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, November 25, 2017

Change - Part 2 - Reluctant Faculty

Last July, our keynote for the last day of the BLC conference was Dr. Robert Evans. I wrote about what he said about change here, and then I purchased the book. It's time to share some of my notes as I slowly work my way through it (amongst the myriad books I read to share with my students)...


Chapter six is called "Staff: Understanding Reluctant Faculty," and here it is in a nutshell, using his words...

"Many improvement schemes...pay little attention to the lived realities of the educators who must accomplish change or to the practical problems of institutional innovation" (91).
Although it is not true of ALL veteran teachers (like me, I hope), "Most of America's educators are veteran practitioners who are not eager to embrace a new round of innovation. Their natural human aversion to change is intensified by three factors: their stage of life, their stage of career, and what demographers would call their 'cohort factor' - their unique composition as a group and the unique historical context in which they have worked" (92).

Supposedly (remember that this was written in 1996, but I'll bet it still holds true), most educators "have become a veteran, middle-aged, immobile group" (93). He states that "middle-aged" includes the mid-forties and older. These "middle-aged" teachers are often dejected. They "feel unappreciated, overworked, and demeaned as professionals." He goes on to explain why, including that many teachers feel that "one's efforts to help others are unsuccessful," and "that the task is both endless and unrewarded in terms of either achievement, appreciation, or advancement" (95).

Dr. Evans then goes in depth about "midlife," and what that means to humans. Many people heading into (and out of) their forties experience changes in their own personal lives - their bodies are changing physically, their children are growing, their parents are ailing, and time is speeding up. Priorities are shifting - they're more invested in their family than in their professions now, and they also have the added worry about their futures.

He lists three "pressures against innovation" when teachers are going through midlife. First, "most people are coping with considerable change...before they even come to school." Second, if "veteran staff seem doubtful about promises of rapid, radical change," it's because they've "become more sophisticated and more skeptical" and no longer see the "world in terms of black and white." Third, people (in midlife) are "much less likely to pursue activities that do not fit into their personal priorities" (100).

And, because most people in midlife are also in midcareer, they've got to deal with the effects of staying in the same job for a long time. Remember when you first began teaching? Everything was new and exciting! You put in 110% each night at home and again when you were in front of the students! You didn't have to worry about a mortgage, children to raise, or illness among parents or in-laws. No way were you worried about benefits once you retired. Sick days? Take 'em if you need 'em! In midcareer, "one's focus shifts to include a growing preoccupation with personal and family concerns. The midlife issues...exert a stronger pull on one's energy and attention..." (103).  "Having devoted themselves primarily to their career for several decades, they are often ready to reduce their work commitment and devote greater energy to personal or family interests." Not only that, but one "becomes less exclusively centered on the innate satisfaction of one's work and more concerned about salary, benefits, and related matters." But wait - there's more! Once you get closer to mastering your craft, "challenge dwindles and recognition plummets" (104).

It's a vicious cycle! "To sustain performance everyone needs feedback" (105). However, the older we become, the less feedback we get. Our profession is such that we spend our days with children, and not our peers. We grow even more isolated in later years! "Given the rise in personal and family demands and the drop in work motivation and interest, veteran staff are more likely to limit their time at work to the essential, if not the minimum. They are less likely to come early or to stay late to meet with one another, and they are less likely to 'talk shop' during their breaks. And since middle-aged people tend to go out socially less often than younger adults, there is less personal connection among colleagues over the years." This doesn't mean, as Dr. Evans continues, that we don't care about one another as much, but what it does mean is we "spend less time together, are less familiar with one's work, and draw less support from one another" (106). Let's pile on the stress and add that this is not something teachers talk about. They don't acknowledge it with peers, and so they feel that this dilemma is isolated to just themselves.

I'm not there... yet. In this, my 23rd year, I can feel myself some days heading into this abyss of not being connected, of trying "too hard" without reward, of being knocked down by parent confusion, but I'm not there YET. I am still open to innovation - in fact, I still crave it! This chapter helped me understand WHY. I do not have children of my own, therefore I do not have that energy pull or emotional toll. My parents are older, yes, but healthy at this point. My in-laws are gone, so any parental angst is virtually nil right now. I have time to devote to my husband AND my profession, and I'm supported by my administration in my efforts to innovate. It's no wonder I'm currently still an agent for change. This book is helping me understand many of my peers so much better, and I'm so very glad Dr. Evans goes on to give coping strategies for "veteran" teachers!! He doesn't let us off the hook, even though the resistance to change can be so strong.

So... What can veteran teachers do?!

First, he says we cannot blame working in schools. We are lucky to be alive, have a solid job, and live in the era in which we live. Here are five tasks "each person in midcareer must master...

  1. Specializing versus generalizing. Over the course of a career, there is a logical progression from being a learner to being a contributor in a particular area. In midcareer, we must decide whether we will continue to concentrate on these skills or seek a more broader, more general role, such as leadership. ...
  2. Establishing an organizational identity and area of contribution. Everybody needs a niche. All of us need to achieve a place, establish an identifiable role, make a recognized contribution in our workplace. ...
  3. Modifying career dreams. Midlife is a time of self-assessment in which we ask ourselves, 'whether our career progress has been consistent with our goals, ambitions, and dreams, and if not, how to resolve the discrepancy...'
  4. Achieving a balance between work, family, and self-development. The personal and professional changes of midlife and midcareer require us to reassess our investments in the different areas of our life...
  5. Maintaining a positive growth orientation. Having less time left and fewer opportunities open, having to accept the repercussions of past errors and the prospect of future losses - these make it easy to exaggerate our lot, to become attached to our burdens, to assume that we are trapped and unable to improve things, to give in to depression and passivity. To sustain a positive, constructive outlook on life and work, people must find a way to keep developing their strengths, to treasure and celebrate their successes, to appreciate......" (more on pages 111-113).

I believe these guidelines are necessary for happiness in any profession. Our school systems need to "focus on people." People's "acceptance of a new perspective depends much less on its intrinsic validity than on their own readiness to consider any new ideas at all. Before they can respond to a particular innovation, something must unfreeze their current thinking and perceptions and reach them in a fundamental way" (115) - because we are human beings.

This chapter was the one that my husband heard the most from so far. I'd stop and read it aloud, and we'd process the ideas together. I wish every superintendent and board of education member could read this book and see how difficult is is for humans to change - when it's not our own idea. [Even when change IS our own idea, there's resistance - read part one (chapters 1-3) for this reasoning!] I'm excited to continue reading about setting and leadership, and I'll be more excited to head into part three where I hope he shares some guidance in "Leading Innovation."

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Using Comprehension Checks to Figure Out Next Steps

I've written about the benefits of comprehension checks in a "no grades" classroom before.

I've changed a bit as to how this narrative feedback (and next steps or "feed forward") goes into our online gradebook, so I just had to record how I go about using our comprehension checks as formative assessments...

Thinking of going without grades? This is one tweak you can do in your own curriculum!



Saturday, November 18, 2017

Extra Credit - Perspectives

I wrote this post for the TG2 crowd. See it here, along with other great posts from teachers trying to go with fewer (and fewer and fewer...) grades...

Looking through the #extracredit hashtag on Twitter, I felt that there may be more extra credit opportunities than there are LEARNING opportunities. 

If these situations look familiar, it's probably because many teachers are providing similar options for extra credit. The number of excuses I could come up with here equal the number of excuses students can give teachers for their homework not being completed. Of course I took some liberties with the questions. I had to try to make some of it funny, because this post was difficult for me to write without my blood pressure rising. 

Being so far removed from extra credit myself, it's hard for me to put myself in someone's shoes who still uses extra credit as a way to motivate students. I have written this post with the goal of using questions to help readers think, instead of telling them what I believe they should think. Maybe this post will reach reflective educators...

When teachers start going grade LESS, they often begin examining the role extra credit plays in their classrooms...

If you're wondering about benefits or pitfalls of extra credit, consider these situations and reflection questions. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Teacher A always runs out of tissue by the end of the year. If students bring in a box, they get extra credit.

Reflection questions:

  • Why would a teacher feel they need to provide extra credit in order to receive tissues?
  • What if students don't have the resources to get to a store?
  • What if students don't have the resources to purchase tissues?
  • How would you feel if you yourself couldn't provide tissues?
  • How would you feel if you didn't hardly ever use tissues yourself and yet were expected to provide some for peers?
  • What would happen if the class actually ran out of tissues?
  • What other ways could you encourage students to bring in tissues?


Teacher B wants students to read aloud more at home. Students are given extra credit if a parent takes a photo or video of them reading to their favorite pet (or puppet/stuffed animal).

Reflection questions:

  • What if parents don't know how to send - or feel uncomfortable sending - a photo of their child to the teacher?
  • What if parents aren't home when their children are reading (or simply can't be around)?
  • What if students can't read that week because of sports or other activities?
  • What if parents' Internet goes down, and they can't send the photo?
  • What other ways could you encourage students to read aloud at home?
  • What other ways could students share with you that they are reading at home?


Teacher C gives extra credit bathroom passes. Three passes are given to students each quarter. If lost, there are no replacements available. The points they receive at the end of each quarter when they turn them in really don't change their grade much, but it "keeps them in the room." (Similar ideas: attending the school play, going to a museum during vacation)

Reflection questions:

  • What if a disorganized student loses them, or leaves them in a locker when a pass is needed?
  • What if a student has "free bathroom / water pass" on his or her 504 plan due to medical reasons?
  • What if a student has used all three and yet "really has to go" one more time before the quarter ends?
  • How would you feel if you had to tell an adult you needed to use the facilities?
  • How would you feel if you had to show a pass each time you needed an extra break (other than any already provided) during a meeting?
  • What other ways could you keep your students engaged in class so they stay?
  • What other ways could you figure out how to not let your students abuse the right to use the bathroom?


Teacher D wants students to know the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The teacher plays it for them every day for a week. They have the option of getting extra credit if they decide to sing it in front of their class. (Similar ideas: singing the preposition song to a relative, performing in a short skit in front of the class)

Reflection questions:

  • What if a student can't sing?
  • What if a student is an introvert - or simply bashful?
  • How would you feel singing in front of peers and strangers?
  • How would you feel if you really "needed" (or simply wanted) the extra credit, but you couldn't sing?
  • How would you feel if you suddenly forgot the words?
  • How would you feel if someone else sang right in front of you, and they weren't very good?
  • How would you feel if no one clapped for you when you finished, or if clapping sounded forced?
  • What other ways could your students demonstrate that they know this piece of history?


Teacher E wants students to connect with authors. Students will receive extra credit if their letter to the author receives any type of response from the author. Even more extra credit will be provided if the author sends something other than a letter back (a bookmark, a book, a signed copy, etc.).

Reflection questions:

  • Why do you want students to write to an author?
  • What if the student's favorite author has no address to which to send a letter?
  • What if the author usually writes back, but something comes up?
  • What if the author just doesn't respond to readers?
  • What if the author is dead?
  • What if the letter to the author gets lost in the mail?
  • What if the letter back from the author gets lost in the mail?
  • How would you feel if you wrote a stellar letter to your favorite author, and you never received a response?
  • How would you feel if your classmates were receiving letters, and you had to keep waiting?
  • How would you feel if you received a response well after the grading period was over?
  • What other ways could you encourage students to write to authors?


Teacher F has an extra credit option if students don't do well on a project. The learning objectives include knowing what spices were used in which areas of the world, and how they were used. The extra credit option is for students to bake a cake. The teacher would judge the student on whether it tasted good, based on the spices and the amount used.

Reflection questions:

  • What information do you want students to learn?
  • What if students do not have access to baking ingredients? Time to bake? Parents to supervise?
  • What if the oven is already being used?
  • What if the oven not calibrated correctly and it burns the cake?
  • What if the timer on the oven doesn't work?
  • What if relatives come over and they need to leave the house right away?
  • What if the teacher's taste buds do not match those of the student?
  • What if students simply re-did the part of the project they didn't understand?
  • What other ways could students show you they learned the information they were supposed to learn?


Teacher G provides extra credit if students watch the presidential debate during an election year. Students simply have to provide proof - a photo, a letter from a parent... anything will do. (Similar ideas: attending the school play, going to a museum during vacation)

Reflection questions:

  • What information do you want students to learn?
  • What if students simply watch one minute of it and still get credit?
  • What if students are engaged in another activity (dance, karate, dinner with grandparents) and cannot watch?
  • What if students watch it and learn nothing?
  • What is the teacher's goal? Once you know the goal, how else could students achieve that goal?
  • What other ways could you share what happened during the debate?
  • What other ways could students share knowledge of what they learned during the debate?


Teacher H provides extra credit if a high school student's tweet (or Instagram post, etc.) gets a certain number of "likes" or retweets. The tweet includes a blog post written by that student about their favorite topic. The teacher does this to promote correct grammar and conventions (authentic audiences are the best for this), and also help students learn how to leverage social media (how to use photos, hashtags, etc.).

Reflection questions:

  • What if students don't own a personal phone?
  • What if students are not allowed on social media?
  • What if students don't have many followers?
  • What if students plagiarize so they can get more "likes" or retweets?
  • What if, although the student's blog post is written well, readers don't agree?
  • What other ways could students share their writing with an authentic audience?
  • What other ways could students learn better how to use social media?


More extra credit ideas...
  • Write the name of Oedipus' adopted father on the bottom left of tomorrow's vocabulary quiz. #extracredit #itpaystofollow
  • #ACLU and #DACA Event in the 1400 building, #ExtraCredit 10am-12pm today and tomorrow.
  • Join us TODAY after school at the library! #doorprizes #extracredit #BannedBooksWeek
  • #ExtraCredit opportunity!! Attention to all my #6thgrade students - I challenge you to post an example of one of the #elementsofart that we discussed in class. (*Side note: Sixth graders are not usually old enough to use social media, in any case.)
  • Take a selfie of yourself with any member of the volleyball team! #ExtraCredit

Reflection questions:
  • Why do I feel I need to use extra credit?
  • What are my learning objectives?
  • How can I achieve these objectives without using points to motivate students?
  • What do you want a grade in your class to represent? Achievement? Effort? Stamina? Fortune? Luck?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ask for Feedback

You know you want to know what they're thinking...

Or do you? Maybe you're worried they'll tell you that something's wrong, or that something needs to change. How vulnerable do you want to be?

I always worry when asking parents for feedback, as I wonder...
     -How much of what I've sent home have they taken the time to read?
     -What if they're traditionalists and have LOTS of issues with how I'm teaching?
This quarter, I tucked the parent feedback survey link into our two-week update. I figure, if parents are reading the two-week updates, they should be informed enough to give valuable feedback.

I'm way more open when it comes to asking students for feedback. Each year, after the first quarter, I ask, and I receive. I LOVE IT. I just wanted to share a glimpse of the different types of feedback my co-teacher and I have received just last week...

The prompt: You have graded yourself this quarter. Please let me know how you think our first quarter has gone.

They are copied and pasted, so please ignore any errors in grammar or spelling...

  • I have enjoyed class so far. I don't have any concerns.
  • I think our first quarter has gone pretty well, most people seem to pay attention and participate in class and I think almost everyone in the class gets along well. I've noticed we have been able to get a lot of work done and not fall behind because of classmates talking or fooling around too much, and I hope the second quarter will be even better.
  • I am really happy with how this first quarter went. I made a lot of new friends and I am starting to get better with comprehension. I hope the next 3 quarters are going to go smoothly just like this one did. Thanks for your help Mrs. Kirr!
  • The first quarter went well, we wrote in our reader's notebooks a lot which could be good on some days but not every day. I feel good about my grade because I don't care what type of A I get but I did put work and effort towards my work.
  • I like how we got to chose are grade but at the begaing of the year it was confusing to now what counts for a grade and what dose not count I think we can spessify that a little more but other wise the quarter went Great!
  • Everyone in this class works well together and they respect each other. I think the first quarter went well. It was fun and everyone was really nice to each other.
  • That we are talkative. WE work hard still but we talk a lot.
  • I like how this quarter was very laid back and nothing was super serious but yet we all stayed focused and got our work done. 
  • I think the first quarter has gone pretty well. I like the fact that you have a very flexible grading system and class. The only problem I have is it may take a bit of time to get used to this very different approach at teaching.
  • We have a lot of freedom, so like we can basically chose who we want to be by. Some of the kids in our class our distracting so sometimes it is hard to work. (I'm excited to bring this point up in class this next week - coming from peers is much stronger than coming from me.)
  • I think that I have improved a lot this year. My reading has grown stronger and I hope it keeps improving (and that I don't run out of books). I really like ela a lot.
  • I think it was good but I don't like DGP. I am very bad at it and it's not very fun at all. [I act like I like DGP (daily grammar practice), but I don't, either. We only do it twice a week, however.]
  • I think that the quarter this year for me has gone pretty well, I have learned a lot about righting a reading I think that I have built a pretty good reading habits
  • I liked Q 1 overall I think it might be fun if next quarter we did group projects like a small book club then did a book talk on it or made a poster. Or we could do a books I love to read where we pick a book we love and then make a poster on it. Or go to the library as a class more often even a scavenger hunt in the school. I think that ELA can be really cool. And I hope that we can make it that cool! <3 (I love getting student-generated ideas!!)
  • Everyone at least participated once or twice this quarter. There was cooperation, preparation, and participation, and that was helpful/useful to people who want to start to participate in class, to get to know each other. Overall Quarter 1 has gone great. I've noticed the change to getting settled in ELA class and hope this continues throughout the year. 
  • the grading system is kind of bad because you don't know how you're doing throughout the quarter. I think you should put all our grades for stuff on powerschool so we can know how we're doing instead of knowing last minute (This is a great reminder for me to show students - again - how to find their feedback on the online grade system.)
  • So far, this ELA class has been a breeze. I've noticed that Mrs. Kirr's positive attitude spreads throughout the class. But, the only thing I want to change is the grading system. Personally, I want to see my grades online throughout the quarter, so I can learn to improve my grade later on. (I talked with this student, as he put his name in the form - when I mentioned that I could do this, but then the grade would be what the average of the grades are, he said he'd prefer to stick with the feedback he was receiving instead.)
  • I enjoy having mrs. Rehberger in class. She is very helpful
  • I think first quarter went really well. I like what we do in class, expecially the reading part. I didn't really like to write that much but I still sometimes enjoy it.
  • I think I need to participate more, I can work on this by raising my hands and answering question or joining in on fishbowls. (Ah! Student reflection!)
  • It has been really good for me, the only thing though is that I only work well with certain people.
  • I am stressed about school in general. Including all of the homework, schoolwork, etc. I know that there is nothing you can do to change this though...
  • I love how we had an option ad we could work at our own pace
  • I think that this quarter went great! I like how much time we get to read and write, and how much freedom we get when we read and write.
  • I think that I did well in Quarter 1 because I got an A and I tried my hardest. Usually in my classes I am worried about my grade but in this class I wasn't so worried and I was more worried about trying my hardest.
  • I love this class. Its awesome and I wake up knowing that this is going to be the best class out of my day!! 😆
  • I think that the first quarter went very well, however I'm still not sure how I feel about the grading processes. I also really like getting the feedback though, because I value others opinions on how to become the best version of myself
  • This class had me more focused on actually learning instead of grades. I find that one of the great this about ELA this year. One thing I don't find great is how it takes forever to get things done as some of the other kids are ALWAYS talking. Maybe be a little more firm? (A boost I need! This is from the last class - always the toughest one of the day.)
And this one is my absolute favorite from this year so far...
I think that at first everyone was kind of... not interested. As soon as you started teaching us that reading and writing are both fun, everyone began to find a new part of themselves that loves to read and or write. And I was glad to participate in that beautiful transformation.
Ask for the feedback. Students will remind you of why you're in the classroom. They will give you suggestions. They will ask you questions. They will push you to do better.

Intrigued: Here are more responses from last year at this same time... 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

They Say They Weren't Prepared for High School - 15 Questions

One of the middle school teachers I work with said that high school students came back to visit last week. They do this quite often - you'd never find ME going back to my 7th grade teachers, but our high schoolers do. It must say something about our school, right? Anyway, they said that middle school didn't prepare them for the work they'd have to do in high school.

Homework, that is.

This got our teachers going about how much is too much, how maybe we should be giving them more, about how things have been changing over the past few years, etc.

That next Tuesday night, Zach Rondot was our guest moderator for our #ShiftThis chat - such a great group of thinkers that come on Tuesdays! - and he asked questions about homework. Homework gets people riled up - students, teachers, and parents. No surprise. (Side note: Find all #ShiftThis archives here - on the right - including the homework chat on 10/17/17.)

What tugged at my heart strings was the tweet from friend and cohort Carrie - her daughter cried because her creative writing had a page expectation. And then this, from Michael Shunneson (who I luckily met at #DitchConference2017)...
Oh, this hurts my heart. This was almost 8pm. On a Tuesday.

If you've read Shift This, you've got some ideas for how to make homework more meaningful. If not, try chapter six. Or just go and get yourself a copy of Ditch That Homework, or perhaps The Homework Myth is more your style? And, in case you missed it from my book, here's the philosophy I share with parents

But really - we need to keep the conversation going. Even after all the research has been read and shared, many teachers still do what we learned to do - assign homework. Just because something is passed down to us doesn't mean we have to continue it. Whether you grade it or not (that's a whole other chapter) isn't even the issue. It's the homework itself that needs to be discussed.

So going back to my roots of asking questions to get to the heart of the matter, here are 15 I've come up with (from the ideas in last week's chat) so we can discuss this further at our own schools:
  • What homework expectations change from elementary to middle to high school? Why?
  • How is a student's home life already teaching responsibility?
  • Is the volume of homework many of our high school students have really necessary?
  • If our students need our help doing their homework, how will we make ourselves accessible? Or - what other resources could we provide for our students if we are not accessible? Do our students know how to access these resources?
  • Which students will have an advantage over other students when it comes to homework?  Which will have a disadvantage? (Consider access to tech, home responsibilities, economic status, extra-curricular activities, etc.)
  • Is homework given creating resistance to learning or inspiring learning?
  • How can students in AP classes do homework that helps them learn the material - not just pass the test?
  • How can subject-specific teachers share the amount of homework they're giving with other subject-specific teachers - so they can see the load students carry on a nightly basis?
  • How and when can middle and high school administration get together to talk about amount and type of homework that has been given in the past, and that should be given in the future? How can they then convey this to their staff?
  • What burning questions can we send home with students instead of worksheets or projects?
  • How can we foster curiosity so students are learning on their own when they get home?
  • How can we help students prioritize the work they're expected to do at home?
  • How can students have choice and voice over what they're learning at home?
  • How can we make any homework an authentic, engaging learning opportunity?
  • How can we model lifelong learning?

Have the conversations. 
Please let me know other questions (in the comments section) we should be asking!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Celebration - Author Responses!

Last Friday, my coworker and I thought it would be a great idea for our students to write in their reader's notebook a letter to the author of the book they're reading. Once I said it aloud to students, I immediately added, "And let's find the authors on Twitter and share your letter with them!"

My first class was a bit hesitant, but many students in my second and third classes took me up on the offer. We sent a total of __ letters into the Twitterverse (and one more via snail mail), and we received THREE email letters back, and SEVEN authors responded via Twitter! SUCCESS!

I just wanted to share with you the letters and responses here:
Emma wrote to Jeff Strand.
And he wrote back!!
Akhil wrote to Abby Cooper.
Aidan wrote to Dave Barry.
Shawn wrote to Denis Markell.
Mike wrote to Chris Grabenstein.
And he did!

Alex wrote to Max Brallier.


Kate wrote to Jo Knowles.

And she wrote a letter back!

Maggie wrote to Rick Yancey.

Garrett wrote to K.A. Holt.

Hudhaysri wrote to Joelle Charbonneau.




Me this week: