few reasons why getting to know students is oh, so important...

Last year, during the last week of school, I asked students what went right this year in ELA - what could they celebrate? In one class, they started talking about all we did NOT do... I was actually thanked for not yelling at the kids, or telling them I'm going to chop off their knee caps or light them on fire. Their words - not mine. This year, I have students who are fearful of such a thing - yelling or embarrassing them in front of others. Granted, sometimes I feel as if I'm "too nice" - on days when I have patience, I can calmly let students know what I need from them, and then slide on over to students who need help or are acting out and quietly have a discussion. Hearing that students will be embarrassed if I raise my voice (or - Heaven forbid - threaten them) reinforces the fact that I need to stay patient. I'm sure, just as with every other year, there will be a day when my own issues or troubles creep into the classroom and I snap a bit and get loud and sound strict. Maybe it won't happen this year - maybe I can keep in mind that many of my students have specifically asked - through the survey - to not be yelled at or cut down in front of the class. Makes me think of Brene Brown and shaming once again...

More than one student has already written a cry for help for ELA class - either for reading or writing - sharing how difficult it is for them.

More than one student has an "annoying" sibling that makes it hard for them to do homework. And at least one of mine misses a sibling that just left for college.

One student has said that both parents are busy - please give him extra time to get in papers signed.

Many of them have great questions for our class that they didn't share during our first week together. Now I can share the answers this week, and calm some of their fears.

Some students are coming to our classes with a chip on their shoulders - they've not had positive experiences up until now, and they're already not looking forward to being with us. It's good to know it's not always personal - some of them come with some baggage that I wouldn't have been aware of had I not asked...

Here are their answers this year to "The perfect teacher is..." I'll be asking them to be the same.
Of course, this is changed and added yearly to our classroom blog here. :)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Pleasant Surprise

Second day of school - first "normal" ELA classes.

I've spent two days doing what I love - with a great group of students. It's the end of that second day, and a new staff member to our school appears in class. Yippee! I introduce her to students, and she easily becomes a part of our day. Students finish the reading challenge, we chat about what they did well and where they can improve, we go over materials needed for tomorrow, we chat for two minutes on building stamina for reading starting tomorrow, and we move to the front of the room for "storytime." ;)

I'm able to read The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown to my students, just as I describe in Shift This (and in this blog post)...

This last class of the day actually acts differently from the first two - they are a gregarious bunch, and they actually react to what I'm reading instead of patiently waiting for me to finish. They make faces showing they don't agree with the text, asked a few questions under their breath or to a friend, and quickly did not agree with the author when she said the "most important thing about an apple is that it is round." THAT was refreshing to know. When it's like pulling teeth to get my first two classes to discuss, this class will be active, I'm sure.

Thank you to Lauren Salsinger for this photo to capture this lesson I love...

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Green Lights

I've been on a roll lately - green lights every time I drive, bike, and even walk! Oh, how sweet it is to not have to slow down and instead just keep cruising...

My 2018-2019 school year is full of green lights, as well. The start of our year so far has been very positive - the message has been to "build relationships," "share your strengths," and "love your work." Oh - and another one - it is not expected we are checking our school email after 4pm!

Meeting with my closest ELA colleagues and work friends, the message has been, "Why not?" and "We could try it!" Many years this message appears and then drops off, but this year it seems it may become constant - thank you to our administration for this leeway, as well!

I'm not going to question WHY. I'm going to imbibe in the HOWs.

My own personal goals for this school year - to revisit when it becomes more difficult:

  • Students come first.
  • Do not compare yourself to others.
  • Don't loan your brain out to negative thoughts.
  • Do not boast.
  • Exalt others.
  • Be a role model for students and peers.
  • Be grateful for all you have.
  • Listen to concerned parents and share what you love about their child.
  • Remember that you are a professional - continue to research and share findings.
  • The kids need you.
  • Go outside, put your shoulders back, head tilted up, and breathe.
  • Know that you are loved and blessed.

I seem to have this feeling at the start of EVERY school year. I'm full of excitement and anticipation and... dare I say it... I'm ready. I'm ready with the ideas of many other educators, previous students, an open heart, and more research to come.

There will be challenges; I'm realizing after 23 years that the year will not be perfect, no matter how hard I try. Gratitude gets me through challenges, so I thought I'd make another list that helps those red lights turn green once more. I'm so very grateful for...

I could go on and on. I'm also grateful I'm in a position where I can slow down and stop at those yellow and red lights, to reflect and recharge. We can do this. Teaching is most likely one of the most stressful professions. It can also be one of the most rewarding.

I truly believe - with all my heart - this will be my best year yet.
I pray that is it also my students' best year yet.

Here's to the 2018-2019 school year!

What are your green lights this year? What are you excited about?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

First Days Poetry

For a few years, my co-worker and I have been reciting the poem "If I Were in Charge of the World" by Judith Viorst to our classes the second day of school (our first day with classes is too short). We then provided students with a template, and they chose one or all stanzas and wrote their own versions. Of course, we'd model one, as well. The last few years, however, about 1/4 of my students said, "We did this last year!" So... it was time for a new poem.

We know many 7th graders like to share about themselves, and I'm sure we'll learn a lot from them by what they write. (This poem, however, reminds my husband of Toby Keith, and that just makes me like it even more.) 😉

I thought I'd share my version here, to mark the occasion of my students starting a week from today!

That's version 1.0. I'm sure I'll come up with other ways of writing it before the week is through!

What's YOUR "New ME"?

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Random Groups

There are many apps and ways online that you can create random groups for your classes.

I've had one I LOVED - until the iPad from 2011 busted last year. I had paid for that one ($1.99 or so?), and it was very cute. It could even keep data! Alas, it's gone, I can't find it again, and I don't know how to use my own account to pay for an app on a school-issued iPad. So when I happened upon someone was sharing about a way to use random groupings, I realized why I'd been saving my box of 500 "craft sticks" (a.k.a. tongue depressors)!

Here they are finished:

Here's a tiny bit of explanation, as you probably get the gist:

  • Each stick has a color (paint), number (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5), shape (circle, square, triangle, star, or heart), and letter (T, H, O, M, S - close to our school name). 
  • All the information is on one end of each stick, so they can be put in a cup w/o students seeing what's on them.
  • All the information is on both sides of each stick.
  • I rotated the shapes (on 1 for blue, 2 for green, etc.) and letters, as well.
  • The white-tipped are "extras" - they are the same number, shape, and letters as the blue. I will only need the white-tipped ones when I have 30 students (homeroom). Most of my three classes have been 25 students or fewer. If I have 26 or more, I'll add white-tipped ones as needed, and just not sort by color.
  • I can also ask students to organize by color of the ink I used (silver or blue) for two large groups.
  • There are four extra sticks - they say "color," "number," "shape," and "letter," so students can pull one for sorting prior to the activity.

If I were to do them again (and I totally can, as they're super easy)...

  • I'd change the letters - to X and E instead of O and S. Or maybe find something else to use besides letters. Stickers might work, but they might fall off, too. I probably won't change them, as I think seventh graders can figure out that a circle is not necessarily a letter O, and that we'll have number, shape, and letter in that order. Good for following directions, I guess.
  • I'd use different markers. My silver doesn't show up well, and my blue bleeds.
  • I'd ask someone with better handwriting to write on them. 

Goin' back to old school - even though I've used Flippity and have a spreadsheet that will group students randomly. I'll use that in some circumstances, for sure, but these are nice to just get out of the drawer and sort.

On a side note - yes, Karen and Yvette - I made you each a set, as well. 👍

Friday, August 3, 2018

The School Year Is Almost Here

The 2018-2019 school year is quickly approaching - so many signs that summer for many of us is over. There are so many things that were on my to-do list I did NOT do. I tried to promote the book a bit, had at least three podcasts, spent a few fun lunches and dinners with other educators, presented at two conferences, but most of the time - I spent loving the summer and time with my family. Before we head to our last vacation of the summer, I had to get these thoughts out, as I'm feeling like I did not do ENOUGH.

Here's what I haven't yet done, and most likely won't be doing...

  • I won't be starting a podcast - unless my students want to start their own.
  • I purchased 50 (teeny) stickers for Shift This - I won't be purchasing more. I understand the sticker is an advertisement. It can spark discussions - great! And even though I have myriad stickers on my school laptop, I just won't take time to design a sticker and send them out. It's just not me.
  • I won't be tweeting out a link for readers to fill in a form so I can send them "swag." As mentioned above, I don't have swag.
  • I won't be presenting if it's a conflict with what I'm trying to do in my classroom. My students come first once the school year is in session.
  • I won't be a full-time consultant. My place right now is in front of seventh graders.
  • I won't be setting up "summits" for other teachers. These are very valuable, and I sign up for as many as I can. I realize it must take a TON of time to set up and execute. Time I could use to improve my own practice. Thank you to those who take the time to do this (some - many? - are not teaching children directly anymore).

Here's what I have done and will keep doing...

  • I will be available for a video conference if you have a group that is reading Shift This and time permits. I will NOT charge for this half hour. I'd love it if educators took the ideas and ran with them, even after they hear first-hand about issues I've had!
  • I will still be available for podcasts. This will be dependent on time I spend preparing for students.
  • I will still be available for presentations - if it fits with my schedule and does not conflict with my current position as a classroom teacher.
  • I will still organize the #ShiftThis chat on Tuesdays. We have guest moderators who will bring their own voice, so I'll be able to enjoy this hour with contributors!
  • I will try to self-promote without going "overboard." I still think educators should read Shift This, so I will be sharing what others have said about it, and perhaps quotes from the book itself.
  • I will continue reading young adult and middle grades literature and sharing them with followers if I feel they will benefit our students.
  • I will continue saving quotes from this literature to use as mentor texts for use in our ELA classes.
  • I will continue to scour tweets for ideas for #geniushour, #goinggradeless (#tg2chat, #ttog), along with the #1st5Days, and add these ideas to the free LiveBinders I curate.
  • I will continue to take small breaks from social media - to reflect on where I am and where I need to be going.
  • I will continue to share - though blogging, too - ideas that I believe other teachers can connect with or learn from.

The school year brings its own struggles. These things listed are some of the things I can control in my life. I may not be able to "do it all," but I have to be okay with that.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Feed One

Looking back through my posts on the Building Learning Communities conference, I notice a theme. It seems as if every year I've gone (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and now 2018), educators and administrators and keynoters are talking about CHANGE. Here are all my reflections on the BLC conference, if you want to take a gander.

Last year's last day keynote speaker, Dr. Robert Evans, told us that humans resist change, especially if this change was not their idea.  He also said resistance to change is normal and necessary. I read his book, The Human Side of School Change, and wrote three more posts reflecting on what he said. Myriad factors come into play when people have to deal with change, and his book helped me become a better listener to those who resist changes in education.

This year, my own keynote message was to stop asking why others won't change, and empower yourself. Take the risks, live up to the title of "educator," and do what you believe is right and good for students. Share these ideas with others, and explain your reasons WHY. Keep sharing - through social media, blogging, websites, presentations... keep the conversations going.

When Ted Dintersmith took the same stage the next day, he said that it's easier to start a new school than to change one that's already established. He added that we should embrace the pockets of change and grow by one teacher at a time. Leave other teachers alone - administration can try to make them change, but they'll just close their doors and keep doing what they've always done. Wasted effort on our part. Let's put the effort into celebrating those who are doing what is better for kids. Oh, and try not to say "best practice," because what is "best" today won't necessarily be "best" tomorrow. We can practice "better practices" with students. 😉

I go over and over with my husband Bob about what each session is about, and the things I've learned and want to take home and hold dear to my heart and head.

During our discussion about all this, he asked, "Is this whole thing pointless?"

"This whole thing" - referring to trying to get other teachers to reflect on their teaching and try something new, such as letting the students own more of the learning.

No. It's not pointless.

Trying to get other teachers to reflect on what they're doing, join in with what you're trying, and help bring students more to the center of all we do... is challenging for sure. But if you share ideas with just one... and just one teacher latches on and tries it and it changes his or her teaching, consider all the students you've affected. Mother Teresa said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one." I wouldn't say "just" one - because one can lead to another and another and the ideas can grow exponentially. (A few of the ideas I shared at BLC.)

I tweaked my keynote the evening prior, because I had to add this quote I'd heard from Darren Kuropatwa at his session - "The job of any leader is to make more leaders."

So take the lead. Share your ideas - through social media, blogging, websites, presentations... Share your reasons WHY. And feed ONE teacher. One at a time. Keep those conversations going!
Outside our house in the spring of 2017...