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 29, 2015

The perfect teacher is...

During the first week of school, I like to ask students to fill in the blank:

The perfect teacher is _________________.

Here are the answers I received this year. I put them into a Wordle.
The bigger they are, the more times students wrote them:

What will I do with this information?
   1. Share it with students.
   2. Ask students if they agree.
   3. Ask students if I can ask the same of THEM. (Eyes open wide at this point!)
   4. Post it as a reminder to all of us to practice these traits.

As one 7th grader wrote, "I don't think a teacher can be perfect, because that's hard." For sure! (Oh, how I love this age!) Therefore, I will keep these in mind, and keep trying, but know I can't be perfect. (I can't be both "calm" and "energetic" at the same time - a lot of balance is needed!) When this happens, I hope the students are understanding, just as they'd like me to be.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Our "Classroom Crib" for 2015

Here we go... I'm excited to welcome 7th graders tomorrow. All of the neck pain / headaches / sciatic pain will be worth it (and may just disappear!??!) once they arrive.

This is the updated version of our "classroom crib" video I made last year, and it just doesn't look right without students. They will bring the life with their inquiries, wonders, stories, and struggles. For my 21st year, it's my plan that this will be the best yet!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saturday, August 22, 2015

#1st5Days Scavenger Hunt

I've been wanting to do a QR code scavenger hunt with my students for a few years now. We had an "extra" few days before school started this year, so I had some time to create! My original inspiration came from The Daring Librarian...!

My Goals:
--Classroom procedures shared in an engaging way
--Students moving around the room, searching, reading, listening, discussing, learning
--Easily accessible information for students who join in the middle of the year
--Information presented in different ways (video, audio, pictures, reading)
--Student practice with iPads we can check out and use
--End result: Students will learn and the bulletin board will be full (fingers crossed)
Materials Needed:

--Pairs of students w/split headphones when possible
--Double-sided copy of a hand out (here is mine) for each pair of students (next year I hope to go paperless!)
--QR scan app for each pair of students
--QR codes (for your lessons - here are mine) around the room, near the objects they describe
--An activity for students to do when they are finished. Mine is embedded into the hunt.
--Patience and time
How I imagined it would go:
I hope students will be searching for QR codes, reading, listening, and viewing our processes for the room. They have the handout as somewhat of a guide - they will be able to slowly fill it in once they access each site. I love that the handout isn't in any order, and that they blanks can be filled in differently, depending on what students got out of the (very) mini-lessons. I also hope to see students getting to work on our bulletin board decorations for Parent Night on their own.

How it actually went:
Overall, I believe it went well. We had some snafus, such as the fact that students didn't know their Google passwords had been changed, and needed to come to me to find them if they wanted to use some of the documents. I collected reflections from the two days of school, and one student actually wrote "I did not enjoy the scavenger hunt. I could barely find any of the questions." Oh, so good to know! I realized more and more as the day went on that the sheet provided was "all over the place" and students really couldn't find what they had to fill in. I'll need to change this so they are not as frustrated. Other students, however, wrote that they enjoyed it. "I like the scavenger hunt because it lets you learn about the class." "I thought today's lesson was challenging but fun, and how I like LA to be." I also received a mixed message... "I do not know what ELA will be like unless it is always easy like today. Then I won't like it."
Sometimes we stood on chairs...
There was a lot of looking down...
And many random pairs of students who didn't know each other...

--Use a URL shortener before you put it into the QR code generator. It will make your QR codes easier to read. I used the Chrome extension goo.gl URL shortener.
--I used QR Stuff for my QR code generator. I downloaded each pic, and saved them in my Google Drive.
--Explore the various tech you can use - modeling for students! I used my favorite tech spreadsheet (that I also share w/students) and various apps to make the QR codes go to different places. I also added in a fun ChatterPix video (a first for me)!
--Don't wait until the last minute to do this... It took a lot of planning, creating, and organizing.
--Don't think for one moment this will be a permanent lesson you can laminate and use every year - if you're a teacher who is learning from other teachers on Twitter, you KNOW things will be different in the classroom next year! ;)
I'm looking forward to seeing the students learn how they can run our class in room 239!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Predictions - Students Grading Themselves...

I have many fears, and yet I know this pilot with one of my three classes will be successful in many ways. Here are my predictions for this coming year with my 9/10 block - one week before school begins!

  • No matter how transparent I make our plans, some parents won't get the letter I send out, and will express concern (putting it lightly?) when I do not put grades in the online grade book.
  • Many parents will not look at the research I share behind the idea of feedback instead of grades.
  • Some students will need hand-holding when it comes to deciding on a portfolio and adding artifacts to show their learning.
  • Some students will not check their documents or the online grade book for feedback. I hope to have these students in before or after school (or lunch) to explain the purpose of revisions and give them time to revise.
  • After a few weeks, some students will not have work that proves that they are learning. Or... they'll have work, but decide to not revise it. These may be the students that answer me with an "I don't know - you tell me" when I ask them to prove what grade they earn and why.
  • Some students will try to prove that they deserve an A - for effort, even if they have not met the standards. I wish I could give them a grade for effort, and we will include that reflection in written form, by asking students to fill in this self-reflection (inspired by Paul Solarz in Learn Like a Pirate). This reflection will go in the envelope alongside their progress reports, and hopefully it will be a catalyst for a conversation with parents at home.
  • First quarter will be tough. For everyone. Me, students, and parents. And my husband! We'll all be figuring out how this is going to go.
  • After first quarter, students will be more motivated to be able to prove the grade they think they should earn.
  • I will be frustrated, and yet learn a lot as the year goes on.
  • No matter how it goes, I'll have a lot of material to work with when writing for my renewal for my National Board Certification! (WHY am I doing both in the same year?!)

I'm prepared for some struggles, but I'm also excited for successes. What's the point of all of this anyway? I'll keep my thoughts on my goals - I do not need to "give" grades. I'm in the classroom to help children LEARN.

My resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                  Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect

Side note: I will learn something in the first few days about what students think of the idea... We're using this quick Google form as part of our QR code scavenger hunt! (For my students only, please.)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Student Station Success

Still hiding behind a teacher's desk?
Try transforming it!

I've had this since 2012, and it's a dream. 

What you don't see:
     The side of the desk says (largely) "Student Station." Visitors can easily see the name.
     There are various magnets on the side of the desk.

Why is it successful?
     Students don't ask me for supplies that are - rightfully - theirs.
     Students keep it neat, as it's their space.
     Students sit here by choice when they feel they need to sit by themselves.

Hints for those who want to convert their teacher's desk:
     Make sure students know that not all teachers have a student station.
       (Other teachers expressed disgust when my students took things off their desk!)
     Fill it up with supplies - students will police each other when it comes to using "too many."
     Provide time for students to explore each drawer so they know where supplies are.
     The "shoe shelf" is nice. I found the one pictured at a garage sale for $5.
     Keep a vase filled with live flowers or even weeds (cattails pictured).

Consider trying it! You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Good Calls Home

Confession: I have a fear... of parents.

It's gotten better over the years - Open House / Parent Night is much more relaxed, as I finally consider myself "old enough to teach" - I could easily have children of my own my students' age. However, when asked, "What would you do if you were not afraid?" by our new superintendent at the start of the 14-15 school year, I thought of parents. Connecting with parents is integral to a positive classroom climate.

Last year, I made it a goal of mine to connect with parents more often. The plan began with emails sent home celebrating something about their children. I tweaked my spreadsheet of student names, printed it out, and kept track every Friday for emails that would be scheduled for Saturday mornings. The subject of these notes was "Saturday Sunshine." Rain or shine, emails detailing what I noticed about my students went out, with positive responses practically every time (some did not respond, nor did I ask them to).

The first few responses were all it took for me to continue (partial clips here)...

  • Thank you so much for going out of your way after a very busy week to write to me. You should be putting your feet up, thinking of nothing but your next glass of wine! ...
  • Thank you so much for that email-that really touches my heart & makes me proud of my daughter! I appreciate you taking the time to write such a thoughtful email...
  • Thank you for the kind words and for taking time to write us about ______. You made my weekend without power with 3 boys much better...
  • That brought a tear to my eye. Thank you so much for letting me know that!! He is precious:) 
  • Hello!! Wow, that is so nice to hear! Especially because LA tends to be more difficult for her than some other classes...
  • Awwww!  You literally just made my day!!  Thank you!! ...
I could go on and on... I saved them all in Evernote! Their notes back keep me motivated.

However, I still have not conquered my "fear" of parents... It's time to take it one step further...

Rik Rowe of Boston actually created a chat last year for "good calls home" (#gchchat). I figured I was doing this, as I sent emails to parents every week. However, when I caught up with him again - amazingly! - in person this summer, his facial expressions when talking about calling parents on the phone were priceless. He made me want to spread that same happiness he described to parents of my own students.

I'm going to jump in this next school year. I'm excited to keep this positive classroom culture going! To get me ready, I'm planning on doing these things...
  1. Create a spreadsheet of student names & parent phone numbers & names (which I do every year anyway).
  2. Create a script that does not frighten the parents as soon as I say who I am! I think I'm scared of them? They're scared of getting a phone call from the school!
  3. Hang this handy-dandy homemade sign on my door for times when I make these phone calls (room 239 can be quite busy). (Get your own for 99c at Michael's!)
  4. Keep Saturday Sunshine notes at the ready. If a parent is not home, I will leave a message asking him/her to read the email message I send instead of leaving a voice message that could be erased.
  5. Implement something new... STUDENT referrals for good calls home. I've created a Positive Peer Feedback sheet (to copy, cut, and put by a jar) for students to fill out. These will be collected throughout the week, and emails will be sent home to parents using this template: 
Please share this message with (student name here):
    (Message from classroom jar / students here...)
We thought you should know!
~(student name here)'s ELA class

This message was sent as a result of our "positive peer feedback jar," which students can contribute to any day of the week to send recognition to a classmate for a job well done.

Next step? Continue to invite parents into our middle school ELA classroom.

     Plan on it.
          Execute it. 

Update 8/18: Check out this podcast with Vicki Davis, Amy Fadeji and Joe Sanfelippo about building strong relationships with parents from Day One.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Choose to Be Bothered

At BLC15, Jennie Magiera forced me, once again, to think of my peers in my own "school box."

She shared the Moonshot Thinking video to get us inspired. I've seen this particular video at least three times already, but I hadn't really dug into the words her students picked out of the video -

This soaked in... Most people I'm connected to on Twitter would think about their community or think globally. Heck, one of Jennie's peers and her students were bothered by the media's view of their part of Chicago, and they created this video (which really needs to go viral) to bring more positive awareness to their community! Me - I'm still pretty sadly self-centered. My brain still thinks of my own school situation, which, by the way, is really a dream. I have three 80-minute classes, a huge classroom library, room to breathe and try new things, support from my administration, air conditioning once they turn it on, good families, nice kids, fine pay... I only have "First-World Problems," at best. My life is beautiful, with my soulmate, happy & healthy parents, a sister and her family I need to get to know again, two working vehicles, a mortgage payment I can handle...


I do not often think globally, and that is my downfall. I have, however helped out close to home, volunteering to pack food, and creating care packages for the homeless. I try and do good on a day-to-day basis, in my own little circle. My circle isn't wide, like some other stellar human beings. Most of the sessions at BLC had me thinking of my own classroom. I now see "Choose to be bothered," and I think of daily team meetings with teachers.

Teachers, overall, have very tough days, mixed in with very good ones. Home and work contribute to our attitude, of course. On those tough days, our words and tone can change in a negative way, reflecting our stress and frustration. Since reading Choice Words by Peter Johnston, I've been more aware of every word that comes out of my mouth, especially at school. I know this - it is not up to me to patrol other teachers. Everyone is struggling in his or her life somehow, and I am not going to be bossy or a nag and tell people that what they're saying is "wrong." It bothers me when I hear complaints about students, and yet I'm sure even their parents are frustrated with these same children at home at times. I am, by nature an optimist (thank you, Mom & Dad, for the name), and I am aware not everyone else is.

However, I'm going to CHOOSE to be bothered now. It's time. I was an itinerant teacher for seven years, and then reading specialist for the next seven, and I didn't know what teams actually did during "team time." I know now that they are focused on the students - who is struggling, what are we doing about it, and how can we improve? I've been on a team since 2009, and I've seen the dynamics of having one teacher from each discipline in the same room, talking about the same students. You know how it goes - we end up talking more about the children that need more of our help than the ones that are the "model students." I've seen how other teachers can be dragged down by one negative comment that spirals. This is not healthy. It's not healthy for the team to think of their students in a negative light. It's not healthy for me to bite my tongue and suppress my anguish at hearing these things. For two years in a row now, I've had one student (two different students) tell me, "Mrs. Kirr, you're the only teacher that likes me." Even the kids feel the negative vibe, which I feel needs to stop.

More plans for this next school year...

  • Listen. Smile. Share the bright spots. Ask questions - "What was your favorite part of....?" "What did you get out of that last meeting?" "Where can we go from here?" "How can we make this better?" "What do we know about this child that can help us help him or her?" "How can we find out what truly motivates this child?"
  • Ask, "What's best for this child?" Remind teachers that these children are most likely someone else's entire world.
  • If there is one person in particular that is more negative than the others, I'm going to do what I have a very hard time doing. I'm going to be even nicer to that person. I'm not going to hide and pretend it isn't happening. I'm going to choose to be bothered, and try to connect in other ways so that I am better able to understand his or her frustrations. I'm going to try to communicate better, such as I alluded to three blog posts ago.

Sometimes I think not having my own children really has made me "adopt" these children that come into my life each year. Isn't that part of teaching, however? What are we doing this for? Why are we teaching? I find that, more and more, the children are teaching ME more than I'm teaching them. They ask questions all the time - I will try to do the same, especially during times when teachers are simply complaining, and not offering solutions. It's what all educators should strive to do... to make our schools better environments in which to learn.

Graphics created with Paper53 app.