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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Books of 2014

From my meager list of 79 books read in 2014 (my personal challenge was 73) - my favorites...

A Book ALL Educators Should Read:
     Choice Words by Peter Johnston
          This is, hands down, the BEST book I've read for my profession. I couldn't stop reading it once I started. Everyone who works with children should read this treasure. Ever since I found out about how teachers shame students (even without being conscious of it), I've been more aware of what words I use. This book will hopefully help me convey the message to students that they truly DO matter. Their actions, words, choices... all of it matters, and we are all on the same journey - together. If you work with children, and you care about them READ THIS BOOK. This coming year, I will try to use these ideas with adults, as well...! (Quick tip blog post on how to use this book when giving feedback on writing...)

Books My Seventh Graders Should Read:
     The Pregnancy Project by Gaby Rodriguez
          Well, the girls should read this one, at least... I was hooked from the first two pages. I purchased this book thinking of high schoolers' 20% projects... The impact from this project was nationwide. The writing wasn't the very best, but it wasn't written by a writer - it was written by a young lady who wanted to change stereotypes, and help young teen females. I will recommend this to young ladies - I think any young lady could handle the message, as it is stated often and in various forms.

     The Hate List by Jennifer Brown
          Okay, maybe not in seventh grade, but eighth, and definitely in high school... Mature? Yes. So many issues were brought up from this story of a school shooting - I think the author covered most of them. Not in too much depth (or I'd be crying the entire time), but enough to make you think about every aspect of your behavior and the behavior of others. It's a great reminder that EVERY person has a story. Get to know it.

Reluctant Reader (7th grade):
     The Running Dream by Wendelin VanDraanen
          LOVED it! So glad a group of 7th grade girls recommended it to me. It's on our Rebecca Caudill list this year, and we used it for our all-school summer read. Everything in it is totally appropriated, and it has powerful messages. I'd recommend this to any sports freak and anyone who has difficulty with something in his/her life. It teaches the message of "one day at a time..."

     Memory Boy by Will Weaver
          I put this one off for a bit too long, I think. It grabbed me from the beginning, and since it was an easy read, I enjoyed breezing through the action mixed in with flashbacks of weeks before the volcano had erupted... I will suggest this to students who have fierce memories, and ones who liked Hatchet.

Graphic Novel:
     Page By Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge
          I really enjoyed this quick read, and I understood it! (I'm not a big GN fan.) I have the perfect student for this book - one that doesn't know who she is, and is constantly battling herself inside her head. Things don't always go her way and either she thinks it's all her fault, or she blames her mom for everything. There are three instances of language (that really don't need to be in there to make it effective! UGH!) that make this book "young adult." A 7th grader might not catch what they mean and gloss over them (I hope).

Historical Fiction:
     Fallout by Todd Strasser
          What if? What if your family was the one to build the bomb shelter - with enough supplies for your family ONLY - and six other people decided to join you on the day the bomb was dropped? This story kept me reading. I didn't like the way every other chapter was from a different time (in the shelter, then three days prior), but it came together nicely. Some mature parts.

     The Perfect Shot by Elaine Marie Alphin
          I'm glad I read this sports mystery, even though I really don't care for sports or mystery books! this book has it all - the dangers of racism, justice, murder, policemen-gone-bad, court, prejudices, history... I liked how it had almost an adult book feel to it. (Our local library has it in the YA and adult sections.) I'm glad it ended how it did - sort of a happy ending, and sort of not. The very end was predictable, but not all that happened in between. Good thought-provoking book. I'll have to figure out who the right kind of person is who'll want to read this one... Favorite quote - "How you act on the court is how you'll act off the court."

     Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
          Thank you, Yvette, for this great gift for our classroom! I engulfed this one and it will have a place of honor on our shelves. (Some content may be too mature for 7th grade.)
          Page after page is decorated with humans - each one has a story. Do you know it, or do you pretend to know it? With seventh graders judging 1,000,000 ways to Sunday, this is the perfect book to share with them.

     Seraphina's Promise by Ann Burg
          I thought this book about Seraphina's promise to herself (and to her baby brother who had passed) was very sweet. Filled with Haitian Creole phrases and melodramatic rhythm, this book written in prose was the perfect companion to me on my snow/cold day off of school. I don't know if you can count it as historical fiction, but it does include the earthquake Haiti suffered in 2010. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes books in prose, quick reads, and who appreciates all they have. I have some very simple quotes from this book that say a ton about life.

Science Fiction:
     Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
          Woah. This book sucked me in from the first page. Being a teen of the 80s and a video gamer (alas, I've tamed that addiction), I loved the premise of this book. I know just what 8th graders need to read it, too! There was one sexually-mature page, and quite a bit of foul language, but I was able to overlook those and see the point of the story - get out and ENJOY this world!!

     Unbroken, by Laura Hillanbrand
          I started this book a couple of years ago, and loaned it out when I was at chapter five - about 30 pages in. I picked it up again and finished it in three days. I don't know what to say except that I doubt I will ever read another book like it. The fact that Louis Zamperini actually came away unbroken and lived with unbridled effervescence until this year is astounding. Stellar role model and inspiration... We're heading to see the movie for New Year's Eve tonight - I hope they do it justice.

I Can't Believe I Kept Reading It:
     Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
           Actually, I didn't read this entire book this year... It took me two years to finish! As my ears got red and I felt I had to hide while reading this book, I can't believe I actually finished it! I don't know what to think about it, but I'm glad I read this book I've only heard whispered about! ("Didn't you have to read Lolita in college?" Nope!)

You're Next:
     What were your favorites of 2014? Please leave yours in the comments so we all have more great books to devour! Here's to 2015!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Questioning Using Padlet

At the start of our short unit on science fiction, we're focusing strongly on questioning. Here were our plans for our the first five days. Keep in mind that I have an 80-minute block, and we spent 10-15 min on grammar and three science fiction book trailers from this list at the beginning of each day.

Day 1

1. Discuss the goal of the lesson - to write as many questions as you can about this story. Make sure students have something with which to write, and on which to write.
2. Discuss WHY we're writing questions. What's the point?
3. Students read the story one time independently, writing down their questions.
4. Students share their questions with their table groups, and see which ones their friends can help them answer.
5. Teacher reads the story aloud, asking students to write down more questions, and/or cross out questions that were answered from this second reading.
6. Each table group gets a device, and is asked to go to a Padlet site and add the question(s) they consider important or interesting. Ask them to have only ONE question per box. I tried this with each student the first time, and it did NOT go well. Doing this in groups of three or four makes the Padlet questions much easier to manage.
7. Students return the device when they're finished (makes managing the rest of the Padlet easier).
8. Explain the three ways of thinking listed below. I convert this to types of questions - ONE at a time.

Taken from Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks...
9. I introduced the "Literal" question idea, typed it on the Padlet on the left side, and asked students to find the questions that go under that "literal" label.
10. When I introduced "Inferential" and "Critical," I did the same.

This is how our Padlet ended up looking like for "Evil Robot Monkey"...

We noticed...
--> We're missing question marks!
--> We have some vague pronouns (which "he" do we mean?).
--> One didn't fit into any category from this class (Spencer's on the bottom right).
--> One we could not agree on. --> Spencer - "is this a school for animals"
--> One had two questions on one box, so we put it on the bottom in the middle - students decided that the first part was literal, and the second was critical.

On this night, #ELAchat was rockin' with ways to keep students engaged. One I tweeted about was Padlet today. I received this tweet from Karen Desjadon with a link to what a Padlet looks like EMBEDDED in a blog:

Days 2 & 3

1. Review WHY we are spending so much time asking questions.
2. Begin reading the story - students' job is to write questions as we read.
3. After a certain page, I handed out this reading check, and we did questions 1-4 together, discussing which type of question each one was. 
4. After the entire story was finished, students shared their questions about the story at their tables, and were able to get answers to some issues they did not understand.
5. We completed an "elements of science fiction" chart for this story, and gave evidence as to where the elements were in this particular story.
6. We revisited the questions from the reading check. Instead of answering the next five in class, we opened up the Padlet once more, and categorized them under "literal" and "inferential."
7. We discussed trends we noticed - 
          Why were there NO critical questions on this reading check?
          Why were there almost an equal number of literal and inferential questions?
          Why do teachers have literal questions on their work for students?
          Why do teachers have inferential questions? What do the answers show the teachers?
8. We circled our two (three in one class) inferential questions, and I let them know I'd be grading these, along with the other literal questions. I gave them two different grades, and redos ended up looking like this.

Day 4
"Zero Hour" by Ray Bradbury

1. Review WHY we are spending so much time asking questions. How will these questions help us in "real life," as well as in school?
2. Begin reading the story - students' job is to write questions as we read.
3. After reading this one, students got into groups, shared their myriad questions, and came up with one or two to which they wanted to know the answers.
4. Each group received an iPad on which to put their questions. This time, the definitions for each type of question were already on the top of the Padlet. However, I did notice that they just put their questions any place, and we ended up moving them around again together.
5. Sort some of the questions, until you have at least SIX under "inferential."
6. Have students weed down the number to FOUR "great inferential questions." I explained a "great" question as one we THINK we know the answer to, but we'd have to find hints from the author in the text itself.

These are the four one class came up with - notice the two they rejected are crossed out. We moved them away from the list.

7. Quickly delete the other questions (hint: click the trash can on each first, then go back and click "OK, Remove" on all of them for a quick clearing).
8. Move each of the four remaining questions to a corner of the Padlet, signifying the corners where discussions will take place in the room.
9. Ask students to bring their text to a corner of the room and be ready to answer that question using support from the text. (5-10 min)
10. Have each group select a spokesperson to share the ideas of the group. (5-10 min)

We noticed...
--> One question from one class (I can't remember it!) they realized was NOT an inferential question, but a critical question, as they could not find any hints in the story to suggest an answer. They thought they had an answer, but realized they were relying on their background knowledge instead of the text.
--> It's fun answering our OWN questions, instead of the teacher's questions!

Day 5
Continue with "Zero Hour." This is not part of the Padlet activities, but I had to share this one!

1.  Ask the following question of the students - Who is responsible for the alien attack?
2.  Give them this sheet, asking them to be ready to defend their answer. 
      (This idea is from Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm's book, Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements, 2010.)
3.  Ask students to go to the four corners of the room, depending on who they think is the MOST responsible, sharing text evidence.
4.  Students write in response to this question after the discussion.

The Following Days...
We cover these stories during our science fiction unit, and this will lead into great fishbowl discussions to answer questions that are more critical!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


I don't know what the Edublog awards are, except for the fact that on some blogs they have "badges" for being nominated or a finalist for their content. Makes sense, as it's from Edublogs.

What's this, then? What's this "Best Individual Tweeter" idea? Seymour Simon sent me a tweet to this today, and I am truly honored -  not to be nominated - but to be in such stellar company. I already follow more than half of these tweeters, and I love that their tweets are all about education. They are professional, kind, and generous. Thank you to those ... um ... who do I thank for this??  However I got on this list, I'm just very honored to be in such great company!

Check out the list to start following passionate educators. While you're at it, check out the years prior!