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 27, 2019

Teacher Evaluations - Circumstance and Privilege

I've got an observation coming up. I'm just fine when someone pops in our classroom to visit or say hi or ask for something, but observations make me fret. This is not a summative year for me, so it's just an informal one, and I asked my administrator to surprise me, because I just cannot choose a date.

Anyway... I was thinking about the labels we use to evaluate teachers. To tell the truth, I don't even know what the first two (of four) are on the Danielson rubric, but the next two are "proficient" and "distinguished." These are the two where we want to be. Some teachers like to talk about other teachers and where they fall on the spectrum. I heard from a teacher friend of mine that I was "distinguished." Really? It was news to me!! (Oh, how I can't stand rumors!)

Some educators want feedback in order to grow further - if we're not "distinguished" in one or more of the four domains, how do we get there? Some people don't worry about it. Some teachers are satisfied with "proficient," and I believe they should be. I'll explain why.

I've been reading teacher wellness books lately. In The Zen Teacher, the message I received loud and clear was to make time for YOURSELF - EVERY day. In Teaching Well, the message I received was to not over-do it.

When we have four domains, it's as if we have four grades. If, in two domains, I received a "proficient," and in the other two, "distinguished," who's to say what the "final grade" should be? Isn't this just as varied depending on the teacher as the difference between an 89% and a 90%?

Consider the teacher that is "proficient" in each of the four domains. "There is room for growth," are the first words we think, and we do not recognize that sometimes all we can do is "proficient" - and that should be very okay.

Consider the opportunities afforded that could affect your evaluation.

  • Mrs. Kirr got a grant to turn her tables into white board tables! Mrs. Nelson got one of our new classrooms, and so they had to purchase new furniture for her. Sweet! Mrs. Powell found a great kitchen set of chairs for only $25, so she brought them in to add to her hodge podge flexible seating. Mrs. Maxwell still has the retired teacher's math desks that are hard to get into if you're not skinny. All of these are due to circumstances and privilege. 
  • What about the extra "outside school hours" you work? You'd better chaperone a dance or help out at a game at your own school and then also do the same for your own child at his school. Don't forget your bus duty this week when it's going to be 5 below. 
  • Your car had better get you to school or your students will be without a "guest teacher" because they are in high demand. Sorry - your babysitter / daycare bailed? Too bad you'll have to take a sick day - it's good our after school club meets tomorrow and not today. No worries if you yourself are actually sick - it's often easier to go in to school than to write sub plans (not the best idea if you want to take care of your physical and mental health, however). 
  • Oh, and I'm not going to sit next to a student on the floor anymore, because my back hurts after a while. Stinks that I have plantar fasciitis due to all the walking I'm doing around the room every day. A tennis ball being rolled under my feet each morning helps. 
  • No, I'm not going to attend the three day, two night trip because I have a family I'm supposed to be taking care of first. 
  • And this year - no coaching track, because I realized last year I really have no clue what I'm doing, and it's so unfair to the kids. 
Circumstance and privilege. Seriously. I remember signing up for every after school activity I could when I was young. I desperately needed the money, I could stay up all hours of the night and still work well during the day, and my parents were glad to have me out of the house (or I didn't really care for my roommate).

Consider the teacher that is "distinguished" in all four domains. How is this teacher not more highly regarded at school automatically? We should be observing her classes and learning lessons from the best of the best! Those who couldn't attend could watch the video broadcast on their own time! Tell me she has a Golden Apple already... If a person received "distinguished" in all four domains, we don't believe it. We think there's something sneaky going on. ... Because NO ONE could earn "distinguished" in all four areas. Seriously. You would be breathing and eating teaching 24/7. Then WHY DO WE STILL STRIVE FOR IT?!

Why isn't "proficient" in all four domains okay? Maybe this is the year your child took all of your time. Maybe this is the year a family member is sick. Maybe this is the year you needed that dental work. Maybe this is the year you had to clean out your parents' house.

Why isn't "proficient' in all four domains okay? Sometimes all you can work is 60 hours a week. Doing more than that will wear you out - mentally and physically. We need to take care of our own selves before we can care for others.

Why isn't "proficient" in all four domains okay?


We know we can do better.
We want to be the best for our students.
We don't want to be in a rut.
We want to feel good again.
We want to feel rejuvenated.
We are passionate about what we do.
Good enough will never be good enough.
We will always strive to be master teachers.

And yet...

We should be okay if we are "proficient" in all four domains. We strive to do the best we can in the amount of time we have available. If I've learned anything this school year, it's that at this point in my life and career I cannot - and really should not - do it all if I want to stay mentally and physically healthy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Speed Dating - with BOOKS!

The first time my classes tried speed dating with books was in 2013. It's time for a new blog post!

Before we first started, I found these blog posts to be especially helpful:
Tips for Getting Kids to Do More Choice Reading: Book Speed Dating
          by Erica Beaton (@EricaLeeBeaton)
Building Our To-Read Lists: Book Speed Dating
          by Colby Sharp (@colbysharp)
Book Speed Dating: How I did it and why I'll do it again
         by Leigh Collazo (@MrsReaderPants)

We've usually got some kind of contest or challenge going on for reading at our school library. This month is no different. With the challenge in mind (and the new face lift our library has had), here's how it was set up (and now our teacher-librarians set it up for us!):

There were six tables, with different categories from our "TMS Tower" challenge. Here are the challenges:

We're hoping students will find this fun, fairly easy, and will get them out of any "reading ruts" they may be in currently.

The challenge was explained, students received a page where they can take notes on which books might look appealing (and from which category they come), and we broke into small groups (3-5 depending on the class size) and let students browse for about 3 minutes per table. Then students regrouped and the local library challenge (100 Books before High School) and prizes were announced.

I loved the twist this time with these fun categories. I also loved the incentive to complete the challenge by the end of the year - when you complete it, you get to choose a book to donate to a library in need. Mrs. Fahnoe shared how fortunate we are at our school to have such wonderful books (most in great condition!), and how it'll will be beautiful to see more books going to kids who need them.

Of course, not every child took this seriously. That doesn't mean we're giving up! The plethora of books should be a clue to them that there IS a book for them out there, should they choose to stop and take some time with it...

Monday, January 21, 2019

10-Minute Teacher Podcast

I spent some time with Vicki Davis this month... we ended up talking about change...
Ten minutes? Sure, you've got time to listen!

Here is @CoolCatTeacher's podcast page.
Here is our first meet-up back in 2013.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Conference Musings Q2

Once again, it's my busiest time of the year. One-on-one conferences with my 7th graders to decide what tiny little letter represents all of our work and learning from the quarter. (Past reflections on conferring with students are here.)

I've conducted 61 one-on-one "grade" conferences with students the last two weeks. I need to meet because even though I've gone all quarter without points or scores averaged together, I still need to put a final letter grade in the online gradebook. Some conferences go faster than five minutes, and some go slower, and they all leave a paper trail for students to take home and explain to parents. This quarter, we used pages 6 & 7 of this document. These were the second grade conferences we've had this year, so they were a teeny bit faster than first quarter. It's still quite the learning curve for some! 

Here are some snippets (all names are changed)...

Alan -

     I know he's got an "A." There's no doubt. He had trouble with his writing, but followed the feedback and improved it dramatically in his first revision. He asked me if he could average the numbers for the scores he had. Sure - even though this is one thing I think is wrong with typical grades. He came up with a 94.5%. "Yeah, I'll take that," he said.
     Me - Hey, [Alan], since you like to average the numbers, would you like to just simply go with a regular grade next time?
     Alan - Hmmm... Will I get the same feedback?
     Me - Nope. It's either grades OR feedback, as it's too much for me to do both, and the research says it doesn't help, anyway.
     Alan - Then I'd rather stick with the way we've been doing it. I think the feedback helps me learn.
     Me - (with a tear in my eye, I swear) Thanks for making it all worth it. It sure is a heck of a lot more work, but when I hear it's helping you learn, it's all worth it.

Paul -

     Similar to the conversation with Alan, except Paul actually said he "crunched the numbers." When I asked him if he'd like to go to normal grading, he thought about it and finally said, "No. Let's wait one more quarter. If it doesn't work out in my favor, we can switch over fourth quarter." (Seriously. I can't make this stuff up. Oh - and this is the kid that reminds me of my one and only nephew.)

Ally -

     Oh, how Ally was nervous. Her legs were shaking up and down, her face was blotchy red.
     Me - [Ally], what do you think when you see all this evidence? What does it tell you?
     Ally - (quietly) I don't know... I don't know.
     Me. - Let me change the question. How does this make you feel?
     Ally - (straightening up) Proud.

Upton -

     This quarter, he's been blowing off directions, asking me every day to repeat what I'd already said (and what was on the board), going on YouTube so often that I had to block it for our class, and has been talking a ton while I'm sharing how we're going to work each day. I haven't talked with him about it, as he's not the loudest one in the class. He's also a huge reader, so I don't worry about him figuring out the directions or following through when he gets down to work.
     These were the comments he chose for his report card:
He knows. 
He knows. 
This, in itself, helps me to realize, once again, how important it is to take time to reflect.

Mike -

     He, too, has been ignoring my directions, distracted as heck at ANYthing happening in the room or outside the room. Head turning this way and that, busting out laughing at things I cannot see or hear. He's not distracting the class - only himself.
     For our "analysis of evidence" writing, he wrote three sentences. I marked it as "incomplete" and let him know I was available before and after school, and during lunch. The day before we were to meet about his final grade, he "wrote a new one." When we sat down to chat, I asked him where his paper was with the page numbers for the evidence he'd found for his writing. He mumbled that he didn't do it. When I asked who he went to for peer editing, he said he did it on his own. When I asked why there was a blog post about something totally unrelated to ELA, and yet he didn't yet post his reflections on our book clubs, he said he didn't get to it. We looked at his evidence. He did not try to inflate it. He was honest and reflective. We agreed on his grade. Then he set a goal to "use class time more wisely."
     Yes. Yes. Yes.
     I will help him with this goal as we move forward.

Friday, January 4, 2019

More Nonfiction

I decided last night, as I was soaking up Jack Andraka's Breakthrough, that I need to read and share more nonfiction with my students this year. I also finished Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder this week. I posted it on instagram, and one of my former students said she read it for a class her senior year. That one makes me simply want to do MORE to become a better person.

With Jack's book (I'm going to finish in two days), it's personal.

A dear friend of my husband was diagnosed (early, she says) in June with pancreatic cancer. A dear friend of my own's father passed from this terrible disease. I didn't really know about this type of cancer until June last year, and now I fear for our friend.

I've heard of Jack Andraka, and knew he did something remarkable with science, and I'd probably even heard it was for early detection of pancreatic cancer, but at that point, I simply didn't care enough to read it. It wasn't personal for me.

His writing is personal. Jack's close family friend he called an uncle passed away from pancreatic cancer. His work is personal. He spent months of his freshman year working towards this ONE thing. My reading became personal as soon as I stepped into this book. It wasn't simply "something on my to-read list" anymore.

There's so much more to say about this book (that I now need to purchase for the classroom), but I'm not here to write about the book. I'm here to explore - again - that this is how I'd love for school to be. I'm in the perfect position - ELA class - where we can read and write like crazy. I truly wish we could make it more personal for students - reading and writing MOST days about what we believe is important.

Some of my seventh graders need more guidance, I know. Some of them seem apathetic about so many issues; I get it. As I provide short video feedback on our last bit of teacher-directed writing however, I am catching some students who have the skills and asking them to move FORWARD. To not take my direction, but use the same skills to write about what THEY deem important. Great - you can tell me who the dynamic character is in your book and back it up with evidence and then explain it all clearly? Then NEXT time, write about a PERSON you know that is dynamic, and provide the evidence and explain. Better yet - write about something you want DONE - find your audience - and write to THEM about what you think needs to be done, and then share your evidence and your WHY. Make it personal. Do it because it's right and good for you and your life, or the lives of others.

What other nonfiction books are out there for our younger adolescent students? I need more nonfiction books that will get my middle schoolers (some of whom still think reading is not for them) feeling, thinking, and responding. Responding through writing, projects, actions... More along what I wanted our genius hour to be. More along the lines of Erin Olson's idea of - "Read. Be inspired. Do something inspiring."

Please add your favorites in the comments below - and tag another reader with this post so I may easily curate a bunch and pay for them when I can. Please share how you use nonfiction - and make it personal - for our students. Thank you!