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.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hacking Silent Reading Time

This school year, I tried four new "hacks" to get my 7th graders to read even MORE. These are in addition to TONS of book talks, reading alongside students, passing around a clipboard each day so students can write in what they're currently reading, and having set non-negotiable times each week for students to read independently for 20 minutes (in my beautiful 80-min. block) at a time.

Here are four types of students I have that do not exhibit habits of readers... yet. I have then listed the hack I've tried. I've experienced success with each one, and that's why it's time to share them with you.

The Great Pretender
She says she reads. At home. Each day in class, she chooses a different book. This book is usually one from my "browsing" shelf - Guinness Book of World Records, The Big Book of Gross Stuff, picture books such as Jumanji... I wouldn't keep these books on my shelves if I thought they were bad books, by any means. But this child exhibits all the habits of a non-reader. She'll try to fool you into thinking she reads. She might go so far as to give a book talk about a book the teacher read last year in class.

Get the audio version of books, and download them to the classroom laptops (if you have them). I have six old laptops in our class (and two chargers that work - I rotate which get charged each night). On the top of the laptop, put a picture of the cover of the book. Book talk it, and let students read along while listening. My experience -- every time we read in class, my "Great Pretender" quietly gets a headset, opens iTunes, and is engrossed for 20 minutes.

Forgetful Frances
She's disorganized. She reads at home. (This is evident in the books she knows and her spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.) She doesn't remember to bring her book to class. Ever. She chooses a different book off the shelf almost every day, but then leaves it somewhere in the room and it takes me awhile to find it to put it back where it belongs. She can't find it the next time she wants to read it, so she chooses another book.

Check out books you love(d) from your local library. Put a sticky note in them that says, "This book stays in room ___" so students cannot check them out. (I've been burned and had to pay for a book that never returned.) If this type of child is truly disorganized, she will not mind that the books have to stay in the room, because she would forget to bring one home or back to school anyway. Place them on the whiteboard (chalkboard?) shelf or another display. Make sure the covers face out - just like the end caps at the grocery store - make them VISIBLE! Have bookmarks on hand so she can save her spot in the book. My experience -- she's reading one book at school and one at home. In the books pictured below, there are THREE bookmarks (one for each of my three classes) in Fuzzy Mud (thanks for the rec, Sandy!). One bookmark is simply a corner of a piece of notebook paper. Now that I'm returning the book to my library today, students have said they'll check it out of their own library. (I will probably renew this copy, however... Am I an enabler??) I purchased a copy for the class, and it's currently checked out, with a sticky note inside of students who want to read it. 

The Distracted Diva
She only wants to read short, easy books. She starts books, and then abandons them after 20 pages. She'll read half of a graphic novel. She doesn't always bring a book to class. When she does bring a book, it might be one she's read before, or one in which she's had her bookmark on page 15 for a week or two before she abandons it. She likes to whisper and giggle with a friend during silent reading time or simply look anywhere but the pages of her book if her friends are too busy reading.

Create an "article of the week" document that is viewable by anyone. Make a shortened, easy-to-remember link to it. Let students read the articles online using a device. My experience -- Our document is tinyurl.com/KirrAoW, and Scott Hazeu helps me add to it. My requirement if students use this source - they must tell us about the article(s) they read when silent reading time is over. Very few students have used this option, but a couple of them have, and that's good enough for me. Frankly, I think they've forgotten about it. I'll remind them of the link and where it is on our class website on Monday.

The Sports Hound
He loves sports. Sports. Sports. He doesn't bring his own book to class. He chooses fiction books from the sports section of our classroom shelves. He pretends to read. He succeeds at this until I decide to observe and then intervene. (I use this easy system, revised from Donalyn Miller's Reading in the Wild.) He's got a bit of the Great Pretender in him, because he sometimes gives a book talk to the class based on the information on the back of the book and the first chapter of the book. If you have a good relationship with him, he'll admit that he reads the first and last paragraph of each chapter. "That's enough to know about the book," he confesses.

Use the computer at the front of the room for browsing articles. Have the student mute the volume so if there's an ad or video, it won't disturb the class. This student doesn't have to pretend to read anymore during silent reading time. This may even help him develop a daily practice of reading the news - at home. My experience - he comes in, excited for silent reading, heads to the computer, mutes it, finds his favorite sports site, and reads for the entire 20 minutes.

These children still may not read at home, but I'm going to do my best to be sure they DO read when they're in room 239. If nothing else, they know that developing the habit of reading for a solid block of time undisturbed is important to me.

P.S. This is all done without grades attached. Of course.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Second Quarter - Students Grading Themselves

Half-way through the school year??

What I've learned this quarter... 
     - Students need reminders throughout the quarter to look at their evidence to see what they have so far. Many reflections came in later than I requested, because students didn't really know what evidence they had.
     - Students are becoming more aware of what the grade includes. They are also reflecting more truthfully on what they've revised, and they are even coming up with goals they have for next quarter (unsolicited in their video reflections). YES! Students included goals in their reflections this quarter. They are using more of the language I use! (They DO listen!)
     - Take parents' suggestions. This quarter I created a feedback loop for students to know when they need to revise, and when they do not. I also checked in with kids at midterm, and we compared our notes about how they were doing so far.  I hope parents give me more!
     - When reflecting on the "speaking and listening" portion of their grade, they are starting to compare themselves to the rest of the students. I don't know if this is a good thing or not. ??
     - The students in this last class are working HARDER than my other two classes. Truth. I don't have the "proof," but I can tell from their reflections.
     - The kids KNOW what they do. Where they put forth effort. What their grades are. WHY their grades are what they are. I LOVE THESE FACTS. They make this work well worth-while.
     - Here is our end-of-quarter reflection - mostly student-led (the entire reflection is in the video at the end of this post):

Questions I have...
     - Students want to know "what is a reading expert?" On our "reading guidelines" page of our class website, I have this image ----------->
Two students this quarter asked me, "Who is an expert in the field of reading?" GREAT question! I'm still working on this one... Any help from readers?? Please leave your idea in a comment!
     - Should I continue asking students to give themselves comments on the report card? I have the last two quarters, but... it just feels weird. I have no other reasons. I should probably ask the kids.

I need to...
     ...create a system - on PAPER - for students to collect their evidence. The Google doc on Google Classroom is only being utilized by two students. The rest had difficulty coming up with what evidence they could use to prove the grade they thought they earned.
     ...give more writing options. I believe that, if I'm grading, I should give three times practice, and then one time grading for writing. This belief left us with only THREE pieces of evidence (where I gave written or video feedback) for writing and grammar. Students did not have a choice in evidence for proof of their grade this quarter, because I only gave feedback on those three. Therefore, I have created this document. I will post the assignments under "Independent Practice" on the board, and students will have many more options for writing and turning them in for feedback. I'll be adding more each week, with a timeline for students to turn them in (so I'm not flooded with a bunch at the end of the quarter).
     ...remind students of the flow chart we discussed - so they cannot "fib" and say that they revised something and "did better." ;)
     ...give time IN CLASS for students to look at the feedback I've given them. I'm finding that students don't look at Edline (our online grading system) after they turn in their work. They see the feedback on their Google Classroom documents, but they don't look at the same comments I leave for them on Edline. When I left the YouTube link to their video feedback on Edline, they didn't watch it until it was time to collect evidence for their grades. I'm considering creating an easy chart with possible pieces of proof and the categories they can be used for, so students can collect their work and choose more easily. I'm considering adding more reflection and revision time, calling this time DIRT - Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time - thanks to this recent post by Alex Quigley.
     ...create a plan for students who collect "enough" proof at the start of the quarter. One student wanted to know what happens then... Great question! Perhaps we need to collect proof from various weeks in the quarter?
     ...give more reminders to students to create their 5 minute video reflection. I had more 1:1 conferences this quarter than last, because students "didn't have time" to create their reflection. Suddenly the five minutes for me became fifteen, and I don't think 15 minutes a student is realistic if/when I'm trying this with all of my classes and not just one.
     ...keep keeping parents in the loop! When the grades go home with students this quarter, an email goes home as well. This note will explain once again how their child has reflected on and chosen his or her grade AND his or her comment(s). I will also keep asking parents for suggestions - they are very valuable!
     ...keep talking about the ideas students have generated. For instance - One student decided his grade should be a B+. The next day, he came to me and asked to change it to an A - so he could be on the Senior Honor Roll. He's never NOT been on the Senior Honor Roll. We had a discussion. It meant a lot to him. I told him I would honor his choice, and that we'd have more check points next quarter for him to see what proof he has, and then he can create a plan for what grade he'd LIKE to have. With more checkpoints (as he'd asked for during his original reflection), he'll know what he's earning early, and not have to scramble to earn that almighty "A."

One of my favorite things to do... Listen to reflective students (sometimes using their phones!), jotting down their quotes and reasonings for their grades...

In case you have 13 minutes... Here is our class reflection discussion:

Note that at the end of this video, a student and I figure out how she can turn in any type of writing for feedback. She WANTS to write, just not always what I'm asking her to write. :)

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

I'm Angry at the System We've Created

My first class was rough this morning.

Groans. Chatting. Complaints. Mean words. Arguing. Rudeness. Blurting. Actual tears.

In addition to all of this, 95% of them decided they didn't have to do the work. They never asked if it was for a grade or if they had to turn it in, because most of the time it is NOT for a grade and they DON'T have to turn it in. Most days they are more intrinsically motivated than they were today. Even the "nice" table in the back decided they'd rather READ than listen to directions.

I ended the period asking them to continue the day by being KIND. I also told them I'd evaluate my own actions and see where I can improve so we can all make tomorrow better. We'd have a fresh start.
From "They're Made Out of Meat" Movie

I came home, and I created a worksheet for this class for tomorrow.


Double-sided, no less.


Because I want them to pay attention.
Because I want to save my sanity.
Because I recognize that they are extrinsically motivated.
Because I grew up in the system and I'm going to use it to my advantage.
Because I'm not perfect.
Because I'm angry.
     I'm angry at what this system has done to our students.

I've been reflecting on our actions in this class all day.

What did they do? What did I do? How did I react? How did they react?

I probably won't go through with it.

This worksheet has the stink of "punishment" instead of an opportunity for learning.

I might make a class set of copies. I might let students know that if they are NOT participating, I will then ask them to complete it. And yet this, my friends, stinks of a threat.

What I'll do for SURE:

1. Greet this class with smiles, like always.
2. Stay calm during class.
3. I'm going to ask students to reflect. After we do our weekly class reflection (plus / delta), I'm going to ask the evaluator (student who facilitates this discussion) to add one more column on the board. We'll have the usual: "What we did well" (plus), and "What we want to change" (delta). Then we'll add "What Mrs. Kirr can do to help us change." I will explain I only want serious answers. I will then stand outside the room. When the bell rings, I'll wish them a wonderful (long) weekend & take a photo of the board so I can look at it over the weekend and reflect once more.

I probably won't give out the darn worksheet. I want to be able to prove to myself - at least - that students WILL work in order to learn. I need to do a better job at giving them the reason behind the work we're doing.

We need to turn the ship around. We need to get more and more teachers on board so the system changes and kids stay intrinsically motivated throughout their school years.

I know it was "just a bad morning."
I just don't want it to happen again.
I'll do my best to keep trying to turn the system around - without using more worksheets or grades.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Using Explain Everything to Give Feedback

I decided to try giving video feedback for one small piece of writing my students did on notebook paper. We only had 10 minutes to write, and the prompt was to explain their "escape," whether it be a place or an action. I let the idea of video feedback stew in my mind, as I only had twelve to look through this weekend, and then decided to use the Explain Everything app. I could draw right on their work, and then could share a private video with each student.

After a few unsuccessful attempts (and successful mishaps), I decided I needed to keep track of the process I'll go through the next time.

1. Take photos of all the writing.
     (No need to crop them at this time - you can do that once they're on the app.)
2. Take photo(s) of any rubric(s) you intend to use.
3. Create a document you can toggle to on the iPad. This will be where you will house all of the private links to the feedback you're giving.
4. Open the Explain Everything app.
5. Put a photo of the student's writing on the first slide, cropping when you upload it.
6. Add a slide.
7. Put a photo of the rubric(s) you're using on this slide, cropping when you upload.
8. Optional - create two more slides - exactly the same, just in case you'd like to add something else to your dialogue about the students' writing, or more to the rubric. This is also good if you're working with two standards you'd like to look at separately.
9. Have something else ready that you'd like to be doing while each video is uploading. The upload time depends on how long the piece is, and how long your dialogue is. Average for the few I did today was 7.6 minutes each - for ten minutes of student writing in class. Tip: You could save them all as different names and upload them all after you're done giving feedback, but I didn't want to use the space on my account or on the iPad if I could help it. I'm not sure how much space I have on my Explain Everything account, and I didn't want to reach the end and then pay for more space with this app.
10. If your student's last name is on any photo you've taken, use the pencil tool to cover it.
11. Begin recording - just be normal.
12. Save the recording.
          I named it by the title of the piece or assignment, and then added the child's name.
13. Upload the video to YouTube, marking it "unlisted."
14. When it is done uploading, copy the link.
15. Open the document you have for students' links, and add this student's name and the private link.
16. When you are finished uploading, delete all of the slides, and start over. (This is much more efficient than deleting the audio, your mark ups, and the photos of student work.)
17. Begin at step 5 again. You will be able to rename this project with this new student's name when you upload it to YouTube.

Here is an example of one that was turned in with no name:

Why did I choose Explain Everything?
1. I think it's important to use tools I already like when I'm trying something new.
2. I am very familiar with this app, and wanted to see how it would work for this piece.
3. Student writing was WRITTEN, not done digitally, so Google Doc commenting wouldn't work.
4. I wanted to circle and underline and highlight their words.

What worked:
1. I became more efficient as I went along - with the app, and also with my feedback.
2. I became more precise in using words that focused solely on the skills on which I was giving feedback.
3. I did NOT take the time to go back and hear what I said. If it was a one-on-one conference with students, I would not have that luxury, so I didn't use precious time to go back and re-record.
4. I was personal with students... I let them know that I realized this was only a 10 minute writing prompt. I thanked them for sharing them aloud (if they did so in class). I remarked about their "escape," and thanked them for sharing it with me. I encouraged some to put this piece of writing on their blogs.

What the students said:
My question: What did you think of it vs. Google Doc comments?
- "A little better."
- "Once you heard yourself say something, you thought of something else, so you had more comments."
- "It wasn't bad."
- "Gave some good advice."
- "The highlighting, in my opinion, was a little excessive."
- "I think it was better, because you underlined and circled certain words that were good."
- "It was a lot, but it wasn't too much."
- "It gave some feedback, and helpful advice."
- "It took a long time." (5 min)
- "It felt longer, but you also explained more. It explained your train of thought, so I knew what I should do. You were talking out loud, so I could hear what you were thinking about each thing while you were reading it."

Update 11/5/18 - Check out how Andrew Burnett, math teacher, provides video feedback HERE.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Chasing Hardware

I'm writing this post for ME.

Feel free to comment, but this reflection is one I need to write about and stick to - for my health and well-being.

Flash back to my previous life...

June of 1996. It started with a phone call. I was still living at my parents' house when I was 23, and when my future husband was getting off of our phone call to "go for a run," I decided to take my dog for a walk. I was not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. That summer, however, I was able to manage my exercise-induced asthma and walking turned into running. I was able to run a mile a couple of weeks later. I wanted to do this so my boyfriend and I would have more in common. Plus, I wondered why I'd never exercised prior to this. I didn't have any weight to lose - I just did it for the challenge. His next gift to me was a watch (Timex - Ironman), and suddenly he was coaching me like he did his clients. Yes. Tom was (is?) a personal trainer.

June of 1998. We were to be married in August. I wanted to run my first 10k under my maiden name. Tom found me a small race in Woodstock, IL (where I worked at the time). My goal = to finish. I ran alongside a woman who had run in a marathon before, but she was not too sure she could run the 6.2 miles that day. I told her I'd stick with her, if she'd stick with me. I held to that, and we were the last two runners that came in. (That race was when I learned about the ambulance that comes as the "sweeper.") My time = 72 minutes, 12 seconds. (Slower than any "run," but I finished!) As I sat down to cool off with my post-race popsicle, my name was called. Huh? Wha...? I'd won third place in my age group!

This was the catalyst for my chase for hardware.
This one was a fun one - and only one mile!

Tom taught me that "hardware" (plaques, trophies, etc. - of which I'd NEVER gotten) was easier gotten in small-town races. I started seeking them out.

August, 1998 - After the honeymoon. Momence IL was about a 2 hour drive for us in the morning, but it was a nice small 5k where I could collect more hardware. Bonus - it was an "out and back" course, so you could see the people who were ahead of you, and "pick them off" one by one on your way back to the finish. Tom usually ran his own races, but ran alongside me for this one, coaching me the entire way. "Look - she's in your age group. You can catch up to her." I won third place in my age group! This was the Momence Glad Run, where winners got beautiful gladiola flowers, as well as hardware.

For the next two years, I strived for more. For the next two years, we took the trek to Momence for this short run, and he ran alongside me, helping me pass by more and more women in my age group. "Just focus on that next runner. Get alongside her..." And I excelled in my quest for hardware, moving from third to first in my age group.
                                             Time: 26:56                                  Time: ??
                                                                     Time: 24:32

And the year I received 2nd place in this 5k was the same year I ran my marathon. In Alaska. For Team In Training. (Running 26 miles when I was 26 years old was very COOL. My time, however, was not - 5 hrs 58 minutes, when I'd been training for 4:30. Oh, what mountains will do to your time...) I was so new to running, that every race - every new challenge - became a personal record. How motivating!

These memories are strong. They came reeling back when I decided to clean out a bin that had been in the garage since I left my "old life" and came to this house in 2010. The bin was labeled "Things I don't know what to do with..."

Last week, I saw a tweet from Russ Anderson...

It was time, too, for me to purge. I obviously did not have all that Russ had - I only had a few from my twenties. I'll keep the medal from the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in '99 - when I find it. I knew when I saw the plaques, that it was time to toss them - along with the years of running journals I'd pitched years ago - but the memories were so strong, I had to write about them first. What was the message I was going to get from this flood of memories? Where's my lesson that can apply to me now?

I need to stop chasing hardware.

My professional life is so much of my life. And, although I no longer run, I am still chasing "hardware." Notes from students, emails from parents, home-made gifts from students, being asked to present at conferences, accolades on Twitter for blog posts, the chapter in Best Lessons: Literature. I'm currently chasing after NBCT recertification, and I might ask a publisher or two to look at an outline I have for a book. 

With this chase comes disappointment. I am not new to the game of teaching. In my 21st year, it's impossible to get a PR with every action. When parents don't copy my principal on great emails that I hold dear to my heart, I feel a bit deflated. When someone posts something in their blog that I feel everyone already knows, and it's retweeted 20 times more than the post I wrote from my heart, my jealousy rises. This is WRONG. No. This is HUMAN. But I don't like the feeling. I feel like I should know better than that at this point in my life.

The lesson gets clearer to me with a message I received from a student yesterday. He "tagged" me on an Instagram picture of his shoes. (He has a thing for shoes.) 

"2015 wasn't the best year. The Broncos lost in the playoffs, the bulls lost in the playoffs, the packers lost in the playoffs, and the seahawks went to the super bowl. Isis is still here, so that sucks. Richard Sherman is still here, so that sucks too. But some things went alright. Gay marriage was legalized. The world showed that when one country is in need, they can count on another. It also showed that being different is not a wrong thing. I tagged people that made this year worth waiting 12 months."

The fact that he tagged me... that was a stellar moment for me. This young man is following 467 people. He is no longer in my class. Sometimes he pops in for a quick "hello," but I really haven't seen much of him this year. 

I got it.

And suddenly, it will be easy for me to toss out the plaques. 

I believe, as a result of interacting with educators on Twitter, I get too caught up in the "advertising" of our teaching. I get too caught up in "marketing" what we're doing online. I get too caught up in looking for the support, accolades, and recognition. I highlight what others say about the LiveBinder (or an actual quote!) in their books. I save what I produce or present on my online portfolio, the class website, and even a Google doc for my evaluation. I save uplifting parent emails in another Google doc. I save student notes in a scrapbook in my file cabinet. I put home-made gifts up in our classroom. Every school year, I sum up in a blog post what I've "done" that is valuable or precious during the year. Yes, these keepsakes are important to me. Yes, I should be proud and happy of what I've accomplished. BUT...

I need to focus even more on the people in room 239 and the hallways of my school. 

I need to focus on having even more one-on-one discussions with students. I need to focus what they say, not on what I want to say to them. During meetings, I need to listen with the intent to learn, and not as much with the intent to share or teach. I need to give my time, and not so much of my opinion. I need to lend an ear, and not so much advice.

My word for this next year is "gratitude," as it has been for the previous two years. I haven't gotten the most out of this feeling yet. I'm shifting the focus from grateful for all I have, to grateful for all the opportunities ahead of me. All the moments I can use to let others know they matter. I'm tired of chasing. I'll let moments come, and give them all I've got.

I love learning more about life as I get older. 
I now look forward to this new change in mindset.