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 30, 2015

Best Books of 2015

From my meager list of 89 books read in 2015 (my personal challenge was 73) - my favorites...
Keep in mind - different strokes for different folks, so share yours in the comments, please!
          2014 list HERE!
          My Goodreads Year in Books

Favorite Professional Books:
Last year, Choice Words by Peter Johnston was by FAR the best book I've read for the teaching profession. This year, different books hit me from different angles, so I have to give shout outs to a few!

     Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz
          I may be a bit biased, because I call this man a friend and I've visited his class. Some days I wish his kids came to my school instead of the one across the tracks, but others I'm glad they don't, as I'm not as student-centered as I'd like to be. I've taken many cues from this book and tried them out this year - blog post about that coming in May or June. ;) I've written a piece about it here.

     Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes
          This book pushed me over the edge. I walked into my principal's office with ROLE Reversal, and had this one ready to read next, should the meeting go well and I was let loose to allow one class of students to grade themselves. This one really helped me with the way to give feedback to my 7th graders. I've written about it here.

     Best Lessons Series: Literature edited by Brian Sztabnik
          Yes, I'm invested in this book (I've got a chapter in it!), AND I think it's great for high school and middle school ELA teachers. I've written about this one here.

Books My Seventh Graders Should Read:
     House Arrest by K.A. Holt
          Written in prose, it's one young man's journal from the year he was placed under house arrest. When I started reading it, I could feel his fury, and the injustice of his punishment. By the end, I wanted to make sure everything turned out alright for him and his family. I know I want my students to read it when I can't wait for the paperback and have to purchase this one in hardcover for the classroom.

     Beanball by Gene Fehler
          This is also written in prose, but told from many perspectives - giving the reader a chance to see how everyone feels about this event. A very quick read, this book circulated like wildfire among my kids this year. Sports fan or no, this book about a ball hitting a boy square in the face is not about the injury - it's about the decisions we make in life.

Reluctant Reader (7th grade):
     The World According to Humphrey by Betty Birney
          Okay, so a reluctant reader himself told me about this book, and I was reluctant to read it... It's so darn CUTE! And it's the start of a series! So what if some of my students read it in 3rd grade?! It brought me back to my Ralph S. Mouse days... Oh, I hope kids still read Beverly Cleary books.

     The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley
          I checked this graphic novel out of my local libary, read it in two sittings, then put it on the chalk shelf for my kids to read during silent reading time (not for check out - I've already had to pay for one library book that was lost). In the two weeks it was up there, maybe ten students read it, and a couple gave book talks on it, too! It's got a strong message of fear of rejection and perseverance.

     Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
          Since these other two were so very short, here's a longer one for those reluctant readers. I'd seen this book many times, and not opened it - because of the cover. I know. You don't have to tell me. So... when a student this year suggested I purchase it for the classroom, I had to read it first. I like how it starts out as NOT fantasy at ALL. The author takes you in, bit by bit, until you're engulfed in the fantasy world he has set up. Another hook: It's the start of a series!

Graphic Novel:

     El Deafo by Cece Bell
          I'll be the first to tell you - I have a lot of catching up to do in this genre. And now I have to tell my bias - I went into teaching to teach kids who are deaf or hard of hearing, and I really wish this book had been around in the '90s when FM systems and hearing aids were still as bulky as Cece's were. Yes, this is also autobiographical. I loved the simplicity of how she wrote about her feelings and events in her life. I was worried about how the Deaf community would react to the name of this book, but she does it justice. In fact, in her author's note, she states, "I am an expert on no one's deafness but my own." BAM!

Historical Fiction:
     The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
          We had just finished reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (again), when my co-teacher Yvette suggested this one to me. It is an adult book, but some of our 7th graders could handle if (if they can handle the length). This book was the story of two sisters, and two that could have been like sisters, if times were different. Stories such as these hit hard. Holding this book in class encouraged a conversation with one student about the current gaps STILL between colors in the U.S. Whatever possessed one race to enslave another?! How could they think this was God's will?!


     Sadly, I did not read a mystery this year that I think would appeal to many readers...

     I only read two nonfiction books this year that were not for teachers...
          The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
          Brain on Fire: My month of madness by Susannah Cahalan

     My favorite "How To" book of the year:
Kid President's Guide to Being Awesome
          by Brad Montague and Robby Novak
                    Read it, and then pass it along, just as it asks of you!

Poetry / Prose:

     Hidden by Helen Frost
          The covers for this book are not the best... Anyway, my two favorites are above in the "Books My 7th Graders Should Read" category, but I loved this one, too. One girl is accidentally kidnapped... another tries to help her escape. Both stories are told separately until a few years later when the girls meet at summer camp... The author's note is important, for it gives more hints to the story - as another message is hidden in the book and you need to go through it quickly one more time. This fact had my students in awe as to how difficult this must have been for the author to write.

Science Fiction:
     Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans
          Once one student gave a book talk about it, three more of us were reading this one. Michael stops getting bullied when he... well... when he gives the bullies a jolt of electricity that sends them flying across the field. The witness also has something "electric" in her own life. Just when they start to realize that there's more than one of them, trouble comes to pick them up... This is the start of a series, and many students are now hooked.

Adult (yet classified as Young Adult):
     I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
          THE BEST BOOK I read this year. I've noticed that some people (who I greatly respect) on Goodreads didn't care for this one, but I'll stand by it as beautifully written. I cannot contemplate writing fiction (growth mindset, I know, I know), and now I don't know how I could write nearly as good a paragraph as this author has done. The writing was so beautiful, the love was so fierce, and I could not get enough of this one. I only hope my students read and appreciate it when they are 42 years old.

The One That's Been on My Shelves for Years:

Dread Locks by Neal Shusterman
           Another one I never read because of the cover... until this year. I finally picked it up this year, and didn't want to stop! The new girl in town was so intriguing, with her constant use of sunglasses (even indoors) and her locks of hair that almost seemed to move... Her parents were never around, and she seemed to have plenty of money, yet she didn't seem to care about much. Parker is entranced by her actions with others, and I quickly fell into step. The ending, although abrupt, was perfect for this one. Supposedly the start of a series, I don't know if Shusterman kept going with this one.

Now I Know Why It Was Only $1:
     The Gardener, by S.A. Bodeen <-- Um... not for me. And yet I have two copies. Best purchase? I think not. But I have two copies. Because they were only one dollar. Harummph. SOMEbody will like it... right?

You're Next:
     What were your favorites of 2015? Please leave yours in the comments so we all have more great books to devour! Here's to 2016!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

It's a Wonderful Life

How many times have you seen this one?

Me - probably 15 or so.
My husband - probably 30 times...
This year, I saw it with a new filter - consistency.
Jimmy Stewart

I could write books about my husband, his love, and the way he always does the right thing. However, I could never express in writing all that is good about this man. On Christmas Eve this year, we were talking deeply, as we often do, about love, and what it means to love. He made a point to mention consistency. He believes that the consistency of our love makes a difference. It's best to have an even keel - a steady love, with no surprises. Instead of having drastic highs and lows, we are each receiving the love we are giving away - on a consistent basis. Every day we express our appreciation of the other person. Every day we show our gratitude for this life we have together.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is another constant in our home.

If you know the story, you know that Mary is the consistent one in her love for George. This year, I noticed how she loves George - without even knowing him - with the love I have had for Bob since I first met him. She HAS to be with him. (Remember, she was an "old maid" when we see what happens when George was never born...) But George... oh, George. He consistently wants more for himself and his family. This transfers to the Savings and Loan when his father dies and he takes on the burden of keeping the one thing in town that Potter can't get his hands on - away from the greedy man. He consistently wants more for the people in Bedford Falls. This year I noticed how the people of Bedford Falls LOVE George. He is always cheerful, optimistic, and helping those in need, whether he has the money or not. Mary helps him with this, even on the day they marry. She readily hands over their wedding money to George, as he hands it out to the townspeople (and they do their best to only ask for what they need - "$17.50...") I guess those two dollar bills they had left DID multiply in the safe, as George and Mary do fairly well for themselves and the town.

When Uncle Billy loses the $8000, George is distraught, and automatically accepts the responsibility for the loss. He, too grovels to Mr. Potter (oh, so vile!), is denied any help, and then says in a prayer, "I'm at the end of my rope." What does he get in answer to his prayer? A sock in the jaw by the teacher's husband. This year I noticed how Martini and Nick kicked out the teacher's husband and supported George the entire way - no questions asked. George was that good of a man. They knew him. They trusted his consistency.

Of course, Clarence (Angel Second Class) comes to help him when he's at his worst. I chuckle 'til I cry when their clothes are drying. Poor George - he knows that his guardian angel would look something like Clarence. Bonus for having a guardian angel without wings, even.

What struck me this year - the fear. George, once he sees that his house is still the old run-down house that Mary once loved, and sees that his brother Harry died because George wasn't there to save him, he becomes paranoid. He wants to see Mary. His true love. The person that makes his life worthwhile. The woman who bore his four children.

Clarence lets him know Mary is "an old maid," and is closing the library. (Of course she is - George was her one true love!) How can she not know him when he starts to follow her from the library? How can she be so scared of him? The fear that racks his brain is palpable. This year, I could feel the fear he had that his wife and children were gone from him. I could not imagine my love being taken from me like that, nor everything else that is a constant in my life. He runs back to the bridge as if his life depends on it - to pray for things to go back to the way they were. He pleads, "I want to live again. I want to live again."

As corny as people think it is, it suddenly begins snowing again, his lip is bleeding again, and Zuzu's petals are back in his pocket. Oh, the joy! The elation! The celebration! George loves that his car is stuck against the tree he hit, and he runs through town, recognizing everyone and everything that was consistent in his life - even the worst man in the world - Mr. Potter.

The tears come every year when he gets home and sees the warrant for his arrest, the top of the stair post that comes off in his hand, the love and hugs he gets from his children, and then the rapture when he is able to hold Mary once again...

Why was I affected so differently this year?


George was always kind. Good. Giving. Generous.
George always worked hard. For the right reasons. To help others.

My husband is like this.
I need to be more like this.

I already appreciate all I have in this wonderful life.
After watching this just one more time, I now appreciate everything that is consistent in my life. This includes the Mr. Potters in the world. If they weren't here, we wouldn't be who we are today.

Thank you, George Bailey, for showing me the way yet again.

Here's to 2016 - that we may be grateful for the opportunity that every moment brings us. Each day is handed to us - what we do with it is up to us. Love one another - with consistency - and be grateful for all you have.

You've read this far? You must be a fan of George, too.
Alas... I still can't stand Mr. Potter. I don't know anyone as bad as him, so I share this with you:

Photos used in this post are from Pixabay - no attribution needed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Sticky Subject

I'm not a fan.
Other teachers use stickers - even at the middle school. I hear it works for them.
I made a mistake last week, and then it turned out to be a great lesson for the entire class.

When students ask me for "extra credit" or a "pizza party" or some other reward for doing something they SHOULD be doing, I cringe. Then I share all my sticky note tabs from Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. I let them know I've done my research, and I'm done giving rewards to motivate them.

I wasn't feeling the best, and Millie (pseudonym) wasn't reading. She wasn't doing the ONLY homework I assign - read for 20 minutes. In class, she pretends to read. She has openly admitted that reading is difficult for her and she doesn't like it. I've sat one-on-one with her, explaining how practice reading will help it be not so difficult. I've informed her that in 8th grade and beyond, she'll be asked to read teacher-choice novels outside of the class... if she's not reading what she could ENJOY, she will have a rough time reading what teachers assign. She continued to pretend to read.

So I regressed - I offered her a sticker for each night she read. A few other girls heard, and suddenly they wanted stickers, as well. I sighed, and acquiesced, dusting off my years-old Ziplock baggie out of a bin from up on a shelf.

The next day, EVERY student who read the night prior received a tiny leaf sticker. (There's no snow on the ground, and the Sycamore and Oak trees are slowly letting go...)

The next day (Friday), students were not adding to our student-led reflection for the week, so I suggested using stickers for participation. (Hit head against wall now.)

Suddenly, students started asking for (then demanding?!) different COLORS of stickers. "I got the yellow one yesterday!" It started getting crazy. The reflection for the week became all about stickers instead. I thought this was a terrible way to end the week! I was so surprised at what happened next.


Lightbulbs went off as they started realizing what was going on. They saw my point about rewards - the more people give them, the more they want. They had been completely satisfied and participating prior to me pulling out my (very) old bag of stickers.

How did this activity and the week end? The students themselves added to their reflection - No more stickers.

Now....... what to do with these??

Sunday, December 13, 2015

To Vox, or Not to Vox?

Voxer has been on my mind every day for two weeks now...

Spoiler alert: You need to choose what works for YOU. You do not need to try / do everything.

Here is the audio version of this post, in case that is how you learn best:

I got the app on my "old" iPad2 when Brian Sztabnik asked me to as part of our Best Lessons group to help talk about what's happening with the book. I checked it every other day, and there were maybe two messages on there each time. The last time anyone's posted on there was over a week ago.

I then requested to join a Makerspace / Genius Hour group that Kristina Holzweiss began a long time ago.


I became addicted to Voxer, but not for the reasons you might think. It was NOT because the ideas were stellar (which they WERE). It was because I have issues of neatness or perfection or cleanliness, or SOMEthing... This one issue makes me want to delete - all those numbers. Numbers in my email inbox, numbers of "mentions" not yet read on Twitter, numbers of messages or postings in Facebook... Now there were new numbers - of Voxer messages not heard. "I HAVE to get rid of them," is what my paranoid self thought, while my teaching thoughts raced, "I HAVE to listen to them to see what I can use." If you have a makerspace or are thinking of a makerspace, consider asking Kristina to join this group to learn about myriad resources!

My days changed.

I went from listening to music (or occasionally a book on CD) in the car on the way to work to listening to teachers talk. I thought I was aggravated because I don't have a makerspace, and I, personally, won't be using these ideas (yet? ever?) in our 7th grade ELA classes. But that wasn't it. Talking about it with my husband, he asked, "Is it a bunch of teachers just yacking away?" No. That's not it, either. They were all sharing valuable information if you have or want to have a makerspace in your classroom or school library (or precious space for ONLY a makerspace). Was it the fact that my microphone on the iPad2 doesn't work anymore, and I needed to plug in the external mic if I wanted to add to the conversation? No - I really didn't have anything to add. Was it the fact that phone use by the driver (unless it's hands-off) is not allowed in IL? Kind of - I had the iPad next to me in the seat, and teachers talked to me from the passenger side. It really wasn't an issue after I got Voxer started and found where I'd left off (which I did while driving - not safe).

Voxer has changed people's lives!! What was my issue this time??

It was simply a time issue for me. I want (and need) ME time. The only time that worked for me to listen to these messages was my short commute. My 15-20 minute drive of 11 miles back and forth to school is my time to get ready for the school day ahead, or reflect on the day just ended. To sit silently with my thoughts. To look around at this world. Or... to sing my heart out.

I left the big group on Voxer yesterday.

Today - There are no numbers popping up on the app. That calms me. I close it for another day and move on.

I can NOT be connected in every single way. I have to choose what I can and cannot do. I am by no means one of those teachers who can do it all. I've even stepped away from Twitter a lot more this past week, as I really wanted to push ALL social media aside when I started to feel overwhelmed about the new messages. I wasn't able to join in the monthly #geniushour chat, as my body was rebelling against me staying up past 8pm that night! That orange dot next to all those messages I missed was too much for me to handle, even if all the other teachers on the group were able to keep up.

I felt guilty about thinking of getting out of the group before I actually did it. (Guilt is another one of my issues.) As soon as I did, however, I put down the iPad and smiled. Breathed. I could breathe easy again. Kind of crazy? Maybe. Today, with no new numbers to catch up with, I'm okay with that.

How do you prefer to get your information you use to help you at school?
What have you learned about yourself when it comes to time management?
How much is "too much?"
Was this post even worth it for others to read?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Feedback Loop

Three instigators for this post...

     --> Parent email:
[Child] and I are having disagreements concerning what is expected of him when it comes to your class assignments that he has initially completed but they have been returned to him stating they need correction or revision (especially when this is communicated over Edline). Would you mind please stating in an email (so I may share it with [child] and so the three of us are clear and “on the same page with the same information”) what you expect of [child] with regard to making corrections and revisions on his papers, even though you have already clearly stated on his 1st quarter report card the following, “Needs to work on correcting papers below 70%”?[Side note from me/Joy - he gave HIMSELF that comment on his report card...]
    --> Gerard Dawson - How to Put Feedback First for Student Learning Course

    --> My Students...  Last quarter, in their video reflections, they said they revised their written                          work "and did much better," but never showed it to me again for more feedback.

Student written work can be revised multiple times in our ELA classes. It can be revised for writing skills (claim, evidence, reasoning OR focus and showing), or for language usage (grammar and conventions). I needed something to clear up the revision process for writing or language usage. It needs to be clear for students and parents.

So... after much writing, rewriting, asking Hubby to read it as a parent, discussing, rewriting... we (yes, Hubby and I) figured out a picture would work much better. A FLOW CHART! After a quick Google search, I found a very basic app - PureFlow. As luck would have it, it's ALREADY ON MY SCHOOL-ISSUED IPAD! After more sketching, re-sketching, resizing, moving arrows, etc.... here is the final (ahem - for NOW) product:

Note: "Proficient" in the grade book (in our 7th grade ELA classes at our school) = 90%.

Our 'proof of learning' page is here on our Weebly.

Author's Note - This Feedback Loop has been REVAMPED! As of 8/1/16, it now looks like this:

This is the result of what I've learned from my first year piloting no grades. Even if I put a "developing" on a paper, that's ALL they look at! No marks. Just feedback. 

My resources so far: 
     "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
     Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents (and teachers) to inspect
     My own reflections on this journey

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our Best Lessons

Actual lessons... In fact, BEST lessons... Tried and true, shared by master teachers.

I am truly honored to have been asked to be part of this project - with fourteen other master teachers. What constitutes "master?" I'm not sure. I do feel fortunate to be classified with these other teachers who love to share ideas with peers - no matter how long each has been teaching. It's the passion that came out of these lessons that makes this book exciting to share with you. Brian Sztabnik reached out to middle school, high school, and even college professors, asking for our BEST lesson - lessons that we love to teach.
Best Lesson Series
Steal these ideas, make them your own, and then share with us what you've modified to work for you.

Anyone can try a chapter for free! You can then grab a copy for yourself or a coworker. These are literature lessons, and I'm excited to try the fourteen other lessons myself, now that I've read them.

Here are the chapters, who the lessons were intended for, and my brief thoughts...

My thoughts on if I’ll be using and/or adapting...
Ruth Arsenault
Visual Literacy & reading all kinds of “text”

I want to adapt this one.
Susan Barber
The American Dream - photography & stories

I can adapt this one - will see where it can best fit.
Laura Bradley
Thinking icons

I can fit this in next quarter!
Brianna Crowley
Symbolism & Characterization

I will be adapting this one - when we read The Outsiders!
Gerard Dawson
Ignite Talks

Would be fun and valuable to try!
Todd Finley
Multi-Draft Reading

This lesson would be tough for my kids - I could probably adapt it, however.
Joy Kirr
Student-Generated Questions

Um… ;) I’ll be using AS IS!
Jori Krulder
Demystifying Poetry

We can use portions of this prior to Poetry Month.
Shanna Peeples
Visual Literacy

We could use pieces of this - the text is definitely high school level.
Amy Rasmussen

This lesson made me really THINK. Lots of resources that could be adapted for M.S.
Dan Ryder
Literary 3 x 3

Once students learn how this goes, it can be used with any text!
Joshua Stock
Poetry Challenge


I might be able to cover half of these lessons / poems - the kids will love it!
Dave Stuart, Jr.
“When Novels Start with Bathroom Scenes”

We could do this in M.S. - without reading the entire All Quiet On the Western Front… Deep lessons.
Brian Sztabnik
Think Like a Poet

Can be adapted for M.S. - I wonder if they could handle “Ulysses” …?
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
Excitement Graph


We’ve actually used this in a lesson or two - anyone can adapt this lesson to fit his/her students.

As Dave Stuart Jr. says near the end of his chapter, the lessons are completed in a "very non-razzle-dazzle fashion." These lessons aren't about the technology. They aren't even really about the text that is shared in the chapters. They are about getting kids to learn HOW to learn. Teachers step aside and help students learn from each other. If you teach middle school ELA or high school English, take a stab at these lessons. I'm sure I'll be writing more blog posts about how these lessons went with the scholars in room 239!

A huge thank you to Brian Sztabnik for putting this all together. Brian loves sharing other teachers' ideas - on his Talks with Teachers podcast, and now through this book. Of course thank you to Todd FinleyDave Stuart Jr.Susan BarberJori KrulderDan RyderHeather Wolpert-GawronJosh StockLaura BradleyAmy RasmussenShanna PeeplesBrianna CrowleyGerard Dawson, and Ruth Arseneault, as well, for sharing their BEST literature lessons.

More posts about this book from the authors:
     Laura Bradley          Shanna Peeples          Brian Sztabnik