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

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Explore Like a Pirate

Michael Matera, a great EdCamp adventurer and cohort, finished his book about gamification. I have told him - repeatedly - in person, no less - that I could NOT attend one of his gamification sessions at edcamps until I was READY to implement it in my classroom. I knew, just from the type of teacher he is, that his wealth of resources and his passion for doing this in the classroom would push me over the edge and into the high seas. If I was not ready to practice my swimming all summer (planning for an extensive year-long game), I would NOT attend one of his sessions. (I did attend a TINY session at USM Summer Spark last summer - right after seeing Dave Burgess in action!)

Well... I guess he was done with me not attending his sessions.
He sent me his book!

I have read the book, marked it up, asked questions, added sticky notes, and dog-eared the pages.

Now what?!

My brain is reeling.

I'm steeped in students grading themselves this year, and still on the Genius Hour bandwagon, of course. I'm still trying to figure things out with these two HUGE ideas. And now? Now I want to offer experience points (XPs) to my students for doing side quests. I want to have a big jar of water in the room with a small target at the bottom so kids can drop pennies in. I want to have teams in the class. I want to have more...... fun.

My kids are always up for trying new things. (I think that's why we're pretty loud - we're still figuring things out.) I believe I can incorporate my first efforts when we read The Outsiders at the end of the year. I've already switched those plans to work the Whole Novels way. I know what we're doing for that unit. Just think about it - the Greasers against the Socs... Girls against the boys. I could do it up right. I have enough time to plan (??), and we could end the school year with something they'll really remember. Stay gold?? Hmmm... Golden sunsets? Blue Mustangs? There's a lot I could do here... I hope to see Michael at EdCamp Madison this February so I can pick his brain, and then again in April at EdCamp Chicago so I can update him with my progress and get tips!

Until then, I think I'll get that big jar and some pennies ready... Or should I pack the golf ball, putter, and cup? You don't have a clue why I would? Time to pick up Explore Like a Pirate... Not too intrigued - yet? Time to join the weekly Twitter chat #XPlap on Wednesday nights at 7pm CST to catch the sparks so you can ignite those ideas.

And, no. I don't get paid to review books. Michael is a caring, innovative teacher who loves to share his ideas - in person, and now in paperback.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hacking Silent Reading Time

This school year, I tried four new "hacks" to get my 7th graders to read even MORE. These are in addition to TONS of book talks, reading alongside students, passing around a clipboard each day so students can write in what they're currently reading, and having set non-negotiable times each week for students to read independently for 20 minutes (in my beautiful 80-min. block) at a time.

Here are four types of students I have that do not exhibit habits of readers... yet. I have then listed the hack I've tried. I've experienced success with each one, and that's why it's time to share them with you.

The Great Pretender
She says she reads. At home. Each day in class, she chooses a different book. This book is usually one from my "browsing" shelf - Guinness Book of World Records, The Big Book of Gross Stuff, picture books such as Jumanji... I wouldn't keep these books on my shelves if I thought they were bad books, by any means. But this child exhibits all the habits of a non-reader. She'll try to fool you into thinking she reads. She might go so far as to give a book talk about a book the teacher read last year in class.

Get the audio version of books, and download them to the classroom laptops (if you have them). I have six old laptops in our class (and two chargers that work - I rotate which get charged each night). On the top of the laptop, put a picture of the cover of the book. Book talk it, and let students read along while listening. My experience -- every time we read in class, my "Great Pretender" quietly gets a headset, opens iTunes, and is engrossed for 20 minutes.

Forgetful Frances
She's disorganized. She reads at home. (This is evident in the books she knows and her spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.) She doesn't remember to bring her book to class. Ever. She chooses a different book off the shelf almost every day, but then leaves it somewhere in the room and it takes me awhile to find it to put it back where it belongs. She can't find it the next time she wants to read it, so she chooses another book.

Check out books you love(d) from your local library. Put a sticky note in them that says, "This book stays in room ___" so students cannot check them out. (I've been burned and had to pay for a book that never returned.) If this type of child is truly disorganized, she will not mind that the books have to stay in the room, because she would forget to bring one home or back to school anyway. Place them on the whiteboard (chalkboard?) shelf or another display. Make sure the covers face out - just like the end caps at the grocery store - make them VISIBLE! Have bookmarks on hand so she can save her spot in the book. My experience -- she's reading one book at school and one at home. In the books pictured below, there are THREE bookmarks (one for each of my three classes) in Fuzzy Mud (thanks for the rec, Sandy!). One bookmark is simply a corner of a piece of notebook paper. Now that I'm returning the book to my library today, students have said they'll check it out of their own library. (I will probably renew this copy, however... Am I an enabler??) I purchased a copy for the class, and it's currently checked out, with a sticky note inside of students who want to read it. 

The Distracted Diva
She only wants to read short, easy books. She starts books, and then abandons them after 20 pages. She'll read half of a graphic novel. She doesn't always bring a book to class. When she does bring a book, it might be one she's read before, or one she in which she's had her bookmark on page 15 for a week or two before she abandons it. She likes to whisper and giggle with a friend during silent reading time, or simply look anywhere but the pages of her book if her friends too busy reading.

Create an "article of the week" document that is viewable by anyone. Make a shortened, easy-to-remember link to it. Let students read the articles online using a device. My experience -- Our document is, and Scott Hazeu helps me add to it. My requirement if students use this source - they must tell us about the article(s) they read when silent reading time is over. Very few students have used this option, but a couple of them have, and that's good enough for me. Frankly, I think they've forgotten about it. I'll remind them of the link and where it is on our class website on Monday.

The Sports Hound
He loves sports. Sports. Sports. He doesn't bring his own book to class. He chooses fiction books from the sports section of our classroom shelves. He pretends to read. He succeeds at this until I decide to observe and then intervene. (I use this easy system, revised from Donalyn Miller's Reading in the Wild.) He's got a bit of the Great Pretender in him, because he sometimes gives a book talk to the class based on the information on the back of the book and the first chapter of the book. If you have a good relationship with him, he'll admit that he reads the first and last paragraph of each chapter. "That's enough to know about the book," he confesses.

Use the computer at the front of the room for browsing articles. Have the student mute the volume so if there's an ad or video, it won't disturb the class. This student doesn't have to pretend to read anymore during silent reading time. This may even help him develop a daily practice of reading the news - at home. My experience - he comes in, excited for silent reading, heads to the computer, mutes it, finds his favorite sports site, and reads for the entire 20 minutes.

These children still may not read at home, but I'm going to do my best to be sure they DO read when they're in room 239. If nothing else, they know that developing the habit of reading for a solid block of time undisturbed is important to me.

P.S. This is all done without grades attached. Of course.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Second Quarter - Students Grading Themselves

Half-way through the school year??

What I've learned this quarter... 
     - Students need reminders throughout the quarter to look at their evidence to see what they have so far. Many reflections came in later than I requested, because students didn't really know what evidence they had.
     - Students are becoming more aware of what the grade includes. They are also reflecting more truthfully on what they've revised, and they are even coming up with goals they have for next quarter (unsolicited in their video reflections). YES! Students included goals in their reflections this quarter. They are using more of the language I use! (They DO listen!)
     - Take parents' suggestions. This quarter I created a feedback loop for students to know when they need to revise, and when they do not. I also checked in with kids at midterm, and we compared our notes about how they were doing so far.  I hope parents give me more!
     - When reflecting on the "speaking and listening" portion of their grade, they are starting to compare themselves to the rest of the students. I don't know if this is a good thing or not. ??
     - The students in this last class are working HARDER than my other two classes. Truth. I don't have the "proof," but I can tell from their reflections.
     - The kids KNOW what they do. Where they put forth effort. What their grades are. WHY their grades are what they are. I LOVE THESE FACTS. They make this work well worth-while.
     - Here is our end-of-quarter reflection - mostly student-led (the entire reflection is in the video at the end of this post):

Questions I have...
     - Students want to know "what is a reading expert?" On our "reading guidelines" page of our class website, I have this image ----------->
Two students this quarter asked me, "Who is an expert in the field of reading?" GREAT question! I'm still working on this one... Any help from readers?? Please leave your idea in a comment!
     - Should I continue asking students to give themselves comments on the report card? I have the last two quarters, but... it just feels weird. I have no other reasons. I should probably ask the kids.

I need to...
     ...create a system - on PAPER - for students to collect their evidence. The Google doc on Google Classroom is only being utilized by two students. The rest had difficulty coming up with what evidence they could use to prove the grade they thought they earned.
     ...give more writing options. I believe that, if I'm grading, I should give three times practice, and then one time grading for writing. This belief left us with only THREE pieces of evidence (where I gave written or video feedback) for writing and grammar. Students did not have a choice in evidence for proof of their grade this quarter, because I only gave feedback on those three. Therefore, I have created this document. I will post the assignments under "Independent Practice" on the board, and students will have many more options for writing and turning them in for feedback. I'll be adding more each week, with a timeline for students to turn them in (so I'm not flooded with a bunch at the end of the quarter).
     ...remind students of the flow chart we discussed - so they cannot "fib" and say that they revised something and "did better." ;)
     ...give time IN CLASS for students to look at the feedback I've given them. I'm finding that students don't look at Edline (our online grading system) after they turn in their work. They see the feedback on their Google Classroom documents, but they don't look at the same comments I leave for them on Edline. When I left the YouTube link to their video feedback on Edline, they didn't watch it until it was time to collect evidence for their grades. I'm considering creating an easy chart with possible pieces of proof and the categories they can be used for, so students can collect their work and choose more easily. I'm considering adding more reflection and revision time, calling this time DIRT - Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time - thanks to this recent post by Alex Quigley.
     ...create a plan for students who collect "enough" proof at the start of the quarter. One student wanted to know what happens then... Great question! Perhaps we need to collect proof from various weeks in the quarter?
     ...give more reminders to students to create their 5 minute video reflection. I had more 1:1 conferences this quarter than last, because students "didn't have time" to create their reflection. Suddenly the five minutes for me became fifteen, and I don't think 15 minutes a student is realistic if/when I'm trying this with all of my classes and not just one.
     ...keep keeping parents in the loop! When the grades go home with students this quarter, an email goes home as well. This note will explain once again how their child has reflected on and chosen his or her grade AND his or her comment(s). I will also keep asking parents for suggestions - they are very valuable!
     ...keep talking about the ideas students have generated. For instance - One student decided his grade should be a B+. The next day, he came to me and asked to change it to an A - so he could be on the Senior Honor Roll. He's never NOT been on the Senior Honor Roll. We had a discussion. It meant a lot to him. I told him I would honor his choice, and that we'd have more check points next quarter for him to see what proof he has, and then he can create a plan for what grade he'd LIKE to have. With more checkpoints (as he'd asked for during his original reflection), he'll know what he's earning early, and not have to scramble to earn that almighty "A."

One of my favorite things to do... Listen to reflective students (sometimes using their phones!), jotting down their quotes and reasonings for their grades...

In case you have 13 minutes... Here is our class reflection discussion:

Note that at the end of this video, a student and I figure out how she can turn in any type of writing for feedback. She WANTS to write, just not always what I'm asking her to write. :)

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

I'm Angry at the System We've Created

My first class was rough this morning.

Groans. Chatting. Complaints. Mean words. Arguing. Rudeness. Blurting. Actual tears.

In addition to all of this, 95% of them decided they didn't have to do the work. They never asked if it was for a grade or if they had to turn it in, because most of the time it is NOT for a grade and they DON'T have to turn it in. Most days they are more intrinsically motivated than they were today. Even the "nice" table in the back decided they'd rather READ than listen to directions.

I ended the period asking them to continue the day by being KIND. I also told them I'd evaluate my own actions and see where I can improve so we can all make tomorrow better. We'd have a fresh start.
From "They're Made Out of Meat" Movie

I came home, and I created a worksheet for this class for tomorrow.


Double-sided, no less.


Because I want them to pay attention.
Because I want to save my sanity.
Because I recognize that they are extrinsically motivated.
Because I grew up in the system and I'm going to use it to my advantage.
Because I'm not perfect.
Because I'm angry.
     I'm angry at what this system has done to our students.

I've been reflecting on our actions in this class all day.

What did they do? What did I do? How did I react? How did they react?

I probably won't go through with it.

This worksheet has the stink of "punishment" instead of an opportunity for learning.

I might make a class set of copies. I might let students know that if they are NOT participating, I will then ask them to complete it. And yet this, my friends, stinks of a threat.

What I'll do for SURE:

1. Greet this class with smiles, like always.
2. Stay calm during class.
3. I'm going to ask students to reflect. After we do our weekly class reflection (plus / delta), I'm going to ask the evaluator (student who facilitates this discussion) to add one more column on the board. We'll have the usual: "What we did well" (plus), and "What we want to change" (delta). Then we'll add "What Mrs. Kirr can do to help us change." I will explain I only want serious answers. I will then stand outside the room. When the bell rings, I'll wish them a wonderful (long) weekend & take a photo of the board so I can look at it over the weekend and reflect once more.

I probably won't give out the darn worksheet. I want to be able to prove to myself - at least - that students WILL work in order to learn. I need to do a better job at giving them the reason behind the work we're doing.

We need to turn the ship around. We need to get more and more teachers on board so the system changes and kids stay intrinsically motivated throughout their school years.

I know it was "just a bad morning."
I just don't want it to happen again.
I'll do my best to keep trying to turn the system around - without using more worksheets or grades.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Using Explain Everything to Give Feedback

I decided to try giving video feedback for one small piece of writing my students did on notebook paper. We only had 10 minutes to write, and the prompt was to explain their "escape," whether it be a place or an action. I let the idea of video feedback stew in my mind, as I only had twelve to look through this weekend, and then decided to use the Explain Everything app. I could draw right on their work, and then could share a private video with each student.

After a few unsuccessful attempts (and successful mishaps), I decided I needed to keep track of the process I'll go through the next time.

1. Take photos of all the writing.
     (No need to crop them at this time - you can do that once they're on the app.)
2. Take photo(s) of any rubric(s) you intend to use.
3. Create a document you can toggle to on the iPad. This will be where you will house all of the private links to the feedback you're giving.
4. Open the Explain Everything app.
5. Put a photo of the student's writing on the first slide, cropping when you upload it.
6. Add a slide.
7. Put a photo of the rubric(s) you're using on this slide, cropping when you upload.
8. Optional - create two more slides - exactly the same, just in case you'd like to add something else to your dialogue about the students' writing, or more to the rubric. This is also good if you're working with two standards you'd like to look at separately.
9. Have something else ready that you'd like to be doing while each video is uploading. The upload time depends on how long the piece is, and how long your dialogue is. Average for the few I did today was 7.6 minutes each - for ten minutes of student writing in class. Tip: You could save them all as different names and upload them all after you're done giving feedback, but I didn't want to use the space on my account or on the iPad if I could help it. I'm not sure how much space I have on my Explain Everything account, and I didn't want to reach the end and then pay for more space with this app.
10. If your student's last name is on any photo you've taken, use the pencil tool to cover it.
11. Begin recording - just be normal.
12. Save the recording.
          I named it by the title of the piece or assignment, and then added the child's name.
13. Upload the video to YouTube, marking it "unlisted."
14. When it is done uploading, copy the link.
15. Open the document you have for students' links, and add this student's name and the private link.
16. When you are finished uploading, delete all of the slides, and start over. (This is much more efficient than deleting the audio, your mark ups, and the photos of student work.)
17. Begin at step 5 again. You will be able to rename this project with this new student's name when you upload it to YouTube.

Here is an example of one that was turned in with no name:

Why did I choose Explain Everything?
1. I think it's important to use tools I already like when I'm trying something new.
2. I am very familiar with this app, and wanted to see how it would work for this piece.
3. Student writing was WRITTEN, not done digitally, so Google Doc commenting wouldn't work.
4. I wanted to circle and underline and highlight their words.

What worked:
1. I became more efficient as I went along - with the app, and also with my feedback.
2. I became more precise in using words that focused solely on the skills on which I was giving feedback.
3. I did NOT take the time to go back and hear what I said. If it was a one-on-one conference with students, I would not have that luxury, so I didn't use precious time to go back and re-record.
4. I was personal with students... I let them know that I realized this was only a 10 minute writing prompt. I thanked them for sharing them aloud (if they did so in class). I remarked about their "escape," and thanked them for sharing it with me. I encouraged some to put this piece of writing on their blogs.

What the students said:
My question: What did you think of it vs. Google Doc comments?
- "A little better."
- "Once you heard yourself say something, you thought of something else, so you had more comments."
- "It wasn't bad."
- "Gave some good advice."
- "The highlighting, in my opinion, was a little excessive."
- "I think it was better, because you underlined and circled certain words that were good."
- "It was a lot, but it wasn't too much."
- "It gave some feedback, and helpful advice."
- "It took a long time." (5 min)
- "It felt longer, but you also explained more. It explained your train of thought, so I knew what I should do. You were talking out loud, so I could hear what you were thinking about each thing while you were reading it."

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Chasing Hardware

I'm writing this post for ME.

Feel free to comment, but this reflection is one I need to write about and stick to - for my health and well-being.

Flash back to my previous life...

June of 1996. It started with a phone call. I was still living at my parents' house when I was 23, and when my future husband was getting off of our phone call to "go for a run," I decided to take my dog for a walk. I was not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. That summer, however, I was able to manage my exercise-induced asthma and walking turned into running. I was able to run a mile a couple of weeks later. I wanted to do this so my boyfriend and I would have more in common. Plus, I wondered why I'd never exercised prior to this. I didn't have any weight to lose - I just did it for the challenge. His next gift to me was a watch (Timex - Ironman), and suddenly he was coaching me like he did his clients. Yes. Tom was (is?) a personal trainer.

June of 1998. We were to be married in August. I wanted to run my first 10k under my maiden name. Tom found me a small race in Woodstock, IL (where I worked at the time). My goal = to finish. I ran alongside a woman who had run in a marathon before, but she was not too sure she could run the 6.2 miles that day. I told her I'd stick with her, if she'd stick with me. I held to that, and we were the last two runners that came in. (That race was when I learned about the ambulance that comes as the "sweeper.") My time = 72 minutes, 12 seconds. (Slower than any "run," but I finished!) As I sat down to cool off with my post-race popsicle, my name was called. Huh? Wha...? I'd won third place in my age group!

This was the catalyst for my chase for hardware.

Tom taught me that "hardware" (plaques, trophies, etc. - of which I'd NEVER gotten) was easier gotten in small-town races. I started seeking them out.

August, 1998 - After the honeymoon. Momence IL was about a 2 hour drive for us in the morning, but it was a nice small 5k where I could collect more hardware. Bonus - it was an "out and back" course, so you could see the people who were ahead of you, and "pick them off" one by one on your way back to the finish. Tom usually ran his own races, but ran alongside me for this one, coaching me the entire way. "Look - she's in your age group. You can catch up to her." I won third place in my age group! This was the Momence Glad Run, where winners got beautiful gladiola flowers, as well as hardware.

For the next two years, I strived for more. For the next two years, we took the trek to Momence for this short run, and he ran alongside me, helping me pass by more and more women in my age group. "Just focus on that next runner. Get alongside her..." And I excelled in my quest for hardware, moving from third to first in my age group.
                                             Time: 26:56                                  Time: ??
                                                                     Time: 24:32

And the year I received 2nd place in this 5k was the same year I ran my marathon. In Alaska. For Team In Training. (Running 26 miles when I was 26 years old was very COOL. My time, however, was not - 5 hrs 58 minutes, when I'd been training for 4:30. Oh, what mountains will do to your time...) I was so new to running, that every race - every new challenge - became a personal record. How motivating!

These memories are strong. They came reeling back when I decided to clean out a bin that had been in the garage since I left my "old life" and came to this house in 2010. The bin was labeled "Things I don't know what to do with..."

Last week, I saw a tweet from Russ Anderson...

It was time, too, for me to purge. I obviously did not have all that Russ had - I only had a few from my twenties. I'll keep the medal from the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in '99 - when I find it. I knew when I saw the plaques, that it was time to toss them - along with the years of running journals I'd pitched years ago - but the memories were so strong, I had to write about them first. What was the message I was going to get from this flood of memories? Where's my lesson that can apply to me now?

I need to stop chasing hardware.

My professional life is so much of my life. And, although I no longer run, I am still chasing "hardware." Notes from students, emails from parents, home-made gifts from students, being asked to present at conferences, accolades on Twitter for blog posts, the chapter in Best Lessons: Literature. I'm currently chasing after NBCT recertification, and I might ask a publisher or two to look at an outline I have for a book. 

With this chase comes disappointment. I am not new to the game of teaching. In my 21st year, it's impossible to get a PR with every action. When parents don't copy my principal on great emails that I hold dear to my heart, I feel a bit deflated. When someone posts something in their blog that I feel everyone already knows, and it's retweeted 20 times more than the post I wrote from my heart, my jealousy rises. This is WRONG. No. This is HUMAN. But I don't like the feeling. I feel like I should know better than that at this point in my life.

The lesson gets clearer to me with a message I received from a student yesterday. He "tagged" me on an Instagram picture of his shoes. (He has a thing for shoes.) 

"2015 wasn't the best year. The Broncos lost in the playoffs, the bulls lost in the playoffs, the packers lost in the playoffs, and the seahawks went to the super bowl. Isis is still here, so that sucks. Richard Sherman is still here, so that sucks too. But some things went alright. Gay marriage was legalized. The world showed that when one country is in need, they can count on another. It also showed that being different is not a wrong thing. I tagged people that made this year worth waiting 12 months."

The fact that he tagged me... that was a stellar moment for me. This young man is following 467 people. He is no longer in my class. Sometimes he pops in for a quick "hello," but I really haven't seen much of him this year. 

I got it.

And suddenly, it will be easy for me to toss out the plaques. 

I believe, as a result of interacting with educators on Twitter, I get too caught up in the "advertising" of our teaching. I get too caught up in "marketing" what we're doing online. I get too caught up in looking for the support, accolades, and recognition. I highlight what others say about the LiveBinder (or an actual quote!) in their books. I save what I produce or present on my online portfolio, the class website, and even a Google doc for my evaluation. I save uplifting parent emails in another Google doc. I save student notes in a scrapbook in my file cabinet. I put home-made gifts up in our classroom. Every school year, I sum up in a blog post what I've "done" that is valuable or precious during the year. Yes, these keepsakes are important to me. Yes, I should be proud and happy of what I've accomplished. BUT...

I need to focus even more on the people in room 239 and the hallways of my school. 

I need to focus on having even more one-on-one discussions with students. I need to focus what they say, not on what I want to say to them. During meetings, I need to listen with the intent to learn, and not as much with the intent to share or teach. I need to give my time, and not so much of my opinion. I need to lend an ear, and not so much advice.

My word for this next year is "gratitude," as it has been for the previous two years. I haven't gotten the most out of this feeling yet. I'm shifting the focus from grateful for all I have, to grateful for all the opportunities ahead of me. All the moments I can use to let others know they matter. I'm tired of chasing. I'll let moments come, and give them all I've got.

I love learning more about life as I get older. 
I now look forward to this new change in mindset.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Books of 2015

From my meager list of 89 books read in 2015 (my personal challenge was 73) - my favorites...
Keep in mind - different strokes for different folks, so share yours in the comments, please!
          2014 list HERE!
          My Goodreads Year in Books

Favorite Professional Books:
Last year, Choice Words by Peter Johnston was by FAR the best book I've read for the teaching profession. This year, different books hit me from different angles, so I have to give shout outs to a few!

     Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz
          I may be a bit biased, because I call this man a friend and I've visited his class. Some days I wish his kids came to my school instead of the one across the tracks, but others I'm glad they don't, as I'm not as student-centered as I'd like to be. I've taken many cues from this book and tried them out this year - blog post about that coming in May or June. ;) I've written a piece about it here.

     Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes
          This book pushed me over the edge. I walked into my principal's office with ROLE Reversal, and had this one ready to read next, should the meeting go well and I was let loose to allow one class of students to grade themselves. This one really helped me with the way to give feedback to my 7th graders. I've written about it here.

     Best Lessons Series: Literature edited by Brian Sztabnik
          Yes, I'm invested in this book (I've got a chapter in it!), AND I think it's great for high school and middle school ELA teachers. I've written about this one here.

Books My Seventh Graders Should Read:
     House Arrest by K.A. Holt
          Written in prose, it's one young man's journal from the year he was placed under house arrest. When I started reading it, I could feel his fury, and the injustice of his punishment. By the end, I wanted to make sure everything turned out alright for him and his family. I know I want my students to read it when I can't wait for the paperback and have to purchase this one in hardcover for the classroom.

     Beanball by Gene Fehler
          This is also written in prose, but told from many perspectives - giving the reader a chance to see how everyone feels about this event. A very quick read, this book circulated like wildfire among my kids this year. Sports fan or no, this book about a ball hitting a boy square in the face is not about the injury - it's about the decisions we make in life.

Reluctant Reader (7th grade):
     The World According to Humphrey by Betty Birney
          Okay, so a reluctant reader himself told me about this book, and I was reluctant to read it... It's so darn CUTE! And it's the start of a series! So what if some of my students read it in 3rd grade?! It brought me back to my Ralph S. Mouse days... Oh, I hope kids still read Beverly Cleary books.

     The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley
          I checked this graphic novel out of my local libary, read it in two sittings, then put it on the chalk shelf for my kids to read during silent reading time (not for check out - I've already had to pay for one library book that was lost). In the two weeks it was up there, maybe ten students read it, and a couple gave book talks on it, too! It's got a strong message of fear of rejection and perseverance.

     Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
          Since these other two were so very short, here's a longer one for those reluctant readers. I'd seen this book many times, and not opened it - because of the cover. I know. You don't have to tell me. So... when a student this year suggested I purchase it for the classroom, I had to read it first. I like how it starts out as NOT fantasy at ALL. The author takes you in, bit by bit, until you're engulfed in the fantasy world he has set up. Another hook: It's the start of a series!

Graphic Novel:

     El Deafo by Cece Bell
          I'll be the first to tell you - I have a lot of catching up to do in this genre. And now I have to tell my bias - I went into teaching to teach kids who are deaf or hard of hearing, and I really wish this book had been around in the '90s when FM systems and hearing aids were still as bulky as Cece's were. Yes, this is also autobiographical. I loved the simplicity of how she wrote about her feelings and events in her life. I was worried about how the Deaf community would react to the name of this book, but she does it justice. In fact, in her author's note, she states, "I am an expert on no one's deafness but my own." BAM!

Historical Fiction:
     The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
          We had just finished reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (again), when my co-teacher Yvette suggested this one to me. It is an adult book, but some of our 7th graders could handle if (if they can handle the length). This book was the story of two sisters, and two that could have been like sisters, if times were different. Stories such as these hit hard. Holding this book in class encouraged a conversation with one student about the current gaps STILL between colors in the U.S. Whatever possessed one race to enslave another?! How could they think this was God's will?!


     Sadly, I did not read a mystery this year that I think would appeal to many readers...

     I only read two nonfiction books this year that were not for teachers...
          The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
          Brain on Fire: My month of madness by Susannah Cahalan

     My favorite "How To" book of the year:
Kid President's Guide to Being Awesome
          by Brad Montague and Robby Novak
                    Read it, and then pass it along, just as it asks of you!

Poetry / Prose:

     Hidden by Helen Frost
          The covers for this book are not the best... Anyway, my two favorites are above in the "Books My 7th Graders Should Read" category, but I loved this one, too. One girl is accidentally kidnapped... another tries to help her escape. Both stories are told separately until a few years later when the girls meet at summer camp... The author's note is important, for it gives more hints to the story - as another message is hidden in the book and you need to go through it quickly one more time. This fact had my students in awe as to how difficult this must have been for the author to write.

Science Fiction:
     Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans
          Once one student gave a book talk about it, three more of us were reading this one. Michael stops getting bullied when he... well... when he gives the bullies a jolt of electricity that sends them flying across the field. The witness also has something "electric" in her own life. Just when they start to realize that there's more than one of them, trouble comes to pick them up... This is the start of a series, and many students are now hooked.

Adult (yet classified as Young Adult):
     I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
          THE BEST BOOK I read this year. I've noticed that some people (who I greatly respect) on Goodreads didn't care for this one, but I'll stand by it as beautifully written. I cannot contemplate writing fiction (growth mindset, I know, I know), and now I don't know how I could write nearly as good a paragraph as this author has done. The writing was so beautiful, the love was so fierce, and I could not get enough of this one. I only hope my students read and appreciate it when they are 42 years old.

The One That's Been on My Shelves for Years:

Dread Locks by Neal Shusterman
           Another one I never read because of the cover... until this year. I finally picked it up this year, and didn't want to stop! The new girl in town was so intriguing, with her constant use of sunglasses (even indoors) and her locks of hair that almost seemed to move... Her parents were never around, and she seemed to have plenty of money, yet she didn't seem to care about much. Parker is entranced by her actions with others, and I quickly fell into step. The ending, although abrupt, was perfect for this one. Supposedly the start of a series, I don't know if Shusterman kept going with this one.

Now I Know Why It Was Only $1:
     The Gardener, by S.A. Bodeen <-- Um... not for me. And yet I have two copies. Best purchase? I think not. But I have two copies. Because they were only one dollar. Harummph. SOMEbody will like it... right?

You're Next:
     What were your favorites of 2015? Please leave yours in the comments so we all have more great books to devour! Here's to 2016!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

It's a Wonderful Life

How many times have you seen this one?

Me - probably 15 or so.
My husband - probably 30 times...
This year, I saw it with a new filter - consistency.
Jimmy Stewart

I could write books about my husband, his love, and the way he always does the right thing. However, I could never express in writing all that is good about this man. On Christmas Eve this year, we were talking deeply, as we often do, about love, and what it means to love. He made a point to mention consistency. He believes that the consistency of our love makes a difference. It's best to have an even keel - a steady love, with no surprises. Instead of having drastic highs and lows, we are each receiving the love we are giving away - on a consistent basis. Every day we express our appreciation of the other person. Every day we show our gratitude for this life we have together.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is another constant in our home.

If you know the story, you know that Mary is the consistent one in her love for George. This year, I noticed how she loves George - without even knowing him - with the love I have had for Bob since I first met him. She HAS to be with him. (Remember, she was an "old maid" when we see what happens when George was never born...) But George... oh, George. He consistently wants more for himself and his family. This transfers to the Savings and Loan when his father dies and he takes on the burden of keeping the one thing in town that Potter can't get his hands on - away from the greedy man. He consistently wants more for the people in Bedford Falls. This year I noticed how the people of Bedford Falls LOVE George. He is always cheerful, optimistic, and helping those in need, whether he has the money or not. Mary helps him with this, even on the day they marry. She readily hands over their wedding money to George, as he hands it out to the townspeople (and they do their best to only ask for what they need - "$17.50...") I guess those two dollar bills they had left DID multiply in the safe, as George and Mary do fairly well for themselves and the town.

When Uncle Billy loses the $8000, George is distraught, and automatically accepts the responsibility for the loss. He, too grovels to Mr. Potter (oh, so vile!), is denied any help, and then says in a prayer, "I'm at the end of my rope." What does he get in answer to his prayer? A sock in the jaw by the teacher's husband. This year I noticed how Martini and Nick kicked out the teacher's husband and supported George the entire way - no questions asked. George was that good of a man. They knew him. They trusted his consistency.

Of course, Clarence (Angel Second Class) comes to help him when he's at his worst. I chuckle 'til I cry when their clothes are drying. Poor George - he knows that his guardian angel would look something like Clarence. Bonus for having a guardian angel without wings, even.

What struck me this year - the fear. George, once he sees that his house is still the old run-down house that Mary once loved, and sees that his brother Harry died because George wasn't there to save him, he becomes paranoid. He wants to see Mary. His true love. The person that makes his life worthwhile. The woman who bore his four children.

Clarence lets him know Mary is "an old maid," and is closing the library. (Of course she is - George was her one true love!) How can she not know him when he starts to follow her from the library? How can she be so scared of him? The fear that racks his brain is palpable. This year, I could feel the fear he had that his wife and children were gone from him. I could not imagine my love being taken from me like that, nor everything else that is a constant in my life. He runs back to the bridge as if his life depends on it - to pray for things to go back to the way they were. He pleads, "I want to live again. I want to live again."

As corny as people think it is, it suddenly begins snowing again, his lip is bleeding again, and Zuzu's petals are back in his pocket. Oh, the joy! The elation! The celebration! George loves that his car is stuck against the tree he hit, and he runs through town, recognizing everyone and everything that was consistent in his life - even the worst man in the world - Mr. Potter.

The tears come every year when he gets home and sees the warrant for his arrest, the top of the stair post that comes off in his hand, the love and hugs he gets from his children, and then the rapture when he is able to hold Mary once again...

Why was I affected so differently this year?


George was always kind. Good. Giving. Generous.
George always worked hard. For the right reasons. To help others.

My husband is like this.
I need to be more like this.

I already appreciate all I have in this wonderful life.
After watching this just one more time, I now appreciate everything that is consistent in my life. This includes the Mr. Potters in the world. If they weren't here, we wouldn't be who we are today.

Thank you, George Bailey, for showing me the way yet again.

Here's to 2016 - that we may be grateful for the opportunity that every moment brings us. Each day is handed to us - what we do with it is up to us. Love one another - with consistency - and be grateful for all you have.

You've read this far? You must be a fan of George, too.
Alas... I still can't stand Mr. Potter. I don't know anyone as bad as him, so I share this with you:

Photos used in this post are from Pixabay - no attribution needed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Sticky Subject

I'm not a fan.
Other teachers use stickers - even at the middle school. I hear it works for them.
I made a mistake last week, and then it turned out to be a great lesson for the entire class.

When students ask me for "extra credit" or a "pizza party" or some other reward for doing something they SHOULD be doing, I cringe. Then I share all my sticky note tabs from Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. I let them know I've done my research, and I'm done giving rewards to motivate them.

I wasn't feeling the best, and Millie (pseudonym) wasn't reading. She wasn't doing the ONLY homework I assign - read for 20 minutes. In class, she pretends to read. She has openly admitted that reading is difficult for her and she doesn't like it. I've sat one-on-one with her, explaining how practice reading will help it be not so difficult. I've informed her that in 8th grade and beyond, she'll be asked to read teacher-choice novels outside of the class... if she's not reading what she could ENJOY, she will have a rough time reading what teachers assign. She continued to pretend to read.

So I regressed - I offered her a sticker for each night she read. A few other girls heard, and suddenly they wanted stickers, as well. I sighed, and acquiesced, dusting off my years-old Ziplock baggie out of a bin from up on a shelf.

The next day, EVERY student who read the night prior received a tiny leaf sticker. (There's no snow on the ground, and the Sycamore and Oak trees are slowly letting go...)

The next day (Friday), students were not adding to our student-led reflection for the week, so I suggested using stickers for participation. (Hit head against wall now.)

Suddenly, students started asking for (then demanding?!) different COLORS of stickers. "I got the yellow one yesterday!" It started getting crazy. The reflection for the week became all about stickers instead. I thought this was a terrible way to end the week! I was so surprised at what happened next.


Lightbulbs went off as they started realizing what was going on. They saw my point about rewards - the more people give them, the more they want. They had been completely satisfied and participating prior to me pulling out my (very) old bag of stickers.

How did this activity and the week end? The students themselves added to their reflection - No more stickers.

Now....... what to do with these??

Sunday, December 13, 2015

To Vox, or Not to Vox?

Voxer has been on my mind every day for two weeks now...

Spoiler alert: You need to choose what works for YOU. You do not need to try / do everything.

Here is the audio version of this post, in case that is how you learn best:

I got the app on my "old" iPad2 when Brian Sztabnik asked me to as part of our Best Lessons group to help talk about what's happening with the book. I checked it every other day, and there were maybe two messages on there each time. The last time anyone's posted on there was over a week ago.

I then requested to join a Makerspace / Genius Hour group that Kristina Holzweiss began a long time ago.


I became addicted to Voxer, but not for the reasons you might think. It was NOT because the ideas were stellar (which they WERE). It was because I have issues of neatness or perfection or cleanliness, or SOMEthing... This one issue makes me want to delete - all those numbers. Numbers in my email inbox, numbers of "mentions" not yet read on Twitter, numbers of messages or postings in Facebook... Now there were new numbers - of Voxer messages not heard. "I HAVE to get rid of them," is what my paranoid self thought, while my teaching thoughts raced, "I HAVE to listen to them to see what I can use." If you have a makerspace or are thinking of a makerspace, consider asking Kristina to join this group to learn about myriad resources!

My days changed.

I went from listening to music (or occasionally a book on CD) in the car on the way to work to listening to teachers talk. I thought I was aggravated because I don't have a makerspace, and I, personally, won't be using these ideas (yet? ever?) in our 7th grade ELA classes. But that wasn't it. Talking about it with my husband, he asked, "Is it a bunch of teachers just yacking away?" No. That's not it, either. They were all sharing valuable information if you have or want to have a makerspace in your classroom or school library (or precious space for ONLY a makerspace). Was it the fact that my microphone on the iPad2 doesn't work anymore, and I needed to plug in the external mic if I wanted to add to the conversation? No - I really didn't have anything to add. Was it the fact that phone use by the driver (unless it's hands-off) is not allowed in IL? Kind of - I had the iPad next to me in the seat, and teachers talked to me from the passenger side. It really wasn't an issue after I got Voxer started and found where I'd left off (which I did while driving - not safe).

Voxer has changed people's lives!! What was my issue this time??

It was simply a time issue for me. I want (and need) ME time. The only time that worked for me to listen to these messages was my short commute. My 15-20 minute drive of 11 miles back and forth to school is my time to get ready for the school day ahead, or reflect on the day just ended. To sit silently with my thoughts. To look around at this world. Or... to sing my heart out.

I left the big group on Voxer yesterday.

Today - There are no numbers popping up on the app. That calms me. I close it for another day and move on.

I can NOT be connected in every single way. I have to choose what I can and cannot do. I am by no means one of those teachers who can do it all. I've even stepped away from Twitter a lot more this past week, as I really wanted to push ALL social media aside when I started to feel overwhelmed about the new messages. I wasn't able to join in the monthly #geniushour chat, as my body was rebelling against me staying up past 8pm that night! That orange dot next to all those messages I missed was too much for me to handle, even if all the other teachers on the group were able to keep up.

I felt guilty about thinking of getting out of the group before I actually did it. (Guilt is another one of my issues.) As soon as I did, however, I put down the iPad and smiled. Breathed. I could breathe easy again. Kind of crazy? Maybe. Today, with no new numbers to catch up with, I'm okay with that.

How do you prefer to get your information you use to help you at school?
What have you learned about yourself when it comes to time management?
How much is "too much?"
Was this post even worth it for others to read?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Feedback Loop

Three instigators for this post...

     --> Parent email:
[Child] and I are having disagreements concerning what is expected of him when it comes to your class assignments that he has initially completed but they have been returned to him stating they need correction or revision (especially when this is communicated over Edline). Would you mind please stating in an email (so I may share it with [child] and so the three of us are clear and “on the same page with the same information”) what you expect of [child] with regard to making corrections and revisions on his papers, even though you have already clearly stated on his 1st quarter report card the following, “Needs to work on correcting papers below 70%”?[Side note from me/Joy - he gave HIMSELF that comment on his report card...]
    --> Gerard Dawson - How to Put Feedback First for Student Learning Course

    --> My Students...  Last quarter, in their video reflections, they said they revised their written                          work "and did much better," but never showed it to me again for more feedback.

Student written work can be revised multiple times in our ELA classes. It can be revised for writing skills (claim, evidence, reasoning OR focus and showing), or for language usage (grammar and conventions). I needed something to clear up the revision process for writing or language usage. It needs to be clear for students and parents.

So... after much writing, rewriting, asking Hubby to read it as a parent, discussing, rewriting... we (yes, Hubby and I) figured out a picture would work much better. A FLOW CHART! After a quick Google search, I found a very basic app - PureFlow. As luck would have it, it's ALREADY ON MY SCHOOL-ISSUED IPAD! After more sketching, re-sketching, resizing, moving arrows, etc.... here is the final (ahem - for NOW) product:

Note: "Proficient" in the grade book (in our 7th grade ELA classes at our school) = 90%.

Our 'proof of learning' page is here on our Weebly.

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

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our Best Lessons

Actual lessons... In fact, BEST lessons... Tried and true, shared by master teachers.

I am truly honored to have been asked to be part of this project - with fourteen other master teachers. What constitutes "master?" I'm not sure. I do feel fortunate to be classified with these other teachers who love to share ideas with peers - no matter how long each has been teaching. It's the passion that came out of these lessons that makes this book exciting to share with you. Brian Sztabnik reached out to middle school, high school, and even college professors, asking for our BEST lesson - lessons that we love to teach.
Best Lesson Series
Steal these ideas, make them your own, and then share with us what you've modified to work for you.

Anyone can try a chapter for free! You can then grab a copy for yourself or a coworker. These are literature lessons, and I'm excited to try the fourteen other lessons myself, now that I've read them.

Here are the chapters, who the lessons were intended for, and my brief thoughts...

My thoughts on if I’ll be using and/or adapting...
Ruth Arsenault
Visual Literacy & reading all kinds of “text”

I want to adapt this one.
Susan Barber
The American Dream - photography & stories

I can adapt this one - will see where it can best fit.
Laura Bradley
Thinking icons

I can fit this in next quarter!
Brianna Crowley
Symbolism & Characterization

I will be adapting this one - when we read The Outsiders!
Gerard Dawson
Ignite Talks

Would be fun and valuable to try!
Todd Finley
Multi-Draft Reading

This lesson would be tough for my kids - I could probably adapt it, however.
Joy Kirr
Student-Generated Questions

Um… ;) I’ll be using AS IS!
Jori Krulder
Demystifying Poetry

We can use portions of this prior to Poetry Month.
Shanna Peeples
Visual Literacy

We could use pieces of this - the text is definitely high school level.
Amy Rasmussen

This lesson made me really THINK. Lots of resources that could be adapted for M.S.
Dan Ryder
Literary 3 x 3

Once students learn how this goes, it can be used with any text!
Joshua Stock
Poetry Challenge


I might be able to cover half of these lessons / poems - the kids will love it!
Dave Stuart, Jr.
“When Novels Start with Bathroom Scenes”

We could do this in M.S. - without reading the entire All Quiet On the Western Front… Deep lessons.
Brian Sztabnik
Think Like a Poet

Can be adapted for M.S. - I wonder if they could handle “Ulysses” …?
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
Excitement Graph


We’ve actually used this in a lesson or two - anyone can adapt this lesson to fit his/her students.

As Dave Stuart Jr. says near the end of his chapter, the lessons are completed in a "very non-razzle-dazzle fashion." These lessons aren't about the technology. They aren't even really about the text that is shared in the chapters. They are about getting kids to learn HOW to learn. Teachers step aside and help students learn from each other. If you teach middle school ELA or high school English, take a stab at these lessons. I'm sure I'll be writing more blog posts about how these lessons went with the scholars in room 239!

A huge thank you to Brian Sztabnik for putting this all together. Brian loves sharing other teachers' ideas - on his Talks with Teachers podcast, and now through this book. Of course thank you to Todd FinleyDave Stuart Jr.Susan BarberJori KrulderDan RyderHeather Wolpert-GawronJosh StockLaura BradleyAmy RasmussenShanna PeeplesBrianna CrowleyGerard Dawson, and Ruth Arseneault, as well, for sharing their BEST literature lessons.

More posts about this book from the authors:
     Laura Bradley          Shanna Peeples          Brian Sztabnik