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, December 31, 2016

Best Books of 2016

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2016 like I have the past two years. I read a bit for myself this year, along with books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy.
     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! Check out the complete list for this year here, including the five I abandoned.

Biography / Autobiography / Memoir
...for the kids
     Connor Franta's A Work in Progress - middle schoolers love YouTubers! Connor Franta is a great role model who shares many lessons learned in his 20-something years on Earth.
...for your spiritual self
     Todd Burpo's Heaven Is for Real - I needed this during this past summer. It filled me with hope.

Fantasy
...girl protagonists were strong this year!
     Victoria Aveyard's The Red Queen (#1)
     Rachel Hawkins' Rebel Belle (#1)
     Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys (#1) And then I read the next two in the series! Not like me at all anymore. I REALLY liked this series, and loved listening to them in the car, as well as reading the text.
...boy protagonists that need to be celebrated
     Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book
     Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls


Graphic Novel
     Svetlana Chmakova's Awkward - This competed with Ghosts (Telegmeier) this year, but I think this one has a better message.

Historical Fiction
...from 9/11
     Tom Rogers' Eleven - It's the perfect September 11th book for my 7th graders.
...from what's happening in the world NOW
     Tara Sullivan's Golden Boy - Pretty unbelievable. The story needs to be told.

Mystery
...for readers (tons of references to other books)
     Jennifer Chambliss Bertman's Book Scavenger
...for reluctant readers
     Gordon Korman's Masterminds



Nonfiction (for kids)
     Susan Campbell Bartoletti's Terrible Typhoid Mary

Poetry / Prose / Novels in Verse
     Stasia Ward Kehoe's The Sound of Letting Go




Professional
     Ron Ritchhart's (and more) Making Thinking Visible - (My review --> here) All four professional books I read this year were great! This one can be applied to ANY class ANY where, and it really made me look at my goals for my students. Do THEY know our goals? Can they buy into them? What can I do to show them what we are learning? I needed to make our thinking visible, and this book has shown me many ways HOW. (I need to revisit my notes on it now!)

Realistic
     Leslie Connor's All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook - Don't judge it by the cover. Perry's story is sweet, heartbreaking, and hopeful. An easy read that even reluctant readers will want to experience.
     Jason Reynolds' & Brendan Kiely's All American Boys - Mature language with a mature theme. Students who read it come away knowing that things need to change in our society. Stories like this need to be shared.
     Gary Schmidt's Orbiting Jupiter - Just jump in and let the story come to you.

Science Fiction
...for the kids
     Louis Sachar's Fuzzy Mud
...for adults
     Andy Weir's The Martian

Sports
     Jason Reynolds' Ghost - One of the fastest books here, this one will appeal to sports fans and reluctant readers alike.
     I really need to read more sports books! This is definitely a gap in my reading!

I just can't choose one favorite. Please link your post regarding your favorites in the comments below so I can grab some new reads from you!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Even Evangelists Ask for Help

Four days left of Winter Break... This is when the pressure hits. Did I do enough over break so going back to school feels alright? Did I do all I could in the house and for my health?

I cleaned today. Mostly so the behemoth of a desk I have could be repurposed - so I actually USED it.

I found this note...

I remember some time last year asking Mr. Stocco if I could quote him, otherwise I wouldn't have found this note. "Genius Hour is the only time I see them thinking." I know his students think the rest of the week, but there was some reason he said this at the time.

I held the paper, and I sighed. It made me happy that he has implemented Genius Hour in his 8th grade science classes. As far as I know, he's the one teacher in 8th grade that does this. Hey, that's half the 8th graders at our school! That's a win.

Then I felt another sigh coming. I was sad. No. Disappointed. No. Wistful, perhaps. We hosted a Cardboard Challenge this year, first quarter, for our Independent Inquiry project. However, we are not planning a project for this quarter, and we have not planned for Genius Hour yet.

My focus this year has been on learning over grades, feedback, and reflection. I haven't gotten it all figured out yet, and I know I never will. Genius Hour has taken a back seat. I haven't made it a priority, because I truly feel that we are actually further than where Genius Hour would take us... We are choosing what to read, and many times what to write. My students are focusing on the learning, and not just on what I deem important. And yet... I don't have that dedicated time for them to pursue their own projects.

What will I do to resolve this angst? I realized today that I need to talk to the ELA teachers on the other team and ask for their help. I think I remember them saying they were going to wait until second semester to incorporate Genius Hour. My ELA cohort and I haven't had the time to plan with them this year - we currently plan only two days ahead of what we need. I need to do what I don't like doing, but what I advise other teachers to do - ask for help.

My problem is this - as a "Genius Hour Evangelist" (zealous advocate), I feel that I should be the expert. Until I give myself the time to do so, I relinquish that role at my own school this year. Sure, I'll be "all in" when I present at ICE in March and when I host another workshop in Boston in July. I'll dedicate the time to do so. Right now, however, I need to take my own advice and ask for help. I am still a firm believer in the benefits of Genius Hour, and it rubs me wrong knowing we haven't started yet. I will go to the two very organized, forward-thinking women on the other team. I'm sure they'll be happy to oblige!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Two Favorite Tools After a "Break"

When I decide to take a break from Twitter during extended breaks from school, I have two saving graces that help me get back in the swing of things - slowly. I used to just start over from scratch - that's a good method, too! However, when I have a day or two during break where I feel I need a shot of my PLN, these tools help me believe I didn't miss anything. I secretly know I've missed a ton, but the "really good stuff" will come back around eventually! With these two tools at my fingertips, I don't experience FOMO (fear of missing out), and break is as close to a break as I can get. (Now I have to figure out how to eliminate nighttime dreams about school!)

TweetDeck
I've already written about how TweetDeck saves me time and energy - making me more efficient - when I want to use Twitter on my laptop. When I come back from a week off of Twitter, TweetDeck saves me once again. (If you haven't read this post, please do so now, or the next two paragraphs will have you wondering what I'm talking about!)

Before break: I make sure to shorten my "first" list (those educators I do not want to miss each day). I temporarily move some of these wonderful educators to a "first 1" list or other silly name. This list, too, is locked, so they have no clue they're being put to the side for a week. Really, EVERYONE is put to the side for the week, so it doesn't matter! Note: I often update lists using Twitter.com - I find it easier than using TweetDeck. After break, I can easily add these people back. Too many people in my "first" list after a long break gets me overwhelmed when I come back. I want to avoid that feeling!

To keep from being overwhelmed even more, I often just look at the last five tweets from each of my other columns, and then "clear" them so that I have a blank slate once again.


Feedly
I used to use Feedly to keep up with student blogs. We are not blogging (yet?) this year for various reasons, but I use Feedly to keep up with other educators' blogs - usually on a daily basis. Here is a very detailed post from Sylvia Rosenthal Tolisano (@langwitches) about how to keep up with student blogs through Feedly. You don't have to get that organized!

Before break: I just make sure I'm caught up with what was in Feedly before I leave. What's great about Feedly is that all the posts you "miss" will be there when you get back - no matter how long you're gone! Just keep hitting the checkmark at the top of the page until you've seen them all. I love browsing and weeding out the posts I feel I really need to read after break. It goes by quickly on Feedly, as I have them categorized.

See how the organization helps you keep tabs without being overwhelmed:



Here is how Richard Bryne (@rmbyrne) uses Feedly...

I hope these two tools help you eliminate FOMO. How do you keep up after taking a break to be with family? Let me know in the comments below - we can all learn from each other. We truly need to take breaks during our breaks!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Holiday Help

In order for students to learn the last week of school before break, they have to THINK. Thinking seems to be "too hard" for them this week!

So... to help them this past week, we did a couple of things...

1) We had a shelf of holiday picture books for those who forgot their independent reading book. Here is the list of the books I checked out of the library. Some kids picked them up, and some had no interest. They helped, however, when a student forgot their book at home, or was in between books and didn't want to start a new one just yet. Where YOU can help is by commenting on this post or on the list of books which ones YOU love to use around the holidays with your middle school students!



Clearing off this shelf for these books makes me want to bring in more picture books each week!
2) We invited parents in on the last day before break. Oh, how we all love this! This year we only had two - Grammie (a grandmother I've written about before here) and one other mother. We reserved the rocking chair for them, sat around them in the front of the room, and basically just enjoyed good stories they brought. Since my first class didn't have anyone sign up, I asked one of our assistant principals (who'd been wanting to come), and she gladly came and read as well.




3) My co-teacher Yvette suggested we put on the "fireplace." So... this video was shown through most of the day! You gotta love it.

What do you do to help with the holiday fever in your classes? Please comment below - we could ALL use a little more help engaging kids this time of the year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Reflection On 2016

In August, I had a revelation of sorts.

It applies to everything in my life - 
     teaching, friends, and family.
Since August, I've been focusing on...
Some days I do much better than others.
I know I have many faults. I am reminded of them constantly!
However, I am "on the potter's wheel."
I am NOT done. I'm not finished "becoming."
I have a long road ahead of me. 
We all do, hopefully.

I've got many things going for me...
     I am loved. By my husband, family, and I hope - my students. 
     I am healthy.
     I am reflective.
     I want to be better. In every aspect of my life.
     I have people I can go to for guidance and support.
     I am grateful for the little things that make up this life.
     I am "on the potter's wheel," and I've got a clean slate every day.

May 2017 be just as good. I will work towards improving myself, and keeping patience, kindness and caring at the forefront. We are all truly blessed each morning we wake to face a new day. May 2017 be your best year yet!


*This phrase is from Joel Osteen's broadcast this past Sunday.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Extra Credit

I haven't provided extra credit for a few years now (even before I learned from Rick Wormeli), but I thought I'd stress how WONDERFUL it is to not see these memes as even remotely funny anymore now that I'm only giving feedback in lieu of marks throughout the year!




Some teachers still provide extra credit - because it helps students learn. 
Isn't the work you already assign helping students learn? 
What's the reason you're not willing to allow students to redo or revise something they've already done? 
Is it time to re-evaluate the quality of your assignments and assessments?

When will this attitude that it's "all about the grade" diminish?
When can children truly start to believe that it's all about the LEARNING?

Reposting this photo of a painting done by one of my former students... Maddie M.
"It's not about the grade. It's about the learning..."

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Blessings

I just wanted to quickly jot down all the blessings I can remember from this past week:

  • After Thanksgiving break, one student called me "Mom." Since I don't have kids of my own and consider these my kids, it always makes me feel loved.
  • We were able to read an article of the week that a STUDENT brought in - and all the kids were engaged when reading and beginning to discuss it. --> Online Behind Bars
  • The fishbowl discussions we had on Friday were spectacular. Students were respectful of each other and their opinions, built on their ideas, and asked more questions that kept the conversation going. I LOVE that we give them this discussion practice time this year - it's paying off! We are learning about how to communicate better!
  • The question of the day Wednesday was - "Are you a lefty or a righty (or ambidextrous)?" One student told me, "Mrs Kirr! I'm a righty, but I'd give my right arm to be a lefty!"
  • I told my coworkers at lunch Thursday about the massive tension headache I had (how do people deal with migraines?!), and one suggested I lay down in my room. I DID! It got me through the rest of the day.
  • I've connected with middle school ELA teachers on Voxer, and I feel like I've got my own little coffee clutch - on my own time.
  • Kids are picking up books I've shared.
  • When a student asked me, "Do we have to annotate?" I replied, "You don't HAVE to do ANYthing." He replied back, "But you strongly encourage it because it will help us understand what we're reading better."
  • One student, on her way out at the end of homework club, said her favorite part of our room was the picture (disclaimer) on the door. This is a student who struggles daily, and I was so happy to know she'd read and appreciated it. We were able to talk about it down the hall and out the door to the activity bus.
  • I was able to send some good notes home yesterday before school got out, and I've received the most beautiful replies already. Parents truly appreciate hearing good news about their children!
  • I am fortunate enough to have the time to attend EdCampLakeCounty today to meet and learn from other teachers in the area.
Just a few simple blessings I remember from the week that keep me loving life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

5th Annual Cardboard Challenge

This was the fifth year we had a Cardboard Challenge at TMS.

We changed it up a bit from last year - and will make more adjustments if we decide to do this again!

Changes:
  • This year, we called it the Cardboard / Creativity Challenge. It was the first of our four (hopefully) Independent Inquiry projects.
  • Students had one full week to plan, prepare, and present their work. We changed it so that I could have my 1:1 conferences (regarding their evidence of their quarter grade) with students during the planning time.
  • Students were asked to create something (without purchasing anything) that could either benefit themselves or others (or both).
  • Nobody made anything on the day we presented - it was all ready ahead of time.
  • We hosted it on Halloween (not too bad of a choice)!
  • I asked Grammie to come in - and she did! - the entire week we planned. What a benefit to the kids and to me!
  • Our two associate principals and our superintendent popped in during the week to listen to students' ideas and give feedback.
  • Students could reflect in four different ways. See the document here. I also accepted other ideas. I learned a lot from their reflections.
  • I decided to create a "How To" document for myself - for next year's planning!
  • I used and modified someone else's (I'm sorry I forgot your name!) project proposal template. (Of course... I found it on the LiveBinder!)

Successes:
  • Once again, we had many parents visit! You've gotta love the authentic audience!
  • Only THREE students didn't have their work (less than a handful this year)!
  • Explanations on the games / projects / art were much clearer than in years past.
  • It was much less messy on the day of... The projects were DONE and the students actually wanted to KEEP them this year!


Adjustments that need to be made:

  • We will not have any technology allowed next year. There was one project that students in the last class were clamoring over...It was not pretty. 
  • As a result of the technology, some other students were upset that "no one" saw their projects.
  • I need to let them know of the project a bit more ahead of time. Some students were upset because they "didn't have enough time" to make what they wanted to make. They didn't know how to work within the constraints given to them.
  • I need to let them know more of the reasons WHY we do this. A couple were upset because they felt we "wasted time." They said they "didn't learn anything." I need to help them realize what they did learn, and I need to help them understand my reasoning for this project.
  • I need to find a way to have EACH student see EACH project.
  • I need to find a good way for them to give each other feedback during the "gallery walk." We had "shout outs" to various work in two classes, and they loved giving each other kudos.
  • I need to find a good (and efficient) way to share the feedback given to them. (Adults who came to visit filled out this survey.) My coworker Karen suggested we create a checklist where students need to find a game, an organizer, a maze, artwork, etc., depending on the projects our students are creating.

Of course, this activity did not appeal to some students who like quiet, rubrics, and other aspects of traditional school. Sometimes it's our job to help them get out of their comfort zones. This will be the biggest "messy learning" in ELA we have for the school year. It's hard on some of them. I think it would have been difficult for me, as well.

I now share with you my quickly-created video of what the kids answered to my question: "What did you learn from this project?" I had my portable sound booth (also made of cardboard - and acoustic foam - thank you, Mr. Kirr) up, and the sign on the top. Many responses were not about the question, so I left those out. At least the sound was better than without the box! Here are the responses that work:



And here are the life lessons they mentioned the very next day (in writing):
You can make just about anything from cardboard.
Spray paint sticks to duct tape.
Duct tape hurts your fingers.
If you don’t give up on something, it will eventually come together.
If the cardboard gets a little wet, it doesn’t work.
Perseverance is key.
If you’re impatient, your project will fall apart.
Elmer’s glue takes forever to dry.
I can make things on my own without help.
If you are good at something, make it and see if you can help someone with theirs.
It is hard to create something you think everyone would like. Once you figure that out, it’s easy to do. You need to think about what other people would find interesting.
Things don’t just come. You have to be patient.
You need patience.
There is trial and error.
I can unleash my creative side and make cool things out of cardboard.
Next time I can make it better.
Glue is very messy and hard to work with.
Making things isn’t always perfect.
You have to work hard for something you want.
I learned how to think of solutions to my problems.
When we use our imagination and stick to what we will do, the outcome is awesome!
I never really share my creations, and this time I could.
Creativity is even more important than I thought.
Be careful where you put your hands, or you may glue your hand to your project.
I learned how to draw a big design.
You should start projects as soon as possible.
I can use my abilities.
I learned how elevators work.
It’s hard to make bottles on to cardboard, and cardboard is as fun as regular activities.
I need to be more organized with time.
If things don’t work out the first time, don’t give up.
Try new ideas / things.
Be proactive.
Stay focused at all times.
Be more decorative.
Be prepared.
Don’t leave stuff at home.
Think of all materials needed.
All projects cannot be complete, so you might change it and make something you want people to see.
Failures motivate you.
Work hard, or don’t work at all.
If something doesn’t work right, fix it / go with it.
It may not seem fun, but judge it AFTER you try it.
If you work hard, you can be more successful.
It is good to help others.
People may be excellent pretenders.
Creativity has endless possibilities.
Cardboard can build cool things.
A box can be used to make anything.
Have a back-up plan.
Hard work pays off.
You can make something out of anything.
Don’t wait until the last minute to print something...
Think of a good structure before you build things.
Don’t put off a lot to the end.
Not everything in your head goes perfectly in real life.
You can never have enough duct tape.
Too much duct tape can be bad.
Success can’t be achieved without hard work.
It’s okay to mess up a few times.
Bring what you need on time.
Patience is KEY.
Tape doesn’t fix everything.
If you have to work on something for a week, you have to like it.

These lessons make me feel as if the planning and executing of these plans was all worthwhile... What are your thoughts?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Feedback In Lieu of Grading - Quarter One

We made it through the first grading period without ANY grades for all three of my 80-minute block classes!

My students and I met to discuss their learning two weeks before the grading period ended, and we came up with a grade together. Students were asked to bring this document to the table, and some did. Others did not fill it in. I had the evidence on a spreadsheet, however, so we still had proof of students' current skills.

Statistics from first quarter:

  • I have 66 students
  • 61% of students earned an A
  • 31% of students earned a B
  • 8% of students earned a C
  • I gave audio/video feedback on 230 pieces of writing
  • I gave more feedback on 97 revisions from 36 students
Here's what my spreadsheet finally ended up looking like for my own notes regarding writing and grammar pieces (it will be refined for next quarter):

Yellow highlights mean that student should be revising that piece. Dark rectangles mean the student decided to not use that piece for evidence. NI = needs improvement, D = developing, P = proficient, and M = mastery... Only my co-teacher and I saw these "scores." The YouTube links are unlisted links - they are not public. The question marks are because I neglected to jot down my own thoughts on their achievement! This happened with a couple of the first pieces I was giving feedback to. I was still working on a documentation system that would work for me. You can see it didn't at first!

What I learned from one-on-one conferences:

  • At least one student didn't know what "revise" meant. He thought he had to re-write pieces or start anew.
  • Students that I hadn't really connected well with (yet), have approached me more since we've met.
  • Students who did "A" work and had all their evidence ready ahead of time had very quick conferences. Students who were not reflective about their work took approximately 10-12 minutes to conference.
  • One student said she thought she deserved a "B+," but wanted to put down an "A-" for her final grade. She said her parents expected it. She then agreed to accomplish the goals she set for herself for next quarter, or she'd give herself the "B."
  • I need to send home the goal setting sheet in the report card envelope.
  • I need to send home student reasons for choosing the comments they chose.
  • I need to copy the last two pieces of documentation so I can remind students of their own goals throughout next quarter. Heck - I need to give a copy of their goals back to them!!
  • I needed to make a new document for students to keep track of their reading and writing. Here's the new reading documenting sheet, and here are the new writing and grammar sheets (thank you, Yvette!!).
  • Now I need to make sure students update these three documents when we're in class together...

A fact that totally surprised me:
       I have never had so many entries into the gradebook!!
Check 'em out:

Each one of those dots is a written comment... Some have narrative feedback regarding enunciation and volume, some include a YouTube link to the audio / video screencast feedback on their writing, the comprehension checks have scores separated for literal and inferential questions, "book shares" have narrative feedback from this feedback form, and some are behavior notes (using ind rdg time wisely, preparation, goals...). Yes. I've been busy taking myriad notes and documenting them on the online grade book - without any grades but the one in the final slot.

After we met one-on-one, I asked students to fill in an open-ended survey. The question: Please let me know how the first quarter has gone. (I will ask parents to fill out a survey the day report cards are sent home.)
Here are student responses I received regarding grades (copied & pasted):

  • we did not have as much stress as other classes and you could always inprove your grade
  • If someone wants to see their grade, I would let them, but if someone wants to not see their grade then write comments. If you have grades, you could see how you could improve but without you can struggle a bit.
  • I really liked how the students had to show evidence form their grade. I think it was good to learn. when you get a job you do monthly check ins and many adults don't know how to handle it. Once we are old enough to get a job we will all be great at this which will help us in our life. I also liked how we got all quarter to write different stories and we got to pick our three favorites. I also feel that many students tried very hard for the grade so they worked their best. I don't think i noticed many negatives personally. I think that everything was handled the right way by teachers and by students.
  • I think grading ourselves is an educational good idea and that would help us realize what we need to work on.
  • I think this was a good quarter, and it went by fast. I'm happy with the grade I got and the grading system is pretty good. At some points I really wanted to know my grade and I would get frustrated. I think our ELA class is fun, and has is different from other classes. Based on how the first quarter went, I thing the rest of the year will also be good.
  • You are not as pressured as other classes to get a good grade on it but, you still get a grade. which is awesome. 
  • I think this quarter has been really fun! I really like how we're learning how to give our opinions and back it up. It actually reminds me of debates on CNN when they have to back up what they're saying or else it's not true. Being able to say what we think our grade should be is a really good way for us to learn from our mistakes and do better next quarter. I guess the only thing I would like to do is do more creative writing than narratives.
  • I like how we get to chose our own evidence because if you have one bad assignment it won't bring your grade down a lot like it usually would.
  • I like how we don't have to stress over grade and can work at our own pace.
  • I really like how the first quarter has gone. The grading system is really good. You have to grade yourself, but you need to support why you deserve this grade. So it's almost like the grading itself is a lesson of some sort. It's also sort of stress-free. There is a little, but it's not that stressful.
  • I think first quarter went well for most people the no grades think was amazing. I think the no grades thing grades lots of people by not giving them stress helped lots of people have stress from other classes. Their were no real pit falls. 
  • one benefit is that we make our own grades but we need the evidence, it is beneficial because it shows that you need to work for a grade.
  • This quarter has helped me a lot with writing, grammar, and revising. It is also helping me become more organized and independent. I have gotten more into reading, I have found a genre that I love, and I have also found some books that really interest me. This quarter has been really fun and it has become my favorite subject in school. I do feel I need to read more and improve my vocabulary. I love the fish bowls and I hope we do more of them. I want to improve my debate skills for high school. I also love the "grading" system. 
My resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                    Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect
                                    My own reflections on this journey

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Do It Anyway...

We had two parents come in for a conference last week. After talking about her child, the mom thanked me for the ELA updates on the blog. She said she loved the photos, and loved what the class looked like.
     She turned to the dad, and said, "Do you see the updates?"
     He replied, "No."
     "Do you get the emails?"
     "Yes. I don't read them."

It happens! No worries. If our message goes out to 50% of the parents, that's 50% more than it used to get out to!

Martina McBride is my favorite country singer. (Jennifer Nettles is a close second!) She's got this song that I love to belt out... "Anyway"

I spent one entire summer (2013) building our class website, and I continue to edit it practically each month. I'm going to keep building it! Every two weeks, I send an email out to all the parents, leading them to the part of the website that has our two-week updates.
http://scholarsrm239.weebly.com/what-did-we-do-in-ela-this-week
I do this for me, and I do it for my students and their parents. Some may never look at it outside of our ELA class, and I am okay with that, because some actually do find it useful!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Benefits of Comprehension Checks in a "No Grades" Classroom

They are not called quizzes in a "no grades" classroom. They are called by their purpose - to check comprehension. They also do not have the downfalls of typical quizzes. They do NOT affect a student's grade.

The first comprehension check I passed back had mixed responses from students.

     "I thought you said you weren't going to grade us."      (I'm not.)
     "Does this go in the grade book?"      (As a comment.)
     "Will we have more of these so I can raise my grade?"      (Yes... and no.)
     "Can I retake this?"      (No.)
     "What does this mean?"

The first comprehension check had five questions. In my spreadsheet, these were the possible comments students received in the online grade book:

Yes. It looks like a mark, but it does not get computed in the gradebook.

As a result, it is ONLY INFORMATION. It is feedback for the student and parents.

As a result, we had a valuable conversation about literal vs. inferential questions.

As a result, students were curious about why they had one or more wrong.

As a result, their final grade does not get knocked down a notch (or boosted).

As a result, students read more closely the next time we had a comprehension check.

As a result, students were not inclined to cheat.

As a result, students do not groan when I hand them out. They know they are checking their comprehension on this one piece of text. They do not have to use this piece for evidence in their final grade if they have better evidence from which to choose.

As a result, I have never given so much formative assessment. I used to despise how it kept raising some grades and kept knocking down others. I felt guilty putting the grades in the grade book. Now I truly view it as formative assessment in its pure form.

Three comprehension checks later...

I am "grading" the four literal questions. The backside of some students' work was not completed. One wonderful benefit of this type of learning - I do NOT feel guilty marking it as "2 out of 4 literal questions answered correctly." Students will know it is because they did not follow the directions.

Hopefully, as a result...  they will follow directions more closely next time. In ALL of their classes.

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Grade Book Help for Parents - Without Grades

Help for parents (and students)!

I've created a video helping parents see how their child is doing in ELA class - without any grades in the online grade book! I hope this helps parents better understand the system (which will be constantly evolving, I'm sure).

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Parent Questions

I'm starting to get parent questions - our fifth week in of school.

Image from Pixabay
I need to create a Frequently Asked Questions page for parents to help them understand our "feedback and revisions" (AKA "no grades") system. Sure, I've got pages on our classroom website here and here and myriad blog posts about it here, but the answers to the questions they're asking are not there.

It's time to create a new page of FAQs and answers.

What would YOU ask if you knew your child was going to have to give evidence for his or her own grade? The FAQs page is coming soon - after I read and provide video feedback on 62 more pieces of writing this week. In my spare time...

Oct 1, 2016 Update: Here is our FAQs page!

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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name...

I'm not going to call our time "Genius Hour" this year.

Catalysts for this change:

  • No longer will we have one day (= one hour) a week dedicated to this time.
  • Last year, my priority was getting this whole "no grades" routine to work, so I feel that our Genius Hour time suffered as a result. I need a fresh start, with a new focus, so it is more successful for more students this year.
  • I needed to move this time to the end of the quarter, so I could have time for conferences with students about their choice of final grade, and look through the evidence they'll have collected. The time allotted students will still be the same amount.

What was NOT a catalyst of this change - the name "genius." I've written about it before, and still stand by these ideas. I do believe you have to buy into a name before you can expect students to do the same, so this was a difficult endeavor for me.

So, after scouring this page on the LiveBinder for other people's ideas (yes - I not only curate ideas on that behemoth of a binder for parents and teachers, but for myself as well), I've decided on "Independent Inquiry." I'm wondering why it wasn't already on the list! We're going to break the year into four different Independent Inquiry projects. Quarter 1 will be focused on creativity - and may end with the Cardboard Challenge. I'm not sure of the date for it yet, or how it will come about, but I'm going to try and see if students can focus on creativity. Quarter 2 will be focused on teaching their own talents, or teaching a new skill. Quarter 3 will focus on a 20-day challenge, or ways to improve ourselves, and Quarter 4 will be more wide open. Hopefully students will be able to use something from their "wonders" that we'll be accumulating through our articles of the week. All of these are very, very sketchy plans, and I'm ready to change them when I see a different idea I can steal! (Comments below are ALWAYS welcomed!!)

Since the focus will be the last two weeks of each quarter, plans will be structured differently, and hence the different themes, if you will, for the learning focus. I do not have it planned out yet, but my goal is that it be structured as such: A mini lesson / reason for learning each day, then time to work independently. Each day will also include a reflection or exit slip. The last day or two of the quarter will be reserved for sharing our learning.

Whatever the focus will be - it will be based on student curiosity.
Whatever the focus - it will be independent for the most part.
Whatever the focus - my goal will still be to encourage students to be life-long learners.
Whatever the focus - students' ideas will be honored and celebrated.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Introducing Feedback in Lieu of Grading to 7th Graders

One full week of school was finished. This was the year I was not going to put one grade in the "grade" book until the end of each quarter - with EACH of my ELA classes! I'd already put in two pieces of evidence in the online grade book - with feedback on enunciation and volume (from their short presentations) such as these:

There had been no talk of grades yet - we were building classroom culture! It was time to let students know that there would be NO GRADES in the online grade book this school year, as I felt I needed to give a heads up to parents prior to Parent Night. How I would approach the subject took some planning, as I wanted to make sure students knew WHY we were going this route.

Step 1: Let students know we need to have a serious discussion. In order to have the discussion as a large group, we need to first hash out how each person feels by having smaller discussions - where every voice can be heard. Show them how "Marker Talk" ("Chalk Talk" from Making Thinking Visible edited by Ron Ritchart) works, and show them what valuable comments and not-so-valuable comments look like for this activity. Inform them that after this quiet activity, everyone will have time to voice their questions and concerns with the class.

Step 2: Execute the Marker Talk activity. I used these four questions: What do you think about coaches? What do you think about learning? What do you think about points on school work? What do you think is unfair about grades? I put these questions on large pieces of construction paper so that students could write around them.

Step 3: Bring everyone together - no tables or chairs - all on the floor in a group. Display the construction paper discussions on the board. Share Dylan Wiliam's ideas about feedback.

Step 4: Ask how this idea relates to the questions they were asked during the Marker Talk activity.

Step 5: See where the discussion goes, and address concerns and questions... And hand out these two sheets to help us keep track of what we've done, what we've asked feedback for, and what we'd like to keep for evidence.

The first two classes before lunch were so quiet! One student "wants grades." One student figures after he gets three pieces of writing back that are good, he's done working for the quarter. One wonders if she'll have help along the way, so she can get the grade she wants.

I AM SO EXCITED. I recorded reactions, but my last class gave me this priceless screenshot from the video - right after I said I would not be putting any letter grades in the grade book...


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