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.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Talk. Talk. Talk.

So much negative talk on television. On Facebook. On Twitter.

It can get to me sometimes - I need quiet. Solitude. And then Monday rolls around...

How am I supposed to be my happy camper self around others when I'm so bummed by what I'm seeing on television and social media? First, I thank my parents for my first name, and then I do what I'm really good at - start a new day with a fresh perspective. This attitude has always helped me through what life may throw my way.

So what do I do? Well, first I tweet out what I think is a beautiful message...

Only it has a terrible error for an ELA teacher... SEW?!   REALLY, JOY?!?!   SOW!! SOW!!
I don't see it until I'm at school when I'm on the class Twitter account and see that my superintendent retweeted it! Yikes!! It has 30 retweets! Oh, my... there goes my reputation!

Anyway... I get to school and say "good morning" (with a smile!) to all I see. One response sets me back five paces, however...

"There's nothing good about it" is one response as this person continues down the hall, obviously not wanting to talk. Sigh. I'm back where I was Sunday night. Thinking about all the negativity.

Since I've resolved to try to complain less this year, I don't say anything until I confide in a friend at the end of the day. She listens (she's one of the best listeners I know!), and offers something to this effect... "Maybe there's something else in their life that really is getting them down."

Bam. It hit me. I should have listened. I should have not thought about my OWN thoughts. I should have turned around and followed this person and LISTENED.

I'm good at listening to students. They are my focus throughout the day. I need to truly listen to coworkers. If I want more for our world, it starts with listening. Why didn't I take my own advice and show kindness by simply listening?

I made up my mind to chat with this teacher tomorrow morning - to see if I can help in any way. Even if it's just to LISTEN.

More Here: 3 Reminders on How 'Just Listening' Is Sometimes the Best Approach
                   8 Ways Listening Leads to Learning

What Do "Real" Readers Do?

"How can we prove we're reading?"
A common question from students when you are not giving marks in an ELA class and students have to give evidence for their grade at the end of each quarter...

I began my first version of Genius Hour in 2012 because I was upset with how little my students were reading. Come to think of it, this was probably my first attempt at classwork without a grade attached, too. Instead of requiring a book project for ONE book a quarter (and many being able to get that "A" without actually READING the book), students were now reading what they wanted one day every week, and sharing what they read somehow (their choice). This was the first way I included independent reading DURING class. (It was my 15th year teaching, but only my 2nd year in an ELA classroom - forgive me for not including independent reading prior to this!)

This School Year...
Fast-forward, and my classes have no grades until they provide evidence to me at the end of each quarter why they should have a certain grade. I currently ask students to keep track of what they're reading on the in-class log we pass around each time we read independently in class (15-20 min a day). I take these home at the end of each Thursday and decide who I will have a conference with that Friday. (All other times, I'm reading alongside them.) These conferences could be to ask what they're reading at home (since the log shows they are NOT reading at home), to ask if they could give more book talks (as the log shows they are finishing books and not sharing them), or to ask them to challenge themselves or even a simple, "Have you read ___ yet?" The in-class log has proved to be valuable, and they pass it around (on a clipboard with attached pen) without much distraction each time we read.

They are not fans (yet) of keeping track on their own of what they're reading. They don't see the reasons why. I have provided a log for each student in the past, but it seemed a chore for them to write down what they finished, and what they abandoned. I never had a log when I was a student, and I've read about the negative effects of reading logs, so I don't require them to have one at this point in their lives. These logs were great to help me have conversations with students about what genres they enjoy, or encouraging them to branch out of their comfort zone, but the fact that it was a "chore" and that some students would lie on it was detrimental to the entire independent reading experience. What are our goals? Read MORE. ENJOY reading. That log did not help us reach our goals.

Some students feel fine speaking in front of the class. I record their book talks, add them to our Weebly here, and we're currently practicing giving feedback (that only I used to give) using this form. This feedback gets copied and pasted into the online grade book, so they receive same-day feedback and something to focus on the next time they share.

I ask students to provide evidence to prove that they are reading at least 20 minutes each day outside of class. The in-class log is the only resource we have right now that is a constant for all students. Then there are the students who don't mind giving book talks. My other students want to know what else they can use to prove that they are reading outside of class.

The true question I need to address, however, is this:
     How can students share what they're reading?

If they are sharing the books they love, they'll be proving that they're reading. More importantly, their peers will soon be reading those books. (That is the hope! That is the goal!) It's the great circle that gets them reading more and more. I am excited for students to add more books to their "to read next" lists! (Ahem - like "real" readers do!) So maybe the even BETTER question is...

What do "real" readers do?
     1) Being a "real" reader myself, I keep the books I've read in two places - a Google doc for each year (so I can keep track of my "gaps" - I still don't read "enough" mysteries), and on Goodreads, so I can keep track of what I've read - organized by categories I establish. (I also love Goodreads to keep track of books I WANT to read. My "to read next" list is on Goodreads, accessible from my laptop, iPad, or phone. I ask my students to create "to read next" lists - most are currently on the last pages of student binders.) Goodreads is not an option for many of my students, as they are not all yet 13. I've heard good things about BiblioNasium, and I've just created an account...
     2) As a "real" reader, I also blog about books I love. Sometimes I give a book review, other times a brief synopsis, and still others I blog about what I did as a result of reading the book.
     3) As a teacher / reader, I give myriad book talks, and share book trailers with my students.

Because I want my students to be life-long readers, I'm suggesting these
Blog (or Paper to post in the room)
     -Book reviews
     -Thoughts or actions after reading a book (reading response options listed below)
     -A letter to the author
Book advertisements
     -Movie clip / book trailer / commercial
     -Book talk (in class, or for announcements)
     -Book blurb right IN the book or ON the book, and put on a "student recommendations" shelf
     -"What I'm reading" - tape a picture of the cover of the book on their locker or on a wall w/their name & picture
Big Idea Notebooks
     -Thanks to Penny Kittle's Book Love, we have these themed notebooks to share our reading.
Reading Response Options
     -These are such fun for me to read, too! Students post these on our bulletin board (unless there's a spoiler...)
BilioNasium (or Goodreads!)
     -I will see what I can do to include this resource into our days.

How can I tie these into gamification? More points for more authentic audience reach, of course! 1st time advertisements get the most XPs (experience points). Too many students sharing about the same book gets old for students. I dabbled in gamification last year, and am willing to try again. I just REALLY want reading to be its own motivation. I know there will be seventh graders who do not love reading, so I'm keeping the gamification route open...

Update 10/31/17 - Here are more ideas from Amy Rasmussen!

Thanks for the push from Sara Wilkie tonight, who shared with me Shaelynn Farnsworth's post on Alice Keeler's blog about "6 Alternatives to Reading Logs..." She's got more ideas here! Thanks to Sara, it was time for me to hit "publish" on this older draft! It doesn't have to be perfect to publish...!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Feedback In Lieu of Grading - Quarter Two

My reflection this quarter is for my students... I'd like to share with you your thoughts and suggestions, and how I'd like to proceed. Let's keep having the much-needed conversations about learning!

First class, block 2/4 Responses:

Let's address the concern in the last comment. (Yes, I moved the comments I wanted to address down to the bottom in each of these photos so I could see them better and be able to share them with you in order to write this post.) When we meet in our 1:1 (one-on-one) conferences, I let students know if I agree or not, and why. There were only a handful of students this quarter that I did not agree with, and those students didn't have evidence to support the grade they chose. In those cases, students created goals (or in some cases, we created small contracts) so that next quarter the student would be more accurate in his or her reflection. I also stated on those students' sheets that I did not agree and reasons as to why we had disagreements. In eleven (out of 67) instances this quarter did the final grade a student gave him or herself not match my own assessment of those students' reading, writing and grammar skills combined. The parents were made aware through the comments on our 1:1 conferencing sheets. I usually share something along the lines of "Your child was very reflective in his assessment of himself this quarter" or... "Your child and I disagreed on her grade for writing (or reading, or grammar), and have created goals to help her more accurately assess herself next quarter." Since we need to focus on learning, those eleven students have stricter guidelines now that, in fact, promote more learning through revisions or showing their skills during comprehension checks.

As a result of similar feedback from a parent last quarter, I added a small spot on our 1:1 conference sheet so parents would have a better idea of what I thought. Since I believe that school should be focused on learning, and that grades will reflect that learning, what I added was a reflection scale. This scale is to communicate to parents how reflective and how accurate student evidence was. I will continue to revise our 1:1 conference sheets to reflect parent and student suggestions.

Second class, block 5/6 Responses:

That last comment - "...sometimes I want to know what my grade is during the quarter..." Let's do it! Let's use the documenting sheets I provided each person, and figure out the midterm grade half-way through the quarter! The reason for creating the documenting sheets was so that students can pretty much always know what their grade is at any moment. Also, at any time during the quarter, you and I can meet to discuss the current evidence. Just ask!

Third class, block 8/9 Responses:
The last three comments here caught my attention. "It is challenging..." I like the challenge aspect - proving your claim is what so much of writing in our class is about. Proving it with evidence that students choose seems fitting for ELA class (and social studies, and science...)

The fact that "some students will truly benefit... and some will not because they will slack off" seems to be true for any type of grading.

"I prefer teachers grading us so that it is definitely the grade you are getting." Since we agree on a grade together, that is definitely the grade you are getting. If I truly disagreed with the final grade, I would intervene, parents would know I did not see the same evidence the student provided, and we would create a plan for the next quarter that would help the student be more reflective and accurate in his or her self-assessment.

Suggestions from all three blocks:

Line 2 & 9: Here are more writing prompts that you can use throughout the year. These are on our class Weebly under "Student Resources --> Writing Challenge" and also under "FAR --> Writing Guidelines." ;) It may seem as if I have not been giving more encouragement to write in class. I try to balance our reading with our writing, and it's always in my plans to provide more time for writing in class. Some students ask if they can write instead of read during independent reading time. That is an option for those who read on a consistent basis at home. You can always choose to write outside of class, as well. Add it to your independent reading practice at home.

Line 3: Let's remember to provide time IN class for this to happen. (Note: Some students already do this on their own.)

Line 4: I'm back and forth on "participation" points, as I've read a lot about introverts and how they are still retaining content from the class even without participating. Participating can cause introverted people actual, physical pain. We will have times when we need to present, but the culture of our classroom is trust, and I do not think it is fair to grade oral participation in this class.

Lines 5, 11, and 12: I will provide a mid-term check in this next quarter. We will use our documenting sheets to do so. This may be a good time for me to provide you with what I think your grade should be for reading, writing, and grammar at this point in time.

Line 6: Sorry. I have read too much research against traditional grading to go back now. Until our district uses standards-based grading, this system is more accurate and fair than how I used to grade.

Line 7: One time I made a change in a student's grade - by accident. I typed in the wrong letter on the wrong line. The parent gave me a heads up and I was able to correct it before it appeared on any final grade report. I have triple-checked our 1:1 conferencing sheets this time, so as to not repeat that error again (I hope!).

Line 8 & 10: I'm aware that for some students this type of grading can be "nerve-wrecking." I ask you this - can "traditional" grading also be nerve-wracking if you're at a 89.6% or if you have a test or a project due on the last day of the quarter? Use the documenting sheets to their full potential. They're with you so you know where you stand at any given moment and have more control of your final grade. Share more books with the class (orally or written) so you counter-act any "low" comprehension check data by proving you understand what you read. Submit more writing than is assigned so you have more choice as to what evidence you'd like to use for your writing and grammar portions of class.

I hope this is what students will feel by the end of this school year...

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Going Places

I have a dear friend who lost her mom last week. My friend is the epitome of the word "woman" - strong, vibrant, and full of life. She joined the estimated 250,000 in the Women's March in Chicago this weekend. She posted a quote from her mom on her Facebook page the morning of the march.

Previously posted on February 3, 2012...

What if...?

It made me think of a conversation we had at lunch the day my friend returned to school. We were commenting on a video that had her youngest child in it. Her daughter, as we said, is "going places. She'll do whatever she wants to in life." We all nodded, and I thought of my friend as I saw her agree, as well. Guess what? SHE, too, is "going places." She has done, and can do what she wants to do in life, as well.

She's in her 30s, and found her loving husband in the science department. She has worked tirelessly to achieve her doctorate. She is currently raising four children, and works way more than 40 hours a week. She is a leader in her department, and on her team. Her voice is valued in any committee or meeting she may join. She is looked up to by many. Some day, I fear, she will leave us for what she wants to do next - whatever that may be. She can do whatever she wants to in life - she is that kind of woman.

Next, I thought of all the other women and teachers I surround myself with. So many of them (us) are "going places," and doing what we want in life. Why do we sometimes feel as if we aren't? I believe it's the words we hear...

"She dresses like a teacher."
"She teaches middle school."
"She has children."

These three sentences could be translated like this:
"She's a hero."
"She's a hero."
"She's a hero."

Why don't some of us hear those words in our heads? I have realized I'm a fairly insecure person. I've been trying to "fake it 'til I make it," but it's a daily struggle. I know if I act confident enough, my students will believe I am confident, and I will be a better role model for them. So I continue to share what we do in the classroom that I believe is right for students. I continue to share others' ideas in order to give them a voice. I continue to be that person that quotes leaders and inspirational people.

Because we NEED the positive words in our lives. We NEED the support.

If you don't already, start leaving the room when the negativity seeps in. Smile, and then excuse yourself. If the meeting or family time has turned into a complaint fest, either try to offer a solution, or find those who will work with you on one. "Leave the darkness behind..." We are what we speak. If we sow seeds of what we CAN be, the fruit will start to grow. Focus on "hope and peace, empathy and kindness..." We need to start with ourselves.

What if we did "live in the light..."? Change your inside voice to say, "I am going places. I have already succeeded in my life. I am ready for more success. I am open to new ideas and insights. I am a hero to my children. I am a hero to my students. I spread good messages. I speak with kindness and compassion. I am an ear if someone needs me. I am passionate. I am confident. I am qualified. I am determined. I am strong. I am able. I am blessed."

Don't let those whispers of doubt in.
You can't think negatively and expect to live a positive life.

After the march, my friend said she felt "empowered."
Shouldn't we all? At all times? Don't we have a choice to be what we want to be?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Made with Fotor

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Whispers of Doubt"

I was fortunate to meet and eat with Sara Donovan at Panera last summer. She chooses her words well, and I envy her skill. Read her thoughts on her blog: Ethical ELA.

Three words she said to me rang something deep in me. 
"Whispers of doubt." 
I wrote them down when I got in the car. I needed to process them and write about them some day. Today's the day.

Whispers of doubt seep in...
   when we try something new
   when we want to say "no"
   when a "good morning" is not responded to
   when a student rolls her eyes
   when students struggle
   when the timing is off
   when a coworker sighs
   when we feel alone
   when we don't feel we can commit
   when we work for 12 hours on a weekend
   when we get one negative parent remark 
          (even alongside six positive)

Whispers of confidence creep up...
disguised as an EdCamp
full of passionate teachers
   foster parents
supportive - ALL...
If it's best for children.

If it's best for children,
shouldn't you...
   make time for what you believe works
   stand up and defend what's right
   speak out to the world
   share the ideas
   work on prioritizing the problems
   then work on solving the problems
   speak what you want to happen
   listen when others share

Even if you have whispers of doubt.

I love my career. Job. School. Coworkers. 
I wish we could get together in edcamp fashion more often.
I also love these "edcamp junkies" who are a special tribe.
Thank you Rebecca, Carrie, Maggie, Ben, Josh, Megan, Andrea, Michael, Heidi, Aggie, Ashley and Chuck Taft ;) for another stellar #EdCampMadWI
I am blessed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Will They Work?

January and February in seventh grade... I think these are the two months students work the least. If I remember correctly (and I think there's something that helps me forget every year), these are the two months that we think "seventh graders just don't care about their grades." (Heck - even with Genius Hour! Have you seen Karl Lindgren-Streicher's "The Suck"? It was written on this date in January, two years ago!)

Well, in a no-grades classroom, they seem to care even less.

Because really, they're coming up with their own grade, right?

Yes... and no. Yes, in our ELA class, they tell me what grade they believe they've earned for reading, writing, and grammar, and then average these. (I know - still not a perfect system!!) However, they have to give evidence for each, and also set goals for the next quarter. These goals will be reflected upon and used towards their grade in the next quarterly conference.

I often hear doubt when I talk about not having any grades in the gradebook until progress reports come out. "Why will they work if they don't get a grade for it?"

And THIS is why I went all in - because many seventh graders WON'T work if they're not getting a grade for it - in a TRADITIONAL classroom that includes points for large and small assignments. 

Thank goodness I do not have a traditional classroom.

If we don't stress *** and follow through *** that it's all about the learning, they will not work (as much). How can we mean that it's all about the learning if we're assigning points?

I'm preparing to write on our walls. Yes, write on our walls. The cement blocks, to be exact. (I received permission last year and will this year be brave enough to do it!) We're going to create reading goals that will take us into June. We'll paint our progress towards our goals on the cement blocks. (In fact, I just found a great ONLINE tool to do so! Check out this spreadsheet via Flippity!) My seventh graders don't think that our homework to read for 20 minutes a night is as important as their other homework. I know this and am reminded of this weekly when I sit with students and talk about their reading during tiny conferences on Fridays.

So what do I do? I go back and talk about the importance of reading. I go back over the reasons WHY we should read every day. Today I did it via Penny Kittle's way in Book Love. During our reading time in class, we took down the pages we read in ten minutes, then did the calculations listed here.
After we did some math in ELA class, we reviewed again just WHY we should be reading.

We need to have a rock-solid WHY, so when students struggle with the HOW, they have motivation to put forth more effort.

Sure. Some of my students won't do the work - regardless of whether there is a grade attached or not. That won't stop me from striving to get the message of WHY out to each child I meet - so we use our 180 days to talk about LEARNING, and not spend any time talking about points or grades.

In the comments, please share the ways you motivate your students to learn - especially if you're going sans grades!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Don't Wait - Do It Yourself

I love quotes - would have them up all around the room if I could. Wait. I DO! Because I CAN!

Monday, I signed up to get notifications when George Couros posts something new. As fate would have it, his first post of the year was to share inspirational quotes for 2017! This one from Pharrell Williams struck my fancy...
Created with http://recitethis.com/
When my husband and I were emailing each other (he lived in Detroit suburbs, me in Chicago suburbs), he'd often end his letters with a P.S. ... "If the stars ever line up, you're the one for me!" (Then he'd add the sparkling star emojis - too cute!) Was it too much to dream? Oh, it was a dream of ours, but it seemed so very far out of reach! It seemed impossible that we'd ever have a life together.

Well, guess what? We MADE those stars align. We reached for them, and rearranged them the way we wanted. One. Step. At. A. Time.

And this is the key. Whatever you're dreaming of, it may seem way too overwhelming. Too many things need to be done in order to ever contemplate really making it work!

It's NOT too big.
It's NOT too big - IF... If you take it one. Step. At. A. Time.

So... make the list. Oh, it's a mighty list, for sure! Then begin checking things off that list. What can you do TODAY to help make your dream come true? Tomorrow, do the same thing. Focus on what you CAN do, not what seems impossible. You'll keep adding to the list - even as you check things off. Focus on what you can do today.

And when you hear yourself complaining about how someone else is doing things, remember Sebastian's lesson...

Monday, January 2, 2017

Literary Graffiti

Each time I read a book, I am on the lookout for quotes that resonate with me. I LOVE good quotes. Our classroom has a "Literary Graffiti" board, and it warms my heart when students write on it!

When the board is filled, I type them out and put them on the ceiling tiles, and we add even more.

To spur more writing on that chalk board, I created a slide show of my favorite quotes from books I read in 2016. (All of mine - since I started really collecting - are here.) After finishing this slideshow, I decided to create another for our class - for EVERYONE'S quotes - to be added to our class website's life lessons (because really... that's what they are). When you're finished enjoying, please type one or more of your favorites in the comments below! Feel free to pause the show if it's too fast - the next setting was WAY too slow!