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, December 31, 2018

Best Books of 2018

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2018 like I have the past four years. I read a bit for myself this year, along with books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy.
     2017 Favorites
     2016 Favorites
     2015 Favorites
     2014 Favorites

Here are the books I would most recommend from my list of 100 books I've read this year (I don't count picture books in my count - this is the most I've read in one year yet!)... I tried to whittle it down to one or two per genre, but I read some genres more than others! I'm not going to describe them for you - you can check out the complete list with my thoughts for this year here.

     I decided to try one of my favorite authors again, and she didn't disappoint - The Scorpio Races
Graphic Novel
     Bit memoir/biography, my seventh graders will relate to Shannon Hale's Real Friends.

Historical Fiction
     9-11 isn't an easy topic to explore. Wendy Mills does an excellent job with All We Have Left
     Totally NOT my favorite genre, so I'm surprised I have two favorites this year! Our small after school book club read The Naturals (#1) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and I also enjoyed (although the first page shows the maturity) One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus. What's even more cool is that many of our students read the entire Naturals series, and I've seen eighth graders in the halls with McManus's book! I've also got another one from her on my nightstand...

     I truly have so much more to read, but White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism was definitely my favorite nonfiction (not professional) book I read this year.

Poetry / Books in Prose
     I was exposed to a TON of poetry and books in prose this year. Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave

was my favorite. it's got two covers - both so different!

    For two very different reasons,Being the Change: Lessons & strategies to teach social comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed and The Zen Teacher: Creating Focus, Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom by Dan Tricarico make the list.


Realistic Fiction
     A quarter of my books this year were in this genre, so I chose five of the twenty-five... Just an FYI- Deadline was very mature, and Small Great Things was an adult read.

Science Fiction
     Can I add a book in here AGAIN - that I RE-read?? (I never re-read!!) I'd love to add Scythe to this list (again!), but will tell you that the sequel, Thunderhead had me longing for the third in the series to come out in 2019!! (Again- I'm not good with reading the second book in a series lately, either!) Anyway... I did love these two as well - Genius: The Game (#1) from Leopoldo Gout and Insignia (#1) from S.J. Kincaid (thanks to my nephew for this suggestion).

Self Help
     Oh, this one I bought for the classroom - good for young and old alike! From Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, The Way of the Warrior Kid: From wimpy to warrior, the Navy SEAL way

     I still need to read more sports books - what are YOUR favorites? One that had an athlete with ADHD is Diana Harmon Asher's Sidetracked and one that a student (self-proclaimed nonreader) a couple of years ago read TWICE was Carl Deuker's Heart of a Champion.

     What have I missed this year? Please leave YOUR favorites of 2018 in the comments below! I've got a library card and some Amazon gift cards, and I'm excited to use them!

Saturday, December 29, 2018


Labels irk the heck out of me.

The fact that we label students as "troublemakers" really irritates me, even though I've done it myself.

I've been waiting (why have I been waiting?) to read this one for a bit, and it did not disappoint, as I read it in two days...

The canary and cage on the front have two meanings. The most obvious is from Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and the less obvious is the one that distressed me the most. Miners used to take canaries down in the mines with them, as they served as warnings about the air quality. If a canary were to die, the miners had to get out. When a child is singing loudly, we need to heed that as a warning that something is wrong in this classroom. Most likely, it's the imbalance of power.

Most of what Carla Shalaby shares is about a child's need to feel free - to feel as if they're in some sort of control - to feel HUMAN.

The four students the author chose to focus on were in what seemed to me GREAT schools. She asked the principal to share two teachers of high caliber. And to those teachers, she asked, "Who of your students is the most troublesome?" These are the four she shadowed for a bit - at school, and when possible, at home. What I found kind of amusing and kind of sad is that the behaviors these four first graders exhibited were some of the very same behaviors I see in some seventh graders.

I can see and understand the messages she shares about the young black students not having any adults at school to look to for models. I can see how schools are conforming students to ... basically act white. When I think of my own students, the ones that I lose sleep over happen to be white. My school has a high white population (and I, too, am white). The author is upset about students' exclusion to a different part of the room or a different room altogether. I do not worry about physically excluding students, but I may exclude them unintentionally if I call them out on something in front of the entire class.

What I was really struck by was the conformity we expect of our students.

The author points out that educators want compliance because that's what's expected in schools. That's how we can get our lessons across, and that's how the school culture simply IS.

While she was sharing the stories of the four seven-year-olds, I couldn't help but think of my own students, and I was reminded of a few things:

  • Students really don't have much control at school, especially compared to at home. No matter how much we think we have student-directed learning or choice or voice, this book forced me to consider how much I actually control, and how much the school culture actually dictates.
  • Many students learn that the culture of school is to listen and obey.
  • Some students are simply just being themselves. Their personalities may differ from those of the majority of the class, or else the majority has figured out it's safer to hide or squash their true personalities at school.
  • "Different" is often perceived as causing trouble.
  • Many (most?) children have a natural tendency to want to learn. What do we do at school that dissolves that initiative? We have a curriculum to teach. I wonder how many times our curriculum is not something each child would choose to learn each day...
  • Teachers often pigeonhole children into doing what we do, and doing it how we do it.
  • We may have 25 students in class. We don't always make the time to help answer questions from inquisitive minds, and yet we encourage them to be inquisitive. We want them to think for themselves, and when they do, it can cause a disturbance. We want them to be independent, but only under our parameters.
  • We need to listen to individual students.
  • We need to get to know our students even more.
  • We need to let them know when we are proud of them.
  • We need to notice and name the good they do.
  • We need to see them (or imagine them) outside of school - how does what they're doing in school look like outside of school? Might what they're doing actually help them somehow outside of the school setting?
  • Stop labeling students! Making trouble is a verb - not a noun. It's not something to fix. It's something to explore.
  • Just because a student is a "good student" does not mean that he or she will succeed outside of school. Compliance does not always equal success. We put so many limits on students in school - how will they succeed when they're left on their own? We want children to find their identities, to figure out their strengths, to be confident, to have a voice in decisions... We need to give them the room to do so - without fear of punishment, or worse, exclusion.

At the end of the book, I still wanted MORE. I wish I could copy the entire conclusion and her note to teachers here. Instead, this will be your advertisement to read this book if you have not yet. The author does not solve our problems with these so-called "troublemakers." She leaves it to us and our students. I have a tiny idea of what I can do when I return to school after this two-week break, and yet I know my students will have to help me figure it out. They have many more ideas than I ever will, and maybe we can get to the root of what they need from me.

My favorite quote: 
How stressful it must be to be a young person in our schools! How unsafe and frightening it must be to wonder - as you witness the next punishment and rejection of one of your peers - if you will be next. That kind of conditional acceptance, subjective belonging, contingent care, must feel terribly threatening to children, whom we know are biologically wired to make illogical choices as their brains continue to develop. They make mistakes and they make bad decisions - don't we all? Especially when we are stressed, feeling unsafe, and suffering?

Friday, December 28, 2018

White Fragility

As some of my readers know, I started another "passion project" of sorts after reading Being the Change by Sarah K. Ahmed and Jodi Picoult's Small Great Things. I explained it in this post.

As part of my growth, I just finished White Fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo. Wow. If you're white, you've GOT to read this.

Here are two powerful quotes that hit me, and if you'd like to read my rambling notes, here's the post on my other blog.

Contributions to this other blog of mine are still welcomed. Just let me know when you've got something you'd like to share. I'm open to feedback.

Monday, December 10, 2018

What Our Students Think

Oh, how I love seventh graders!

In preparation for another book I'm writing (you read that right! Wha...?!), I decided to go right to the source, and get my students' voices!! Here's our latest question of the day - done a bit differently! I hope you can read them all.

The purple one about asking if the student has talked to their locker lately... is mine. 😉 I ask that and then help out by talking nicely to their locker and pulling pixie dust out of my pocket to blow on the it so it opens right up!   🔑 Doesn't everybody??