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

Monday, May 28, 2012

Talk About Understanding

Ellin Oliver Keene - I'd never heard of her, but I looked at the description for her session at the International Reading Conference in Chicago on April 30th, and I REALLY wanted to see her.  (She co-authored Mosaic of Thought!) She began talking very quickly and was so animated, I immediately fell in love. She sounded just like ME! However, her session was about s-l-o-w-i-n-g down, listening to others, using particular vernacular, and getting students to understand text better by doing these three things.  (I took copious Evernote notes - if you want them, email me at and I'll send them.)

Her session was only an hour long, so I had to hurry and purchase her book - Talk About Understanding. What I should have done is hurry and READ her book, but it sat on my dresser for almost a month.  I started reading it yesterday...

Best quote so far -
     To understand deeply is to experience intellectual engagement that itself spawns more voracious learning, which leads to more lasting comprehension.  It's a delicious cycle (Keene, 21).

Yes, go ahead and read it again, looking for that deeper comprehension.  Ah... now you've got it!  I love thinking that our genius hour provides for these opportunities for learning, and wanting to learn more.  What a "delicious cycle"!!

I'm cutting this short today... just wanted to leave you with that quote.  Now I've got to go read chapter 3 - "From the Inside: Integrating strategy instruction and narrative outcomes." I really want to jump to "Part 2: Words that Matter," but feel if I do I might miss something! Part 2 looks like what Ellin Keene talked about at the IRA conference.  Thank you, Ellin!  You inspired all who attended!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Standards Based...

This is an addition to "My Dislike of Grades..." post on 5/19/12.

We had a school improvement day two days ago, and two teachers from our assessment committee spoke on behalf of all they had discussed and decided this past year. We are moving to standards-based grading soon.  I knew it was coming down the pike, and I tried to spread the word so that teachers wouldn't feel so frustrated when it did.  Teachers get so frustrated when it's time for a change...

I am excited, however.  No, I'm not exited about the work that will have to be put into changing my thinking around, learning a new system, probably learning a new computer program for inputting grades.  But I am excited because then we'll KNOW what our students are learning.  We'll KNOW those common core standards inside and out.  I do believe we will be better teachers.  At least, I hope I will.

One more thing I had to add this morning - I saw a video and I wanted to share it with you.  It is six minutes long, and is entitled "Toxic Grading Practices."  His talk about not giving zeros in class makes so much sense to me.  Next step?  I need to get a poster of Larry the Cable Guy saying, "Git 'er done!"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Take the time...

I just finished reading Laura Coughlin's blog at Love::Teaching, and it got me thinking, as all educator blogs seem to do to me!

I commented...
Laura, I get it. I find myself in the same situation some years. And I only have 58 students because we have 80 min. with them. I find it's not just what I do, however... It's what I allow other students to do. Many times, other students take control of the class discussions, and if they're going smoothly, I don't interrupt. I should, though, so we can hear everyone's voice. And when a student is quiet, and says, "I don't know," ask him or her, "But if you DID know, what would you say?" ...And then wait for the answer... Tough duty, but we go back for more every year, hoping to have that "dream class..."

I found, this year, that by becoming more of the "guide on the side" instead of the "sage on the stage," I was able to let students "own their own learning." This happened through discussion of text, instead of me feeding them answers, and it happened through our genius hour sessions, as well. In class discussions, I lost sight of some of my students - the quiet ones who are used to being spoon-fed information. During out genius hour, however, I could sit with each student, one-on-one, and learn about his/her passion...

I truly loved learning that Paul was interested in what weapons Marines used, or that Briana could be brave enough to present first - on bullying - and that Sarah could read a poem written by a child with cancer, while her father is suffering from it today. I am very fortunate to work with 7th graders who can take the bull by the horns, and try something new... But I'm more fortunate to have gotten to know my 58 students a little better - as people, instead of as children passing through my classroom.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My dislike of grades...

...the way they are currently.

I was out with my husband today - geocaching.  We found two of the five we planned to find, in the three hours we had along this small stretch of the Salt Creek in a neighboring town.  After an air-conditioned stop at the local library, we came across a young man and his father outside working on their bicycles.  Turns out, it was one of my current students!  We said hello, and explained about geocaching, and then went on our way.

My husband asked about the student.  I explained that he reads a ton, he uses a lot of humor and sensory details in his writing, and he is a pleasure to hear during discussions.  He also turns hardly anything in to be graded, and so his grade is not where it should be.

On what am I grading him?  On his ability to turn in assignments that I give.  Even when I see him doing them in class, they do not get turned in.  And yet, he reads constantly, and writes well in LA/LIT!  How is he doing for our Genius Hour (currently still called "Independent Reading")?  The last four blog posts have been completed, and I think it's because I gave him time in class to complete them (because they were not getting done at home). We had a talk, and completing this teacher-generated task in class has worked out for both of us.

I've been trying, with Genius Hour, to let students lead their learning.  But I still even give THAT a grade.  What am I grading?  The proof that they actually read, and have plans to read more.  If they present on what they have read, I give them a grade for speaking (eyes on audience, volume, visual aid...).  If the presentations have spelling errors in them, I consider that my fault - I did not preview the presentation with the student first. I have told myself I will NOT add that to the speaking rubric; I will only make sure the student shares it with me in a one-on-one conference first, to make sure spelling and grammar conventions are addressed.

I hope to take this grading to the next level next school year.  I hope to let students decide how they will show me what they've learned for the Common Core Standards.  I'll need guidance, and I'll need patience from the students.  I'll also need a certain maturity from the students, if I expect them to come up with what/how I should grade. Rubrics I have taken hours to create and have changed from year-to-year just aren't cutting it anymore.

And you know what?  If I were to be graded on my geocaching today, I'd have a 2/5 = 40%.  But if I were graded on my effort, I'd have 100% - and I'd get 100% for teamwork, too!  Thanks to my husband for helping me reflect on my teaching once again...  Any musings or ideas from readers is greatly appreciated as well!

Monday, May 14, 2012

What works for you?

What's the best way? What works for each situation?  Kidblog?  Weebly?  Edmodo?

We use blogger for my HW blog.  Of course, that's connected to the Edline page for LA/LIT, and vice versa.  And on each one is a link to our Kidblog.  Ugh.  Can't I streamline anything?

As the school year is winding down, I'm seeing more and more that I need to get the "right" tools for next year. I've used Kidblog this year for my genius hour projects, and it worked okay for the first couple of weeks. (We started in February.) Finally, students are commenting on each other's posts, but then they don't go back to look and see if their questions were answered. I don't think they should have to go back to that student's blog post again - I think it should show up on a discussion thread or...? I just know that this group of students does not go back EVER again. It's difficult to get them to post comments in the first place, much less go back and see if something else was written in response to their own comment.  (The two students who commented on Elizabeth's post below never knew she wrote back to them!)
This is one reason I put the question out there - Kidblog or Weebly? But of course, there are more options... One I'm considering for next year - Edmodo? Can students write back and forth without it getting too overloaded with too many comments? Some comment frivolously - just to comment. Would this be an issue with Edmodo?  What about clogging up your inbox?  Is there some place on the web that compares blog tools for schools?  A true blog is a journal - can students keep these blogs going after they've left your classroom?

Today I seem to have more questions than answers - again.  And I need to do tons of research this summer. Hopefully the students will benefit from it!

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Today I was asked to add a testimonial to @mrsdkrebs and @gallit_z wiki - This was a result of sharing. No... Let me go a step further - This blog was a result of sharing. Oh, okay, how about another step - Me getting active on Twitter was a result of sharing. And that, my PLN, has resulted in students having a passion for learning in my classroom.

 So, it's time I gave back, by doing what got me here - SHARING. I put my name in today to share what I can in 3 45min sessions the first day of school regarding Twitter. I would love every teacher in my district to have what I have. I have a personal learning network of like-minded teachers, and there are no complaints. There are questions, to be sure, but then come the flood of suggestions! It is like no other Professional development I've had, and it puts me in contact with people from around the globe, all with one goal - for students to have a passion for learning.

Please keep the blogs written, the tweets tweeted, and the conversations going!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Off-Task" Students

Last night was the monthly #geniushour Twitter chat, hosted by @gallit_z and @mrsdkrebs once again. This time, I took away ideas regarding students who are considered off-task during the genius hour... 

First, what is considered "off-task" ? In my classroom, we currently do genius hour differently than others. (I'll get it together next year!) So in my room, "off-task" is...
a) when a student comes unprepared - with nothing to read b) when a student has no idea of what he/she wants to read c) when a student spends the hour socializing or sitting with no real goal.

So what should we do to prepare, so we don't have much off-task behavior? Ideas were garnered last night...
1. The freedom can be overwhelming. Give these students some scaffolding, so they can take one task at a time. In my case, that could be generating answers on an interest survey of some sort first.
2. Allow more time to plan, chunk, or outline.
3. Students can work with a partner, or in a group of three. This may help... or hurt, in some cases? Give it a try.

More ideas I received 5/4/12 from my PLN on Twitter, @HHG...
4.  Visual reminders... i.e. kids write current task on a post-it note on their desks
5.  Different work environments... i.e. stand up work area, yoga ball to sit on, etc. (I - Joy - received a grant this year for 5 yoga balls, and I have two rocking chairs being used already!)
6.  Allow students to self-select "body breaks" - teacher allows student to take 3min timer and do physical activity as needed
7.  Some students benefit from "fiddlers" - something to occupy hands to allow for better concentration (hence the squishy apples in my room)
8.  Sit students by organized friends

I look forward to our #geniushour Twitter chat each month, and I gain so much from it! Join in the first Wednesday of the month at 8pm CST! -@joykirr

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teacher Resources

Today was another day of Genius Hour / Independent Reading. The best part of today was the integration of other teachers! For instance, we Skyped with Mrs. Smith from across the tracks, and she helped us out with a Prezi Tips website, Prezi for the Win, and she inspired the girls once again as to how to focus their presentation on the Warsaw camps.  The Warsaw camps!!

The next great part of today was that Kendall wanted to invite teachers to see her presentation in a couple of weeks - she's been learning about magic, and wants to share.  So... we took time to write an email to five teachers that she wanted to invite!  How stellar - to have a real audience!  Kudos to Kendall!