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.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Value of Vulnerability

When are you vulnerable?

I was asked this question once, in a marriage counseling session. I didn't know what it meant at the time. It took me awhile to process it. When I realized I had STOPPED being vulnerable with my ex, that's when I vowed to always just be me - vulnerable as heck - with any other new relationships. My second (and last, of course) husband and I are 100% vulnerable with each other, and that has made our love and life so much stronger. Being vulnerable means you have nothing to hide. My heart is on my sleeve, and I trust others. If people take advantage of this trust, I then learn my lesson through reflection, and close my heart back up with those particular people.

When are you vulnerable - at your school?

I'm guessing your answer would be every day. During the school day, you are in front of eyes that look up to you - you feel that you need to make a difference and do your best. You try, no matter how goofy you may feel, then you try again - with your students' best interests at the forefront.

When are you vulnerable - in your profession?

Many teachers have been debating starting a blog. Writing is a vulnerable act. I can see why many teachers are afraid of writing blog posts, much less a book! I've been there - I'm STILL there! Seeing that people I know and respect are reading Shift This is scary - I always say "eek!" when I see a tweet of the book in someone's hands. Writing every blog post is also a vulnerable act for me, as it is for countless others.

Yet it is important - now more than ever. We need to share our stories - our truths - and learn from each other. We need to share our own stories to combat any negative view of education.

New and veteran teachers are telling me that Shift This has made a difference and invigorated them.

I've got principals asking me for advice as to how to run school meetings or to provide a workshop on the ideas in the book. Teachers are sending me direct messages, confiding in me about the resistance they encounter at work, and how words I've written have helped them feel like they're not alone. These educators are reaching out and showing their vulnerability to me, which I respect.

I've been reminded of a few things since Shift This came out in May...

  • Not everyone you're connected to knows what you know, so SHARE what you know! There are teachers reading the book that have never heard of Genius Hour. There are teachers reading that have never considered not giving extra credit. Some teachers have called it eye-opening, or even career-changing! Even though I've shifted my ideas for awhile now, we still need to share the ideas out there, as there are still educators who are not aware of the possibilities. Consider this: If you share ONE idea that affects ONE educator, you are affecting countless children, as well. How many children will this educator teach, using this one idea you shared? How many other educators will learn about this one idea and thus affect their students, as well?
  • Teachers need to be doing what we ask our students to do. Whether it be the homework you assign, the reading for the night, or the writing in class on a subject, we need to do this alongside our students. Writing is such a vulnerable act - even writing a reflection to something in class! Even writing to give advice or feedback! I'm not even thinking about creative or narrative writing - I'm thinking about writing about Phineas Gage, for goodness sake! Or how about the writing done in science class? Or providing evidence to support or refute a decision made in history? MANY of our students are uncomfortable writing - much less sharing their writing. We need to model it, show them our thinking, then ask them for feedback.
  • We need to ask everyone - students, their parents, peers, administration - for feedback. The more perspectives, the better. The stronger our work will be.
  • We need to REFLECT. Daily. Nah. We only need to ask for feedback and reflect if we want to improve. If we don't want to improve, we should find a new profession.

I've been humbled since Shift This has come out, as well. Teachers are starting blogs as a result of reading it, or even simply being in our book study chats. More teachers have found a larger voice - My words have affected others, and now their words will affect even more educators! On the Weebly, under chapter ten (titled "Resistance" - a favorite chapter among readers), I've added a new page for our new bloggers. The reason it's connected to the resistance chapter is because we will encounter LESS resistance once "crazy" (a.k.a. "innovative") ideas become more commonplace. It's my secret hope that Shift This will not be needed in a few years as more and more teachers are exposed to these ideas. This is going to happen if you share your words - be vulnerable - and let other teachers (and parents, too!) know what you're trying in the classroom.

When are you vulnerable? You could reply in a comment on this post, sure. That's one way of being vulnerable and sharing your thoughts with the world. Or you could write a blog post all your own.

This post was inspired by Aaron Hogan in a #tlap chat about his new book Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth. He and I are on the same wavelength - I finished his book after I wrote this draft. He's got an entire chapter devoted to valuing vulnerability, and another on the importance of blogging and sharing with the world!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Thankful for the Opportunities

I was reading a blog post about global connections and grades (or lack thereof) from a "new" connection I've made on Twitter recently - Monte Syrie. At the bottom of his post, he writes,

Do. Reflect. Do better.

That struck a chord with  me. Reflection is such a HUGE part of my learning, teaching me so much. I learn more from my failures than from my successes - as long as I reflect and plan how to tweak (or ditch)! I retweeted his post, and then told him - 

Bam. He hit me again. "Lucky to work in a prof. that gives me the opportunity to redo."


Some days we may be kicking ourselves for what we tried - and how we failed - in a classroom of students. And then... then we have the opportunity to reflect, revise, and redo...


If you are not yet reflective in your practice, it's time to begin. Begin right away, so you can learn from your successes and failures TODAY. This can come in the form of simply thinking, making bullet points, filling in plus/delta charts, journaling, or blogging. If we want our students to be reflective, we've got to reflect ourselves, share our reflections, and support a community of learners.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Feedback that Moves Writers Forward

If you teach ANY sort of writing (ahem, social studies and science teachers, too), you should read Feedback that Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing and take Patty McGee's ideas to heart and then into the classroom.

Where do I start?

As a teacher who is going into her second year of only providing feedback instead marks, I NEED to do this more effectively. I also need to model effective feedback for my students, so they can provide better feedback to each other, as well. I learned so much that will help me with these goals from this resource-full book.

I did not expect to get so much more out of it... after all, I just spent a school year giving ONLY feedback! Since reading, however, I have created a contract for students if they need that scaffold to help prove their grade at the end of the quarter, I have collected so many great phrases and routines to use when providing feedback, I have added these three peer feedback protocols to the Feedback in Lieu of Grades LiveBinder (Patty said it was okay!), and I've made a commitment to include a few minutes for reflection in as many days as possible.

Here is one way I make notes - I make lists of what I want to go back to in the book. You'll notice some I've crossed off because I already tackled them, and some I still need to do (um, quite a few I still need to do)...

Here were some of the gems I shared (via Twitter):

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Now go digging and find your own gems in this jewel of a book!

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Taking a Break from Control

It happens.
Sometimes it makes me late - to a meeting, to a party, to class.
It's human.

WHY, then... WHY is this story about Shanna Peeples' (who I totally respect) bathroom policy considered radical? Why is it even a discussion? You've gotta read this story!

Why do some teachers want control over when students use the bathroom?

Chapter four in Shift This mentions giving students control over when they leave the room. In room 239, we have a sign-out sheet that students can use - to visit the bathroom, get something from their locker, see the nurse, visit the library... They sign out and then they leave. I have seventh graders. They love this procedure. Do you think they don't take advantage of this?

Of course they do! So how do I notice this, and then what do I do? (And how can I look so casual about it?!)

First, I offer them practice. At the beginning of the year, I go over our sign-out system quickly, and simply ask that students are courteous about leaving. Try not to leave in the middle of a discussion or dissemination of important information. Try to NEVER leave when another student is sharing something. Some need to be reminded, but school is a great time to practice. I trust them until they prove me wrong.

At the start of the year, not many students take advantage of this system - it's as if they're not sure of it. Can this be true? But in another class, we get three passes for the quarter... I can just go when I need to?

Still, after four weeks in, I take home the sign-out sheets. I make tally marks on a roster to see who may be abusing the system. What does "abusing the system" even mean?? I have 80-min. blocks, with a four-minute break in between. Sure, they could go during break, but many other students are using that transition time so they don't have to use a pass... And for my class after lunch, should students be given more leeway? Who am I to decide this?? So what I do is I figure one time a week should be normal. (Right? Is it? I still don't know.) There are some students who never leave class. Then there are others...

After I tally, I jot down who I should talk with. In a quiet one-on-one conversation, all I ask is, "Is there a reason you need to leave our class so much?" Sometimes their answers will surprise me! And many times, they leave because they forgot something at their locker - this is a different issue, and this is what I use the tracking sheet for - that's (narrative) feedback that gets shared in my online grade book. I show the average for the class, and we - together - set a goal for the next four weeks. Usually this discussion and goal helps.

Does it not work sometimes?
Obviously. I have students who struggle in ELA. Leaving the room is an escape, and I'm aware of this. When the work gets tougher, this student will escape more often. The next four weeks I tally once again. We have the discussion again. And what do we do? We need to come up with a way to MEET the student's goal. We need to come up with a PLAN, since simply setting a goal did not work. This past year, my co-teacher and I simply used an index card with my initials on separate pieces that I cut partially for the student to tear off and then just leave - no questions asked. When the index card is gone, they're done for the four weeks. It works - and is still fairly discreet.

And yet... I need to tweak my own system sometimes. Last year, with three weeks left of the school year, I was tallying... and I stopped half-way through. Too many students were suddenly leaving a LOT from our class = 15 or more times in four weeks!! This was the first time I'd run into this. So... I went back to my old passes I still had on a document, and printed them out.
The new plan was for students hand to it to me, I initial, and they leave the room. When they got this paper, they GROANED! When I explained that too many people had taken advantage of the system the last four weeks, they nodded, giggled, and said nothing more. (Plus, we only had three weeks left of school - that's one per week!) I had to add this caveat, however - they could not buy or sell them. They could give them away to friends in need, but they could not buy or sell them. I knew this group of entrepreneurs...

They surprised me again - I found one that someone left behind, tucked it under the transparent desk cover thing-a-ma-bob, and a student used it and then returned it!! I love 7th graders. I want to treat them like the humans they are, and then tweak the plan when it's not working.

How do you handle bathroom breaks? Leave a comment with your idea we can all steal!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Creating a Culture of Feedback

I wish I'd have had this book prior to teaching without marks in class, but it was just published in 2017, so it came at the best time for me to digest ideas - SUMMER!

It took me about a month to read this skinny 64-page book, because I had to DO many of the things the authors suggested!  Much of what I was doing is on the right track and I simply tweaked some things, but of course I had to create while reading:

[My next step is to do the same with grammar standards, as I think we're still using daily grammar practice next year (?), and I need to figure out my own goals, in addition to what I expect students to do. Last year was the first year I stuck with the grammar routine, and it did give us a common language we could use with students. It's still not my favorite, as the research points against teaching grammar in isolation, but it's still only five minutes of class time.]

I then typed up the "Observation Vs. Evaluation" chart they shared so I can share it with my students prior to us practicing peer feedback.
I thought it would be perfect to share with them one of the first days of school when we practice speaking in front of our peers with our first tiny bit of writing. Last year, the class gave a quick "thumbs up, middle or down" on volume when speaking. How simple it would be to share this chart prior to this activity - and then again and again as we practiced giving and receiving peer feedback?! Pair this with the story of Austin's Butterfly, and the culture of feedback can start strong. (Haven't seen that one? Hurry and soak up the six minutes of visible learning!)

Another perk about this gem of a book is that they organize it into three chapters that make sense for the process of feedback, and they constantly use language that makes the reader think of IMPROVING, and not judgment -

  • Where am I going? 
  • How am I doing?
  • What are my next steps? 

Yes. Yes. Yes. I've highlighted and stuck notes on many pages, knowing I'll be keeping this book close at hand once the school year starts again. I'm going to use the language they use so that our class has an even better culture of learning and improving next year. I am excited for feedback in our classroom to lead to action and improvement. The goal "is to give students opportunities to practice making decisions about what's next based on feedback that they gather on their own" (52). My students and I have a long way to go. One step at a time...

Thank you, Bill Ferriter and Paul Cancellieri!

Update 8/14/17: Educator Bill Ivey reviewed this book here.

Thank you to Solution Tree press, who provided this book after I reviewed another of their books that will be published soon!

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Here's to all those who think teachers have the summer's "OFF"...
Sure - you wouldn't mind switching careers with teachers NOW... See if you can survive one week in the classroom come September!
Not bitter here, just realistic. Check it out:

Happy JUNE! Since school has been off for two days, I've been to Milwaukee and back for the USMSpark conference where I presented three different sessions and then hosted a Twitter chat last night, and today I already had breakfast with Twitter (and real-life) peeps Marialice Curran and Kristen Mattson (who, by the way, are doing WAY MORE than I could even imagine!!), followed by an interview with Kelly Croy for his Wired Educator Podcast. I even took a few moments to glance at the new curriculum we're piloting in August. Phew!


It's time for me to take a week vacation - oh, my! Hubby has a big birthday is tomorrow - and then get back to planning for next year!

And a HUGE THANK YOU to all those firefighters, EMS responders, nurses and doctors out there who work their tails off - often with odd hours away from their families - and don't get the break they deserve! Who else am I missing? Everybody's profession is valuable - we all work together to keep society humming!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2016-2017 Digital Scrapbook

I've realized the "Year In Review" posts I do each year aren't really about the year with students. They're just the big events or ones that happen outside of my regular school day. And it sounds quite a bit like bragging. I keep these just so I can go back - a digital scrapbook of sorts - so please take it with a grain of salt. I usually blog about small everyday successes and challenges, but I do post these once a year... Anyway, here are some events I thoroughly enjoyed this past school year - year 22!

The reason I had to start this post June 30th was this sweet tweet from Michael Buist:
- I attended my first #PatioPD, thanks to Sean Scanlon. I wish I had a photo of the seven of us! I even got involved in the PokemonGo craze (after just one week from its inception)!
- Boston - Building Learning Communities conference for my third time - second as a presenter!

- I approached the Burgess couple (DBC) about a book I'd like to get into the world.
- I was asked to be the Spotlight Speaker for ICE in March.
Matt Miller came to Tech Academy at AHSD 25! His message was clear - follow the students' lead, and keep them connected!

- EdCamp Illinois on 9/17
- Began NO GRADES in all three of my 80-min. blocks!

- I signed a publishing contract!
- EdCamp Chicago on 10/22
- I was able to renew my National Board Certificate - I passed!
- We executed our first Independent Inquiry Project (replaced Genius Hour - one full week, ending with a Cardboard / Creativity Challenge) while I conferenced with students about their learning!
- We all survived the Chromebook roll out at our school!

My district brought Dr. Tom Guskey to us! Most of our teachers were able to hear about the benefits of Standards-Based Grading. Of course I had to get my photo with him...!
- I found out I had successfully renewed my National Board Certification one year early (so... until 2027)!
- I turned in my first rendition of Shift This to Dave and Shelley Burgess!
- I found out I was nominated for a Golden Apple award - humbled!

- I was able to meet author K.A. Holt, thanks to our district for bringing her to our middle schools.
- Matt Miller hosted #DitchSummit online = nine great presenters sharing a wealth of information! Sign up here for the one in 2017!
- I achieved my goal of reading 73 books in 2016! (I read a total of 75 - all are here.) I didn't think I would, since I spent so much time writing this year.

- EdCamp Madison! We made a long weekend out of it for my birthday. My hubby knows what makes me happy!
- PubPD at Emmett's in Downers Grove (this one Hubby didn't mind attending the entire time)
- Conferring with students at the end of the quarter - my favorite thing to do this year!

- I volunteered at the SIT conference.
- I was notified that I would not be one of the 30 educators the Golden Apple committee would visit further. What more can I do? I could look for opportunities to Skype with classes and experts around the world. I could implement Genius Hour every week once again. I could be a stronger leader at my school. Our 7th grade ELA team is already implementing many changes, and my focus will always be on the students, no matter how much we do.

- I was humbled to share two presentations (twice each) as a "Spotlight Speaker" at the ICE (Illinois Computing Educators) Conference! David Karnoscak and I even won a #KidsDeserveIt book! I met a TON of wonderful educators here - my favorite parts were the small 1:1 chats we had.
- I received a Hokki stool from VS (school furniture) for our classroom! (Thanks Monica Hartman and Jen Smith!) 
- I received recognition from an IL senator for my National Board recertification - I then decided I probably need to let my district know!

- I joined my first panel on personalized learning at a NICE meeting on April 13th. Woah! Story here... 

- Did someone say another EdCamp?! Half-day EdCamp CCSD59 on April 22nd. Bonus - there were FOUR of us from my own school who attended - two first timers! Also, there were two parents there who have children at our school! Thanks for getting this together, Amanda, and thanks for another free DBC book - Instant Relevance! #MakeItReal
- I was able to share "Shift the Culture of Your Classroom" again during the morning of SLedCamp on April 29th.

- Shift This came to Amazon on May 7th! See Dave Burgess's post about it here!
- A piece I wrote about using feedback in stead of grades (last year!) was finally published in the IATE Illinois English Bulletin, Spring 2017 edition.
- MAP Scores - a lot of growth this spring!
- My phone cannot handle all the tweets about #ShiftThis. My TweetDeck can. ;)
- I've been on a Bitmoji craze, and it helped me to deal with all the talk and blogs about fidget spinners - oh, and to deal with the spinners themselves! ;)

- I was interviewed for the Principal Center Podcast.
- I finished my first year where all of my ELA classes went without marks in the grade book until it was time to put one (still quite arbitrary, but more accurate) letter on each grade report each quarter.
- I got the sweetest thank you notes from my seventh graders this year. Priceless.
- USM Summer Spark starts my last day of school (staff only), so I miss that day, but then I'm fortunate to be a "featured speaker" the next day... Oh, how excited I am to meet these educators and many, many more this summer! (Summer presentations: BLC (Boston in July), Taste of Tech (Aurora, IL 7/31 & 8/1), and Ditch That Conference (September 8th in Indiana.)

And what were the tiny successes this year? All the times I came home and was able to tell Hubby about all the small steps my students were taking through all the struggles we approached together...

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Quick Tip #27 - Life Lessons Visible

Throughout the school year, I ask for and then record life lessons we've learned. Once recorded, they are publicized here online for students, parents, and the community. Now that it's the end of the year...

Full Text

Monday, June 5, 2017

My Personal Twitter Rules

It's my Twitter space, too.

I play by my own rules.

In my last post regarding Twitter, I shared seven lessons I've learned since jumping into the Twittersphere five years ago. When you first get on Twitter, you feel that you "have" to do certain things... such as follow someone if they follow you, or other "rules" I can't remember now. I'm glad I'm removed from those initial feelings!

I thought I'd explain some of my personal rules I've made for myself, and hope to get your ideas, as well, so we can learn from each other the various ideas educators have regarding this swell tool we call Twitter.

--> I do not always reply right away. Yes, sometimes I shut off technology. For many reasons. If you don't understand this, you should shut it off, too. During school hours, I will not check my Twitter account. The students come before anyone from 7:45-3:30.

--> If your district, school, or class is in a contest, I will vote once for your school - IF I get a chance to look through other submissions. I will not retweet your request, unless followers can see ALL the entries. Why these rules for myself? Because I used to not have so many followers. I used to not be so "popular" on Twitter. I don't think contests should be won because of the person's popularity or connections. Background story: I didn't win a karaoke contest one night in Fox Lake, IL, because I only brought my husband and parents. I didn't know it was decided by popularity vote! I did win a Parrot Bay hat... (That's right. I sing. Martina McBride and Dixie Chicks, Baby.)

--> If someone tags me in a tweet about their Donors Choose project, I do not retweet those, either. I feel I am tagged because I have many followers, and I don't think that's fair to those who are not even ON Twitter (yet). There are many educators at very low-income schools that do not know about the benefits of being connected on Twitter, yet they need just as much (or more) help than those who are. When I go to Donors Choose, I look for schools in the less-fortunate area near where I was raised, and am very selective as to where I donate. I am also selective when it comes to donating to other organizations - I do my research to see where the money goes I imagine donating is very personal for many people, so I will not retweet requests, nor will I put my own requests out there. I understand those who do; I just choose not to share in my Twitter stream. (Added in September of 2018 - I sometimes feel I've gotten more requests for Donors Choose projects since I published Shift This. Just because I do happen to have published a book doesn't mean I have bags of money to share. Giving to charities is a very personal thing, and I have my own favorites for various reasons. Added in 2019 - #clearthelist brings to the front the discussion of equity...)

--> Very rarely do I join a chat at 8pm or later. Another of my rules for shutting off tech - I don't sleep well if my brain is too engaged after 8pm. I've missed many #GeniusHour chats as a result, so I catch the archives. My own state has an #ILEdChat at 9pm - I'll never make that one, as that's when I head to bed. Seriously! I take care of myself by heading to bed at a time that helps me stay healthy. No one wants to see me crabby.

--> I try my best to not complain or retweet complaints. I want to promote suggestions or solutions. I don't care to read complaints from other educators, so I try my best to not do so myself. This has transferred into the school environment, as well. I'm getting better!

--> I unfollow those who tweet or retweet crude photos. I don't need to see these in my feed. Politics have changed my Twitter feed to include more complaints and crass remarks - no matter what "side" you're on. I'm on the side of children, so I've been unfollowing those that are using or sharing profanity or complaints directed to the world, and not to the source.

Everyone follows a certain set of criteria for tweets and time on Twitter. What's yours? What works best for you?

When you're on your own Twitter space, what are some rules you find yourself following? 
Please share yours in the comments below.