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, July 31, 2016

Hacking Literacy - My Take Away

I am on Gerard Dawson's (High School English teacher) email list to get updates to his blog, so I was able to get a PDF copy of Hacking Literacy before it was published! I then proceeded to read this gem in two days...

The first three hacks (focus on the reader, develop a reading culture, and develop a classroom library) assumed that the teacher is a reader him/herself. I almost feel that a chapter was missing - how to read A LOT as a teacher. If teachers who are non readers (of children's / YA literature) actually read this book, they may get the hint that it's pretty imperative they start reading children's books. These three hacks validated what I've been trying to accomplish in my ELA class, and would benefit those who are on the edge of turning their classroom reading culture around.

The fourth hack - Implement Assessments that Build Community - is where, suddenly, my brain began thinking, "What if?" If you've been following my blog at all, you'll know I'm focused on feedback instead of grading. How DO teachers assess independent reading? How can my students use their independent reading to prove that they're learning? As Gerard was talking about the various ways students can share their reading with the class, I nodded my head as I notice familiar ideas, such as Penny Kittle's Big Idea Books, book talks, book reviews, and so on. I then added some of the ideas to the document I'm going to give students next year to keep track of their writing, grammar, and reading comprehension. This portion looks like this:
I then had an "aha" moment! I am so focused on feedback - how can I make it easier for me to give specific feedback about what students did well sharing publicly, and on what they can improve? Create a simple Google Form to fill out! So... I did. Here is my first attempt at creating a form that I can use to quickly check off boxes that apply to students sharing their books publicly - whether it's a book talk, video, on Instagram, etc. - http://tinyurl.com/FeedbackBookShare Feel free to copy it and make your own!


What makes me geeked about this form is that I can copy and paste the information as a narrative into the online gradebook as feedback for my students. I'm excited for this short cut! The more feedback students receive on the books they share, the more they may try to improve by sharing even more books with their peers.

As the author states... "Building a culture of readers is not easy. It takes time, patience, and consistent application of effective strategies ... It means empowering students to manage their own learning and measure their own progress. As the teacher releases rigid control and invites students to collaborate in building a culture of readers, the energy of the classroom transforms itself..."

Monday, July 25, 2016

Feedback in Lieu of Grading in ELA

The link to this video will be sent home with parents, to help explain our grading in ELA for the 2016-2017 school year.  See this video and my full philosophy at our classroom website here.

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, July 24, 2016

Boston Full

I have one of the best lives... I was able to make it to Boston for the third time in my life this past week. (My lessons learned from the other three trips are posted under the tag "BLC.") It may seem sad to some, but Alan November says we need help if we think of BLC as a vacation...! We love learning from other passionate teachers, and I have found many people from my tribe here. Of course, Hubby came along and enjoyed the history of Boston - and helped me brush up on history lessons my own teachers didn't make stick!

I'm just going to share quick take-aways, or this post would be ten times as long... I'll try to not share all the great stories, but if you want to hear them, let me know!


Tuesday -
My Passion-Based Learning (Genius Hour) workshop this year had 19 participants! Oh, it was so great to have many voices sharing with each other. I enjoyed the four hours, and felt I was able to convey many messages, and share the myriad resources I've collected. Let me know if I can host this workshop somewhere near you! I've been invited back for next year, so put it on your calendar!

We then spent many hours in the North End! Cannoli, "One if by land...," a peek at the water, and a talk with a mailman about the relay boxes still in use.

Tuesday evening was a quick meeting for presenters... here are some of the presenters at this conference: Kathy Schrock, Kathy Cassidy, Kristin Ziemke, Karen Lirenman, Joyce Valenza, Reshan Richards, Laine Rowell, Amy Burvall... How did I get here?!

Wednesday's keynote -
Dr. Eric Mazur - Ask students to apply concepts, to DO the teaching, and get out of lecture mode as quickly as possible. He shared a great tool - Perusall - that ANY teacher who uses text in their teaching can use, as long as students have tech at home (or give them time in school).

Wednesday's sessions -
After the keynotes I presented twice today - and I learned from my audience! Mary Lou Buell came up to be at the end of my sessions, and thanked me for sharing the struggles I've encountered with Genius Hour, including the parent that thought it was "crazy," the students that hurt your heart because they'd rather "learn from the teacher," and the teachers who ostracize you. I was also very fortunate to meet and chat a tiny bit with Michael Albert (Al?!), as well - he's the only one in his school who's trying Genius Hour, and he, too, has the same issues. These are my people!

I needed a way to advance my slides on Google presentations, and I hadn't purchased a clicker. I downloaded and worked with Demobo at home. It didn't work on game day. My phone did not like the same wifi that my laptop liked. I asked Brian Mull what he used in his presentations, and then ordered this clicker before Friday's keynotes. Another issue I had was that my videos didn't stream beautifully the first round, but worked fine during my second hour. I received a tip from Jim (tech help!) I can use next time - download the videos first onto my laptop. (I hope I can do this with my two videos from TubeChop, as well.)

We then spent many hours at Fenway... what a blast! Red Sox won big against San Francisco.
Big Papi
Thursday's keynotes -
Prior to the keynotes, I was able to chat with Sylvia Tolisano once again - she updated me on her amplifyEDucation site - such possibilities!

Homo Sabet Tavangar - I need to find out where her grandparents are from - she told us an amazing story of their rebellious acts that led to her mother and herself being able to read and succeed. We need to learn other people's stories from around the globe so we can promote empathy.

Mike Pennington - He's a "wasabi mix of all the people's ideas here... at BLC." YES! Aren't we all a mix of the people who we surround ourselves with? After a shooting at his school, Mike started worrying so much about his students' frustrations that his teaching took a nose dive. After a few more months of dealing with this stress, he decided he had to move on and become an administrator. My take-away: Teach kids to notice and create perspective. Every child will struggle. Let them struggle, and teach them how to overcome struggles that they will encounter.

Kristin Ziemke - Listen to children. You need to know what's going on in their lives so that they can actually learn when they're with you. First grader Diego's blog post and father's response meant that they "preserved our next 7 hours" of class together, as Diego's fears were alleviated. What are our students thinking while we just go on with our curriculum? Even I was worried about when/where I'd get lunch on this full day! Destiny, another of Kristin's students, came up with this six-word story after reading about Ruby Bridges - "Segregation seems like it's never-ending." LISTEN to children's stories. They can teach US every day.

Jordyn Zimmerman - Attends Mentor HS in Ohio. Before attending Mentor, she'd previously struggled throughout her educational career at other public schools. Jordyn has autism, and has difficulty expressing her thoughts through speech. She has since been introduced to an app on her iPad that can help her communicate. She used this app to give her presentation. Some of her speech is on this Periscope, but the tears in the audience and the standing ovation proved how moving her message was. I had a tough time when she said she was suspended multiple times and then moved to a new school where she was being asked to touch her nose and head and given candy if she complied... This was AFTER she had mastered certain skills at her schools. She shared about many of her feelings in school, which were mostly a "combination of anger and devastation." Her five lessons for teachers: 1. Students want to learn. 2. Don't assume you know how your students feel or what they think. 3. Have high expectations for ALL students. 4. Always be kind. "Special" should never mean "separate." Say hello in the hallways, even if you don't know the student or the student doesn't respond. 5. Know one way or another, you will be a part of your students' lives forever. I was fortunate to thank Jordyn in person at the airport. She needs to know she matters!

Again and again, we were reminded of the significance of practicing empathy in our schools. I had a good cry with Rik Rowe after these four speeches!! Oh, so great to see this friend in person once again. Lesson - Take TIME to talk with children and listen to their stories.

Thursday's sessions -
Aaron Polansky - GeekSox: Beyond the Curriculum - When we focus on connections, test scores improve. Connection drives attendance and learning. The most important letters are: R. U. O. K. ? He told us about a freshman's story of eating by himself, and what his school did about it. In his school, they have three rules - Be kind. Be honest. Improve the situation. We should all walk around with bags over our heads so that we judge people by the exchanges we have, not by how they look. May your insides always outshine your outsides. (Our outsides could change in a moment.) When fear stops showing up in your life, it's because you are nearing your true self. ~Brendan Burchard. Treat people as if they're good. ~Todd Whittaker

Starr Sackstein - Empowering Learning Through Mastery - I'm on the right track. Others feel the "fingernails on a chalkboard" when they are surrounded by teachers who still use points as punishment and rewards. We come to BLC and are surrounded with teachers "just as crazy as us," and teachers who deal with the same struggles. Dan Welty and Rik Rowe were in this session - my tribe!

Brian Mull - Making Thinking Visible with Nearpod - I can now see the uses of this tool and would love to try to implement this type of instant feedback in class! I'm also thinking of using this in my next workshop or sessions on Genius Hour.

Sara Wilke - Q2 - Don't have "bogus inquiry" lessons - give students time to pursue what they want to know! Books to read: Make Just One Change, A More Beautiful Question, Blink, and Thinking - Fast and Slow. We go too fast. Stop. Listen. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Sara led this the way we should lead all sessions - if we want our students to learn / do in a certain way, our leaders need to do the same. I need to learn how to incorporate more DOING in my one-hour sessions about Genius Hour.

Friday's keynotes-
Bob Goodman - Get there early! (And borrow furniture!) Do not deny students science and math.

Linda Liukas - There is always something else to get excited about! Girls can do anything! Linda's character Ruby teaches kids about coding! Computers can never give an opinion or have a feeling.

Then it was time to go home... and I was drained. (And FULL!)

My big take away...
This year will be my best yet. I've come to realize my angst doesn't come from the classroom very often. Yes, I struggle with many things, but I see those as challenges, and I work on decreasing those struggles. My true angst comes from teachers (who are never IN our classroom) who don't think what I'm doing is right, or even best practice. I realized this week that I haven't taken the time to sit with them and explain the reasons WHY I still have Genius Hour or WHY I'm not grading my students' work and only giving feedback instead. That's on me. I cannot expect them to buy in to ideas or think I'm sane if I don't take that time to explain. I focus on the reasons why in the classroom so students can buy in, but I haven't done so with teachers in my own school. Instead, I react - and often with frustration. I know I let other people's opinions get to me. I have for years. It's become a habit. Well - I'm ready to break that habit. I am doing what I'm doing for the KIDS, and not to please the teachers. My goal for the upcoming year? When working with adults, do what I do with my students: Listen first. Take the time to process. Take the time to plan what I'm going to say, if anything. Say what I hear them expressing, then say what I feel/need slowly, and perhaps in question format to get them thinking further. If I cannot do this, I will ask that we finish a discussion on another date, so we all have time to think about certain aspects of it for a bit more.

One theme I work into my workshop = Let It Go. I advise participants to do what you know is right for the kids, even if other teachers ostracize you. I will be taking my own advice. I will work to find the balance, so that I do not end up being one of those veteran teachers who hide in her room all day and stop talking to anyone because we don't see eye-to-eye. Instead, I would still like to be a person who leads by example, and question other ideas. If other teachers are condescending and are open to discussion about the reasons why, I'm ready and willing to take time out of our busy days to share. If not, I'll just let it go, and be happy I'm able to do what I can to make my classroom culture of trust and inquiry thrive.

Find all of the session notes here.

Want my tweeted notes? There are some gems / quotes in my notes here in Storify.

Thank you to November Learning and administration in my district for supporting me on this journey! I've been asked to come back to host another workshop next year, and if you need a nudge to begin something like Genius Hour, I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Who Teaches YOU?

Getting my haircut today, I had to ask: "Who does YOUR hair?"
Hairstylist - "One of the gals here."

A couple of months ago, I asked my massage therapist, "Who gives YOU massages?"
Therapist - "Before I hire new therapists, they have to give me a massage."

Got me thinking... I teach 7th graders. Who teaches ME?

This summer, I've pruned my PLN a bit. I've made sure to center around those that teach me. And it's made me feel much better. Much like my hair cut today...

You may not be able to see the difference, but I can feel it. It's the same during the school year...


Tomorrow, I'm heading to my first #PatioPD, thanks to a generous teacher who likes to try new things and learn from others. How else do I make sure those that impact my teaching get my attention? I use a tool such as Feedly to follow their most recent blog posts. I put them on my "first" list on Twitter, so I'm sure to catch their good vibes (tweets). I check on the hashtags they're using so I can "hang out" (virtually) with those other teachers who have growth mindsets. These people teach me by being great role models, and I learn invaluable lessons from them that, in turn, impact my students.

So... who teaches YOU? 

Who helps you to be your best for children? Where do you go to keep refreshed, challenged, and positive during the school year? Please respond in the comments so I can always go back to this post when I need a pick-me-up! I can then share your ideas with more educators - thank you for helping me learn! A shout-out to Sean Scanlon and Rakhi Mistry for inspiring this post.

Update: PatioPD on Thursday had me like...

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.