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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Using Comprehension Checks to Figure Out Next Steps

I've written about the benefits of comprehension checks in a "no grades" classroom before.

I've changed a bit as to how this narrative feedback (and next steps or "feed forward") goes into our online gradebook, so I just had to record how I go about using our comprehension checks as formative assessments...

Thinking of going without grades? This is one tweak you can do in your own curriculum!



Saturday, November 18, 2017

Extra Credit - Perspectives


Looking through the #extracredit hashtag on Twitter, I felt that there may be more extra credit opportunities than there are LEARNING opportunities. 

If these situations look familiar, it's probably because many teachers are providing similar options for extra credit. The number of excuses I could come up with here equal the number of excuses students can give teachers for their homework not being completed. Of course I took some liberties with the questions. I had to try to make some of it funny, because this post was difficult for me to write without my blood pressure rising. 

Being so far removed from extra credit myself, it's hard for me to put myself in someone's shoes who still uses extra credit as a way to motivate students. I have written this post with the goal of using questions to help readers think, instead of telling them what I believe they should think. Maybe this post will reach reflective educators...

When teachers start going grade LESS, they often begin examining the role extra credit plays in their classrooms...

If you're wondering about benefits or pitfalls of extra credit, consider these situations and reflection questions. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Teacher A always runs out of tissue by the end of the year. If students bring in a box, they get extra credit.

Reflection questions:

  • Why would a teacher feel they need to provide extra credit in order to receive tissues?
  • What if students don't have the resources to get to a store?
  • What if students don't have the resources to purchase tissues?
  • How would you feel if you yourself couldn't provide tissues?
  • How would you feel if you didn't hardly ever use tissues yourself and yet were expected to provide some for peers?
  • What would happen if the class actually ran out of tissues?
  • What other ways could you encourage students to bring in tissues?


Teacher B wants students to read aloud more at home. Students are given extra credit if a parent takes a photo or video of them reading to their favorite pet (or puppet/stuffed animal).

Reflection questions:

  • What if parents don't know how to send - or feel uncomfortable sending - a photo of their child to the teacher?
  • What if parents aren't home when their children are reading (or simply can't be around)?
  • What if students can't read that week because of sports or other activities?
  • What if parents' Internet goes down, and they can't send the photo?
  • What other ways could you encourage students to read aloud at home?
  • What other ways could students share with you that they are reading at home?


Teacher C gives extra credit bathroom passes. Three passes are given to students each quarter. If lost, there are no replacements available. The points they receive at the end of each quarter when they turn them in really don't change their grade much, but it "keeps them in the room." (Similar ideas: attending the school play, going to a museum during vacation)

Reflection questions:

  • What if a disorganized student loses them, or leaves them in a locker when a pass is needed?
  • What if a student has "free bathroom / water pass" on his or her 504 plan due to medical reasons?
  • What if a student has used all three and yet "really has to go" one more time before the quarter ends?
  • How would you feel if you had to tell an adult you needed to use the facilities?
  • How would you feel if you had to show a pass each time you needed an extra break (other than any already provided) during a meeting?
  • What other ways could you keep your students engaged in class so they stay?
  • What other ways could you figure out how to not let your students abuse the right to use the bathroom?


Teacher D wants students to know the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The teacher plays it for them every day for a week. They have the option of getting extra credit if they decide to sing it in front of their class. (Similar ideas: singing the preposition song to a relative, performing in a short skit in front of the class)

Reflection questions:

  • What if a student can't sing?
  • What if a student is an introvert - or simply bashful?
  • How would you feel singing in front of peers and strangers?
  • How would you feel if you really "needed" (or simply wanted) the extra credit, but you couldn't sing?
  • How would you feel if you suddenly forgot the words?
  • How would you feel if someone else sang right in front of you, and they weren't very good?
  • How would you feel if no one clapped for you when you finished, or if clapping sounded forced?
  • What other ways could your students demonstrate that they know this piece of history?


Teacher E wants students to connect with authors. Students will receive extra credit if their letter to the author receives any type of response from the author. Even more extra credit will be provided if the author sends something other than a letter back (a bookmark, a book, a signed copy, etc.).

Reflection questions:

  • Why do you want students to write to an author?
  • What if the student's favorite author has no address to which to send a letter?
  • What if the author usually writes back, but something comes up?
  • What if the author just doesn't respond to readers?
  • What if the author is dead?
  • What if the letter to the author gets lost in the mail?
  • What if the letter back from the author gets lost in the mail?
  • How would you feel if you wrote a stellar letter to your favorite author, and you never received a response?
  • How would you feel if your classmates were receiving letters, and you had to keep waiting?
  • How would you feel if you received a response well after the grading period was over?
  • What other ways could you encourage students to write to authors?


Teacher F has an extra credit option if students don't do well on a project. The learning objectives include knowing what spices were used in which areas of the world, and how they were used. The extra credit option is for students to bake a cake. The teacher would judge the student on whether it tasted good, based on the spices and the amount used.

Reflection questions:

  • What information do you want students to learn?
  • What if students do not have access to baking ingredients? Time to bake? Parents to supervise?
  • What if the oven is already being used?
  • What if the oven not calibrated correctly and it burns the cake?
  • What if the timer on the oven doesn't work?
  • What if relatives come over and they need to leave the house right away?
  • What if the teacher's taste buds do not match those of the student?
  • What if students simply re-did the part of the project they didn't understand?
  • What other ways could students show you they learned the information they were supposed to learn?


Teacher G provides extra credit if students watch the presidential debate during an election year. Students simply have to provide proof - a photo, a letter from a parent... anything will do. (Similar ideas: attending the school play, going to a museum during vacation)

Reflection questions:

  • What information do you want students to learn?
  • What if students simply watch one minute of it and still get credit?
  • What if students are engaged in another activity (dance, karate, dinner with grandparents) and cannot watch?
  • What if students watch it and learn nothing?
  • What is the teacher's goal? Once you know the goal, how else could students achieve that goal?
  • What other ways could you share what happened during the debate?
  • What other ways could students share knowledge of what they learned during the debate?


Teacher H provides extra credit if a high school student's tweet (or Instagram post, etc.) gets a certain number of "likes" or retweets. The tweet includes a blog post written by that student about their favorite topic. The teacher does this to promote correct grammar and conventions (authentic audiences are the best for this), and also help students learn how to leverage social media (how to use photos, hashtags, etc.).

Reflection questions:

  • What if students don't own a personal phone?
  • What if students are not allowed on social media?
  • What if students don't have many followers?
  • What if students plagiarize so they can get more "likes" or retweets?
  • What if, although the student's blog post is written well, readers don't agree?
  • What other ways could students share their writing with an authentic audience?
  • What other ways could students learn better how to use social media?


More extra credit ideas...
  • Write the name of Oedipus' adopted father on the bottom left of tomorrow's vocabulary quiz. #extracredit #itpaystofollow
  • #ACLU and #DACA Event in the 1400 building, #ExtraCredit 10am-12pm today and tomorrow.
  • Join us TODAY after school at the library! #doorprizes #extracredit #BannedBooksWeek
  • #ExtraCredit opportunity!! Attention to all my #6thgrade students - I challenge you to post an example of one of the #elementsofart that we discussed in class. (*Side note: Sixth graders are not usually old enough to use social media, in any case.)
  • Take a selfie of yourself with any member of the volleyball team! #ExtraCredit

Reflection questions:
  • Why do I feel I need to use extra credit?
  • What are my learning objectives?
  • How can I achieve these objectives without using points to motivate students?
  • What do you want a grade in your class to represent? Achievement? Effort? Stamina? Fortune? Luck?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ask for Feedback

You know you want to know what they're thinking...

Or do you? Maybe you're worried they'll tell you that something's wrong, or that something needs to change. How vulnerable do you want to be?

I always worry when asking parents for feedback, as I wonder...
     -How much of what I've sent home have they taken the time to read?
     -What if they're traditionalists and have LOTS of issues with how I'm teaching?
This quarter, I tucked the parent feedback survey link into our two-week update. I figure, if parents are reading the two-week updates, they should be informed enough to give valuable feedback.

I'm way more open when it comes to asking students for feedback. Each year, after the first quarter, I ask, and I receive. I LOVE IT. I just wanted to share a glimpse of the different types of feedback my co-teacher and I have received just last week...

The prompt: You have graded yourself this quarter. Please let me know how you think our first quarter has gone.

They are copied and pasted, so please ignore any errors in grammar or spelling...

  • I have enjoyed class so far. I don't have any concerns.
  • I think our first quarter has gone pretty well, most people seem to pay attention and participate in class and I think almost everyone in the class gets along well. I've noticed we have been able to get a lot of work done and not fall behind because of classmates talking or fooling around too much, and I hope the second quarter will be even better.
  • I am really happy with how this first quarter went. I made a lot of new friends and I am starting to get better with comprehension. I hope the next 3 quarters are going to go smoothly just like this one did. Thanks for your help Mrs. Kirr!
  • The first quarter went well, we wrote in our reader's notebooks a lot which could be good on some days but not every day. I feel good about my grade because I don't care what type of A I get but I did put work and effort towards my work.
  • I like how we got to chose are grade but at the begaing of the year it was confusing to now what counts for a grade and what dose not count I think we can spessify that a little more but other wise the quarter went Great!
  • Everyone in this class works well together and they respect each other. I think the first quarter went well. It was fun and everyone was really nice to each other.
  • That we are talkative. WE work hard still but we talk a lot.
  • I like how this quarter was very laid back and nothing was super serious but yet we all stayed focused and got our work done. 
  • I think the first quarter has gone pretty well. I like the fact that you have a very flexible grading system and class. The only problem I have is it may take a bit of time to get used to this very different approach at teaching.
  • We have a lot of freedom, so like we can basically chose who we want to be by. Some of the kids in our class our distracting so sometimes it is hard to work. (I'm excited to bring this point up in class this next week - coming from peers is much stronger than coming from me.)
  • I think that I have improved a lot this year. My reading has grown stronger and I hope it keeps improving (and that I don't run out of books). I really like ela a lot.
  • I think it was good but I don't like DGP. I am very bad at it and it's not very fun at all. [I act like I like DGP (daily grammar practice), but I don't, either. We only do it twice a week, however.]
  • I think that the quarter this year for me has gone pretty well, I have learned a lot about righting a reading I think that I have built a pretty good reading habits
  • I liked Q 1 overall I think it might be fun if next quarter we did group projects like a small book club then did a book talk on it or made a poster. Or we could do a books I love to read where we pick a book we love and then make a poster on it. Or go to the library as a class more often even a scavenger hunt in the school. I think that ELA can be really cool. And I hope that we can make it that cool! <3 (I love getting student-generated ideas!!)
  • Everyone at least participated once or twice this quarter. There was cooperation, preparation, and participation, and that was helpful/useful to people who want to start to participate in class, to get to know each other. Overall Quarter 1 has gone great. I've noticed the change to getting settled in ELA class and hope this continues throughout the year. 
  • the grading system is kind of bad because you don't know how you're doing throughout the quarter. I think you should put all our grades for stuff on powerschool so we can know how we're doing instead of knowing last minute (This is a great reminder for me to show students - again - how to find their feedback on the online grade system.)
  • So far, this ELA class has been a breeze. I've noticed that Mrs. Kirr's positive attitude spreads throughout the class. But, the only thing I want to change is the grading system. Personally, I want to see my grades online throughout the quarter, so I can learn to improve my grade later on. (I talked with this student, as he put his name in the form - when I mentioned that I could do this, but then the grade would be what the average of the grades are, he said he'd prefer to stick with the feedback he was receiving instead.)
  • I enjoy having mrs. Rehberger in class. She is very helpful
  • I think first quarter went really well. I like what we do in class, expecially the reading part. I didn't really like to write that much but I still sometimes enjoy it.
  • I think I need to participate more, I can work on this by raising my hands and answering question or joining in on fishbowls. (Ah! Student reflection!)
  • It has been really good for me, the only thing though is that I only work well with certain people.
  • I am stressed about school in general. Including all of the homework, schoolwork, etc. I know that there is nothing you can do to change this though...
  • I love how we had an option ad we could work at our own pace
  • I think that this quarter went great! I like how much time we get to read and write, and how much freedom we get when we read and write.
  • I think that I did well in Quarter 1 because I got an A and I tried my hardest. Usually in my classes I am worried about my grade but in this class I wasn't so worried and I was more worried about trying my hardest.
  • I love this class. Its awesome and I wake up knowing that this is going to be the best class out of my day!! 😆
  • I think that the first quarter went very well, however I'm still not sure how I feel about the grading processes. I also really like getting the feedback though, because I value others opinions on how to become the best version of myself
  • This class had me more focused on actually learning instead of grades. I find that one of the great this about ELA this year. One thing I don't find great is how it takes forever to get things done as some of the other kids are ALWAYS talking. Maybe be a little more firm? (A boost I need! This is from the last class - always the toughest one of the day.)
And this one is my absolute favorite from this year so far...
I think that at first everyone was kind of... not interested. As soon as you started teaching us that reading and writing are both fun, everyone began to find a new part of themselves that loves to read and or write. And I was glad to participate in that beautiful transformation.
Ask for the feedback. Students will remind you of why you're in the classroom. They will give you suggestions. They will ask you questions. They will push you to do better.

Intrigued: Here are more responses from last year at this same time... 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

They Say They Weren't Prepared for High School - 15 Questions

One of the middle school teachers I work with said that high school students came back to visit last week. They do this quite often - you'd never find ME going back to my 7th grade teachers, but our high schoolers do. It must say something about our school, right? Anyway, they said that middle school didn't prepare them for the work they'd have to do in high school.

Homework, that is.

This got our teachers going about how much is too much, how maybe we should be giving them more, about how things have been changing over the past few years, etc.

That next Tuesday night, Zach Rondot was our guest moderator for our #ShiftThis chat - such a great group of thinkers that come on Tuesdays! - and he asked questions about homework. Homework gets people riled up - students, teachers, and parents. No surprise. (Side note: Find all #ShiftThis archives here - on the right - including the homework chat on 10/17/17.)

What tugged at my heart strings was the tweet from friend and cohort Carrie - her daughter cried because her creative writing had a page expectation. And then this, from Michael Shunneson (who I luckily met at #DitchConference2017)...
Oh, this hurts my heart. This was almost 8pm. On a Tuesday.

If you've read Shift This, you've got some ideas for how to make homework more meaningful. If not, try chapter six. Or just go and get yourself a copy of Ditch That Homework, or perhaps The Homework Myth is more your style? And, in case you missed it from my book, here's the philosophy I share with parents

But really - we need to keep the conversation going. Even after all the research has been read and shared, many teachers still do what we learned to do - assign homework. Just because something is passed down to us doesn't mean we have to continue it. Whether you grade it or not (that's a whole other chapter) isn't even the issue. It's the homework itself that needs to be discussed.

So going back to my roots of asking questions to get to the heart of the matter, here are 15 I've come up with (from the ideas in last week's chat) so we can discuss this further at our own schools:
  • What homework expectations change from elementary to middle to high school? Why?
  • How is a student's home life already teaching responsibility?
  • Is the volume of homework many of our high school students have really necessary?
  • If our students need our help doing their homework, how will we make ourselves accessible? Or - what other resources could we provide for our students if we are not accessible? Do our students know how to access these resources?
  • Which students will have an advantage over other students when it comes to homework?  Which will have a disadvantage? (Consider access to tech, home responsibilities, economic status, extra-curricular activities, etc.)
  • Is homework given creating resistance to learning or inspiring learning?
  • How can students in AP classes do homework that helps them learn the material - not just pass the test?
  • How can subject-specific teachers share the amount of homework they're giving with other subject-specific teachers - so they can see the load students carry on a nightly basis?
  • How and when can middle and high school administration get together to talk about amount and type of homework that has been given in the past, and that should be given in the future? How can they then convey this to their staff?
  • What burning questions can we send home with students instead of worksheets or projects?
  • How can we foster curiosity so students are learning on their own when they get home?
  • How can we help students prioritize the work they're expected to do at home?
  • How can students have choice and voice over what they're learning at home?
  • How can we make any homework an authentic, engaging learning opportunity?
  • How can we model lifelong learning?

Have the conversations. 
Please let me know other questions (in the comments section) we should be asking!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Celebration - Author Responses!

Last Friday, my coworker and I thought it would be a great idea for our students to write in their reader's notebook a letter to the author of the book they're reading. Once I said it aloud to students, I immediately added, "And let's find the authors on Twitter and share your letter with them!"

My first class was a bit hesitant, but many students in my second and third classes took me up on the offer. We sent a total of __ letters into the Twitterverse (and one more via snail mail), and we received THREE email letters back, and SEVEN authors responded via Twitter! SUCCESS!

I just wanted to share with you the letters and responses here:
Emma wrote to Jeff Strand.
And he wrote back!!
Akhil wrote to Abby Cooper.
Aidan wrote to Dave Barry.
Shawn wrote to Denis Markell.
Mike wrote to Chris Grabenstein.
And he did!

Alex wrote to Max Brallier.


Kate wrote to Jo Knowles.

And she wrote a letter back!

Maggie wrote to Rick Yancey.

Garrett wrote to K.A. Holt.

Hudhaysri wrote to Joelle Charbonneau.




Me this week: 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Parent Night

I keep looking back at the parent night post I wrote in 2013. I've looked back at it each September for four years now, and each year I tweak it for myself a bit. It is past time for a new post. Here's what I was hoping to convey this year...

I have no syllabus. We are starting the year with a pilot curriculum that I'm actually looking forward to. It's reading and writing workshop, which is what I believe we need right now in ELA. The bookmark I hope you picked up on your way in has a link to our class website, among other resources, where you can explore to learn more about the content in our class.

Instead of telling you all about me, I’d like to start with asking you to think about a question:
Who was a teacher you liked - or at least respected - in 7th grade?
Now try to come up with WHY this person was someone you remember.

I hope to be all those things.
I asked your children to finish this statement in a survey this past week -
"A great teacher is _____"
Your children hope I am the following:
kind, funny, fun, helpful, fair, understanding, friendly, respectful...
I let them know I expect the same of them:
kind, helpful, fair, understanding, friendly, respectful…
Without these expectations, we won’t have much learning occurring.

One more question: What CONTENT from 7th grade do you remember?
      (Long pause... Nobody seems to remember!)
Your child won't remember very much either. What will he or she remember?

My hope is that once your children leave 7th grade, I hope they will remember that I never gave them answers. I only guided them towards tools they can use for the future. We shared our ideas in a respectful manner, and learned how to learn even more about topics that interested us, or bothered us... topics that kept us reading, writing, and discussing.

I am the most fortunate of all of your child's teachers you'll see tonight.
I get to enjoy your child’s presence for 80 minutes of every day - and I really get to know them.
I’m also the most fortunate because I don’t expect your child to memorize any FACTS.

We get to explore great writing, share what we’re reading and writing, and figure out how to read to enjoy and learn, and how to write for an authentic audience - not just for their teacher.

Hopefully, by the end of the year, your children will have learned EMPATHY in ELA.


Hopefully, by the end of the year, your children will want to continue learning outside of school hours.

We spent the first ten days of school building community, respect, trust, and understanding of why we need to read and write. I will continue to try to reach them through literature, nonfiction, and their own writing.

I will also be offering more choice than I was ever afforded in 7th grade.
We will have choice in our reading, writing, and sharing what we've learned.

Our first activity to get to know each other a bit and decorate the room was our Six-Word Memoirs. I'd like to show you the video now. If you'd like to use this time to chat, feel free. Each six-word memoir movie will be published on our blog, and you'll get an email reminder when I send our next two-week update. [Insert video here!]

⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟⏟
Instead, somewhere during this beautifully-planned speech, I got derailed a bit. One parent asked, "What can you tell us about the grading in here?" 

To which I responded, "What did your child tell you so far?"

This led to a super awesome passion-filled me-on-my-soapbox quick explanation of why feedback is more effective than grades or marks. (I only had a total of 18 minutes!) I hope I also made the point that they needed to contact me as soon as they had any questions or concerns - that I would be so saddened to hear them tell next year's teacher to "disregard my child's grades last year - he got to choose them."

I further explained, "Your child and I will sit down together and both of use will bring evidence to the table to support what we believe the final grade should be each quarter. We will share achievement and struggles, and make plans to improve during the next quarter." 

No more averaging. 
No more using practice for points. 
Let's see what each child knows so far, and then see where we can improve.