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, July 2, 2016

TTOG (As Much As I Can) - Pilot Year Reflection

I'm excited about next year because of how this year went... One class of mine gave themselves their final grade and grade-report comments each quarter, using proof from four categories.

Here's what we did...

  • I was forthright with parents from the start. A letter went out the first week of school, and I updated parents with an email to our ELA class updates every two weeks.
  • First quarter, we created a chart so students can fill it in with proof they've collected.
  • We came up with myriad ways (and one central location) to prove our learning (this document is always changing).
  • I began a document with comments I could copy and paste into the online grading system, thanks to Mark Barnes' SE2R idea. These are brief and not perfected, by any means, and I'm excited to add more this next year.
  • We used a survey at midterm (which I've already edited for next year) for one check in.
  • We discussed "effort," and how much impact that should or should not have on grades. Our final decision was to keep effort out of the grade. If students were putting in the effort, they should get the grade. One of the quotes students liked - "Don't be upset with the results you didn't get from the work you didn't do."
  • I created sample examples of videos students could create to explain their grade.
  • Students shared videos with me explaining their grade while providing proof. For students who did not prepare, or who did not develop this skill of reflecting in this way, I met with them one-on-one to come up with a final grade.
  • First quarter was fairly successful, knowing all we didn't know!
  • Second Quarter, students in this class gave better feedback and quality boosters than my other classes. We also decided that the final pieces for proof did NOT have to be published. Students did not want their essays about Phineas Gage on their blogs - totally understandable. This is more fuel for making our writing more meaningful for students.
  • I began giving video feedback - very valuable. I've learned how to use Explain Everything and Screen-cast-ify efficiently as a result.
  • The first parent inquiry was about revisions - did her son HAVE to revise his writing? This was the catalyst for the Feedback Loop, which I actually think I need to throw out or totally revamp for next year.  AUTHOR'S NOTE - Feedback Loop REVAMPED August 1, 2016: 

  • The reason for revamping the feedback loop is that I realized third quarter that I AM STILL GRADING MY STUDENTS' WORK! Ugh.
  • I created a document (and they were on the board) of Independent Writing Prompts. One step toward making writing more meaningful for students...
  • I continued grading my students' work the rest of third and fourth quarter. Students were used to it, and we actually had fewer "assignments" fourth quarter due to testing, a three-day outdoor ed trip, reading The Outsiders Whole-Novels style, and presentations for Genius Hour.
  • All year, I felt like I was cheating my other classes who did not give themselves a grade at the end of each quarter. I have spent the first month of this summer excited that my other classes will be taking this trip with me this next school year!

Here's all the parent feedback received...

  • "I think that students have learned to reflect and improve more (w/teacher's help) minus the stress of 'grades.'"
  • "Twitter account was insightful."
  • "Small amount of homework is great."
  • "My son seems more interested in reading than recent years. If grading himself did that, then this approach was very successful."
  • "I don't know if it is luck or parent approach, that my children are, for the most part, self motivated to learn, or at least, do good in their classes. Especially ___ - she has always done a good job in school. I do like grades - I believe healthy competition for good grades is a motivation for kids (people) to raise their bar. We have a motto - Most of the time, the results reflect the effort. If tremendous effort is put forth, and child is still struggling, then intervention is needed. We don't mind As, Bs, and Cs, as long as effort is applied."
  • "When it comes to grading, while it is important, it's more important that the child is learning. Grades can be somewhat subjective so as long as the child is improving on the subject, being graded is secondary."
  • "Hopefully during the process the kids took more ownership of their results, they were always given a chance to correct, enhance or re-do - so if this happened grades should all be good."
  • "My attitude towards the grading process has changed with the introduction of a collaborative process between teacher and student. Much like a class with a more 'traditional' grading system, students were given ample feedback on assignments from the teacher. What made this class unique, however, is that students were also given a sense of ownership in this process. It was no longer a one-way communication of grade from the teacher, but the process became a tool for ongoing engagement between the teacher and student. I would like to thank you, Mrs. Kirr, for covering not only the classics, but encouraging students to explore their individual interests. It is very apparent to us as parents that you love to teach and that you are expanding 'traditional' boundaries in an effort to encourage reading, critical thinking, and self-reflection. Thanks also to the administrators at Thomas and District 25 for supporting these new learning methods. We are grateful that ___ had the opportunity to participate in this process."
  • "_____(Child) had an outstanding year in your class. He was quite uncomfortable at the process of your grading system and the responsibility on his part at the start. He shared his fears about this with me. But as the year progressed, he fully was invested and loved how the class and grading system was run. He is very independent with the process and never complains. He has grown from all the opportunities to be a leader and the responsibility that was offered throughout the year. I believe _____ enjoyed the process and understood that it's not just about grades. Your updates, communication and suggestions/insights to the parents are top notch. I learned so much from what you shared to us. Thank you! Keep doing what you are doing!

Here's what I've already changed...

  • Next year we'll have THREE categories to prove - reading comprehension, writing, and grammar. I have changed the language to say "grammar" instead of "language usage" (from the CCSS) to make that section clearer to students. I have also taken out the "speaking and listening" portion, as most students proved they were "listening," and some students still never speak in class. I've read some information about introverts and reflected on my own 7th grade year when I never spoke in class. Although I will continue to encourage each student to speak up (and give myriad opportunities, of course!) and add to our class culture, I will not ask students to include this in their grade. Sometimes they over-inflated this portion of their grade, and sometimes they seemed embarrassed that they had not participated vocally. I'll try it out this way for this coming year. I will still keep track of who participates / contributes through speaking, just in case some students may want to use that to tip their grade one way or another.
  • The new feedback loop in my head just says - write, get feedback from a peer, revise, get feedback from a peer, revise, turn in to teacher for feedback, revise, etc... I'll add it here when I complete this version.
  • I will not put a "NI, D, P, or M" (Needs Improvement, Developing, Proficient, Mastery) on student work, rubrics, or the online gradebook. I will continue to keep these notes in my own paper gradebook, just in case students need guidance giving themselves their final grades.
  • Effort... A gray area. I have decided to keep track of many aspects of student behavior, including but not limited to being prepared for class, and speaking up with contributions in class. These will only come into play in regards to students' grades if they bring it up on an individual basis. We'll address effort at that point.
  • Our plans for genius hour (to be renamed?!) will be moved to the end of each quarter, as I will now be involved in one-on-one conversations about grades with EACH student at the end of each quarter. This past year, I only needed to meet with a few students. Next year, I plan to meet with all of them, even if they choose to create a video ahead of time. I found this time to be very valuable.
  • We'll have a "plus/delta" chart up in the room every day for students to add what went well and suggestions for change.

Here's what I still want to do...

Make every "assignment" relevant to the world - something students can put on their blogs for the world to see. Since many students do not come up with writing on their own, I need to create more writing options for them throughout the year. I am currently reading Kelly Gallagher's In the Best Interest of Students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom. I'm hoping for more writing workshops and fewer larger assigned pieces of writing.

Give feedback in chunks - which means not one assignment coming in to me from all students at the same time. A year-long project would be great for this. Again... another idea from Mark Barnes in ROLE Reversal... I also need to provide students with more time to give feedback to each other! I'm collecting resources here to figure out how to best use our time.

Get my coworkers on board. However, I can empathize with why they don't want to do this. I am also tired of hitting my head against brick walls. So I will continue to speak of our successes and tribulations, but getting other staff on board right now is not a priority of mine, especially those not within our ELA circles.

Continue to keep tabs with the language I use with students, other teachers, and parents. I need to make sure they know I'm most interested in how students use feedback for reflection and revision in all four areas of ELA - reading, writing, grammar, and speaking.

Phew! What a glorious mess! Please comment with your favorite student-to-student feedback tool, and add any hints or advice or words that show we are in the same boat! Or... please challenge these ideas, as I, personally, learn best when my ideas are challenged!!

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

Designs for this post were created using Paper and Explain Everything.


  1. Joy,

    Thanks for sharing this. I'm excited to read about your journey in the coming year. I'm probably a year or two behind you in all of this so I'll be interested to see where this goes.

    My standards-based learning alarm goes off a little with the question of effort, number of books read, etc. I understand why a TTOG approach might lead to a question of effort--implicitly or explicitly--but it seems that this could be a step backwards to use the ACADEMIC grade for this purpose. I can see that information being reported, but somewhere other than the subject-area grade.

    Ken O'Connor has a nice "Descriptive Grading Criteria" for self assessment that keeps the focus on the learning standards met. Descriptions for an A, B, C are limited to the extent to which specific learning targets are met.

    All that said, kudos on your year piloting this approach. This is courageous work.

    1. Arthur - I'm SO GLAD you're alarm goes off with the effort aspect!! My gut says the grade reported has to be what the student has LEARNED, and not any behaviors attached. This is the message I will convey next year (as I did this year). That's one reason I decided to get rid of the "speaking" component. If they participate in discussions and activities, they used that as "A" work. I considered this effort, as well. We did not give feedback on volume, enunciation, poise, etc for discussions... Do you think I'm on the right track with this portion?

      I think my next hurdle with effort will be "amount of books read." I haven't figured out that bug-a-boo yet. I'd like the reading portion to be comprehension only, but I feel that my goal at 7th grade is to create readers so their comprehension ultimately increases. I know that books read is also a behavior... ??? The only "homework" I give is to read 20 minutes a night. I don't grade it or check in except for individual conferences... how can I give credit for comprehension of books read for pleasure? Ideas here?

      I'm going to throw my husband under the bus now - he thinks I should include effort. He actually encouraged the paragraph about it. I I placated him by adding it, but as I said, I'll only address effort if it comes up on an individual basis. Maybe my record keeping can go home with the student's progress report at that point?

      I notice I have more questions than answers once again. Thank you for something new to research - I'll be checking out Ken O'Connor's ideas this week! And thank you for helping me further discussion of effort with Hubby - he'll enjoy the challenge, as well! ;) It truly is great to have these conversations. They prepare me for questions from parents and teachers, and administration, too! Thanks again, Arthur!

  2. Hi Joy! Thanks for sharing your approach to going "gradeless." My wife is an LA teacher and got me (a science teacher) to experiment with it in my classroom. She blogs as one of The Paper Graders (for example: and is currently working on a book: Stop Grading. I've described my experience with de-emphasizing grading here:

    I'd love to know what you think!

  3. Hi again Joy,

    I think there's a way to demonstrate learning targets both in discussion and in reading books. Honestly, they have to produce something we can assess, and that means we have to inspect and provide feedback--which means TIME.

    Regarding reading, note-taking is one thing I want students to demonstrate. Jim Burke says that all note-taking includes text-centered and reader-centered components (a double-entry journal is a perfect illustration of this). I add to these components fidelity to the directions, because each method has its particular strengths that I want students to mastery and demonstrate. So I have a rubric and a standard devoted to that. I model, score, and record those. In TTOG, you and your students would probably use that language in your feedback/discussion of their note taking.

    I do a similar thing for discussion. Discussion seems to be made up of three components: textual references, quality of comments, and active listening. Whether through a fishbowl or some other method, these standards can be modeled, observed, and assessed.

    Unfortunately, in SBL (and I would say TTOG) there's no way to get kids to behave with the academic grade. Number of books read would be one of those aspects of a bygone era that has some nostalgia attached to it. A lot of us remember that sense of pride in competing with our friends for the most books read, etc. The problem with that was that it didn't include anything that can be assessed (or taught for that matter!). It was really just compliance and for the most part we were compliant children who still enjoyed school!

    From the standpoint of passion-based learning, this process of awarding points for effort--implicitly or explicitly-- begins the slow, insidious process by which chasing points begins to override pursuit of passions.

    Here's the million dollar question: why would you NEED to award credit for reading books if students are reading "for pleasure"? And at what point does the "award" begin to override the pleasure?

    Thanks again for this excellent post!

  4. Hi Joy,

    This is amazing! Thanks so much fir what goes your triumphs and challenges. Not only do I wish we were colleagues, I would love to be a student in your class!

    I teach in a SPED school and many of your ideas would work well in my classes. I wanted to ask how independent reading factors into your plan--this is always a struggle for me. Many of my Ss don't enjoy readIng for pleasure.

    I love your idea of having Genious Hour at the end of such semester. While I tried to incorporate it, I frequently ram out of time.

    Thanks again for sharing your post in the fb group. I look forward to reading how your year improves.

    Kathy Leonard