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, May 20, 2018

Polar Bears or People

My only niece and nephew turned the age of twelve earlier this month. Bob and I gave them cold hard cash - literally! We froze $50 in a baggie in water in sour cream containers. In order to find out what and where their gift was, they had to solve a riddle. Such is how we give gifts in our family if the receiver has everything he or she already needs...

My nephew Robert pocketed the money right away, and my niece Rosann announced, "I'm giving my money to the polar bears!"


After a time, I was able to ask Rosann, "Where will your money go? What will the organization do with your money for the polar bears?" She mentioned something about them relocating bears that had gotten too far away.

I tried to be a good actress and be happy for her - proud of her. I don't know if I was convincing.

The thing is, she's a giving person. She also sees that for my birthday we put together what some call "blessings bags" - see the post on how to make your own here. I donated money to St. Jude's in her name for her first communion. She volunteers with the Girl Scouts at Feed My Starving Children. What was my problem?! Why did her saying she'd give her money to the polar bears put me off? Why did I think - Maybe her parents will talk her out of giving ALL of her money to the polar bears. (It had totaled $140 by then.) Don't PEOPLE count more?

I saw my problem this morning (while washing dishes).

I was being a hypocrite.

EVERY time I speak or write about Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects, Personalized Learning... I have in the forefront of my mind that it is about the KIDS. It's about what THEY deem important. Who am I to judge? What if the biggest group of people helping polar bears financially are children? I revisited my post on the value of frozen marbles today. I'll promise to keep my hypocrisy at bay, and yet keep asking questions that keep the conversations going.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


It's May.

The seventh graders tell me there are 14 more days of school.

Our "torturous" plans? Reading The Outsiders at their own pace, bringing six ideas or questions to discuss with their book club groups. The best way to end the school year in ELA - no fabricated worksheets, posters, dioramas, whole-class discussions...

And yet... here is a snippet of my day today... (I'll be using "they/them/their" instead of "he/she.")

I just received an email from a student asking me if I'd looked at their revisions. Hmm... Since I'm not a mind reader, no. I did not know he revised. I never saw his name on the clipboard, and he never told me in person. So... I went to his document to check the revision history. There have been no revisions since May 1st. That revision on May 1st? MINE. I left him video feedback to show him how he could improve his writing. So... I left him more video feedback, basically asking him to not waste time for both of us. I replied to his email with this new link, copying his parent.

I had to give a short lecture today with my last class about how I need to make more decisions to help them learn (I made the seating arrangement), since they are not making good decisions themselves. They were mad at me, but they worked much better today than yesterday.

One student does not work. In any class. This student has the countdown on their assignment notebook and announces it each day. Won't even listen to The Outsiders on audio. Won't give it a chance. Has every excuse in the book to not work.

During our 4-min break in my block class, I have to keep an eye on one student so they don't sneak food or candy to friends and/or throw another pencil into the ceiling. This may mean leaving the classroom where there are other students I don't even know visiting friends. Which can cause more trouble? I'm not sure.

I've been showing book trailers for a week now - right before independent reading. One student today, after watching one for The Final Four by Volponi, asks, "Is this true?" Peers told them that it's a book trailer, and that we've been watching them for a week now.

Yet I keep coming back for more... for these students...

One student left the class a present - sticky notes - and put them on the student station for all to use!

One student happily moved over the magnets for the new "check in" for the day that Mrs. Rehberger set up for our co-taught class.

One student thanked me for creating the seating chart for my last class.

One student said they'll miss me when summer comes.

One student revised their writing and let me know - this student just keeps plugging along!

I learned how to create a password-protected Google form, and one student thought I was a genius!

One student - who struggles so much to understand when they read - is tackling The Outsiders.

One student made our question of the day - last-minute - "Yanny or Laurel?" **

Fourteen more days to make a difference. I'll search for opportunities.

The new lilacs that were planted by the back entrance/exit are blooming, and they smell beautiful.
**Yanny or Laurel debate - I hear "Yanny." Hubby hears "Laurel." Crazy, folks. Just crazy.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

She's Scared to Ask

Last quarter, as I conferred one on one with Christine (not her real name), she confided in me that she's scared to ask for help.

On her own, she wrote a new goal for fourth quarter: Ask for help when I don't understand.

This past Friday, she hadn't turned in an in-class assignment. I went to her and asked, "Do you need help on the assignment you haven't yet turned in?"

Her reply was a head nod.

I then asked her, "Do you remember what your goal for fourth quarter is?"

She softly replied, "Ask for help."

I asked her to take it out so I can help her with it, and help her get closer to achieving her goal.

Penciled in - right on the assignment - she'd written, "I'm still scared to ask for help."

I looked her in the eye and reiterated, "I'm here to help."


I'm so glad she was able to tell me her thoughts in our meeting at the end of third quarter. What great feedback for me!! I was aware that it was something to celebrate. However, I still confided in a coworker how meeting with Christine was upsetting to me, and that I didn't know what to do to fix it or help her. How can she be scared of me? ME? I feel as if I'm very compassionate in class. I feel as if I praise so many little things students are doing so we have a positive relationship. I feel as if I'm approachable and allow time for students to talk with me. How could she be scared of ME? My coworker tried to assure me. She, too, was scared (maybe that wasn't the exact word for her) to ask for help from any teacher. She, too, didn't participate. She, too, did her work, did well, and then went on with her day.

Yet here it is again. That feeling that I can't do enough. That feeling that I need to do much more.

I will continue to sit and chat with each child. I will continue to make great eye contact, smile, and praise for efforts, word choice, patience, etc. Yet it looks like I'll always need to do more.

I'm reaching out to my PLN today - what can I do to help students who are scared to ask for help?

Monday, March 26, 2018

Update to the Feedback LiveBinder

It's Spring Break.
That means spring cleaning to some.
It means spring organizing to me!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Teach Me Your Talent

     "Teach Me Your Talent" is one way for students to share what they love with other students. It can be a way to introduce genius hour-type learning, bring students' passions IN to the classroom, or just something fun to do so your students can learn more about each other!

     We started by introducing the idea to students the week of PARCC (standardized) testing. They had that entire week to brainstorm ideas and get feedback from peers. The next Monday, they needed to declare what they would present. Starting that Monday, we had four days of mini lessons and time to practice - presentation skills, such as volume, intonation, eye contact, gestures, poise... all thanks to Erik Palmer's Well Spoken book. We used videos, teacher models, and students signed up to do 15 second to 1 minute stints to practice their speaking skills, as well. These four days were also used for students to plan their own presentations. We used this sheet to guide us. (It was during this time that I met 1:1 with students regarding their learning for the quarter. We came up with the final grade and their comments for the report card.)

Skills/Talents/Hobbies shared this year:

Observations I want to remember...
    Teachers presented one this year as a model - turned out to be helpful!
    Parents came in to provide feedback while I was in the corner conferring with students 1:1.
    When a student presenting said, "cut off the bottom of the paper" and another rudely responded, "seems like a big waste of paper," the student presenting countered with, "I'm sure you can find something to do with that extra slip of paper. A bookmark, perhaps." What class.
    Thanks to the observation of our co-teacher, when we only had three people presenting, we still created four groups - one just hung out for 4 minutes together in the rotation. When in that "station," these students took on the responsibility of timer and announcer when there was one minute left.
    Hearing a student say, "I haven't done this is so long."
    Hearing a parent say, "I feel like I'm in 7th grade again."
    Messes were cleaned up by students.
    Even when a presentation didn't go all too well, at least one student in the group would thank the presenter, and then the others usually added their own thanks.
    One student kept saying "I failed." (No grades - just in his mind.) I was able to reiterate at his parent/teacher conference that he kept getting better and better during the four rotations. By the time the fourth one came about, he had succeeded! Hopefully after our talk, he is learning that practicing before would make him more successful.
    When I would forget, students would take care of the timer (student responsibility next year).
    Parents came in, went through rotations, and even gave feedback!

I gave students a quick form to ask them for their feedback. What always gets me is the way some comments contradict others ("very easy" / "stressful" or "more time" / "make it shorter"). Here are the ideas they had:

What went well? (Student Views)
  It was fun to play with other's stuff.
  Everyone listened to everyone.
  The people I taught seemed to be interested in what I taught.
  Everyone was paying attention and we got through everyone.
  The speaking part went well.
  The whole idea was cool.
  I definitely learned new things.
  I learned about my classmates and had fun.
  It was fun.
  There were some really good things that people demonstrated.
  Everyone tried new things.
  Most of us had interesting things to show.
  I think the organization went well.
  Everyone brought in their projects on time.
  People had good performances.
  People tried.
  The "balanced" out groups.
  Most people learned something new and I liked when talents went over 3:30 min - we learned more.
  I liked how I could share what my classmates like to do, and I can share what I like to do.
  I learned many things about different sports.
  Learning new things, and new things about other people.
  Most people seemed prepared and seemed to be having fun.
  Everyone can learn about different things.
  It was very easy.
  We had enough time.
  Everybody was able to do the task taught.
  The time we had to prepare for it.
  Nobody cut off person talking.
  Fun trying the person's talent.

Suggestions for Students FROM Students:
  Don't overdo it.
  Cover main ideas and explain them.
  Speak clearer and louder.
  Pay attention to who's talking.
  Be more prepared / practice.
  Explain the talent better.
  Don't do things if it takes really long.
  Pick something that is actually a talent.
  Longer presentations are better.
  Teach for the whole three minutes.
  Take it more seriously.
  Put more time into planning.
  Try to at least seem interested in what you're doing.
  Find something really unique and useful.
  Don't have side conversations - it distracts the speaker.
  Think of outrageous ideas.

Suggestions for the Teacher from Students:
  Bigger groups. (This year we had both, depending on the day, and they liked the smaller groups.)
  Extend time for talent.
  Make it a little bit shorter.
  Don't grade this activity. (I didn't.)
  Not in groups - entire class presentations.
  Maybe a little more time for preparing and getting ready.
  We didn't need so much time to plan.
  It was pretty boring and stressful.
  Let students pick groups.
  Decide groups ahead of time.
  Don't take pictures.
  More organized way of presenting.
  Bigger spaces for each group.
  Let students go to stations you want to.
  Show all groups to the class.
  Have groups of different times - for instance, if some plan for 5 min., have them all go at the same time. (Students wanted slime to be all on the same day. I cannot stand slime, and always hope no one decides to make slime...This year we had three in one class - all different types of slime, all on different days. Maybe one shot would be better!)

My Sad Note:
   I've got some students who don't like ELA (say it isn't so!) and/or struggle with reading and writing. One reason I love this project is that many of those students shine during these presentations. I will say that this year I did have some of those. I also had four students this year who ... blew it off. I am reminded once again that school is not a priority in their lives. I'm just sad that even this activity couldn't encourage them to bring their passions in to our classroom. I will continue to implement this activity, however, because of all the success and/or learning most students have.

Want to see it in action?
   Check out @KirrClass tweets! You can also find our learning on Instagram.

Here's our video from 2017...
   I loved looking at it, as we set up the room differently this past year based on feedback from last year, and I don't know which way is better! Next year, the students can decide once again. :)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Conferring Once Again - Q3

The end of each quarter, I sit down with my students, one-on-one, and we talk about their learning from the past seven or eight weeks. Ultimately, we have to come up with one letter grade that represents learning they've shown. This one little letter is all they get for their work, but that's how the system is for me at this moment in time.

These conferences are my most stressful time of each quarter, and also my favorite. They're stressful because I need to make sure I have time to see each child, and I hope to goodness that they're not absent the day they were scheduled. They're also stressful because I then have to enter that one grade in the online gradebook, and I worry about parent reactions. THANK YOU to all those supportive parents who have read my myriad two-week updates and emails home. One more stress? The rest of the class is working on their own... or are they?! Letting go of that control is tough, but most students are doing what they need to be doing during this time.

These conferences are also my favorite time of each quarter. This is a result of the conversations we have, the learning that is demonstrated and celebrated, and the reflections and goal setting.

Here are some tidbits from this past quarter... All names are changed and do not even closely resemble the child's name.

Abby's goal for next quarter is to ask more questions. She didn't know where an assignment was, and was too nervous to ask me. ME. I wonder how she functions in other classes.

Bill's goal for next quarter is to set his alarm on his phone so he remembers to read every day after school. He went to his locker and set it right then.

Cliff realized, although he's doing very well academically, that he has a tough time with theme and the author's message. He decided he's going to write about the theme of everything he reads in class and at home from now on.

Donny is proud that he's now reading at home and that he found a genre he enjoys (nonfiction).

Edgar thought he should get a "D" in class, because he never reads at home. We had a great discussion about how reading habits affect comprehension, but that I don't think habits should belong in a grade. It turns out we agreed on a "C" because his comprehension was in the 70% range. He asked, "If I read more, will it go up?" I got to tell him that the only thing that helps improve reading comprehension is more reading.

Frank revised then revised then revised once again to improve the grammar in his writing the week before we met. His new goal? --> Revise as soon as he gets feedback!

George, once again, admits to playing video games all afternoon and evening. Talking with him helps me know that I can NOT do it all alone. It also helps reaffirm that we should be reading (books of students' choices) in class every day.

Helga's goal for next quarter is to stay away from distracting friends during independent reading time.

Issac is proud of his improvement this past quarter!

Judy has stepped up her participation this past quarter!

Kelly realized (without my help) she is distracting other students when they work in a group! Her new goal is to focus on getting the task accomplished when she works with friends.

Leo was nervous about his meeting with me. He came and said, "I'm nervous." It turns out that he was hyper-focused on one part of the grade. When we looked over the other evidence, he said, "I'm not as nervous anymore." We discussed averaging points in the gradebook versus taking the evidence for what it is, and he was happy he had revised his writing.

Molly's new goal is to head to our class website reading challenge page to look through the myriad lists of books and create a large one for herself so she can begin to choose what to read on her own (instead of coming to me each time she finishes a book).

Nick thought he should get a "D" because of his behavior in class. We then had the discussion about how behavior will impact his learning at some point, but for now the evidence for his academics shows he's in the "B" range. We then talked about how his behavior might be impacting OTHER students' learning...

Olga's new goal is to stop doodling during classwork time. She didn't do as well as she'd hoped this past quarter, and blames it on "not getting down to work."

Patrick told me he really wants to change seats so he's away from a certain someone who distracts him.

Those are the stories I remember offhand, without going back into my notes. When I feel as if my class is slipping away from me (let's call it "spring fever"), I can go back to these conversations and realize that we do have a connection, and we can have discussions about what's going right, and where we can improve.

Saturday, March 3, 2018



My husband Bob (@TagAlongBob) came up with the idea.

We shared it with close friends, and came up with these parameters:

  • Can't call it "EdCruise," because it sounds too much like a person, so it needs to be "EDUCruise."
  • Instead of the typical chocolates, we'd be enjoying cold shrimp and sushi for snacks
  • Tuna salad sandwiches for lunch - aw, heck - it's our dream - Lobster or Crab for lunch!
  • We won't need to reserve a place to meet afterwards for entertainment...
  • Sunning on the deck
  • Swimming pool
  • Jacuzzis
  • Beverages
  • The perfect time would be winter break! On a Monday through Friday...

We thought this would be the perfect idea for Dave Burgess Consulting to design - Dave and Shelley are the PIRATES!! Everyone would get a teeny pirate flag, as we probably wouldn't want to hoist one on the main deck. The rest of the time would be sharing ideas and shattering the status quo! Of course, all the authors would get a free ticket + 1 for themselves and a guest...

Now, because we only shared it with close friends, and I didn't go right to Dave and Shelley, someone else has gotten the idea...

Kudos to the EdTechTeam!

I wish they'd've (oh, how I love multiple contractions!) called me! Then this would be happening during winter break instead of summertime!

To find out more about this particular "Summit at Sea," click here. To ask Dave and Shelley to put on one over winter break, click here. And to add more ideas so the EdTechTeam and DBC can add to their own EDUcruise, add comments to this post - We'd love to learn from your creativity!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Great Posts - BEGGING to Be Shared

I share a TON - on Twitter.
I share a TON - at EdCamps.
I share a TON - at my own school.

Whether it's because I don't want to be looked upon as the teacher who thinks she's got it all figured out (my readers know I know I don't!!), or the one who is "too radical" and "lets her kids do whatever in that classroom," I don't share (enough) at school. Sure, I share a website every now and then, but I sit on my hands (translation = "shut my mouth") when I think other teachers could benefit from philosophical blog posts or research that goes against what they're doing in the classroom. After all, who am I to tell them I disagree with what they're doing? I will continue to ask questions, but I just can't stir the pot in this fashion on a consistent basis. My own students get most of my energy as I try to stay immersed in our learning and culture when I'm with them, and by the time I try to talk with adults about some of these ideas, my energy is often quite depleted.

Knowing that I don't know who reads these posts, I'll post this one, hoping that some place, some day, some teacher from my own school will read one of these posts, share it with another, and discuss the ideas. Have that conversation that we don't normally have. Be transparent. I am proud of my actions on Twitter, but I just can't often bring up these conversations at my own school. I have, however,  stepped WAY out of my comfort zone by hosting a three-session book study for Shift This this March in my own district - wish me luck!!

Changing the Classroom Atmosphere
A Veteran Teacher Turned Coach Shadows 2 Students for 2 Days: A Sobering Lesson Learned
10 Things Students Experience Every Day at School that We Educators Tend to Forget About
17 Rules and Policies that Inadvertently Disrespect Students
Hugging a Porcupine

Homework / Late Work
A Late Work Policy That Supports Learning
It's Time to Stop Averaging Grades

Be Brave: The Only rule in my kindergarten class

Awards / Rewards / Extra Credit
The Wejr Family Awards
Why I Don't Give Extra Credit (or Gold Stars or Smiley Faces)

Parent Relationships
The Parent-Teacher Conference is Dead...

Thoughts from Alfie Kohn - Separate, because they're that good...
Beyond Discipline
Rethinking Homework
What Do Kids Really Learn from Failure?
What to Look for in a Classroom
Motivation (Podcast)

Here is Dean Shareski's K12 Online video... pushing me to share these blog posts with you:

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Learning Dilemma

I'm working with a student when she appears at my side and asks...

"Mrs. Kirr, do you have pencil lead?"

"Middle drawer of the student station."

I continue working with a student on an activity, when she returns...

"There are three pieces left. Can I have them all?"

"Do you need all three? What about other students?"

"They don't need them. If they did, they would've taken them."

"What about my next class? Or tomorrow's classes?"

"Can I have them all?"

"You have to make that decision."

"I hate you, Mrs. Kirr."


One aspect of having a student station in lieu of a teacher desk is that students have to manage the supplies. I've run out of tape, often times after a student takes the tape to their own desk and "decorates" their pencil. We make do without tape for a bit after that. Sometimes students help peers regulate how much of the supplies they need. I've also gained a few pairs of scissors along the way.

My students are 11, 12, and 13 years old. Their frontal lobes, the part of the brain they use to they make decisions, won't be fully developed until they're 22 years old (or even later). They need the practice making these types of decisions. I'm glad the student station provides a teeny bit of this practice.

I've told this story a couple of times, and have been asked each time, "Did she take all three?"
I have no clue.
I don't need to know.
I love that she had the internal struggle.
I'm okay that she "hated" me at that point in her life.
I hope she learned something as a result.
And really - I can afford to run out of pencil lead.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


What does "20K Followers" mean?

I used to want tons of followers. I was excited when more people followed me.
Then I became intimidated by the number of followers going up. I thought I really had to watch what I shared. I still watch what I share, but it's always been a professional account, so I don't really worry that I'll slip up. Much.

So... What does "20K Followers" mean to me now?

It means...

-My words, thoughts, and ideas are viewed my many.
-I am followed by men seeking women. (This is fairly new. Hubby and I get a kick out of it.)
-I am followed by companies as part of their advertising.
-I am followed by Harlem GlobeTrotters for some reason. (I'm not even a lefty...)
-I am asked to speak more often - and I have to remember that my own students and family come first. (By the way, head to #USMSpark in Milwaukee, WI while I'm still in school on June 11-12 and #NEXTSchool conference in Montreal while I'm camping with my niece and nephew the week of July 30th!)
-I am asked to moderate educational chats. (I've asked many educators, as well.)
-I am asked to retweet "please vote for my class" ideas (see why I won't retweet many here).
-I am asked to read books. (I've asked a handful of educators to read Shift This before it was published, as well.)
-I need to be an even better role model for my students than ever.
-I will continue doing what I'm doing - educators must find some value in it.
-I will continue to share other educators' ideas more often.
-I will continue to share ideas from my own book, along with other books that have transformed my teaching - I have a wider reach now and if other educators implement these ideas, students will benefit, and we won't run into so much resistance!
-I will continue to share my own workshops and presentations - again, so other educators implement these ideas, and students will benefit!
-I will continue to try to lead in these ways, by modeling what I think it means to be an educator.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Coping with Curmudgeonliness

You've received an attack from a parent or another teacher.

My husband says, "I'll bet no teacher goes unscathed." Even the teacher that is at school, available to students from 7:00-7:45am, lunch, and then again from 2:45-4:00pm - every day - has been chastised by a parent for "not being available for my child." Consider the teacher that has never once stepped foot in your classroom and yet has told other teachers that kids in your classroom "just have fun," and "there's no real learning happening." There may even be rumors about you that you hear through someone else. Teachers are not immune to attack. We have 60 or up to 300 or so parents who might not read what we send home, or might not talk with their children before they chat with us. We are in a culture where it seems people complain more publicly than they compliment. There are many variables that make people say what they do. We cannot control what happens in these people's lives. We cannot control what they say to or about us. We need to control our own thoughts about it, however, or our mental stress will manifest itself into physical stress. This physical pain or sickness can keep us out of school.

Here's what we CAN do:

Find someone at your school you can chat with on a regular basis. Be supportive for them, and they'll be there for you. No need to spend hours commiserating... just enough to know that you've both got some struggles in life. You're not alone, and you have many blessings for which to be grateful.

Turn to words. The red words in the Bible, the quotes from books you're (hopefully still) reading, your favorite bloggers, or just find inspiration online. Heck, I've even had a "quotes" column open on my Tweetdeck. You never know what you'll find there!

Go outside. Go for that walk, that bike ride, that lunch on a picnic table. In the winter, get out and get your cheeks and ears red. Get outside with the goal of getting some fresh air and sun.

Collect all the positive vibes you get - emails from parents, cards from students, quotes from great times in your classroom. Collect them so you can look through them when that one voice of many keeps crawling around trying to infect your thoughts.

And what else can we do? Ask other teachers! It's what I did!
Here are ideas curated from a session at EdCamp lake County on December 9, 2017 from about 40 or so teachers!
Our mental health is oh, so very important. Don't let a curmudgeon make you lose sight of what you're doing and why. Sure, we should re-evaluate what we're doing all the time, but once we regroup, we need to find ways to let it go...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Books of 2017

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2017 like I have the past three years. I read a bit for myself this year, along with books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy.
     2016 Favorites
     2015 Favorites
     2014 Favorites

Here are the books I would most recommend from my list of 75 books I've read this year... I tried to whittle it down to one or two per genre, but I read some genres more than others! I'm not going to describe them for you - you can check out the complete list with my thoughts for this year here.

     I'm not a Marvel fan, but Jason Reynolds hooked me with Miles Morales: Spider Man
 Historical Fiction
     From the Holocaust to Syria, these three refugees in Alan Gratz's Refugee really got to my heart.
     Student-recommended fantasy I had categorized under mystery, Victoria Laurie's When took me on a trip I hadn't imagined as of yet... What if someone could see death dates of people? A bit far-fetched, but awesome to watch unfold.
Poetry / Novels-in-Verse 
     Oh, I read so many novels-in-verse this year! One stood out as true poetry, written in "Tanka." Read Nikki Giovanni's Garvey’s Choice to learn more about Garvey, or to share a quick read-aloud.

     Oh my goodness - how many DBC books did I read this year?? The one I've gotten the most satisfaction from is Shift This. It was crazy surreal opening that first box of books Dave and Shelly sent. 
Here are the other professional books I've read and enjoyed in 2017:

Beers, Kylene, & Bob Probst - Disrupting Thinking
Casa-Todd, Jennifer - Social LEADia
Chandler, Amber - The Flexible ELA Classroom
Evans, Robert - The Human Side of School Change
Ferriter, William, & Paul Cancellieri -
Creating a Culture of Feedback
Hasson, Julie & Missy Lennard - Unmapped Potential
Hirsch, Joe - The Feedback Fix
Hogan, Aaron - Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth
McGee, Patty - Feedback that Moves Writers Forward
Miller, Matt - Ditch That Textbook
Musallam, Ramsey - Spark Learning
Nesloney, Todd, and Adam Welcome - Kids Deserve It!
Sheeran, Denis - Instant Relevance

Realistic Fiction
     I found another author I love this year - John David Anderson. Pick up Posted and Ms. Bixby’s Last Day for your classroom! 
     My favorite (I haven't read many, sadly!) adult realistic fiction this year was A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and my favorite novel-in-prose realistic fiction was Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. 
     I cannot miss sharing with you three other favorites, however - Restart by Gordon Korman, Bluefish by Pat Schmatz, and Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson.

     I'm not a big fan, but I did love the adult book, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Thanks to a coworker for the recommendation!
Science Fiction
     LOVED. Wow. Neal Shusterman's Scythe
Short Stories

     Close call - Either Mitali Perkins' Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices or James Howe's 13.

     Again, not a big fan - I'm working on it! Top Prospect by Paul Volponi gets my vote this year. Please suggest more for me in the comments below!

What are your favorites this year? Please share in the comments below or tag your own post so I can add them to my "to read" list!

Change - Part 3 - Leading Innovation

Ever since Dr. Evan's Keynote in July at BLC in Boston, I've been working my way through his book. I've written about Part 2 - Reluctant Faculty, and now it's time to wrap up the book with the rest of my notes here. Consider most of the bullet points right out of the book - I don't want to alter Dr. Evans' message.

The Authentic Leader
   In the chapter prior, Dr. Evans makes the point that leaders are guided by purpose and followership. These two form the heart of transformational leadership. Chapter nine then goes into explaining what goes into being an authentic leader... Here are my notes (in many instances quoted directly from the text):
  • Transformation begins with trust. (Once damaged, it's "nearly impossible to repair.")
  • Leaders need to "begin thinking of what will inspired trust among their constituents."
  • "We admire leaders who are honest, fair, competent, and forward-thinking."
  • Innovation..."needs more than trust - it needs confidence." Leaders "must inspire ... confidence along with trust."
  • The key to both confidence and trust is authenticity.
  • Most of us seek a "combination of genuineness and effectiveness" in a leader. "It makes him authentic, a credible resource who inspires trust and confidence, someone worth following into the uncertainties of change."
  • "Integrity is a fundamental consistency between one's values, goals, and actions." Followers are looking for values, goals and actions to be congruent.
  • Honesty and fairness play a large role.
  • Leaders "typically hold the same standards for their school as for themselves." These "provide the larger purpose that gives work direction and meaning," and their followers may be motivated by the same commitments.
  • Transformational leaders have ethics, vision, and belief in others.
  • "Authenticity also demands savvy, a practical, problem-solving wisdom that enables leaders to make things happen." They should have "common sense and empathic sensitivity, courage and assertiveness, and resilience."
  • Educators "will rarely follow leaders unless they seem to 'know their stuff' - ...the realities of school life."
  • To "be effective, leaders must demonstrate and foster [hardiness]."
  • "Authentic leaders build their practice outward from their core commitments rather than inward from a management text."
  • Although not all leaders "have what it takes," uncovering their potential "is the key to becoming authentic."
  • Leaders should ask themselves, "What do you stand for?" and then "Where does it come from?" Its origin is "almost always personal - deeply personal." This helps recruit followers, as we can learn the reasons WHY leaders want innovation. Almost all of us have the same values or the same desires for education. We can get on board when leaders share what they stand for and WHY.
  • "Principals who were successful change agents all fulfilled four key roles (resource provider, instructional resource, communicator, visible presence)..."
  • Leaders are aware of their strengths (and should share them!), and also of their faults.
  • Leaders need to know what they want.
  • Those above principals of schools need to provide time to hash out questions of values and goals when initiatives are coming from the top. Principals need to believe in them, as well, or nothing will change, as staff will see right through them if they're indifferent or opposed to the ideas.
  • A leader "must not just advocate but exemplify the change before asking staff to do so."
  • Risk-taking "has always been - and remains - rare in schools." Principals have a dilemma when "they are given more responsibility than authority, and their success requires maintaining positive connections not just with their superiors but also with their staff." We can NOT ask them to lead projects they do not fully grasp or endorse. It just won't fly.
  • If teachers want reform, they need to "realize the importance of bringing the principal along early..." This was so important for me, and I would not know where my teaching would be now if I didn't go ask for administrative support first.
So much of this relates to teachers and students! And so much of this relates to when I'm speaking in  front of a group, as well. What is the message I'm conveying? Why should my audience trust me? Look back at these, substituting "teacher" for "leader." See how you can use these ideas, even if you're not part of administration.

Clarity and Focus
    In chapter ten, Dr. Evans shares more about what leaders need to do in order to be able to share their vision and have followers. The number one thing is for the leader to be the model he or she wants staff to be. Leaders should lead by example.
  • Authentic leaders know what they want, and they pursue it.
  • Again, go with hearts and bellies - 1) a shared vision is crucial to innovation, and 2) the roots of vision are deeply personal.
  • A vision's main function is to inspire people and to concentrate their efforts. You can do this if you appeal to people's emotions and they buy in with their hearts and their bellies.
  • Formal vision work is time-intensive.
  • We can't simply designate a small core of teachers to draft a vision. We must have buy-in from all staff, or there won't be a commitment to goals. (Hence the time commitment!) Collaborative vision building is a longer and slower approach that requires persuasion, negotiation, compromise, and patience.
  • It would help to have a motto! A good motto is short enough to be remembered, and direct without being so literal that it limits the imagination. A motto can keep staff grounded and it can help us figure out what can stay and what can most likely go.
  • Clarity in a vision helps foster trust, foster commitment, and garner attention. The WHY, what, and how should be clear. The ultimate goal of clarity is a shared, community-wide consensus about values and goals.
  • Focus in a vision means the leaders decide what few things are important. These are then pursued with a vigor and skill.
  • Few people can accomplish more than one significant change at a time. Focus means pursuing one major change at a time per person and per work group.
  • If a vision has multiple dimensions, individuals must not be expected to master all of them at once.
  • Three ways leaders can push for focus - 1) accentuate the positive  2) ask "What can we quit doing so we can do what we need to do?"  3) stretch out time lines of individual items.
  • When leaders can explain change in clear, focused terms and connect innovation to long-standing values that matter to constituents, they help staff link the new with the old and bear the uncertainties and losses of change.
  • Leaders must reach out and create a more informed public. They must help people understand the true strengths and real needs of the schools.
  • When staff believe a leader will stay put to see an innovation through, confidence and energy are enhanced. (When there is often turn-over in superintendents and principals, staff do not put much trust in the fact that this "newest" plan will be around in a few years.)
Participation - Without Paralysis
    Most of this chapter centers around the leader.
  • The prospect of a committed, empowered, collegial community served by an enlightened leader is exciting. It is, however, an IDEAL, and beyond the capacity of most schools.
  • Organizations that draw on the knowledge of their staff make more informed choices and enjoy higher levels of productivity and morale.
  • People are much more likely to invest themselves in something they help shape.
  • Ideally, teachers who are empowered to help make decisions will structure their classrooms to empower students, as well. (Later, Dr. Evans says this appears to be a fallacy, largely due to the demands on the teachers executing change.)
  • Why Dr. Evans says it's really an ideal... 
    • Teachers' relations with one another are mostly marked by congeniality (being pleasant) but not collegiality (serious professional interaction). The entrenched norms that prevail among teachers remain those of autonomy and privacy.
    • Shared governance and collaboration always mean more work - and more complex work, and more work with other adults rather than students. They require higher levels of sophisticated adult interaction. (And many teachers prefer to work with children than with adults!)
    • The teaching career is an idiosyncratic craft - in many respects, a teacher is an "independent artisan..."
    • Schools observe strong traditions of conflict avoidance. Teachers rarely engage in the open expression and negotiation of conflict with colleagues and leaders.
  • Binary leadership seems to be optimal...
    • Powerful principals that have conviction and confidence lead with help. Ideas can move both up and down in the organization. Organizations need leaders, not bosses. Since change requires unfreezing and disconfirmation, the challenging of deep assumptions and the raising of appropriate guilt and anxiety, it demands someone with the power to get and keep people's attention.
    • Authentic leaders expect to play a primary role in shaping change, and they see empowerment as a later outcome, not a starting condition.
    • Authentic leaders decide who needs to be involved and when - they are consistently clear with staff about who is making which decisions and how.
    • Authentic leaders have open-door policies - teachers are starved for this kind of support, attention, and acknowledgement.
    • Authentic leaders ask for feedback, checking in from time to time, even if it means bad news. Squelching opposition only drives it underground and delays the chance to resolve it. Asking for feedback offers opportunities to empower staff, reduce resistance, reinforce collegiality, and can build momentum for change. If nothing else, it helps staff ventilate feelings and fears and clarify misperceptions. Everyone involved needs to hear and be heard - and the leader needs to model this.
Recognition: Reversing the Golden Rule
    We wouldn't go days or weeks, never months or years, without recognizing our students and their accomplishments, would we? Why do we do so without recognizing coworkers, educators, or administrators?? If we want any change - especially tough innovation - to work, we've got to recognize and acknowledge all involved. And OFTEN.
  • The single best low-cost, high-leverage way to improve performance, morale, and the climate for change is to dramatically increase the levels of meaningful recognition for - and among - educators. This includes praise or positive feedback, but also validation.
  • The more profound and far-reaching an innovation and the more pressure, anxiety, and uncertainty in involves, the greater the need for recognition. When demand rises, support must rise proportionately or else stress will.
  • Teachers are starved for the tiniest scraps of validation - letters or visits from students, comments from parents and administrators.
  • Across America, we are turning to educators who feel chronically overpressured and underthanked and are asking them to change, to do more and to do it differently and better - quickly.
  • Dr. Evans makes the point that recognition should not have extrinsic rewards.
  • Though it is sad that teachers' work lives should leave them pathetically grateful for fragments of praise and validation, it creates an opportunity and points a very direct path for leaders: almost any kind of recognition will represent an improvement.
  • Leaders should apply recognition whenever possible - accept errors as trying, even seeing it as part of the cost of research and development. This is especially important when setbacks occur during innovation. With your recognition, be specific so followers know you're sincere.
  • If leaders cannot, with sincerity, recognize teachers, at the least they should hear them out. They should acknowledge that they heard concerns and they take them seriously, even if nothing (right now) can be done.
  • Dr. Evans wrote almost three pages about the conundrum of teachers not wanting to be singled out for recognition, or becoming upset when someone else in singled out, but not them. He offered direct advice as to how this resistance can - and should - be resolved if innovation is to have a chance.
  • Leaders and teachers should also nurture lateral recognition.
  • It doesn't just go top-down. Teachers should also be recognizing administrators. If this is difficult, then leaders should arrange more occasions when they can gather as peers and share feedback, praise, and acknowledgement.
Confrontation: Avoiding Avoidance
    Authentic leaders must not avoid resisters. Dr. Evans shares the behaviors of what he calls "cyrogenics" - those unwilling to accomplish change, and seem to not care. They don't even try. He then shares insight on why school leaders often avoid potentially serious conflict - and he makes a ton of sense. I feel sorry for principals who really don't have leverage when they want something done. In corporate America, cyrogenics are fired. When protected by a union, there are only three choices that remain - forcible transfer, seduction (cultivating and converting), and "voodoo death," none of which are good options. However, "unprincipled resisters who actively oppose change can and must be vigorously challenged" if the leader truly believes in the change. Then teachers who are on board and know (and believe in) the reasons needed for change need to step up to resisters, as well. What saddens me is that there is no hope for these "deadwood" cyrogenics. They won't change, even when they are challenged. They might, however, stop affecting others negatively.
     Dr. Evans also talks about the challenges the "unfreezables" bring to leaders. These are educators who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. They think what they're doing is innovative, and yet it is not what was asked of them. This is a different difficulty to confront, as when teachers believe they are doing all they should and someone tells them they're not, it's likely to cause them genuine distress and serious loss of face. It may make them sad or angry, and hence defensive, even when negative feedback is delivered thoughtfully. This is another reason leaders avoid confrontation.
     There is so much involved in this short chapter, and it makes me feel so sad for leaders who truly believe in change, but run up against others who cannot, or will not, open their minds to the possibilities the future can hold.
     Side note: In my original post about Dr. Evans' keynote in Boston, I quoted him as saying, "The characteristics (nurturing, sacrifice, kindness, etc.) that make us good with kids don't help us work well with ADULTS." Some of my PLN on Twitter didn't agree with this, so I've tried to find the words that help support his ideas. He first says in this chapter that "From a school perspective, the competitive corporate ethos can seem cruelly hard. From a business perspective, the school ethos seems childishly soft" (275). He further explains that "Education attracts the contemplative and the nurturing more than the competitive and the assertive, drawing people whose guiding occupational interests and values are more likely to emphasize service to others and job security for oneself than, say, entrepreneurial risk taking or the projection of personal power. More simply, people who work in schools tend to like people - and to want to be liked back." Teachers "are used to looking for the best in students because they look for the best in everyone. It is a trait most of us wish them to keep, but one that inclines them to fear and avoid negativity that in other settings would seem mild." The "avoidance of open disagreement or friction is thoroughly entrenched in the culture of schooling and..." "coupled with the structural limits on leaders' leverage, it makes administrators' reluctance to address opposition understandable" (276). However, resisters can and must be challenged.

Reach and Realism, Experience and Hope
    Dr. Evans wraps up with his big lesson... "We must recast our expectations for leaders, for teachers, and for the larger task of improving schools."

  • This includes realism - being aware of how much we can grow, and in how much time.
  • This also includes hope. We need to preserve and nurture genuine hope.
  • Nearly all natural systems have intrinsically optimal rates of growth, and school systems need to find their own. There's a balance between going to fast and going too slow.
  • The formula for success is to set mutually agreed standards and to hold people accountable for achieving them - but to free them to do so in their own way whenever possible.
  • What we need is a triumph of hope over experience. Hope is an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out...
  • Innovation / transformation / change... may be slow, but slow is better than none.

After reading the many stories and quotes from educators and leaders included in this book, and Dr. Evans' interpretations of research, I hope to have much more patience for those who want immediate change, and those who do not want change at all. I feel as if I understand my own role, my principal's role, and my superintendent's role a teeny bit more. I can appreciate just how complex our roles are, and how complex innovation initiatives really can be. I hope to share lateral gratitude more often, along with gratitude for those in leadership roles.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What Is the Purpose of School?

This question was posed by Kim Darche in the ICE Google forum book study about Shift This.

Here are some of the responses...
  • school is a place where students learn how to be successful people
  • the purpose of school is to show students the benefits of learning
  • as an educator, we are to help our students see their capabilities
  • Our purpose it to be and create independent, life-long learners. 
  • I look for the "lightbulb moments" where I see when a student truly understands and has made a lasting connection.  Then I know that what we are doing in the classroom will translate to what they will be able to do with that information outside the classroom...and if they are able to apply what they've learned on their own there is a true purpose.
  • to give kids the tools to be successful in life
  • school has three main purposes: cognitive, emotional, and civic development
  • a place for students to gain the skills necessary to be life long learners - to be problem solvers - to learn how gain their short term and long term goals
  • to have children grow in their abilities
  • to educate and prepare any learner for their future
  • It should be a place where kids learn to think for themselves.
  • it's about developing their skills with all of the resources that we have to make them successful
  • school is a place where students learn about the world around them through with from others
  • school is meant to help prepare students for the future by leading them to become critical thinkers
  • creating learners and future citizens, cultivating ideas and creativity, and teaching collaboration and critical thinking
  • to learn
  • learning
What IS the purpose of school?
Does your classroom reflect what you believe?

Please use the comments section of this blog post to share your thoughts and ideas and keep the conversation going!