I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 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 my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Observations... Being observed by administration can be nerve-wracking for anybody. But when my assistant principal walked in the room and sat down, I looked at my class through her eyes. What did she see?

Yes, he ended up on the floor... still participating vocally, even if it's hard to see his hand raised!
No, she didn't see all of this - I took these pictures a few days later, when I could catch students unawares!

Of course, she did see the changes that have occurred in my teaching - I've never done a read-aloud. I've never had so many seating options. I've never had students "talk" with other students on a Weebly set up by a teacher out in British Columbia, Canada! After she left, I had my next lesson with the same students, and I felt things were more "normal." Students were doing what most teachers expected - me leading, students sitting up, following directions, writing quietly... But I've been doing it this way for years now. I should know how to teach in this fashion.

At home, I felt I needed to write a disclaimer for the outside of my door. Something like this...

I talked with her three days later, and she helped alleviate my fears. Even though she said when she first walked in she was "alarmed," (oh, how my stomach churned when she said this!) she stayed and observed the entire 40 minutes and kept taking factual notes. She assured me that I'd established an environment for learning. She reminded me that I gave students expectations.

I explained how during the first period she witnessed me teaching what I had never taught before, and how I'm still learning what is best for students in this regard. I admitted that I didn't know what percentage of students were actually able to multi-task (play games on iPads, doodle) while I read, and what students were not. She suggested a quick reflection for after the read-aloud, and I implemented this the next day. One of my hunches was right - one student only remembered the last bit of what I'd read...

The next few minutes of our discussion centered around Genius Hour. I told her we've got the routine down nicely, but I'd still like to see students follow their passions, and do something about it. I still have the goal for students to read, be inspired, and act on it. She then asked me such a simple question: "What do you need to do to make Genius Hour better?" The rest of the afternoon, this was my focus. My next step, I've decided, is to print out the pictures I took of the board during our first Genius Hour, and ask, during one-on-one conferences, which ideas were theirs. If they were bothered by bullying or animal abuse or racism or suicide etc... why aren't they trying to do something to help prevent it? Why aren't they reading up on the issues or reading books on the causes? Why won't they share what they've learned with us so we can help prevent these issues too?

Yes, I was nervous about being observed. I was nervous about the follow-up conversation. I still feel like I need to have a disclaimer on my door. I still question myself every day if this is the very best use of our time. I still reflect after each lesson to see where I could have done better. I'm still nervous when people come in to visit, as I don't know what they'll see and what they'll miss.  However... I still believe in what I'm doing. And I still need to be challenged, so I can keep figuring out if what I'm doing is right... or if I need to fine tune my ways once again.

[Author's note, 1/19/13 - Of course, not all of these pictures were taken on the same day. Most (with the exception of the laptop) were, however, taken during a "read aloud," which is the portion of the lesson I wasn't quite sure about, as I've never done read alouds during class so often.]

Genius Hour Monday

Monday, in Genius Hour, we first watched a three-minute video, Matt Cutts - Try Something New for 30 Days, and some of us got some small ideas hatching in our heads... During 2/3, Francesco shared his Stickman Odyssey books by showing us a fort he made of popsicle sticks! In 5/6, at least three people shared books they'd read by giving tiny book talks. Josh even showed us the origami Yoda he created for The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. One-on-one conferences in 8/10 showed that many students were exceeding their goals - so we continued to make new ones for the next two weeks! Meanwhile, our photographer in 8/10 took these pictures and created this collage! Thanks, A.J.!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Genius Hour - Explained

WHY do we have Genius Hour in our classroom?

I was in my third year in the reading/writing classroom.

I needed something besides what had “always been done.”

I couldn’t keep giving students fabricated projects to turn in when they finished a book each quarter.

I needed students to read more than four books a year – if they were even reading that many! Many students can get by completing the project without reading the book, and both the student and I do more work when the true goal has been averted.

I have three people to thank for their influence on how I do Genius Hour today:

Ewan McIntosh (@ewanmcintosh) – Edinburgh, Scotland
Erin Olson (@eolsonteacher)– Iowa
Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) – Texas

I wanted to change the way I approached independent reading in my classroom. Discussions with peers during a workshop in Michigan led by Ewan McIntosh gave me the WHY – Students will learn more when it’s driven by their passions. Students can find problems, and work towards solving them. This learning needs to be individual – and I need to make sure I conference with students to find out where/how I can help them succeed.

While in Boston, learning Erin Olson’s story of her 11th grade literature students in Iowa, gave me more of the WHY – If students are inspired by what they read, they will act on what they feel. Erin had me tearing up, thinking of what students could do if inspired enough.

I then read The BookWhisperer, by Donalyn Miller, which helped me figure out more of the HOW. I now have a reading log that fits what I’m doing, my classroom library is organized by genre, and I truly believe students will be reading many more books this year!!! This year I have implemented a few simple motivation strategies that came from her book, and other ideas I’ve already been using were justified.

Two people gave me the name for what I have ended up doing:
Gallit Zvi (@Gallit_Z) – from Surrey, British Columbia
Denise Krebs (@mrsdkrebs) – from Iowa

I started building my Twitter PLN in February of 2012. These two innovative educators both taught 7th grade and started a Twitter chat the first Wednesday of each month - #geniushour. I didn’t know what it was, but I jumped in one night. Ahhh – I’d found the name for what I wanted to do! Thank you Gallit & Denise!

I have one more Twitter friend to thank…
Bec Spink (@MissB6_2) – Australia

It is Bec Spink who introduced me to KustomNote, which syncs with Evernote. Oh, has this been a time-saver! I was already familiar with Evernote, so I asked her for her conferencing template. She readily shared, then I modified it to fit my conferences with students. When I sit down with students now, I have something to lead me through the conference. I have changed the conference as the few weeks have gone by – I now have one template for our first and second conference, and another for subsequent conferences. I have used Denise Krebs’ idea of having students grade themselves, and found last week that they’re harder on themselves than I would be! The notes students and I type into KustomNote are immediately sent to my Evernote notebooks. The next time students and I meet, I have them pull up their stack of notes, and we can see how we’ve progressed.

HOW does Genius Hour look in our classroom in September?

Right now, Genius Hour looks like independent reading. Students are reading, and I’m conferencing with them one-on-one, each Monday (or first day of the week). Students read, log their books, and share them somehow. Sharing could be as simple as writing a book review on their blogs, giving a short book talk to the class. Sharing could also mean making something. (Billy tried to make a zip line in class, after reading a short book about gravity.)

My original goal: READ.  My ultimate goal is still this: Read. Be inspired. Act on it.

During one-on-one conferences, I ask students where they are in their reading (finished with one book… starting another… stuck choosing a book…etc.). I ask many questions – Did you like the last book? What type of book are you looking for? What do you want to learn about? I use the notes from the last few times we’ve met to guide my questions for each session. I also use the interest survey they filled out at the start of the year to guide them to certain book genres, topics, or titles, if students are having difficulty choosing a book. One-on-one conferences are vital – they will help me help students read books in various genres, and hopefully get to our ultimate goal – act on inspiration gleaned from a book!

It is at this time that students reflect on their last two weeks, and set a new two-week goal for the upcoming weeks. Each student is different, and needs to be challenged. They know what they can do in two weeks, and I encourage them to set the goal to something that is manageable, but also not too easy. I keep reminding myself of my first goal – READ. If they are reading at the very least 20 minutes a night, I’m happy!

What do I DREAM Genius Hour to be?

I believe Genius Hour can look similar to how it started to look towards the end of my first half-year… One student reads about bullying, and creates a presentation that should be made in front of the entire school. Two more read about the Warsaw camps in Poland, and tell the class about them. Another reads a book about magic tricks, and puts on a show for us. I also believe it can look like Erin’s class – one of her students read The LastLecture, by Randy Pausch, and it inspired her to make blankets for babies in the NICU.

I would love for students to read what is important to them, and then act on this. I will role model somewhat, of course! After having read EveryDay by David Levithan, I wrote to him, asking him to not write a sequel, as I think that this one book should stand alone, it is that good. I also share each book I finish with students, and read the books they suggest. I’ve shared with them how a fiction book, North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen, got me interested in geocaching. I dream that students will pursue their passions during Genius Hour… by reading books that appeal to them, not books I have chosen. My hope is that Genius Hour encourages students to become lifelong readers and learners… 

Here is a sneak peak at what geniuses we have already in our classroom (Kyle's contraption for the Cardboard Challenge)...