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.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Caine's Cardboard Challenge


Why is Joy doing the Cardboard Challenge again this year? She teaches ELA. What do cardboard creations have to do with ELA??!!

I never heard the words, but I imagined them. Was I feeling guilty for not teaching reading or writing this day? Maybe. Guilt is ingrained in me. It didn't matter if I didn't hear the words coming out of teachers' mouths. What I did NOT hear --> support for this endeavor from coworkers after I sent out the all-staff email inviting them and their students to come for a visit (I even sent them "fun passes"). What I did NOT see --> coworkers coming down to visit and play with us. That speaks volumes to me.

So I'm laying it on the line here. If you don't agree with me - that's fine. I'm not writing for your approval.  I'm writing to reflect on the day and why I spend one class from my students' year asking them to design cardboard creations. Really, what is eighty minutes in the scheme of things?

What I noticed:
     - Eleven students (17%) had prepared and finished their project at home, and were ready to play today!
     - Students worked hard for 80 minutes - without any grade incentive.
     - The library was alive with noise and action.
     - Nobody was sitting down (unless it was on the floor to plan or create).
     - There was constant movement.
     - There were no arguments.
     - Students learned to use what they have in the time allotted, & change as necessary.
     - Students shared space & loaned or shared supplies.
     - They suffered natural consequences when they were not prepared.
     - Discussions about engineering & design were abundant.
     - Students were able to bounce around from one activity to another.
     - A very lively atmosphere, with smiles, laughter, shouts of excitement...
     - I was going to make a list of "What I heard," but it got too long for this blog post!

The genius "habitudes" students experienced today:
     - Imagination - Need I explain?
     - Curiosity - What is everyone else doing? How did they DO that? How can I change my own?
     - Self Awareness - Students KNEW what skills they had and what they didn't, and called on friends for help.
     - Perseverance - oh, so much trial and error! So much failing happening today!
     - Courage to display their work - completed or not.
     - Passion - Oh, the exclamations shouted today! They were INTO their creations!
     - Adaptability - When one thing wouldn't work, they readily changed the process.

We talk about these habitudes weekly during Genius Hour (thank you, Angela Maiers!), and throughout the week when I commend students for demonstrating these habitudes during guided lessons.

This ties right in with lessons I'm trying to teach this year regarding the Four Cs of 21st Century Learning:  creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication & collaboration. Do we not need these to thrive in life? Do we not need these when we attack a complex text or a challenging writing prompt? Will students not need these skills when they are figuring out their genius hour project for fourth quarter? Today's lessons will help us make those connections.

What I learned:
     - Seventh graders are C-R-E-A-T-I-V-E! Was I ever that creative??
     - Next year, the sign I make for the outside should say, "Come in and design, create, and PLAY," because students did a lot more planning and creating than they did actually playing.
     - Because sixteen students (24% = way too many!!) were not prepared, I'll need to have some activities I choose for them to do. These students did not bring ANY materials. I felt as if they'd been sleeping under a ROCK. I'll also prepare them better - instead of asking them to write the "homework" of bringing materials to class, I'm going to give them colorful reminder slips, with a checklist on it for them to bring WITH their materials. Is this spoon-feeding? Maybe. But 24% is just too many for me. Those 16 students didn't learn all that the rest of the students did. They didn't just sit around doing nothing, but they didn't all create, either. Seven of these (still 10.5%) wandered around, playing other people's games, and then chatting until I chased them off to do something else... Suggestions?
     - Gosh darn it - at what other time in the school year is learning so ultimately open and FREE in seventh grade? At what other time in your plans do you give students the direction, "Create," and then step back entirely? I don't think they're given this direction at home, and there are many distractions from this type of learning - their afternoons and weekends are already planned for them, and if they're not, how many of them revert to the old standby of television or video games?
     - Sometimes I feel like I'm on the "lunatic fringe" at my school (thanks for the great phrase, Karl!). But you know what?! I'm not at school to please (or appease) other teachers. I teach because of children.  Lessons learned today, whether consciously or unconsciously, will help these children with the rest of our lessons throughout the year - in any teacher's class.

Here is a 15 minute glimpse into our day of learning...

After reading all this, are you going to tell me you don't know what the Cardboard Challenge is? I didn't provide background, but take eleven minutes to learn about Caine Monroy if you haven't yet...

Many thanks to the two teachers and three administrators who showed their support, and to Mr. Todd Hillmer for letting us make a mess in the LMC! The students noticed it, and we had room to breathe, share and flex our creative muscles...


  1. I feel your pain and share your guilt. I cannot believe that more colleagues are not curious about what is going on in innovative classrooms. I blame their myopic focus on testing and the need to give every instructional minute over to preparing students for April's exercise in futility.
    As for the guilt, I have a very difficult time letting go of the thought "what will someone think when they enter my room" during genius hour or project-based learning time. I know I have made some comments to students in the 24% that were not helpful based mainly on the fear of what a traditional teacher would think. I think it's about modeling the habitudes, especially having the courage to do what is right in spite of how it coudl be perceived as wrong.

    1. Thank you for commiserating, Paul. My next question is this: Do I stay quiet about why I'm doing what I'm doing? I doubt any teachers at my school even know I have a blog, so they won't be reading this. Do I advocate for days like this more ahead of time? I thought my email to teachers this year explained a little of why we're doing it, but I had only one respond (out of about 90 staff members) to the email. I thanked my supportive administration in an email, and then sent another to the two teachers who showed up. I wanted to send an "all school" email thanking teachers who attended, but my husband said the ones that did not attend would just delete it. I was so hyped up about the day, and now I feel deflated. So I go back and re-read the paragraph I wrote about teaching because of children, not to please other teachers. (Repeat, repeat, repeat, then get some sleep!) Some day we can teach at the same school with the rest of our tribe! ;-)

  2. I decided to just bypass colleagues and go to the administrators. Last summer, I gave presentations to the director of curriculum, the director of technology and curriculum (redundant, I know) and the superintendent on project-based learning and genius hour. They, as well as my building administrator, are supportive; at least as long as my classes test scores are proficient. (That's my cynical side speaking.) I would love a bottom-up movement, but will settle for top-down acceptance.
    My goal is to create an "New Tech" elementary school where everything is project-based and tech is ubiquitous and high-stakes testing is not a driving factor in pedagogical decisions. Keep up the good fight, I know you know that deep down what you are doing is best not only your kids now, but for their future.

  3. May I come and teach at that school with our amazing tribe, Joy and Paul?

    This is an excellent use of a bit of our students time. Look at the building blocks for success in the 21st century that were practiced on the day of the Global Cardboard Challenge. I would also guess that some of your students will write blog posts, which will be authentic ELA and which they will enjoy sharing with the world.

    Brava, Joy!

  4. Thank you for being such a creative and caring teacher! If only they were all more like you. =]

  5. It astounds me that so many people don't realize the worth of creative thinking and essentially kill the curiosity within our children. For the love of all that is good and messy keep at it! Please don't ever leave the lunatic fringe to join the drone masses. Without teachers like you our kids lose hope, their spark dwindles, and there will be no brilliant lunatics left!

  6. Kudos to you for what you're doing! I'm a parent of two in elementary school and wish there were more opportunities within the school day for kids to be able to create, innovate and learn teamwork and leadership, rather than a set of facts they need to remember for a bubble test later. Your students will always remember this day, and you and they will both feel the ripples of what you did today for years to come. Don't be discouraged--please do MORE of these things--and make sure your parents understand the amazing life skills the kids learned during this process.

  7. Those sparks of creativity you're giving your students are what flow downstream into free flowing thought and eventually, creative, thoughtful, literature. I think what you did was fantastic. It's hard to believe that the teachers around you weren't on board with what your class accomplished. At a Scout campout two weeks ago, there was a costume contest. About 40 of the participants were wearing store bought costumes. The five finalists made their costumes. The winner made a "Spiderpig" box costume that was incredible. The runner up was "Duct-Tape Man" with a phenomenal duct tape cape that must have taken a while to make. We surround ourselves with store bought this, and experiences that are very much, "by the book." I applaud your taking the chance.

  8. The skills you highlighted are the ones I am constantly looking for, evaluating, and praising...in the WORKPLACE!! Congrats to you for making it happen!

  9. Why? Because you are a 'brilliant lunatic.' Isn't it sad that we have to give a somewhat derogatory title to creative teachers willing to push the envelope like you, but you just have to keep going.
    Many years back when in the beginning of my teaching career, I was one at the forefront of the British Infant School/Open Classroom movement, which like so many good ideas went no where. My friend Barbara and I finally had to leave the public schools and we founded our own, but not everyone can do that, Nor does it help change the system. It at least gave us the freedom to decide to do the Global Cardboard Challenge and host a community event. Guess what, only one family in the community came, one from VT., and one wonderful couple from CT who hadn't gotten to LA before Caine's Arcade closed to the public. We tried to get the public schools involved -- too busy preparing for testing. Went on all their Facebook pages. Had banners and sponsors, samples of ice cream and pizza....... only our Phoenix families came. We had a wonderful time, but why don't people get it?
    At least you have your administrators who are willing to support you. You have all the many, many people on twitter who value what you have to say and what you do. If things go the way they often do in education -- big fanfare, things don't work out quickly so off with its head! In our case, when this happened in the late seventies, we just kept on going because we believed that this was the way kids learn best. These ideas from the past have come back as project-based learning, Genius Hour, and anything that engages kids and allows them to integrate the skills/concepts into work they care about, in an individual and collaborative way. Your best feedback came from your kids. They got it!

  10. This is wonderful! I just discovered you because I've been writing a book about people of all ages and colors who have made up all kinds of things beyond the norm (I was going to say "outside the box"). You are refreshing!!! Have you ever read Educating Esme, by Esme Raji Codell? You'd like it, I'm pretty sure.

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