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, March 29, 2014

Follow Fridays

Since my first days on Twitter, I always wondered about the #FF hashtag. "Follow Fridays" ? What did that mean?

I've since come to know that it means (in simple terms) "You should be following this person."

I could never get on this trend. I have thought of it every Friday, as I see so many #FF tweets, but I can't bring myself to tweet out any! And here's my reason (excuse?): There are SO MANY educators I'd like to see people listen to... I can't choose just a few for tweets! Lame excuse? Maybe. But it's something I haven't done, and I'm okay with that. It's not that I don't find #FF tweets to be useful (I find myself following many of the suggested people) or humbling (I am always humbled when my name is tagged on one); it's just that this is not how I choose to spend my time tweeting.

So how have I shown my appreciation for other educators on Twitter? I've sent thank yous for small things during the week, or DMs saying how much I appreciated such-and-such, and I leave myriad comments on people's posts, to let them know I appreciate them sharing their thoughts.

I found out this past Friday that others also feel overwhelmed with the amount of thanks we feel we need to provide on Twitter. I received a "thank you" tweet from Jon Harper... "Thank you for being so positive and encouraging all the time. I am certain those around you feel it often." WOW. I felt proud of myself. I'm so glad that's what Jon sees in what I tweet. I'm happy that it comes through, as this is what I strive for. And you know what? His thoughtful thank you makes me want to be even more positive and encouraging.

I wondered what brought this on. So I checked his tweets...

Oh. My. He couldn't do #FF either! So he decided to do his own version of giving gratitude...

Jon has done this before, in this post about Seth Berg. I co-created The Power of Appreciation blog because I was inspired by another grateful man, Rik Rowe. Jon was the fourth one to take us up on posting a thank you letter to someone he admired. And now he's got me thinking (always - check out his blog!)... I've been stuck in my thinking for a couple of years regarding #FFs, and haven't looked for alternatives. I cannot jump on the #FF wagon, but I CAN do something as Jon has done. I can try a version of "Thankful Thursdays."

I've looked at the hashtags... #TT doesn't work. I don't know what it stands for, but there's too much profanity on that hashtag for me to feel like I can use it. #ThTh doesn't work, either - I learned that it stands for "too hot to handle." So... no problem. No need to use a hashtag. Just do what Jon has modeled for us. If you think others should follow that person (no doubt, right?!), tag the tweet with the hashtag where you think others would find him or her (#elachat, #mschat, #scichat, etc.).

Thank someone you know. In a blog post, in 140 characters, in a written letter, in a phone call, in person...

My next step? Do this with people I actually work with in my school on a more consistent basis. Thank you, Jon, for this push - for being a role model for us all!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What's the value in Frozen Marbles?

A respected Twitter colleague of mine wrote a post last week titled, “Be Careful of Genius Hour.” As soon as I read it, I realized that the comments section wasn't the place for my thoughts on this close-to-my-heart subject...

If I could put Laura’s post into a question, it might be “During Genius Hour time, are students learning something valuable?” This has been asked before, in a different way, in Denise  Krebs’ post here - “Must the Students?” - Must the students be able to explain why their project is worth learning? (Check out the comments on that one - and add your own!) I love that this question is still being asked, as it is one that many teachers, parents, and administration ask. Let’s keep this conversation going.

I sometimes think some of my students' projects are not "valuable." However, here is where I find the value in doing something such as baking brownies (which, for us, is done at home) or playing Minecraft...

Collaboration, cooperation, social skills… if they are working with friends
  • Getting prepared
  • Following directions
  • Perseverance / Stamina / Determination
  • Follow through (cleaning up, whether they succeeded or failed)
  • Doing what they love and being proud to share that with others
How to make baking brownies “more valuable...” Ask this student
...to try 4 different recipes, and create one of his/her own
...to have a taste test with 5 different recipes, one being his or her own
...to learn how to decorate the brownies in various ways
...to learn how to shape the brownies so it makes a design
...to make brownies to sell for a specific purpose/charity
...to start a blog with dessert recipes he/she has tried and modified

How to make playing Minecraft “more valuable…” Ask this student
...to build something to scale - such as their school or a monument in town
...to add to their 3D model something new that isn’t in the original - something they think should be there (something to make this place even better)
...to create a tutorial on how to build in Minecraft
...to create a video when they are finished with one aspect, to show what they are learning along the way
...to ask other students what they’d like to see from a Minecraft project (I have a student who is making a roller coaster quiz game in Minecraft - if you get an answer wrong, you get ejected! I have no clue how he’s doing this…!)

ALWAYS ALWAYS ask, “How could you have done better?” and “What would you change if there was a ‘next time?’” and “How have you grown with this experience?” or “How will this experience help you in life?” I believe the reflection piece is necessary for more learning to occur the next time. I have students fill out this reflection form (adapted from Denise Krebs’ form on the wiki) every time they share what they’ve done / learned with the class. Not every project is something I would deem “valuable.” I’m not in seventh grade either.  I like coming to school. I find time to do what I love there and at home. Do your students?

Any project can be a learning experience. It may not be up to par with what we think constitutes valuable class time, but ask yourself this…
  • Is the student engaged?
  • Does the student feel like he matters?
  • Does the student want to come back to school the next day?
  • And something that helps with the rest of your week: Do you know your student better?
Here’s a photo from the latest quick presentation from a student of mine… “Frozen Marbles” she called it. She filled up balloons with water and froze them on a tray in the freezer at school. The next week, she and her friends peeled the balloons off of the ice. Here is the result:

She was intrigued by the design inside of the ice. She wondered what she could DO with the frozen marbles. Where is she going next? She’s going to try a bunch of quick experiments and video tape them. Her final presentation will be a video of all she has tried, including their successes and failures, and what she's learned. Is this valuable? She’s engaged in learning - on her own. When she presented her findings on this tiny project, the rest of the class was rapt, making her feel important. She wants to keep learning, and to try more difficult experiments. I get to learn more and more about her each week.

I obviously don’t have all the answers. I'm still learning, along with my students. Please, let’s keep this conversation going so we can help each other help our students become life-long learners...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Does Reading Actually Change the Brain?

This is a short close-reading activity we tried in our 7th grade ELA classes…

We had just finished reading a difficult article (“Demystifying the Adolescent Brain”) that we used in conjunction with Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science. We had finished writing our polished piece, as well. It was time for a change. To transition back to fiction for a bit, we found this article, “Does Reading Actually Change the Brain?” and decided to use it for a quick activity.

We had four steps to this activity. Here were the instructions for each step:
1. Read silently. Jot down at least two questions you have after reading this selection.

2. Read aloud - Jot down any more questions you may have while your teacher reads this aloud.

3. Choose one - Choose one of your questions to put on the sticky notes. You will be asking this question to your group.

4. In groups - Person whose first initial of his/her last name closest to Z goes first. That person puts his/her sticky note on the sheet of paper, as he/she is asking it of the group. While the group helps him/her with an answer, he/she writes down notes that reflect the group’s answers/discussion. Continue going around the group discussing questions.

Before you peek at what the students came up with, try this yourself. It makes a difference if you actually try what you ask of your students. Go on… this post will wait.

Questions students created - check out how there were only a few literal questions, mostly inferential questions, and some critical thinking questions thrown in for good measure (and quality discussions):

Are the results different for a less interesting book?
Why did they read in the evening?
Does gender matter?
Why do your favorite novels affect more of your brain?
Why does reading a novel “change” your brain?
What does “shadow activity” mean?
Does the genre/type of the book affect how much or how little your brain changes?
How does the brain “connect” to the story?
What is a protagonist?
How long does this brain activity last? Is it possible to tell?
How old are the patients?
In fMRI scans, can they actually read your mind?
Would a different story have a different effect on your brain?
Do all books do that?
Would a picture book have the same effect?
Why does reading define a person?
Does how long it takes you to read the book matter?
How does this affect your life?
Why didn’t the neural changes have immediate reactions?
Does this happen with every book or only the ones you’re interested in?
Can a novel about negativity make someone negative?
Does it matter if it is a short story or novel?
Why did they only use 21 students?

What I loved about this activity… It was one period long (40 min). I did not teach - students taught and learned from each other. Students were engaged in talking about what THEY wanted to know from the text. Students had to go back to the text again and again to find answers or prove their theories. When they were finished, I could see who didn’t seem to understand the basics, and who could have gone further with this material in some fashion. The article was engaging, and non threatening, as they had one time reading it independently, and another with me reading it aloud.

How I might modify this activity… I could have had the question with the most discussion and disagreement from each group up on the board, voted on one as a class, and held a fishbowl discussion. I might try to teach them how to take discussion notes first, as I noticed that some notes were verbatim what they said, and some were one-word responses. Some were a bit immature, as well, but that taught me that I needed to make the rounds to more groups!

This close-reading activity was inspired by a day of professional development given by my district. Yes, indeed - some district-initiated PD is worth it, and for that I am grateful!

Friday, March 21, 2014

I Don't Do Countdowns

"Five more days!"
"This is the last Tuesday until break!"
"Remember, only three days left!"
"One more wake up!"

I don't do countdowns.
In fact, I can't stand them.
I can't believe I used to join in countdowns with my students.. or worse yet - LEAD them.

Don't get me wrong - At times, I countdown - IN MY HEAD. I do not celebrate countdowns in front of students. If I'm having a particularly tough week, I may get excited that Friday is coming. I also get excited when there's a great professional development in sight (see the countdown calendar to the right of this blog). However, you won't find me making a calendar, crossing off dates, taking numbers down, or saying anything to students about the end of a school week, quarter, or year.

What's wrong with a little "celebration?"
     Some students actually look forward to school. YES. Hooray for them!
     Some students would rather be at school than at home, for various reasons.
     I'd like students to think that I actually LIKE being there with them. (Of course - I DO!)

I'm tired of countdowns that signal the end of a school week.

That being said, there are nine more days until I get to see my students once more!

I am excited to come back to school refreshed, and ready to make our days COUNT.

5/2019 addition- Angela Watson's thoughts...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

If Only

I have met Amy one time - we were presenting at IATE, thanks to Fremd High School English teachers! And then I hear... she's writing a book. A BOOK! Well, isn't everybody?

That's the thing. The answer is NO. I am not. My husband is not. I know nine seventh graders who are writing a book, and I know teachers who've written professional books, but I don't know any other adult who is writing a fiction book.

I started watching her tweets more closely (she's on my "met face-to-face" list on Tweet Deck), and sure enough, it was going to be published in March! So I watched even more closely... surely I could get an ARC, yes? After all, I followed AJ Pine when she was AMY Pine! ;-)

YES! I received an electronic copy in my email last week, and immediately uploaded it to my iPad. I finished it today (during ISATs), and wrote a quick review of If Only on GoodReads here. Since this blog is about what I've learned, however, I'm going that route...

What I've learned about myself, writing, and reading...
     * From line one, I knew this book was NOT for my seventh graders!
     * This was the first book I've read on my iPad. I'm a paper person. However, I learned I was okay with bookmarking a page in the middle of a chapter... This does NOT happen when I read paper books.
     * I realized it's okay to read a romance every now and then! (Especially when Noah is in it!)
     * I have a feeling Amy went through the Scotland adventure herself - she knew so much of what she was writing. We start by writing what we know, right? She also threw in 80s and 90s references - I caught a few, and found I connected more with her when she threw in lines from mine and my husband's favorite movie (I'm not spoiling it - you'll have to read it yourself - even the lines on the last page hit home for me)!
     * I found myself looking at sentence structure, seeing vocabulary I loved, and recognizing character traits and patterns of speech more than I ever have. Was I wondering what I would write for a review? No. I was wondering how I could write like this. I was wondering how people come up with stories. I was wondering how authors come up with believable characters.
     * I stayed on the lookout for good quotes - we have a "literary graffiti" ceiling in room 239. Here's one of my favorites:  I'm suddenly aware that my lack of success in the male/female relationship department might have something to do with my preference for boys made from words. (p94)
     * I was reminded that I am illiterate when it comes to "Literature" (with a capital L). I don't know the books (or even movies) Jordan (the main character - and I'm sure Amy, too) is in love with. I have added the movie (I don't think I'd understand the book!) "A Room With a View" to my list, and even one of Shakespeare's works...... I've got some work ahead of me. I'm still working through one of the quotes at the beginning of one of the sections of If Only...
     * I was inspired. I would like to say I was inspired to write my own novel...... It's not that I don't consider myself a writer (sigh...I still really don't), but I have often wondered... What would I write about? I don't consider myself creative. I'm pretty good at copying what others do, but I'm not great at coming up with ideas on my own. And a story? HAH! I have never even written a short story. That doesn't mean I can't... It means I must try. If I expect my students to try, I need to try, as well. Ugh.
     * I wondered how many books or short stories Amy has written.... How many times has she "failed?" How many edits has she made? How many times has she felt her writing was "not good enough?" I wonder if she'll Skype with my writers' group some day this year???  (Go ahead, Amy - please answer in the comments!)
     * I realized once again that we bring our background to what we read. My husband and I are on page 31, and again on page 331... In fact, I had to read a few parts aloud to him...

And my last thought for tonight...
     * If you know the author, but the book is written well, you will forget that that person read it, and just be swept up in it...


Embrace is excited to be announcing the release of Amy Pine’s If Only, which readers are already raving about!  Plus you can pick up If Only on sale for just $.99 right now.

 On Sale: March 24, 2014

About If Only:

Sometimes it takes crossing an ocean to figure out where you belong.

It's been two years since twenty-year-old Jordan had a boyfriend—which means it's been forever since she, well, you know. But now she’s off to spend her junior year in Aberdeen, Scotland, the perfect place to stop waiting for Mr. Right and just enjoy Mr. Right Now.

Sexy, sweet (and possible player) Griffin may be her perfect, no-strings-attached match. He’s fun, gorgeous, and makes her laugh. So why can’t she stop thinking about Noah who, minutes after being trapped together outside the train’s loo, kisses Jordan like she’s never been kissed before? Never mind his impossible blue eyes, his weathered, annotated copy of The Great Gatsby (total English-major porn)…oh, and his girlfriend.

Jordan knows everything this year has an expiration date. Aberdeen is supposed to be about fun rather than waiting for life to happen. But E. M. Forster, Shakespeare, and mistletoe on Valentine’s Day make her reconsider what love is and how far she’s willing to go for the right guy.
Find If Only Online:

Find A.J. Online:

If Only Swag Pack -An “I love you from here to Scotland” print, Ahava pendent, A pack each of Much Ado about Nothing and A Room With a View confetti, Much Ado about Nothing travel mug and A Room With a View Blu-ray (a $25 Amazon gift card will be substituted if winner is outside the US).                      a Rafflecopter giveaway