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 29, 2018

Feed One

Looking back through my posts on the Building Learning Communities conference, I notice a theme. It seems as if every year I've gone (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and now 2018), educators and administrators and keynoters are talking about CHANGE. Here are all my reflections on the BLC conference, if you want to take a gander.

Last year's last day keynote speaker, Dr. Robert Evans, told us that humans resist change, especially if this change was not their idea.  He also said resistance to change is normal and necessary. I read his book, The Human Side of School Change, and wrote three more posts reflecting on what he said. Myriad factors come into play when people have to deal with change, and his book helped me become a better listener to those who resist changes in education.

This year, my own keynote message was to stop asking why others won't change, and empower yourself. Take the risks, live up to the title of "educator," and do what you believe is right and good for students. Share these ideas with others, and explain your reasons WHY. Keep sharing - through social media, blogging, websites, presentations... keep the conversations going.

When Ted Dintersmith took the same stage the next day, he said that it's easier to start a new school than to change one that's already established. He added that we should embrace the pockets of change and grow by one teacher at a time. Leave other teachers alone - administration can try to make them change, but they'll just close their doors and keep doing what they've always done. Wasted effort on our part. Let's put the effort into celebrating those who are doing what is better for kids. Oh, and try not to say "best practice," because what is "best" today won't necessarily be "best" tomorrow. We can practice "better practices" with students. 😉

I go over and over with my husband Bob about what each session is about, and the things I've learned and want to take home and hold dear to my heart and head.

During our discussion about all this, he asked, "Is this whole thing pointless?"

"This whole thing" - referring to trying to get other teachers to reflect on their teaching and try something new, such as letting the students own more of the learning.

No. It's not pointless.

Trying to get other teachers to reflect on what they're doing, join in with what you're trying, and help bring students more to the center of all we do... is challenging for sure. But if you share ideas with just one... and just one teacher latches on and tries it and it changes his or her teaching, consider all the students you've affected. Mother Teresa said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one." I wouldn't say "just" one - because one can lead to another and another and the ideas can grow exponentially. (A few of the ideas I shared at BLC.)

I tweaked my keynote the evening prior, because I had to add this quote I'd heard from Darren Kuropatwa at his session - "The job of any leader is to make more leaders."

So take the lead. Share your ideas - through social media, blogging, websites, presentations... Share your reasons WHY. And feed ONE teacher. One at a time. Keep those conversations going!
Outside our house in the spring of 2017...


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Ambiguity as a Learning Tool

The Building Learning Communities conference in Boston always inspires and challenges me.

Even though this was my fourth consecutive year presenting sessions, I was also asked to present one of the keynotes. Wednesday and Friday are reserved for one-hour keynotes, and Thursday is for three-four 15-20 minute keynotes. Thank goodness I was asked to present on Thursday!

I'd known about this presentation since November. Ideas percolated around my brain for months before I started putting ideas down on paper. I had not been told what to speak on, and the closer it got to July, the more I got to thinking I was on my own to decide.

This ambiguity was so difficult for me. Sure, I could set my own sessions for the week - those were based on where I felt my strengths lie, and I had many resources to share for when participants had questions. The 20 minutes in front of 500 people?? It was like choosing the right song for "American Idol"! (mine would be "Broken Wing" from Martina McBride!)

As I wrestled with what the message should be, and who my audience was, I never thought that not knowing - this ambiguity - this uncertainty - was what was so difficult for me.

That is, until the day AFTER my keynote, Ted Dintersmith - author of What School Could Be - said that ambiguity scares students. Taking a path where they might fail is scary. He says that we have many "Go fetch a dog biscuit" kids. They are really good at following our directions. They are not good with ambiguity.


I immediately thought - that's why the keynote was so difficult for me! If Alan November had told me what he wanted, I would do it. If nobody cared for the idea, I could blame it on someone else...

I figured it out. I had to! I did have parameters - It had to be ready by July 26th at 8:30 am, and it could be 15-20 minutes long. I also felt I had to share something about shifting... shifting SOMEthing. I didn't want to talk about Shift This (which of course, you can purchase right here 😉).

I also knew I didn't want to use the ideas from my "Shift the Culture" one-hour presentation. I had to create something new.

With these parameters, I thought about the history of my learning at BLC, what I've learned from others, and I decided it should be about shifting the language.
(Yes, deaf education is part of my journey.)

I was geeked to say hello (again) to the other two keynoters - both passionate educators on the other ends of the spectrum - Aaron Polansky from a vocational school in Massachusetts, and Pana Asavavatana who works with K-2 in Taiwan! When I got to BLC on Wednesday, Aaron said he'd changed his message a few times already, and he even changed it further the night prior! I think he had a tough time with the ambiguity, as well. I think Pana had her message about literacy ready to go (I could be totally wrong about that - we didn't have much time to talk) - even though we all had nerves galore!

I became more comfortable with the message in it as I went through sessions on Wednesday, the day prior to the most nerve-wracking thing I've had to do in a long time. Others at BLC were talking about change, and shifts they're trying to make, and how "others at my school" weren't on the same page.

The morning of the presentation, we were told our order (what a relief when I found out I'd go first!), and Alan said, "Your topic is genius hour, right?" My eyebrows went up and I froze for a moment. 

I said, "Nope. It's on shifting the language. Labels we're given and such."

He only said, "Interesting!" and went on explaining more plans for the next hour... Phew!

The ambiguity I was offered was a gift in disguise. I learned so much from brainstorming, trying different ideas, considering past conference messages, putting together much of what I've learned, and listening to the audience / participants the day prior. I tweaked two or three things based on what I'd learned Wednesday, and I was as ready as I'd ever be Thursday morning.

How did it go?

I'm happy with what I did. I have no idea what I actually said... I had my notes, but don't remember  using them. I did hear laughter in all the right places, and I saw many heads nod. Reactions and expressions of gratefulness from educators the rest of the day solidified that I had reached them in some way. They felt included. They felt as if I knew them. They felt empowered. Alan told me I'd done a "fabulous" job, and a few told me they had tears (which I didn't expect).

My lessons learned?

-Go with your gut. Say what you feel you need to say. Speak from the heart.
-Use the ambiguity as a learning experience. Research, reflect, brainstorm, tweak, get feedback...
-Provide students more chances every day to struggle with - and learn from - such vagueness.
-When they struggle with uncertainty, help them to notice all they are learning.
-Provide tools for them to persevere, so it will be easier for them the next time around.
-As always, these challenges should come without any grade attached...
-Um... hello - doesn't this sound a bit like Genius Hour? Or personalizing learning - ALL DAY?!

Challenge for all of us - How can we incorporate more opportunities for our children / students to struggle with ambiguity during our school days?

A HUGE thank you to Alan November and the BLC team for providing me this experience. More huge kudos to Aaron and Pana - we did it!! Everyone loved your messages! Let's put a handle on helping students and educators make more connections! I'm excited to read about your own reflections.

Here's the "moment" I made using Twitter - to capture some of the essence of my message. Stay tuned for further posts as a result of reflections from this fabulous conference!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Grading Thoughts Update Half-Way Through Summer

Summer is half-way gone already?

My brain rested yesterday - pretty completely. I went into reading mode again - a sports book, no less - and I'm LIKING it!

I think since my brain rested, I had a sudden burst of inspiration for my issues with not grading. I created a T-chart of all the things that are different - from the way I used to grade - when I do not put points/marks on grades.


This led to me looking at last year's parent letter - and revamping it. It now has an invite to meet one-on-one and a teeny opt-out option included - along with the T-chart above. My hope is to alleviate parent anger the first time they see a grade at the end of a quarter. I hope, if they're concerned, they choose to make an appointment with me to chat further, or simply opt out.

I'm back on the tracks, peeps.
I'm back in the groove.
I'm back to remembering just WHY I wanted to go sans marks/points through the quarter. What really pushed me back is the video I created for parents. It really says it all. It's based on research and years of teaching. It just makes sense.

It's housed on our classroom website HERE.

So. That's where my brain is today, in the midst of summer. A month after I shared my frustrations the day after school let out this year. (I LOVED the conversations in the comments!)

Check out the NEW (so far) letter for 2018 - I'd love feedback once again - let's keep the conversation going!

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Another Blog

I've been sharing my (rambling) thoughts on another blog recently: Passion, Purpose, Product

These new posts have been inspired by two books I've enjoyed this year...

Image result for being the change by
Nonfiction
Image result for small great things by jodi picoult
Fiction













I don't want to call it a "project," but I'm categorizing it as my seventh "genius hour" project for the blog purposes. I started that blog to share with students my reflections on various things I'd tried. This new effort is to get me to think about my own assumptions, biases, and prejudices, with the hope I'll be more cognizant about them first (already working). The next step will be to help me have the tough conversations with my students. Finally, I hope to be able to find the nuances (that lead to stereotyping) in all I read or see and be able to help young learners see them, too.

Check it out if you'd like. Better yet - contribute to it. What biases do you notice you have as you go through your day? Why do you think you have these. They are a natural part of being a human being. The next step is to recognize them, and know that they may be wrong. Have the conversation with yourself, then be vulnerable and let me know when you're ready to contribute your thoughts.

We need to keep having the conversations that keep us thinking!