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.

Friday, June 27, 2014


I've taken the liberty of capitalizing beginnings of tweets, completing words, and adding ending punctuation on this conversation via Twitter four days ago...

"Not a fan of genius hour or other schemes to justify rest of the school day being laborious or irrelevant" -Gary Stager, Ph.D.
"The word 'scheme' hit me hard. #Geniushour affects 100% of the week" sent with an attachment to the link to a blog post where I defend Genius Hour. -me
"Why call it an hour then?" -Stager
"Don't think the name matters. Isn't it about kids thinking and building a passion for learning?" -Kathy Turley
"Of course the name matters. Words matter." -Stager
"Words DO matter. I'm fortunate I have 1hr/wk that changes the other 4hrs students & I have together." -me
"Don't care about Dan Pink. Why not read Dewey, Hawkins, Kohl, Meier, Littky, a Papert, Malaguzzi?" -Steger
"They all have something to offer. Everyone has their favorites doesn't mean 'Pink* is wrong.'" -Ihor Charischak
"Pink makes up stuff and spreads junk science. He's wrong." -Steger
"Have read most of those but why not package it for people. G.H. is one way to use what they say." -Jarrod Lamshed
"The challenge with packaging GH = it becomes consumable & discarded and when the package is discarded, the underlying principles often go along with it." -Dave Quinn
     * Pink = Daniel Pink, author of Drive (one book some teachers link to Genius Hour)

And I'm in a sour mood for the next two days...
I don't get it. Why not support something that COULD POSSIBLY BE one way teachers can BEGIN the process of letting students take over their own learning? Does it matter what you read that gives you idea of letting students ENJOY school while taking ownership of their learning? Does it matter that people may be "packaging" it, but they like at least a portion of what they're seeing from students - and it's more choice than their students have ever had? Heaven forbid it changes the rest of their week with students, or maybe their outlook during future years! Harrumph.

Skip two more days...

Holland Michigan - where my love and I would rendezvous and eventually get married! We visited on our three-year anniversary this year to unplug, relax, and enjoy the water. One of our stops: Kirk Park

Here - they have rules, warnings, and guidelines... .......All    the    way    to    the    beach.

Some people can look at them and think... this park will be no fun. I won't be able to do ANYthing. And then... they get to the beach...see and hear the waves...feel the sand between their toes...

It got me thinking about all the rules teachers and students have. A quick overview of a student's morning at my middle school:
     Rule 1: No biking or skateboarding on school property.
     Rule 2: No throwing snow on school property.
     Rule 3: When you walk in the door, no hats allowed.
     Rule 4: Turn off any devices and leave them (and your jacket) in your locker; get to homeroom.
     Rule 5: Sit in your seat and be quiet while we listen to announcements.
     Rule 6: Stand for the pledge of allegiance.

Phew! And that's all in the first ten minutes of a student's day!

What about teachers? I have at least two rules imposed on me:
     Rule 1: Create and maintain a safe environment where children can learn.
     Rule 2: Cover curriculum.

Some people will look at student and teacher rules and think... this is so hard on the students... no BYOT... maybe scripted curriculum... how can they cover all that curriculum in one year... students won't be able to do ANYthing fun. And then... they visit the classrooms... see and hear student engagement in various ways... see curriculum being covered and (GASP!) students smiling...

What are school rules for?
     RESPECT for learning

Would anyone doubt this? If I don't like the rules I have to teach by, I could leave. The facts are, however, the reason for the rules makes sense. I like my school. I even like to follow rules. I don't like to make waves. I will work my hardest at covering the curriculum in the few hours I have with my seventh graders. I will work with other teachers as to how this can best be accomplished. I will try to keep my students having FUN while learning the curriculum. AND... I will also have one hour of my five hours with children where they can pursue their own learning.

I am currently not in a position to change my entire school or my entire district. Nor do I have the drive or energy to do so. I do not even pretend to have the knowledge of HOW to do so. How many teachers are like me? How many want to begin to change students' lives by making a difference in his or her own class? If so, it cannot hurt to try something similar to Genius Hour. And if you don't like the name, by all means - change it. Here is a list of some other names, or create your own. I've defended the name I use here. The whole point of this type of learning --> to engage students, to help them imagine and then express their creativity, to help them discover their passions, and to encourage them to use their own genius to make a difference in their world. I just cannot sit back and watch as some teachers trash good ideas - just because it may not be possible for some 100% of the time.

Compare class to the beach. Even with all these rules, I found time to swim in the water, play frisbee, build a sand castle, splash around, and even read my "assigned" summer reading book...

If you want to work in a building or district in which the "genius hour" or "20 percent time" philosophy IS truly 100% of the time, try one of these schools. If you want to stay where you are and make a difference in your own classroom, try - at every opportunity - to give your students choice in HOW they learn your curriculum, and choice in WHAT they learn. Then please share with the world what you are doing in your classroom that is making a difference. It doesn't have to be ALL or NOTHING. Some people have a hard time starting small. I won't be knocking them for trying - I'll be supporting them all I can.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

2013-2014 Year in Review

My 19th year of teaching - feels like my first, once again!
Since this post is really just for me to use to reflect on the year, I'm using bullet points...

- ICE CAP Mini-Conference - presented on Evernote to a group of teachers who were not on Twitter!
- Genius Hour LiveBinder was voted into the top 10!
     --Tina & Barbara sent me free bookmarks, then 300 more for Parent Night in September!
- Created our class Weebly, thanks to this stellar role model Weebly from Paul Solarz

- #ELAtlap chat! Because of Bernice Homel, we learned how to run a chat and how to archive it!
     --We've since changed the name to #ELAchat!
     --Shameless Plug - Find #ELAchat on the first and last Tuesday of each month, 7pm CST.
- Met F2F - Mindi Rench, Bernice Homel, Katie Hurkles, Megan Ryder, Garnet Hillman
- Facilitated a session for the first ever EdCampHome!
- Created & shared collaboration documents for MS teachers - all in one Google doc folder.
- Notice & Note group through school - nice to read a professional book with teachers I know.
- Reviewed Role Reversal for MiddleWeb

- Presented with Jen Smith on using Twitter to your advantage during Tech Academy for our district
- Facilitated a session on student choice and presented with Paul Solarz on Genius Hour (Passion Projects) on Opening Day for the district.

- My approach to Parent Night was very different this year... See this blog post.
     I think taking this approach really helped start a strong relationship with the parents.

October LOTS OF PICS here
- Presented on "Student Choice in the ELA Classroom" at IATE with Gary Anderson (congrats on your retirement this school year, Gary!), Russ Anderson, Jaclyn Han, and Amy Pine
- Met F2F - Nancie (last name?) & Maggie Vonck while they were in town from Green Bay!
- Helped organize and run EdCampChicago in WoodDale with the best crew ever!
     --Met F2F here - Ben Hartman, Jen Vincent, Jenna Hacker, Steve Wick, Eric Patnoudes, Jeff Zoul, Meg Van Dyke, Tasha Squires, Ben Kuhlman, Kimberly Hurd, Rick Rowe, John Corbett, Brendan Murphy, Kristie Bleers, Jason Hanrahan, & countless others!
We even had Kimberly at the house overnight - only Twitter teachers, right?!?!
The great crew this fall - including my hubby!
- Reviewed Common Core English Language Arts in a PLC at Work: Gr 6-8 for MiddleWeb
- Reviewed Teaching with Tablets for MiddleWeb
- Idea Paint (District Grant received last year) was finally painted on 12 of my 15 classroom tables!

- As a group, the #ELAchat ladies read Whole Novels for the Whole Classroom, and had teacher and author Ariel Sacks moderate the chat.
- Read 78 books in 2013
- Began a quick magnet name poll system for students - thanks to an idea I saw on Twitter, of course...

- Began the Power of Appreciation blog
DG58 Literacy Blizzard Playdate - facilitated a session on genius hour using reading, and got a cake pop for my birthday from Bernice! ;)
   --Met Christopher Bronke, Jodi Piekarz, Samara Silverman, Ed Casey, Elizabeth N., Justin Greene, Theresa Allen, Matt Coaty, Kristen Mattson, Mark White, Dara Kappel, Maggie Maslowski, & met more teachers to add to my PLN.
- EdCamp Madison
   --Met F2F - Ben Brazeau, Principal Joey Sagel & his crew, John Gunnel, Brian Durst, Andrea Kornowski, Melissa Emler, Alex Bocian, Darin Johnston & Melissa Johnston from IA, and countless others!!!!
Three states in the Genius Hour session! (John - WI , me, & Darin - IA)

- Bought 139 books for $37 at AHML sale

SIT Conference - I volunteered at this stellar conference for KIDS in technology!!
     --Met F2F Lynn Szabo, Jill Maraldo and Charlene Chausis
- ICE Conference - Learned about Doctopus and Goobric from Marcie Faust - Invaluable!
     --Met F2F - George Courous, Sue Gorman, Tim Scholze, Lance Fuhrer, Andy Fekete, Akemi Sessler, Joe Robinson, Erin Jackle... and more!

- Went to a workshop through our district to hear Rick Wormeli!
     This caused a few discussions at my school, for sure. It was a good push for me, at the right time.

- Reviewed arc of If Only by Amy Pine!
- Skyped with Nancy Wahl's class to help out with Genius Hour
- EdCamp Iowa
     --Met F2F here - Jimmy Casas, Matt Degner, Becky Ince, Tim Hadley, Aaron Mauer, Aaron Becker, Bill Porter, Gail LeGrand, Julie Bauer, Sarah Nelson... This was the most fun (and the most learning, I believe) I've had at an EdCamp, for sure.

- Met & was able to eat dinner with Amy Smith and her daughter on Spring Break in Nashville, TN!
- Skyped with one of Dean Shareski's students
- Students received shoes to test during Genius Hour from UnderArmour Women & Asics
- CNN Schools interviewed me and some of my students for this article about Genius Hour!
- I put in proposal for "PD in Your PJs" to IATE - I'm in!
- Reviewed arc of THRIVE, by Meenoo Rami - My first time participating in a blog tour!
- Completed a photo-a-day challenge, thanks to inspiration from the ICE conference

- A student taught me how to fly - by using Pixlr.com

- Created a Poet Tree thanks to Kimberly Hurd sharing the idea via Google+
One of my favorite distractions this year!

Some poems were found discarded...

Some poems told of heartache...

Some poems were fun to find!

- Received a copy of Dash from the author (and local teacher) Greg Armamentos for my students to read and review
- Enjoyed a lunchtime author visit from Tim Shoemaker to our Genius Hour writers' club
- Was enticed by passionate teacher Nancy Wahl to write a proposal for the annual ASCD conference
     --Still waiting to hear! ;)

- At Taft (our three-day, two-night outdoor ed. trip), I was reminded that 7th grade boys are still babies in ways, and I learned that I can keep it together when a rock makes a child's head bleed profusely.
- I was nominated for a Bammy ??
- I was interviewed for a Talks with Teachers podcast about... you guessed it... Genius Hour.
- A student set up his own Shutterfly site for every 7th grader on our team to share their Taft photos
- EdcampChicago at Palatine High School - I could get used to this!
- Our class was featured in this Imagination Foundation article about why we do the Cardboard Challenge
- Tried the Whole Novels approach for The Outsiders
- A student made a Little Free Library for the community!
- Received a copy a novel written by a student this year
- Just keep tweaking, just keep tweaking...

What will my 20th year bring...?? BRING IT ON!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Genius Hour Year Two - Reflection

I'm a numbers person. 
I like to see graphs and charts. 
I always wonder... 
     Can you quantify what happened during Genius Hour this year? 

I did this same reflection with numbers last year (see this post), and had to crunch the numbers once again. Our second full year under our belts, I decided to just focus on fourth quarter for this reflection. Of course, more changes are coming for next year, but fourth quarter was "true" Genius Hour - I let students read, research, create... it was up to them.

I'll just get right into the number crunching I did. Keep in mind that I had 64 students participating. Let's start with presentations. Our presentations for which I had permission to publish are located here on our class Weebly.

Presentation Quality
  Last year, we did not focus on presentation quality. This year, I gave three mini-lessons on presenting. One was regarding visuals, one regarding audio, and one regarding body language. I still didn't want to over-analyze, so I quickly went down the list of students and gave the first "grade" that came to mind:
  0 = not good    
  S = solid          
  * = stellar
2013 Stats

Anyone interested in what school subjects students learned about? I was...
I didn't know where a couple of these fit in... Video games? Designing with Minecraft? DIY (Do-it-Yourself)? So they have their own category. (Some DIY projects could have been classified as science, some as family & consumer science, some as art...) I'm so glad more this year are geared toward reading and writing - I think that happened because I started with Erin Olson's idea of Read, Be Inspired, and Act on It (or Do Something Inspiring)...

2013 Stats

Just how productive were students during class time? If I'm using 20% of our class time for students to learn what THEY want to learn, this had better be productive... Here are the questions I asked myself:
Did students work on their project during this hour every week?
  0 = no               S = somewhat       * yes
If they did not work on their project in class, did they read or were they productive in some other way?
  N = no                                         Y = yes
I put these two together to see student engagement in class...

2013 Stats

Then I considered...
What about a "typical" day in LA class? What is student engagement like then?  If the numbers are low, it could be a mixture of things... My passion for the content, techniques I use to keep students interested, student preferences for content, student emotions, family life, etc. etc. etc... I could go on and on about student engagement in a middle-school classroom, but I still had to measure it to make any sort of comparison.  This year's "typical" reading and writing day was a tough one, but there were still days during which I lecture, then facilitate, then students do independent work. What does student engagement in this setting look like?
I decided to measure student engagement in typical lessons in this fashion:
  0 = does not know where we are in the lesson
  S = can participate if called upon
  * = participates without prompting

2013 Stats

Let's put the two side by side...
Genius Hour In-Class Engagement                   Engagement in Typical Lessons

Which would you rather have? In which setting would you rather be? The latest talk I've listened to that has really focused on why students need to be engaged in lessons is this one by Brandon Busteed. This is a 35 minute speech that was tweeted out by Denise Krebs over a year ago. This is what I've come to realize - It's all about student engagement, and letting students know you care about them. In this video, he says that from the last Gallop poll, only 61% of middle-school students are engaged during lessons.  I truly feel that all parents, teachers, and administrators need to hear this talk. Please take the time to listen to him - I cannot sum it up here, as there is so much he says that is vital to our students' education.

Speaking of student engagement...
Another number I wanted was student engagement outside of the school hours.
Is there evidence of work at home?
  0 = no               S = somewhat   * yes

These numbers are very different from last year. This could mean many things. For me, at least, a good take-away is that it meant more students were engaged during class time, and this helped things run smoother for me this year. Classes did seem to be more chaotic (loud, messy, where is so-and-so?), but I wasn't keeping everyone on track as much as I had to last year.

I wish we could have collaborated with other students, and two other students from across the world wanted to collaborate on a music project! Unfortunately, that's when one of my students decided to create the band, instead of going alone on her project.

Tyler & Matt's LFL
This year, however, we have two new changes - I was able to get a mentor for our nine novelists, and three groups of students ("Play It In Reverse" band, Little Free Library, & Which shoe is best?) reached out to the community for help! One teacher from a local district, Christopher Bronke, wanted to mentor, but the two students that would thrive under his mentorship never jumped at the chance (and I KEPT bugging them!). Bonus for us (as I didn't push this): we had six students from my classes who have made a difference in someone else's life. A Little Free Library was created, books were collected and sent to children's hospitals, money was collected for water in Africa, and hand-made goods were sold to collect for a greenhouse for our school garden.

Our classes were also featured in two online articles this year - CNN Schools did a story about Genius Hour (check out the sixth photo), & Imagination Foundation picked up our story about why we do the Cardboard Challenge in preparation for Genius Hour.

One more thing - I need to share a quote from a student who was NOT engaged during class time. He wrote this in his reflection: "Genius Hour was my favorite bc it felt like I had freedom in school." Another wrote, "I liked Genius Hour because we got our own time to do something we liked." No kidding.

Please tell me in the comments... What else could I try to measure for this reflection? What do these graphs tell you? What's the next step?
Wordle made from students' one-word reflections

2013 Wordle made from students' one-word reflections...

All graphs were created at this easy-to-use website: Kids' Zone Create-A-Graph