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.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Feedback that Moves Writers Forward

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

Where do I start?

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes. Yes.

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Taking a Break from Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Creating a Culture of Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Bill Ferriter and Paul Cancellieri!

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


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

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


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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2016-2017 Digital Scrapbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Quick Tip #27 - Life Lessons Visible

Throughout the school year, I ask for and then record life lessons we've learned. Once recorded, they are publicized here online for students, parents, and the community. Now that it's the end of the year...

Full Text

Monday, June 5, 2017

My Personal Twitter Rules

It's my Twitter space, too.

I play by my own rules.

In my last post regarding Twitter, I shared seven lessons I've learned since jumping into the Twittersphere five years ago. When you first get on Twitter, you feel that you "have" to do certain things... such as follow someone if they follow you, or other "rules" I can't remember now. I'm glad I'm removed from those initial feelings!

I thought I'd explain some of my personal rules I've made for myself, and hope to get your ideas, as well, so we can learn from each other the various ideas educators have regarding this swell tool we call Twitter.

--> I do not always reply right away. Yes, sometimes I shut off technology. For many reasons. If you don't understand this, you should shut it off, too. During school hours, I will not check my Twitter account. The students come before anyone from 7:45-3:30.

--> If your district, school, or class is in a contest, I will vote once for your school - IF I get a chance to look through other submissions. I will not retweet your request, unless followers can see ALL the entries. Why these rules for myself? Because I used to not have so many followers. I used to not be so "popular" on Twitter. I don't think contests should be won because of the person's popularity or connections. Background story: I didn't win a karaoke contest one night in Fox Lake, IL, because I only brought my husband and parents. I didn't know it was decided by popularity vote! I did win a Parrot Bay hat... (That's right. I sing. Martina McBride and Dixie Chicks, Baby.)

--> Very rarely do I join a chat at 8pm or later. Another of my rules for shutting off tech - I don't sleep well if my brain is too engaged after 8pm. I've missed many #GeniusHour chats as a result, so I catch the archives. My own state has an #ILEdChat at 9pm - I'll never make that one, as that's when I head to bed. Seriously! I take care of myself by heading to bed at a time that helps me stay healthy. No one wants to see me crabby.

--> I try my best to not complain or retweet complaints. I want to promote suggestions or solutions. I don't care to read complaints from other educators, so I try my best to not do so myself. This has transferred into the school environment, as well. I'm getting better!

--> I unfollow those who tweet or retweet crude photos. I don't need to see these in my feed. Politics have changed my Twitter feed to include more complaints and crass remarks - no matter what "side" you're on. I'm on the side of children, so I've been unfollowing those that are using or sharing profanity or complaints directed to the world, and not to the source.

Everyone follows a certain set of criteria for tweets and time on Twitter. What's yours? What works best for you?

When you're on your own Twitter space, what are some rules you find yourself following? 
Please share yours in the comments below.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Here's to the Crazy Ones

You've seen the ad from 1997 for Apple. If not, take one minute now...
Chapter ten in Shift This! is about resistance.

Resistance from teachers and parents is the hardest to handle. I've written (and will never forget) about when a parent told me (in front of my principal) that "Genius Hour is crazy."

I've seen the way teachers roll their eyes when I share a supposed "crazy" idea. I've heard teacher friends tell me about other teachers who don't like how I run class - even though they've never stepped in it before. And, yes, they're invited any day - especially when I put out our "observe us" sign.

I recently had my hair dyed... blue. This was the first (and probably the last) time I've ever added any color to my "chestnut brown" (as Hubby calls it) hair. I wanted it cobalt blue to match my fun Ford. It came out more of a mermaid or iridescent blue.
Coloring hair is NOT crazy. It will grow out in no time. Trying new things in the classroom that might benefit our students is NOT crazy. Some people even use the word "innovative."

It doesn't matter, though. I'm SURE some people think what I do is crazy. I used to think that was okay. I had a realization last night. I am now positive that it's good to be called "crazy" for what I do!

Hubby asked me what I think about the teachers who think what I'm doing is crazy.

My response: "They're crazy. They conform."

We sat for a moment, and then busted out laughing. Those words came out of my mouth? I looked up "conform" this morning, and from a simple Google search found "to comply with rules, standards, or laws." Hopefully teachers are conforming in this way!! This meaning, instead, hit me: "to behave according to socially acceptable conventions or standards."

This reminded me of "status quo" - "the existing state of affairs."

Many teachers are NOT happy with "the existing state of affairs" in our schools. The fact that I try "crazy" ideas, along with my gratitude for all I have in my life, are two (of many!) reasons why I am as joyful as I am. Bring on the stares of the blue streaks - today it's a representation of all the "crazy" stuff I've done in my life!

I want my students' education to be BETTER than the status quo. "Here's to the crazy ones: the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently..." As long as we're doing what we believe is right, and helping our students learn how to learn, we can change things. "The people who think they are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do." If we want our students to change the world, should't we be that role model?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Learning Conferences - A Reading Snippet

At the end of each quarter, during our one-on-one conferences, I learn so many great tidbits from my scholars. This past week (I still have three days of conferring left), I learned that I STILL have to work on changing my vocabulary.  Here was how the conversation went after we talked about her eight point growth for her MAP assessment:

T = teacher / me       S = student

T - Eight points is further than what they predicted would be your score. How did you do on our own class tests?
S - Huh?
T - How did you do on our quizzes in ELA?
S - What? You mean our comprehension checks? Those?
T - (Chuckling, as I realized in my mind they are still called "quizzes," even though we call them "comprehension checks" each time we discuss them this year!! I even wrote about them earlier this year.)

I don't remember how I responded. I only remember that I was embarrassed. Are "comprehension checks" still "quizzes"? I had to look up the word...
Checking for comprehension through brief questions... Yes, I suppose it still IS a quiz. Who am I kidding, calling it a "comprehension check?" No one. I knew this going into it. HOWEVER... This name change helps my students stay calm about their score. It helps them see that this is a check of their comprehension of this ONE passage. It is not a label that will stick with them. When I go one step further to separate out the categories into literal and inferential questions, then we get even MORE information about their comprehension, and we can set goals to minimize confusion for the future.

Here were two goals students could choose from if they were having difficulty with their comprehension:
To improve with literal questions - Find the answer directly in the text and highlight it.
To improve with inferential questions - Find at least two clues to the answer you choose. If you cannot find two clues, you most likely have not chosen the answer yet.

During our conferences this quarter, students were able to use arguments such as, "My last three scores are my best, because I was really focusing on the text and finding the answers there." Or, "I have improved from first quarter to this quarter, because now I can prove that I understand more inferential questions than I have before." I love how our language has shifted over the past year. I love that the conversations are now about learning, and not about letters or numbers. I'll have to remember this feeling and look at it as a goal once a new batch of learners comes my way in August!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Have the Discussion

May is one tough month!

I had a rough day Friday. Seventh graders playing with fidgets, touching each other ("I was just kidding!" "He's poking me!"), blurting out, not wanting to work...

I believe it's tougher when you're not grading anything, but I admit I did that to myself.

So... I revamped my behavior tally sheet, and I started using it today in a new class (it's effectiveness in one class meant it was time to implement it in another).

The first forty minutes of class were pretty brutal, as I could not get two students who were bickering alone, away from the rest of the class. I needed to share our plans with the entire class for the next two weeks, and I didn't want to call them out in front of the whole class. (Although one time I had a "very stern" warning / tone / eyes - it worked for perhaps five minutes...)

Before I shared the "new" plan with two students, I sat down on the floor to have a quiet conversation (they were supposed to be starting to read The Outsiders, but they were not... yet).

"I have to show you something."

"He did it! I didn't do anything, Mrs. Kirr!"

"Stop. Listen. I need to show you something."

Once the arguing back ceased, I was able to share with them my thoughts.

"I do not have children at home. I do not know what it's like to live with 13-year olds. I have never had any brothers. I didn't grow up with any boys my age. I don't know what it's like to be around two best friends like you two. All I know is that Friday was very rough on me, and I knew I needed to do something so the last three weeks of school are fair to me - and to you. I'm tired of getting upset and frustrated, and I'll bet you're tired of me getting upset and frustrated with you, so I'm going to show you what I've devised that has seemed to help other seventh graders."

They looked at me with questions on their faces as I talked to them like this. It looked as if they were truly listening. Their mouths weren't moving, and they were looking at me in the eyes. I showed them the sheet, explaining especially the two sections I tweaked - "arguing about or ignoring specific teacher directions" and "tattling on another student in order to deflect from misbehavior being addressed." We talked about what those meant, and they acted like as if they understood.

I then asked them, in our 80-minute period, how many tallies they think they would be fair before I emailed home. They came up with four total. I agreed (it's what I use in my other class with the few I use it with)! I put the half sheet by each of them and said, "It can stay here with you. If we use it, so be it. If we don't, even better. Thank you for understanding and trying this method with me."

For the next forty minutes, I had no issues with these two students. I thanked them quietly for not disrupting class as they walked out the door. I heard back, "See you tomorrow, Mrs. Kirr."

Talk to the children.

Today was a good day. One day at a time...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Visit and Inquire

Shift This! came out, and I put two in our school library so teachers didn't need to purchase it if they wanted to read it. (Would they want to read it??)

At least four people at my school are currently reading it. So surreal. Our ELL teacher came up to the room this week (this never happens), and she asked to see the student station (my post about it is here, and I discuss shifts to the classroom environment in chapter four). She then wanted to see the filing cabinet that has become my "desk," and I confessed that my things have been spreading out a bit more than I want to on the shelf by the window.

Once she left, I wondered, "Doesn't everyone at school know about the student station??" On the drive home, I wondered just how many teachers at school DID know about it? And why not? I'm going to blame time once again. I don't take the time to explain it to others, and many teachers (myself included) don't take the time to visit other classrooms and inquire.

I'm going to make it a point of mine to go into classrooms towards the end of this year, chat with the teacher, and ask one question about the classroom environment, so I can learn from him or her. If our time is such that we are not provided specific time to take classroom tours of other classrooms in our own school, we should take the reins and do it on our own time, little by little, so we can continue to learn all we can! Ask the questions!!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Shift This!

Here's the inside story...

A large publisher of educational books contacted me in 2015, asking me to write an outline for them for a book about Genius Hour. Hmmm... That had been done - a few times by then, and even more by now. The list is growing, and I keep it on the LiveBinder here.

So I wrote an outline about what trying Genius Hour did for my classroom... and they said that wasn't what they were looking for. I was told I could write a blog post for their website. Harumph.

I had shared the first part of the story with my students, so I had to update them on this disappointment. They threw my words back at me... "If it's something you want to do, you should do it anyway." They had a point. So I kept going. Why not?! [Fancy this - Bob (Hubby/soul mate) - had told me earlier... "It's only a matter of time.")

In August of 2016, I had a revelation of sorts, and I was almost finished with this book about shifts I'd made since implementing Genius Hour. It felt like a huge blog post about how I've changed so many parts of our classroom as a result of handing over one hour a week to my students. I thought of Dave & Shelley Burgess... And I thought, "The worst they can say is 'No.'"

And now it's here. After months of going through the editing process (such great lessons for me that I was able to share with my students!!), and multiple nights wondering, "Is it good enough?"... it has arrived on Amazon.

Here is a glimpse inside the book - through the lens of the website.
If you're reading the book, please connect with me through a blog post or your thoughts in an email. I'd love to add your ideas to the website, so others can learn from YOU! Let's keep the conversation going so we can shift learning back to our students!

Addition 5/13/17: Here's Dave Burgess's rendition of why you should read Shift This!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fad for Fidgety Fingers

Yes. This is the 2016-2017 school year in a meme...

IF you let them drive you up a wall. (Someone help with the source of this image?? I've seen it on Twitter and Facebook w/o any source mentioned.)

The DAY AFTER we had a discussion about fidgets during our team meeting, I started seeing blog posts about them...

This was the first. I couldn't believe this teacher's attitude, and how she was asking parents to quit buying them. This is not one I would ever retweet. It made me embarrassed to be in the same profession.
     I'm a Teacher, and Trust Me When I Say that Fidget Spinners Are the Effing Worst

Each student has his or her own take on it. Some are bringing them in just as a novelty (okay, most??), but some are actually FIDGET with them, as this photo proves...

This child likes to manipulate things. And he always has. He is always doing something with his hands. He is the one these things were created for. This is totally allowed in my class, as he is primarily focused on the lesson at hand if I've done a good job that day of making the lesson relevant and/or engaging (to him, at least).

Then this one was brought to my attention, and my ELA counterpart and I figured this would be a good one to discuss as a class, to notice tone, bias, satire...
     Those Darn Spinners Are Going to Be the End of Me!!! (Notice the three exclamation points.)

After reading this post, I went with "the girls" to a bridal shower (I thought I was done with those, but I have a HUGE extended family). My sister says she bought a fidget cube for my nephew. GREAT IDEA! He constantly moves his hands together. If he's not doing that, he's most often picking at his fingers. A cube he can manipulate will help him - much like clicking a pen in his hand, but without the noise. His twin sister's teacher banned them. He hasn't said if they're allowed or not, but I'd think he could keep this in a pocket.

And, of course, a day after I finished reading Instant Relevance by Denis Sheeran, I was connected to his two posts on how to make these relevant in the classroom...
     Put a Spin on It
     Fidget Spinners Follow Up

The day I published this post (yes, I'm editing right now), another popped up on my Twitter feed. Laurie Lichtenstein takes the view that the newest fad is our currency with our middle schoolers. Use the currency, or be doomed to be upset at each passing fad.
     Flipping, Spinners, and Slime: Those Crazy Middle School Fads

The prevalence of spinners - in the time span of just one week! - has made me look even more closely at my lessons for relevance. I have brought up the question "WHY" again and again in the past week, helping students see the reasons for our class activities. And if I could write it better than Doug Robertson, I'd make this post an actual post. However, he has already done so...

...And why, like he suggests, should we waste any more time or print on such a trivial issue?

Oh, man - each year we'd need a different shirt to wear!! -->
And yet, there is always more to the story... I'll add more opinions here:
     Are Fidget Spinners the Problem, or Is It Our Mindset? by Patrick Larkin
     Fidget Spinners: From Banned to Band Wagon to Banked by Denis Sheeran
     Do Fidget Spinners Belong in the Classroom? Teachers Are Divided by Kristine Kim
     Why Children Fidget, and What We Can Do about It (from 2014)
     Fidgeting for Physics: Spinner Science in Six Steps by Matt Richard & Meg Richard
     The Great Spinner Debate - Hyperdoc to use with students - created by Nicole Beardsley
     Fidget Spinners Aren't the Issue (The Real Issue Is Student Ownership) by John Spencer
     The Fidget Spinner Craze: Why Are Schools Banning the Latest Gadget? by Paul W. Bennett
     Fidget Spinners w/Super Strong Magnets (YouTube)
     The Invasion of the Fidget Spinner by Sydney Musslewhite
     Pirate Treasure: Resources & Hooks #AppSpinners by Sydney Musslewhite

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Instant Relevance

Teacher confession: I try to not purchase professional books...

Reasons? I have them on my Amazon wishlist that parents of my students and parents of my own can see. I have reviewed a few books I've gotten for free, and also "earned" others by reviewing those. Bonus - I also happen to WIN quite a few!!

This year, I've won TWO books! I won Kids Deserve It by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome at ICE17 (wrote about that one here), and just last weekend I won Instant Relevance by Denis Sheeran at a local EdCamp in DesPlaines!

When I first heard it was written by a statistics professor, I wondered about it's relevance in my 7th grade ELA brain.

Then I heard it wasn't just for math.

Then I heard it was funny.

Then I found myself at that EdCamp (thanks, Amanda Hager!), hoping they called my number, and hoping no one took that book off the table!!

Then I wanted to finish reading the YA book (that was over 400 pages and too YA for my 7th graders anyway) quickly!

Then I read half of it in one afternoon, and I thought... This is like the chapter in Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate where he wants us to "Ask and Analyze." The story he tells that got me thinking of Denis's book, is how, after he purchased a Honda Odyssey, there were suddenly a gazillion (okay, maybe an exaggeration) Honda Odysseys everywhere! Keep your eyes open - and use what you discover to share with your students! That's how you "become" creative!

Denis doesn't use those same words, but it seems that I'm refreshed (again). I'm looking through a different lens (again) - for anything that could be relevant for my students in the context of ELA. Just today, my coworker Karen shared an awesome blog post regarding fidgets that she found from another coworker on Facebook. I whole-heartedly agreed with her that we should use it for our Article of the Week!! (There are lots of them out there now, but this one had a great sarcastic tone that we wanted to use to show bias.)

This book is NOT about math.

This book is about bringing LIFE to your content area.

This book is about letting children in your charge know you care about them enough to use relevant "real world" ideas, in a place that IS their "real world."


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why Should We Be Connected?

Thank you, Andrea!

Whoever you are, I'd love to be in your classroom, learning from YOU!

A little background... Mr. Zac Leonard (co-creator of #EdTechAfterDark) keeps tweeting out this Flipgrid, asking teachers to share their viewpoints. After I shared mine, I continue to look back and listen to other teachers to hear how they answered.

So far, Andrea has my absolute favorite answer (yes, I listened/viewed them all):

I am in total agreement with Andrea. And you know what? Being connected DOES make me a better educator, and a better person. I have days when I'm not the best version of me. Then I get connected again with people - online or face to face - and I regroup. I remember what I'm supposed to do, or who I'm supposed to be. I so appreciate learning from other educators who love to learn and help one another improve.

What are your thoughts? Are you heading over to the Flipgrid right now to add them? Perhaps you'll comment on this post, instead?

If you know Andrea, please connect me to her - I want to learn from and with this fabulous educator.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Saying "Yes"

I almost said No.

When Caren Kimbarovsky contacted me about being on a panel to talk about "personalized learning" at the local NICE meeting, I immediately thought - I have so much to do that weekend, and I've already committed to so many things in April. Then came another thought - I don't have school the next day... and I've never been on a panel before.

So I said Yes.

And I LOVED it.

As a connected educator, you get asked to do many things that are not in your normal job description. For the month of April, I was asked to speak at a mini-conference in the AM before an edcamp in the PM, review a book before it comes out, moderate two chats, attend a half-day edcamp, and be on this panel. I said YES to all but one. I'm so glad I was able to be a part of this panel. Check out the participants:
We were given free dinner (Chipotle and cookies!), and a few of us chatted prior to the start of the discussion. My goal was to listen more than I spoke, and that was very easy, as I was in the presence of educators that have done way more than I ever had. I was so eager to learn from them!

I had to share my take-aways (and reminders)...
  • Jon Bergmann shared that the "one thing every teacher can do tomorrow" is something I'm already doing! Video/audio feedback with screencasts for their students! When he started describing this, I practically jumped out of my chair. I'm on the right track!
  • A participant in the audience shared that his students reflect back in the same manner. I know one of my next steps now!
  • We were all reminded, once again, that the tech does not matter - RELATIONSHIPS matter. No idea is right for EVERY student. Some students will still not do the work. TALK with students. Do not let the idea that not every student will work stop you from trying new things in class.
  • "Relevance" is the word I kept thinking of for these two hours. If we continue to make learning relevant to our students, more will step up to the plate to practice and learn the skills.
  • We need to have a common language - and we need to SHARE this with parents and students, so they, too, may advocate for change in education.
  • I am not overwhelmed with "too many things to do." Teachers on this panel seem to be doing even more work than I am - all for the sake of personalizing the learning.

Coming home with the windows down and the radio cranked up, I knew I will continue to say YES to many of these opportunities, as they continue to reinvigorate me. I may not do everything in my class that I'd like to try, but I'm surrounded by others who inspire me to keep on keepin' on!

Monday, April 10, 2017

End-of-Quarter Paper Trail

Yes, we go without marks throughout the quarter.

No, it's not just one simple letter grade at the end of each quarter.

Students and I prepare throughout the quarter, creating and collecting evidence.

We then confer with each other, and fill in the front of this sheet with evidence, and the back with goals for the next quarter. Students also choose their own comments for the report card, and have the opportunity to provide even more information for their parents.

What comes next?

The paper trail... explained here:

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Shift Report Card Comments Over to Your Students

So you don't want to go "without grades" yet, but you do want to BEGIN to go that route...

One way is to incorporate REFLECTION into more of what you do in class.

At the end of the quarter, why not let students choose their own comments for the report card / progress report?

Here's how I give this responsibility over to the students...

We currently have 100 comments from which teachers can choose. Many of these do NOT apply to ELA class, such as "Needs to study harder for tests" (we don't have "tests" for students to study for in ELA) or "Does not meet minimum class standards" (because if THAT happens, I'm not doing my job!), or "Shows all steps in math work." So I share with students the comments that DO apply - and there are still about 60 from which to choose!

Sixty comments is a bit much to look at. I go a step further. I separate them into "Comments that show room for improvement" and "Comments that show what you do well." I ask students to find one of each, and then explain WHY they chose those comments.
Feel free to make a copy of this document and edit your copy to add the comments your district uses.

What I can NOT tell from the choices students make is if they truly believe this is true or not. I often wonder... Did he put that comment on there because other teachers have chosen that one for him? Did she choose that comment because she truly believes she "contributes positively to the classroom atmosphere?" What I CAN do is ASK. I ask for students to chose one comment from each side (with a possible third comment thrown in if they'd like it), and then I TALK with them about the comments.

Here's what I find...

  • There are miscommunication I can clarify, such as when one student chose "Is easily distracted" along with "Is attentive and a capable student." I don't have to ask how he thinks he can be both distracted and attentive, because I see the answer in his reason why... He wrote, "I attend class every day, and am capable." Ahhhh... Here's a great opportunity for him to learn what "attentive" means. 
  • Some students are so very hard on themselves, and some think they are the best students ever. They are in 7th grade, so not everyone is good at reflecting yet. One more reason to do this!! 
  • Other students are spot on. Check out these comments, and what students said about why they chose them, just from this past quarter alone...

Student-chosen comments, and their reasons why...
Is doing satisfactory work, but could do better.
     - "You can always try more."
     - "I am okay in reading, but I could look back in the text more."
Is not working up to ability.
     - "I could do a little extra."
Needs to listen and follow directions.
     - "Sometimes I need reminders to stay on task."
Needs to be prepared on a daily basis.
     - "I always forget my binder."
Is easily distracted.
     - "Sometimes I don't pay attention."
     - "I get distracted and off topic a lot."
     - "I just get off track. I have a short attention span."
Needs to improve organizational skills.
     - "Sometimes I can't find things in my ELA binder."
     - "My binder is a mess."  (So she took the time to organize it right then!)
Work is satisfactory, but could improve with less socializing in class.
     - "I sometimes talk a lot."
     - "I do talk in class, but my work still meets expectations."
Has some difficulty concentrating in class.
     - "Sometimes I get off task."
     - "Sometimes I zone off. I think I would do better by not getting distracted."
Greater care with assignments would improve performance.
     - "I know I can do better with some things."
Has weak grammar skills.
     - "Sometimes I rush through things and don't use my grammar skills."
Completes own work well, but is disruptive to others.
     - "I'm disruptive sometimes."
     - "I do complete my work, but I sometimes distract others when I'm done."
Completes work satisfactorily.
     - "I could do better."
Is attentive and a capable student.
     - "I know I can do anything if I try."
     - "I can do better, but I don't try."

Now these comments and reasons why are sent home to parents, so they can see their thinking and ask them about it, as well. They are not surprises to students when they get their report card, and they are not blown off... "Is a joy to have in class - I always get that one." (In fact, only a handful of students chose "Is a joy to have in class" this quarter!)

And then there's Jimmy.* He chose comment #80 - "Maintains on-task behavior." In ELA, Jimmy does all his work, participates in class, revises his writing, reads at home and at school... and he chose this comment, which I think is quite boring. I went through the list and checked off about twelve other positive comments from which he could choose. He tells me, "I was trying not to be too narcissistic." Gotta love seventh graders learning how to reflect! (I had to look up how to spell that one, too!)

*Jimmy is not his real name.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Seventh Grader Reflections - A Snippet

Just a snippet of two conferences I had with students regarding their grade for third quarter today... Just a reminder - we've had no grades/marks all quarter, and students need to give me their evidence for reading, writing, and grammar.

A conversation with "Lisa"*
Me - "Why do you think you earned a 'B' for reading?"
Lisa - "Well, my comprehension scores are 97% for literal, and 91% for inferential, but I only shared two of the five books I read this quarter."
Me - "What makes you think you have to share more than two?"
Lisa - "You said if we share books, it helps other students read them."
Me - "What stopped you from sharing them?"
Lisa - "I didn't really think anyone else would like the other three I read."
Me - "Do you think we should share books we don't necessarily like?"
Lisa - "I don't know."
Me - "I think it's valuable to share books you DO like. You show here that you read 30 minutes each night?"
Lisa - "Sometimes less, if I'm busy. But I always make up for it on the weekends."
Me - "I still don't understand why you think you earned a 'B' for reading. Your evidence proves otherwise."
Lisa - "A 'B+' then?"

Lisa is so hard on herself. She had THREE goals for next quarter, when she clearly earned an 'A' for reading, writing AND grammar. Her goals were very high, so we discussed making them manageable so she didn't stress herself out!

A conversation with "Kyle"
Me - "It says here that you believe you deserve an 'A' for grammar. I don't see any evidence listed. Let's write down the pieces you submitted for feedback and go over the feedback that was given. ... For each of your three pieces, the feedback was 'needs improvement.' Do you remember what that would be as a score in a 'typical' class?"
Kyle - "Um... maybe not good."
Me - "On a typical rubric, that's a D. So... you've got three pieces that show your grammar skills at a 'D' level right now."
Kyle - "I revised one a lot."
Me - "Yes. My notes say you revised this one three times. My notes also say that I asked you to look back at my feedback. You seem to have added MORE writing to the piece instead. Is there a reason you didn't follow my feedback to add capital letters and periods?"
Kyle - "I didn't really read it." (Kyle had asked for WRITTEN feedback instead of video feedback this past quarter. I gave him one sentence that showed where he was doing well, and one sentence that suggested a revision. This was in lieu of a 2-5 min video.)
Me - "So... (trying to not let my emotions show on my oh-so-transparent face)... Was a one sentence suggestion too much for you? Would you prefer the video feedback again?"
Kyle - "No. I just wanted to write more."
Me - "Writing more is not getting better at writing. In fact, you wrote more without adding any capital letters or ending punctuation. When did you learn how to capitalize names and the beginnings of sentences?"
Kyle - "Um... First grade?"
Me - "So... You wrote more - without adding any capitalization or punctuation. You didn't improve your writing. Revising is what helps you improve."
Me - "Let's regroup. Let's look at the evidence, and reflect more accurately now on what you think you have earned as a grade for grammar."
Kyle - "Um... A 'C'?"

Big sigh. Sitting with Kyle for double the time it should take to confer is a struggle. Not giving grades or marks throughout the year is one of the toughest things I've tried in my teaching career. Even though the struggle is real, I won't give it up.


This is one reason: Some students need a TON of practice reflecting. Some have either never had the chance before, or just simply need more practice. I'm definitely giving them the opportunity to practice.

There are oh-so-many more reasons. You can discover some of them in the video I share with parents, but today's conversations were a glimpse into one other huge reason. Reflection is a skill that needs to be practiced in school. I don't know how much it's happening in some homes.

*No doubt - the names here are fictitious.