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, August 30, 2014

Finally Realizing My Own Passion

I finally get it.

After hearing Angela Maiers in person at BLC12 (Better Learning Communities, Boston, 2012), reading both Classroom Habitudes and The Passion-Driven Classroom, seeing her work regarding Choose2Matter with high school students, following all the tweets and retweets of her words and work, and watching her podcasts, Google HangOuts, Skype sessions and now my favorite - "Passion-Based Learning with Angela Maiers".......

I finally get it.

I think I listened to this visit with Angela about 15 times now. She explains "passion," as she does whenever I listen to her words. After listening to her so many times and actually thinking about my own life and how I'm motivated by my own passion, I finally get it. Here are the words that have resonated with me this past month, and the message I will be sharing with my students this year.

"Many people think passion is doing what you like to do. And that projects should be wrapped around what kids like to do... But the root word of passion is 'to suffer; to endure.' So, passion isn't doing something that you LIKE to do - that's called a 'hobby,' or a 'project.' It's not even doing something that you're good at doing. That could turn into a job or a career or a project again. Passion is discovering what you MUST do.

"If you were asked to not do _____, what would your life be like? When you talk to individuals who are passion-driven, there is no event, there is no project, there is no beginning and end, and there's certainly no mastery... You're never finished. Passion becomes your energy, it becomes your fuel, your soul, when you think you can't rely on anything else and then passion whispers in your ear and says, 'What choice do you have?' because quitting is not an option...

"This is where the word 'suffering' becomes important... When something gets hard, or when something becomes high risk... when you start feeling the pressure of it... it's at that moment when you decide to cross the line, when something stops being fun, when something becomes incredibly, absolutely, almost sometimes almost excruciatingly difficult, if you stay with it, you are driven by passion. If you give it up...it just isn't true passion."

Just this month, I have realized what my passion is. It is giving students time to pursue their own passions. It was my 40th birthday, in January of 2013. On this date, I crossed "the line." I felt the pressure, and Genius Hour stopped being fun...

There was a parent that had been angry with me throughout the first half of the school year - for various reasons. I remember three specific reasons - Her child did not do as well on the ISAT as the year prior, and nothing I was doing in class seemed to be helping her to do better on the next one coming up in April. I was not giving enough homework, her child didn't have any grammar or vocabulary or root word work to study at home, and class was "too easy." On this date in January, she wanted to meet with me and the principal so she could explain her concerns more. On this date in January, in front of the principal, I also heard the criticism, "Genius Hour is crazy. All the parents think so. You should do more PR for it."
Nope. I can cut through the yard!
Although I had my principal's support, it felt like I'd been punched in the gut. Although I knew that Genius Hour was the only day of the week I saw her child smile in class, I felt defeated. I wanted to go home and cry. It was the first time any parent had stepped on my toes about Genius Hour. I left the meeting, and left my principal to talk more with the parent. I went home and had my birthday meal. I don't remember if I cried or not, but I do know my husband and I talked long and hard about it. One thing he asked me, "Do you think you're doing the right thing?" Yes. "Why do you think so?"

I slept that night. (I'm blessed that I can sleep most nights without trouble!) I woke the next day and wrote this blog post about the changes I'd be making. And then I acted. Out of suffering. I endured. Quitting was not an option. She wanted PR for parents? OKAY! I took the notes I'd been keeping to myself in an Evernote folder, and I put them into an online binder - for all to see.

The LiveBinder was created out of pain. It started because Genius Hour had become something I MUST do with my students. I needed to defend it. I needed to find the stories that motivated others to try it. I needed to let parents know just WHY I was using this time in class on a weekly basis.

It grew. During the #GeniusHour chat once a month, teachers had always been asking - How do I start? How do your hold your students accountable? How does this prepare them for standardized tests? What can I use to inspire my students? What do you do about students who have a hard time with this type of learning? I started making the LiveBinder helpful to teachers, as well. I began collecting, every day, posts and ideas that people were tweeting out about their own trials and tribulations, creativity, innovation, engagement, passion......

There are now OVER 400 teachers who have made the Genius Hour LiveBinder what it is today. Call it what you will - Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects, Innovation Days... All of these days are incorporated into precious school hours because of teachers who are passionate. These teachers know that their students need time to follow their own passions, or be turned off by the institution we call "school." Who to thank for this LiveBinder? A parent who didn't understand Genius Hour - because I didn't explain it. Who else? YOU. We should thank all the teachers who have made the LiveBinder what it is, and all the teachers who will help it grow further.

I received an email from Sherri Stokes this past week. She wanted me to put six different resources on the LiveBinder. These resources are in FRENCH! World language teachers will be so happy to see them. In addition to the resources, she shared with me a lengthly story from a parent who was giving her blessing to Genius Hour, because it had helped her daughter and their family. This is more fuel for me. This feeds my passion in ways I can't describe.

What's next for me? I will continue to be PROactive with parents, and let them know what we're doing right from the starting gate. I will continue to curate resources found on the #geniushour and #20time hash tags. I cannot stop. This I MUST do. I've heard of too many success stories to stop now.

What's next for YOU? Please...
     Keep writing about what you're trying in class, and WHY you're trying it.
     Keep sharing this writing online, and tweet it out for the world to see.
          (Use the hashtags so more teachers see your tweets!)
     Keep trying, tweaking, and trying again.
     Keep doing what you know is right.
     Keep asking others for help. We can figure this out together.

You do your share, and I'll do mine.
Let's keep passion-driven learning alive during school hours.

Friday, August 15, 2014

We Are In Charge of Our Attitudes

I just finished the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. Woah. Among many things, it made me think of my word for 2014: Gratitude. With that in mind, here is how I'm going to approach the 2014-2015 school year... Have a STELLAR YEAR!

Source Unknown

Illinois State Beach

Our tire cover on the camper...

And this is how I try to live my life... thank you to my husband for introducing me to this quote...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Passion-Based Learning: Ready, set, go!

No matter the name, the goals are the same:
     Keep children engaged during school by letting them know you value them.
     Give children opportunities to collaborate, share their skills, learn what they want to learn, and share that learning with others.
     Help children stay life-long learners.

Names for this type of learning, that most likely happens outside of the "regular curriculum," include Passion Time, Genius Hour, 20% Time, Innovation Time... and the list goes on. Some teachers set aside time weekly for students to learn what they choose. Some schools have one day or one week a year dedicated to students owning their learning. Whatever you decide to do, your students and you will benefit - but I'm writing today to suggest guidelines for getting started. There are many decisions you should make before you begin. Don't let these scare you off - you'll have to make these decisions at some point during the process, so you might as well get going on them now.

Created by me with Diptic & Over apps.

Here is a brief "how to" guide for getting started:

1. Decide if you feel students need to focus this "choice" learning on your subject or a certain subject only. If so, your ideas for how to proceed will be different than if you leave student choice wide open. This will also help you determine the name you will give to this time.
2. Decide how much time you will dedicate in class, and stick to it. Which day(s)? Next, tell the students and parents, so they keep you accountable. Keeping parents in the loop is crucial - be sure to be proactive in this regard, and update them often through your class website or emails.
3. Decide if you will have a gradual release for ideas... Begin by asking students to teach their talent? Maybe a classroom-wide service project? A challenge? Learn something new first?
4. Decide your end result - Will students share throughout the year? Each semester? End of year? Will you require a product? An action? A presentation?
5. Figure out how your students will share. Will just their class know what they're doing? Partner with another class? The school? The world?
6. Decide if you will allow for pairs or group learning, or if you will require students to work independently. You will need to make this clear to students from the start.
7. Write down your expectations for class time. Some teachers have a small set of rules. These could include the following: be productive, learn something new, create, collaborate... Think of scenarios you'll run into (students watching YouTube videos) - will these fit into one of your expectations for students? Once you decide, put them on the board under your goal for the day.
8. Decide if, or what, you will grade. If you will grade, decide just how. If you will not grade, gather some reflections for the students to complete anyway. Reflection is a key step in this process.
9. I believe one-to-one conferring with students is essential. You will need to figure out a management system to monitor your own students' progress. Will you use a journal to keep track? A checklist? Goal sheets? Student sign-up? Will you have mentors come in to help? Do not check your email during this time, or do your own project (do that at home). Instead, confer with each student, as often as you can. Decide how you're going to keep track.
10. Research ideas as to how you will introduce the concept of passion-based learning to your students. You will want to explain the reasons behind your choice, and of course give them the "how does this benefit me" reason. This will also help you wrap your head around how you will keep students focused as they work. Ideas from teachers are here, videos are here, and picture books are here.

Once you get started, follow these steps Gallit Zvi laid out.

Count on tweaking your ideas from week to week and year to year... Students' ideas will provoke change in your classroom, and in your thinking!*

*Disclaimer: Be ready to be the loudest and most engaged class in your hallway...

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blogging Blunders

I've tried blogging in my 7th grade ELA class for two years now, each with a different tilt...

Quick overview of 2012-2013...

My goal: have students reflect on what we're doing throughout the year - mainly for Genius Hour

We set up our blogs through Kidblog.

Pros and Cons:
     + I was able to see new blog posts easily.
     + One class was on one page.
     -  Not all three classes were on one page.
           Resolution: I easily created a page on our class blog for this.


I assigned blog posts for reflections - for Dot Day, Cardboard Challenge, and Genius Hour posts.
These were graded blog posts, but students chose how I graded them (from Sylvia Tolisano's rubric).
I really didn't assign a ton of posts - I only give independent reading as homework, and I need to check out the laptop carts if I expect them to blog in class. I also saw this as just a substitute for a notebook - I was not assigning authentic blog post assignments... It was also hard to grade them using a blogging rubric, as those were not always the standards we cover in class. So... blogging really fell by the wayside for us. I needed to change things.

Quick overview of 2013-2014...

My goal: have AUTHENTIC blogging experiences, so they continue to blog

We set up blogs through Blogger this time, as they all have Google accounts through school.

Pros and Cons:
      + Students could design, adding background picture or gadgets, or... so many choices!
      - They took a lot of time to set up.
            Resolution: Took the time when the reruns of Big Bang Theory were on.
      - I did not set up the blogs so I could moderate
            Resolution: I found out I COULD, thanks to @alcp! I may do this next year.
      - Cannot check the blogs easily (like on Kidblog) to see if there are new ones. 
            Resolution: @TeachMrsFerrari taught me how through Feedly! <-- post from @langwitches
      - All blogs are not all in one place.
            Resolution: I made a page on our class blog for a list of their blogs.
      + It was fun making a ThingLink for each class like I saw another teacher do (It's been so long I forget who deserves the credit!), and the kids love it.


I did not assign blog posts (except for the first paper blog). This meant that those students who don't do anything extra never wrote any more blog posts. That was the major blunder. Another was that since there weren't that many blog posts written, there weren't that many to share, hardly any comments on them, and not many in-class role models to celebrate as a class.

With that in mind, we did experience some successes:
-May Joy's description of herself - I never asked students to write this, but she definitely got what I was hoping our purpose for the blogs would be!
-Annie's story was featured on the 100-Word Challenge Showcase!
-Christina wrote a review of Hate List before she was even finished with it.
     The author commented - and then REPLIED to Christina's question!
Click here for the full post.

- Colin used his blog to raise money. His most successful was his water campaign.
- Claire kept trying different things - her novel(s), Psychology Saturdays, Fan Fiction...
    Sadly, she hasn't kept this up over the summer...
- Annie tried many ideas this year... For one blog, she copied and pasted funny photos 
      & videos.
   She ran into a few people asking about the appropriateness of the "cheeky quotes" 
       widget she had, and what the purpose of her blog was... She was upset by this.
   She then began a new food blog and that, too, was copying other people's ideas.
   By the time our genius hour presentations came along, she had begun 
       this book review blog! Sadly, she has not kept this up over the summer...
   I love how she experimented with blogs (although I was worried for her, and realized 
       I did not give lessons on "how to blog") and finally found something that works for her.

Some statistics:

Nine of my 64 students blogged - inconsistently, but they did blog for a bit. 
Four of these created NEW blogs!
One of these is still blogging over the summer - Woot! Woot! It matters to that one... 
       Please take a moment to check it out and comment. I suppose it was my dream for ALL
       students to keep a blog over the summer! I'll keep dreaming...

Changes for 2014-2015...

My goal: model throughout the year how to blog authentically, while requiring certain posts and using ELA standards on which to grade them

We will continue to use Blogger. This is so they may continue with their blogs in 8th grade...

What I will do to prepare my students for blogging...

--Share this document with articles regarding using other people's ideas on your blog.
--Set up something like this post - good "How To" to start with.
--Discuss WHY people blog.
     Share Top Ten Things I've Learned About Blogging from a 5th grader.
     Share some of the reasons from Pernille Ripp's post What Does Student Blogging Exactly Do?
--Start with paper blogging from McTeach - BEST LESSON EVER.
--Teach how to (and why!) comment.
          Solid posts regarding leaving good comments:
               How to Be a Good Commenter from John Scalzi
               Commenting from @BalancEdTech
               Quality Commenting - student guest post from @langwitches
               Leaving Good Comments PDF from Solution Tree
--Teach students how to embed videos, add Clustr Maps, give credit where due, set comments settings to "anyone" and "never" for moderating (requests were going to email accounts that the students never check).
--Go to #comments4kids on Twitter, and comment on some together as a class. (Then 
     tweet out #ICommented from your class account when your class comments!)
--Find a class that is blogging already and comment on some of their posts TOGETHER 
     as a class.
--Purchase a world map for marking reader comment locations. (Purchase pins and 
     string, too.)
--I've thought about requiring students to comment, but I'll work that out with my partner 
     across the hall... Still not sure about this one.
--Include parents - we had our first blog posts (passion paragraphs) ready for Open House.
--Email parents or advertise on your class blog when there are when stellar posts.
--Require reflection blogs, using portions and variations of this rubric or this rubric (or both).
     Does anyone want to help me with this? I'd love to create a short rubric that fits the 
     CCSSs & allows for reflections, as well!
--Require some (how many??) independent reading blog posts, using these rubrics.
--This rubric can be our ultimate goal, but I won't grade them with it!
--At the end of the year, emphasize once again how blogging is usually used for authentic 
     purposes. Show them that it is okay to delete posts they no longer need on their blog, 
     in order to start fresh. What do they really feel a passion to blog about? Or not...??

Final thoughts:

I exposed these seventh graders to blogging last year - it was really the first time they'd 
     set up a blog and been let loose with it. They currently do not blog in 6th or 8th grade,
     so I feel it is my duty to at the very least expose them to the idea of blogging and
     leaving a positive digital footprint. I know now that I need to model and require 
     some blogs from students. Model, model, model, and practice, practice, practice... 
     These will be my main changes for this upcoming year. How do YOU approach 
     blogging with your middle school students??

how to make animated gif

I know I will have many more blunders...