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, September 29, 2019

Independent Reading During Class Time

Is reading in class a novelty?
Or was it because we went outside?
My head is spinning as to why this spontaneous tweet I made on 9/19 has had so many "likes" and retweets...

Lots of the comments or retweets suggested congratulations, such as "Good for you!" and others sounded as if they've never taken their kids outside during the school day or even thought about it - ever.

Some responses asked about our reflection process. We use lots of plus/delta charts at the start of the year. Many are for the end of the week. What did we do well? = plus, and Where can we improve? = delta. I'll bring up our "delta" answers the next Monday, and we'll choose one on which to focus. If we fill in a plus/delta chart after reading independently outside, I'll bring up the "delta" part before we head out again the next time. Here is a good explanation of it. It's not a new idea, yet it may be new to some. When it was introduced to me, I embraced it wholeheartedly.

Other responses asked about the yard - why it's enclosed, why there aren't trees, etc. Personally, I think the video makes it seem like a prison yard - sterile with high walls (although I've never seen a prison yard up close). It's artificial grass. The area here was our school's vegetable garden before we had a renovation / gym addition the last two years. We have another courtyard (in the middle of the school) that has trees, grass, plants, dirt, rocks, painted artwork from students, benches, and picnic tables. We tried to go there once this year. I have a student who is highly allergic to the outdoors, and she sneezed so much that she asked to read in the library. She doesn't sneeze in the new yard, and the kids love laying on the fake grass. I haven't heard them say anything about it looking like a prison yard. They see it as a way to get some sun, a breeze, and fresh air. And sometimes a moth or cicada find their way in to join us.

This response from Matt Parker was one I wanted to "like" a hundred times. THAT is what I wanted the focus of this post to be. It's the fact that we have developed some amount of trust, respect has been given from me and from my students, and we've made the time to practice and reflect on the journey so we can continue to get better at our reading stamina:

We all (?) have students who aren't yet in love with reading. Getting them outside may or may not help them enjoy reading... It most likely depends on the individual (like so much). I struggle many days we head out because someone is distracted by a cicada or a moth... just the fact that we're on artificial turf seems to be so darn interesting... The reflection is what gets us back on track so we can continue to work on building our reading stamina. 

And then, of course, there had to be a negative reply (I've learned that my ideas shared are not really seen until someone rejects them) from a teacher with public tweets who (when I reached out) wanted to remain anonymous:

Instead of getting into what could become a public argument via 280 characters each, I decided I should write about it, much as others before me have done.

I am not "teaching" in this moment. That, I believe, is correct. And I believe that's okay. (So there's no need to feel "sorry.") One thing educators do in class is model. Another thing we do is confer with students about what they are reading. Sometimes this is done during independent reading; most often for me it's in passing. No matter what I'm doing (modeling or conferring), students should be reading. I'm providing them time to read in class, without distractions. Many of my students are still not reading at home, and it's been proven time and again that reading - frequent, voluminous reading - is the only way to become a better reader. (Much respect goes to Dr. Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. If you don't have time to read the book, simply search for him and you'll find the research.) This is much like keyboarding, learning how to use a computer program, writing, or playing an instrument... Practice is needed. Reflection afterwards helps us move forward with plans for next time to help us improve.

I'm so glad that a parent of a former student emailed this photo (from Facebook) to me:
Yes, yes, yes. It takes a lot of practice and reflection to build this type of community, and I'm sure we'll be revisiting that reflection piece again - and often.

I'm glad the video of this one class went a bit viral last week. If educators think it's valuable to change the scenery a bit, I'm glad they will consider getting their kids outside more than once if (when!) it doesn't work out the first time. Let's (students and teachers) reflect on what we're doing, all so we can continue to improve.

Saturday, September 21, 2019


Because I know I want to get rid of them in my own life, I wrote about complaints in Word Shift...

and gossip...

When I hosted a #tlap chat about Word Shift, I mentioned my desire to stop complaining.

I don't know if Will Boden had the original idea to use a bracelet as a reminder, but it was so very good that it's taken off like wildfire!

I decided to give it a try. Here's the premise: Try to not complain for 21 days in a row. Put the bracelet or rubberband on one wrist. If you complain, put it on the other wrist, and you're back to Day One (and Will Boden shares there's no shame in being on Day One).

Here's what happened when I started...

At first, I accidentally complained, and then regretted it.
Then, I found out that once I broke the complaining rule, I'd complain a bunch all at one time.
Next, I learned how to complain without "complaining." It went like this... I'd say, "Here's a fact..." or "I noticed something today..." or even "so-and-so said this today..." and then I would say something that sounded like a complaint to me.

It was time to step up my game.

Here are the rules I'm currently living by:
  1. No complaints / gripes / "facts" that are negative.
  2. No talking about others if it's negative.
  3. If I have a solution to a complaint, I will bring the solution to someone who can help implement it.
  4. One-on-one with my husband, I allow myself to complain a bit (although my complaints have definitely decreased). He says I'm not complaining; I'm simply sharing about my day. Of course, he loves me, so he can say that. ;)
That's it.

Nope. Actually, here's the reason for one more of my "rules" for myself: I had my second migraine of the week yesterday, and as I was driving in to school, I wondered how I would answer peers and friends when they asked me, "How are you?" I was torn, because I'd want to know if they were suffering so I could help a bit or be understanding, yet I didn't want to complain. Turns out no one asked me how I was (that's unusual). I hid it well, too. Until... I was driving home with the top down (I love my car). A taxi driver next to me started a conversation (a common occurrence with a convertible), got me to laugh, and then said, "Laughter is a good therapy." He saw my pain. Either I was holding my head or grimacing or sitting there with a mad face on... I don't know. I do know he saw my pain and wanted to help. So... Rule #5 for myself is...

  • It's okay to let others know I'm not up to par when something is wrong. I'm deciding to not go into detail about what's ailing me unless it's going to be chronic or something I'll feel I might need support for in the future.

Here's how it's working for me so far:
  • I'm listening more than I'm talking.
  • I'm asking questions more than providing opinions.
  • I'm learning A LOT. I'm learning more about people than ever before. I'm learning that I don't have to share everything that pops up in my head. I'm learning that it's easier to be quiet and listen than it is to talk (and maybe put my foot in my mouth or hurt someone's feelings or...).
  • I'm noticing others' complaints more often. I'm not quite at the point where I try to turn the direction of the conversation, as I am loving this listening gig. ;)
  • I notice that with good friends, I'm fine with them complaining to me because I can simply listen and be there for them.
  • I'm sticking up a bit more for those who don't always have their voices heard. If someone is cut off during a discussion, I am able to bring the discussion back to their point.
  • I'm not caring as much what others think of me. It may be because I'm not thinking of those people I might complain about, so there's no need to think of what they think of me.
  • I'm not giving thinking space to complaints, so I'm happier than normal.
Just this week, I received an official "complaint-free world" bracelet from our district superintendent. That day, I went back to Day One. Today is Day Five, and it's the first time I'm counting. I don't really want to keep track. I used to be a numbers girl when I ran - dates, times, distances, miles per min, etc. - and I've even stopped keeping track of mileage on my bikes.  I don't need to know what number I am on during a streak. [Streaks kick me in the butt and stress me out. I learned that when my Duolingo streak was reset somehow. Sadly (due to pride?) I'm still keeping track of that one on my own.]  I simply want to stop complaining. I simply want to stay away from gossip. I don't need a streak to tell me that I'm doing well. I'll mess up again and again, and yet it counts that I'm focusing on this every day. I want steering away from complaints and gossip to become a habit. It requires conditioning, just like with the other words I suggested we consider in Word Shift.

It's the implementation that counts.

What my lips say, my mind thinks.

I'm training my mind to think differently.

It's a process I'm enjoying quite a bit.
Thanks, Dr. Bein, for the fabulous bracelet!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Minimum Effective Dose in Action

I make lists.

I used to make LOTS of them, and then lose some in the process. I now use an online list called Toodledo. I can't get it to work on my phone, but it's handy for my laptop. I'm not using all the features I could, and I don't need them. I simply need to be able to put things on my list for a specific date, and I can then prioritize the items into "top," "high," "medium," "low," or even "negative."

Here's my list for the rest of today (I've already been able to check many items off):

Notice I'm writing before I "start collecting photos for Parent Night" ...  yet the iPad is right next to me. ;)  I can also take notes inside these notes. The blue text boxes to the right show that I have notes on each of those. I put items down as "negative" if I want to do them (or be reminded of them) before I leave for school the next day. Tomorrow morning, for example, I'll move the Staff Meeting to tomorrow's date, and mark it "medium," so I remember to go to it before I leave school. The "low" items will be done after school at home during the school week.

I brought up my Toodledo today to prove that I am an over-planner. I have things on this list for two years from now. I like things to be perfect. As I get older, I realize I can't have everything perfect. During the last two years, I've heard the term "minimum effective dose" (MED) at least five times. It's finally starting to sink in, so it's time for me to share it with you, in case you've never heard of it.

I believe the first time I heard of it was when educator/consultant Matt Miller mentioned it. He, at that point, referred to the book called The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss. This photo describing the MED is directly from this blog post excerpt from the book back in 2010:

Every time I hear about it (most often from Matt Miller), I think of time and energy. How much more time and energy will I have if I can actually take advantage of the MED?

Listed below are four ways I've been putting the MED to good use this school year.

Outcome I want: An Animoto movie of my students so parents can see our room and their children. 
How I used to go about this: Take a photo each morning of the date. Take 5-6 photos of each class period each day. After two weeks, download the photos that Friday after school, put them in the Animoto, upload the embedded video into our two-week update blog post (kept here), then email all the parents the update.
How I've realized the MED: No need for a photo of the date. No need for it to be 5-6 photos of each class each day. No need to take photos every day! Now, I take photos on certain days, and then I'm fully present the other days. This way, I can be more sure I'm catching each child and activity, yet I don't need a gazillion photos to prove anything to parents. I also don't need to wrap it all up nicely on a Friday afternoon. Who says every two weeks has to be Monday through Friday? I had put those parameters on myself; I'm now taking them off.

Outcome I want: Easy-to-follow directions for students projected through a slideshow. 
How I used to go about this: Make sure every single direction was visible on the slideshow. Put a cute photo with it. Use circles and arrows for clarity.
How I've realized the MED: No need for exact directions. I can raise the screen and write on the board if I have to clarify something. No need to find a photo if I don't have the time.

Outcome I want: Check and answer school emails so my email inbox has nothing (hah!) in it. 
How I used to go about this: Look at my emails every day after dinner, and on the weekends.
How I've realized the MED: I only look at my emails when I arrive at school in the morning, again right before school begins, at team time third period, during my plan period, and before I head home. This chunking of time is very valuable. (I learned this from Angela Watson, and use it in the next tip, as well.) If I want to clear out an email yet don't yet know how to respond, I put it in an email file marked "to do." On my Toodledo list, I have "check to do file" for team time each day. Side note: I also only check my home emails once a day - first thing each morning.

Outcome I want: Stay up-to-date on social media. 
How I used to go about this: Check every account every day, multiple times a day. (I try to use Twitter for teachers, Facebook for friends and family, and Instagram for former students.)
How I've realized the MED: Check Twitter every morning. Check Instagram every other evening. Check Facebook every Saturday or Sunday. If I miss checking Facebook or Instagram, I'm fine. I know I don't have to see everything. Even though I still check my phone more than I should, I'm getting better.

Trying to use the MED has helped my mind and body. I'm not as strung out from doing "too much," and I'm calmer when something isn't perfect. Let me know if and when you try this, and how it's helped you!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

My Hopes for Word Shift

My hopes... dreams... impact for Word Shift?

What's the big deal about this dictionary of sorts?

It happens. It's happened to me. It happens to teachers I greatly admire and respect, and it will happen again. A word will come out of an educator's mouth to describe a student or a coworker, and this word (Is it a label? An adjective?) is now attached to the person being described. If it's a negative word, it's usually due to stress, and these stressors are not going away any time soon. Our minds tuck the word away. We head to our next task, and the next time this person's name comes up, that word wraps its way around our thoughts, etching itself deeper into our subconscious. We may even become irritated by the person who said it and caused this word to stick in our minds. Negative labels fester in our minds, infecting us and those around us. What will bring about positive shifts in school culture? Choosing different words will change our thoughts and our actions. I believe it could be as simple as that.

Could it be as simple as that when it comes to our mental wellbeing? With directives coming at us (educators and administrators) from all directions, the teaching field is more stressful than ever. Some words we use seem to stop progress in its tracks. So many teachers shrug their shoulders and put up their arms and say, "I'm just a teacher. It's not in my control." I disagree. I believe we are readers, researchers, writers, contributors, explorers, collaborators, hypothesizers, experimenters, adventurers, risk takers, learners, visionaries, coaches, guides, amplifiers, leaders, and change makers! We are trying to do what we believe is right and good for the young learners in front of us every day.

I shared this message in my first keynote session in Boston last year, after I'd written that part of Word Shift. (I'll be sharing it again at IETC in November - come join us!) I then dug into the tough stuff... how educators speak at school when there are no children around, and how this affects our students.

My goal of writing Word Shift was three-fold.
1. For ME to note, recognize, and stop using words that make me think negatively (subtly or overtly) - about myself, peers, and students.
2. Help others recognize and reconsider some words we use with children and peers.
3. Keep the conversations going - and focus on what will bring about much-needed positive shifts in school culture.

If more positive words would be planted and take root in our minds so they can bloom, we can share their positivity and effectiveness. Hopefully this awareness will extend to our families and online presence - so we can speak up with more focused intent...

I told a friend "I've thrown a lot of teachers under the bus - myself included" - in this book. If you recognize yourself and are uncomfortable with it, what will you do? Will you complain to me? Will you look inside yourself and reflect? Will you choose to change your language and share that with us?

This book is not based on research - it's based on 24 years of observing classrooms and teacher interactions. I'm still an educator in the American school system, striving to do better. Striving to learn, to grow, and to help my students succeed and be the best people they can. As you read - and long after you read - Word Shift, please share what words you feel we could omit, shift, or add to our language in the educational system and beyond.

Let's get this conversation started.