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, 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: 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Parent Night

I keep looking back at the parent night post I wrote in 2013. I've looked back at it each September for four years now, and each year I tweak it for myself a bit. It is past time for a new post. Here's what I was hoping to convey this year...

I have no syllabus. We are starting the year with a pilot curriculum that I'm actually looking forward to. It's reading and writing workshop, which is what I believe we need right now in ELA. The bookmark I hope you picked up on your way in has a link to our class website, among other resources, where you can explore to learn more about the content in our class.

Instead of telling you all about me, I’d like to start with asking you to think about a question:
Who was a teacher you liked - or at least respected - in 7th grade?
Now try to come up with WHY this person was someone you remember.

I hope to be all those things.
I asked your children to finish this statement in a survey this past week -
"A great teacher is _____"
Your children hope I am the following:
kind, funny, fun, helpful, fair, understanding, friendly, respectful...
I let them know I expect the same of them:
kind, helpful, fair, understanding, friendly, respectful…
Without these expectations, we won’t have much learning occurring.

One more question: What CONTENT from 7th grade do you remember?
      (Long pause... Nobody seems to remember!)
Your child won't remember very much either. What will he or she remember?

My hope is that once your children leave 7th grade, I hope they will remember that I never gave them answers. I only guided them towards tools they can use for the future. We shared our ideas in a respectful manner, and learned how to learn even more about topics that interested us, or bothered us... topics that kept us reading, writing, and discussing.

I am the most fortunate of all of your child's teachers you'll see tonight.
I get to enjoy your child’s presence for 80 minutes of every day - and I really get to know them.
I’m also the most fortunate because I don’t expect your child to memorize any FACTS.

We get to explore great writing, share what we’re reading and writing, and figure out how to read to enjoy and learn, and how to write for an authentic audience - not just for their teacher.

Hopefully, by the end of the year, your children will have learned EMPATHY in ELA.


Hopefully, by the end of the year, your children will want to continue learning outside of school hours.

We spent the first ten days of school building community, respect, trust, and understanding of why we need to read and write. I will continue to try to reach them through literature, nonfiction, and their own writing.

I will also be offering more choice than I was ever afforded in 7th grade.
We will have choice in our reading, writing, and sharing what we've learned.

Our first activity to get to know each other a bit and decorate the room was our Six-Word Memoirs. I'd like to show you the video now. If you'd like to use this time to chat, feel free. Each six-word memoir movie will be published on our blog, and you'll get an email reminder when I send our next two-week update. [Insert video here!]

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Instead, somewhere during this beautifully-planned speech, I got derailed a bit. One parent asked, "What can you tell us about the grading in here?" 

To which I responded, "What did your child tell you so far?"

This led to a super awesome passion-filled me-on-my-soapbox quick explanation of why feedback is more effective than grades or marks. (I only had a total of 18 minutes!) I hope I also made the point that they needed to contact me as soon as they had any questions or concerns - that I would be so saddened to hear them tell next year's teacher to "disregard my child's grades last year - he got to choose them."

I further explained, "Your child and I will sit down together and both of use will bring evidence to the table to support what we believe the final grade should be each quarter. We will share achievement and struggles, and make plans to improve during the next quarter." 

No more averaging. 
No more using practice for points. 
Let's see what each child knows so far, and then see where we can improve.

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