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 30, 2019

Best Books of 2019

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2019 like I have the past five years. I read a bit for myself this year, along with many books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy or books they recommended for me.
     2018 Favorites
     2017 Favorites
     2016 Favorites
     2015 Favorites
     2014 Favorites

Here are the books I would most recommend from my list of 88 books I've read this year... 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. Another note: One of my goals (that didn't start until this summer) was to read many more books by authors who are not White.

Biography / Autobiography / Memoir
     My husband and I lost a friend to pancreatic cancer this year. Breakthrough was one I had to purchase and share with my students at the start of 2019. Let's get his early detection test into the world!!

     I listened to Children of Blood and Bone x 1.5 speed on a Playaway device from my library. WOW. Just WOW. The second is ready for me to listen to when 2020 begins!
     And I had to read the sequel (#2 or #3?) to Everyday - Someday MIGHT have been even better than the first...

Graphic Novel
     I feel as if everyone read New Kid before I did... I know why now!

Historical Fiction
     I read a ton of historical fiction (compared to previous years) in preparation for our historical fiction book clubs in seventh grade. My favorites (for various reasons) include The War that Saved My Life, Grenade, The Night Diary, A Night Divided, and Between Shades of Gray.

"How to"
     I only read one: How to Be an Antiracist Here are my notes for this book. I will soon have a blog post out solely to share some ideas that came from this book.

      I only read one YA book and one adult book. By far, Where the Crawdads Sing is my favorite.

     My focus this year was on my Whiteness, so here are my favorites: We Are Not Yet EqualThis Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality, and graphic novel Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees.

     I read eleven this year... If I had to choose one that I believe would help MOST educators, it's Fewer Things, Better: The Courage to focus on what matters most

Realistic Fiction
     Oh, so many! I've chosen five... The Benefits of Being an OctopusA Very Large Expanse of SeaA Good Kind of TroubleWild Bird, and Genesis Begins Again.

Science Fiction
     I didn't read a ton of science fiction this year, but without a doubt my favorite was The Toll (#3 in the Scythe series).

Short Stories
     Although some of the stories in Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America were too mature for my seventh graders, I loved these: "Half a Moon," "Black Enough," "Warning," "Sampson & the Delilahs," "Stop Playing," and "Woah!"

     I was introduced to Cherub: Mission 1 The Recruit  by a student who's read ALL of them in the series, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a new genre for me, as well.

My reading gap this year? I didn't read ANY sports books unless you count Lu by Jason Reynolds. I don't have a ton of kids interested in the sports genre this year, either.

What awesome books have I missed? Please share your favorites in the comments below!

For the quotes I love, check out this slideshow that I update with each quote that touches my heart or soul:

Monday, December 23, 2019

Gratitude Chain

It's the first year we've tried this. I didn't know how it would work out. I think it worked the best with our homeroom class...

The first Thursday in November we started the idea of a gratitude chain to hang up in the classroom. One student said for every meal her family sits down to in November, they share one thing they're grateful for. The students and my co-homeroom teachers and I decided that anyone could write on a link of the chain, but they could not repeat the same thing they've written before. We also decided that you didn't have to share it aloud with the class - we'd take the chain down before winter break and share each one aloud. No names were needed.

My ELA classes wanted to try it, as well, so we started a chain for each period. The room looked very festive for a bit (I regret we didn't get a photo of the chains hanging), two were a bit destroyed at one point, and then they were put back up. Some links were mixed with the other classes due to this, so I made sure every child was represented when we shared (each child's name was on a link - one student in each class did this for us). My middle class added a bunch of tiny ones in a frenzy one day (socks, Yeezys, paper, pencils, pens, chairs, etc.), so we added a new "rule" the next week - we can only write things we feel grateful for that don't cost any money.

Below is a list of the ones from our homeroom chain I brought home. I had added my own, but these below were from the students.

I'm thankful...
  • I don't have to wear my knee brace
  • I found a good book
  • my brother likes me
  • I have a supportive family
  • for school, friends, family, dance, music, shelter, clothes, rain/snow
  • for good family and friends
  • for friends that care about me
  • for a house
  • for trees
  • for education
  • for Mother Nature
  • for books
  • for sports
  • for my homeroom
  • for clean water
  • for all our veterans
  • for police officers
  • for firefighters
  • for teachers
  • for doctors and nurses
  • for kind people
  • for my family being so fortunate
  • that the doctors found the cancer in my mom and got it of her
  • for my ability to learn and stay optimistic
  • for having people who believe in me
  • for the people who hear me out that rats are better than what you think
  • my grandpa has been cancer free for almost eight years
  • for a good friend being still alive after a serious brain injury
  • for all the positive energy that surrounds me on a day-to-day basis
  • for being able to have food, shelter, and everything I have
  • for everything in general
  • I have teachers that are willing to listen
  • for people that guide you in the right direction
And an eighth grader (who was new to our district last year and regularly visits our room) found out what we were doing... He added this one:
"im thankful for the education"

We'll be doing this again. For sure.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Is This Trauma?

I wrote these thoughts as new thoughts emerged over the week. I've now gone through it and am ready to click "publish."

The day of the incident:
I cried at lunch.
I cried on my way home.
I cried to my husband.
I played dodgeball - ran around like a nut, threw with all my might like a wimp, saw stars at one point, had a hissy fit on the floor of the gym, yelled, screamed, played my heart out, and slept deeply when I hit the pillow.

"Day after" morning:
Woke with thoughts of the incident.
Cried in the shower.
Figured I should talk, so shared it with Hubby.
Cried a bit more through the morning.
Thoughts throughout the day, trying to figure it out:
I used to be prepared to handle students when they acted out in this fashion. I used to say, "You can't show fear. You have to show them who's in control." I had a first grader who would bite and kick. When I was starting out teaching in my 20s, I was prepared as to how to handle it. Now that I'm not a "special ed." teacher anymore (Aren't I, though?), I'm not trained in the new approaches. I'm more vulnerable. I wanted to protect the other teacher in the room. I didn't know how. I acted as if I was not scared. I had to act that way. I was scared. This realization came today. For some reason, I wanted others to know what I'd witnessed. I wanted them to know the power and the strength I witnessed. I wanted others to know what some teachers go through. Some - on a daily basis even.
More thoughts on this day:
I have been protected for a long time. I'm spoiled. I've got a very comfortable life. Am I now a total wuss because I haven't been exposed to violence or aggression? If I am exposed to it more often, will that make me a hard-ass? Will it make my heart harder? I signed up for this - when I was 22 years old. My role changed in 2002 when I was 29 and started working in "regular ed." I'm not cut out for a profession that includes violence or aggression. I've known that from the start. I'm worried that when I go back to school I will SHOW my fear. I will act like I'm not scared, no less. I'll hold it together. Other teachers see behaviors like this on a daily basis. Many are "used to" it. I can do this, too. I could. I have in the past. Now - I don't want to.
I figured out this must be what people call "trauma."

Second "day after" morning:
Woke with thoughts of it again. I decided I needed to write. Sat down to write this after I cried in the shower.
Cried writing this.
Thoughts this morning:
Thought of Mom coming over (we're going Christmas shopping). Thought of how I'll break down again when I hug her hello. Thought of my coworkers that support one another. Thought of how I don't want to "dump" this on them - for various reasons - one being that they're empathetic. Glad the one that was with me will not be in school Monday. She's had so much to deal with this school year already. Thought of talking with one of our social workers, yet she, too, has so much on her plate and has had a difficult start to the school year. 
Who do I turn to? I tell people they need to ask for help. My husband is helping. He's letting me cry and letting me talk it all out. I felt that writing this may help me process my thoughts more. As of 9am, my head says people will say, "You can't let it get to you like this." My thoughts back to myself say, "I can. I WON'T, though. I don't want to wake up like this each morning."
Third "day after" morning:
Today I look at this title and I cringe. It looks so dramatic! I think I must doing better.
I only cried twice today - once when the team kept talking about it, and again when I was coming home and "Joy to the World" came on the radio. I realized that my alone times conjure up visions of the incident. I need to stay occupied with other thoughts. My coworkers checked up on me. I felt supported and strong. I was ready to press the button and ask for the C-Team if needed. The first time I cried, I was on high alert already because we had two substitute teachers that would be working with this student. I was worried. I'd said, "Good morning" to the student and received no response. So I repeated myself quieter then turned and walked away. I was more frustrated at this point than scared. I had hoped this child would say something along the lines of "sorry." During class, I was followed around by the student, due the student not having access to technology. I consider this the "sorry" I was looking for.

Now, in the evening, I am relaxed. I'm not devoting tons of my energy to the situation. I'm getting distracted. Even as I told myself, "Live in the moment. What is going on in THIS moment NOW?" I would devote my thinking to it. Not right now. I'm going to listen to my book while I get some Christmas wrapping finished.

Fourth "day after" morning:
I turned to prayer today. I prayed for the student, for the teachers that work at our school, and for the parents. I wondered what home is like. I wondered what they've seen and how they've reacted and recovered. Praying for other people - instead of thinking of me - helped.

Fifth "day after" morning:
I worked one-on-one with this student at the end of class, and all was good. We were both calm and working on the plan for class while other students worked independently. I was at ease.

Sixth "day after" morning:
As the student was becoming agitated today, my co-teacher told me, "Your whole affect just changed." I was feeling the need to take every student out of the room quietly, even though I know this one student has not had a history of hurting anyone. My blood was rushing a bit, so I removed myself from one part of the room and sat down to work with other students, talking about their projects.

Eighth "day after" morning:
Our friend died of pancreatic cancer yesterday while we had our last day of school for 2019. It was expected, yet of course it's still terribly sad. So I'm back to crying again at the drop of a hat. A sad song, a happy song, a Christmas song... all set me off, especially when I'm alone. It has nothing to do with the incident. This time I was thinking of our friend's husband.

What I've learned:
I witnessed an event that was traumatic to me. It's been awhile since this has happened, and I didn't know how to deal with it.
I've learned that witnessing something traumatic takes a toll on a person's mental strength.
I've learned to find someone and talk to that person about it.
I've learned (again) writing helps me process my thoughts.
I've learned to be around other people.
I've learned to stay busy.
I've learned that it takes time.
I've learned that when thoughts of the incident come to mind, I need to notice it and then switch my thinking to something else. It needs to be a conscious act. It's not always easy, but it IS doable.

I still have so much of this life to try to figure out. It's such a puzzle - home, work, children, adults, relationships... One day at a time. One piece at a time. It's living. I'm so grateful for the support of friends, family, and coworkers.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Dreaded Check Engine Light

Three and a half hours into our six-hour trip pulling the camper trailer to Cedar Point, we were laughing and sharing thoughts and ideas. Hubby and I are great travel companions.

"The check engine light just came on."


Why is it, when the check engine light comes on, we gasp or become worried, when it's supposed to HELP us? Bob (Hubby) has a more positive outlook about it. He says the check engine light is a sign of something we're going to need to take care of.

My "check engine" lights are as follows:
  • A headache is creeping down, and my neck has some nasty thick taut wires.
  • I snap at something my husband says.
  • I growl at something my students do (or don't do).
  • Yawns are happening in the morning's shower.
  • I'm dehydrated (checked by the level of my water bottle).
  • I snack (a lot) after dinner.
  • I cry. Sometimes for "no reason."
These signs show me I need to take better care of myself.
     My engine uses fuel to go.
     My check engine light shows me I'm low on fuel.
     My fuel is food, water, sleep, and peace in my mind.

When fuel is low... what do you do to fuel yourself?

The start of this school year had me teacher-tired to the max. Here's what I've done about it:
  • Gotten outside whenever I could. This might only mean putting the top down on the convertible - everybody would benefit from having a convertible, in my opinion - or it may mean taking one class outside for a lesson, to read, or simply for a break. It could also mean getting out for a walk or a bike ride. Even 10-20 minutes fills me a bit. Since it's in the 30s here now, it means walking outside, or sometimes even simply sitting outside (as my body is telling me I must be going to hibernate soon...)
  • Gone to bed earlier. I don't want this to be a habit, as I feel way past my 46 years when I head to sleep before nine... it worked for me in September. I'm now back to my 9pm bedtime.
  • Eaten better. I loaded up on vegetables when I should, and got plenty of water throughout my day, even if it meant I'd head to the bathroom between classes. When there were treats in the school office, I took one, and then I didn't take another for home or for my lunch the next day.
  • Stayed calm in school. When things weren't going well in class, I stopped. I breathed. I regrouped. I began again. I think the students caught my vibe, as well, and they, too, calmed down a bit. When the team of teachers was frustrated about something, I'd simply listen, and this kept my blood pressure steady.
  • Talked. I've talked with my husband. I've talked with my teacher friends. I've gotten support from them, because they seem to know what I'm going through.
Now that we're in the middle of our second term already, I find I need to remember these tips, as that "teacher tired" may sneak up on me soon once again before it's time for our winter break. Hence the reason for me sharing them with you now.

What are your tips when you're low on energy? What am I missing?

Thanks for sharing in the comments below, so all readers can learn from you!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Sitting Is the New Smoking

...or so the advertisement says.

This week, I was fortunate enough to hear from an international expert on ergonomics:

I went into this thinking, "He's going to tell us to get the kids up and moving." And I vowed to not be angry when he said that, as our room and our ELA lessons are very conducive to movement - and even sprawling out on the floor. He came straight from Germany, and I doubt he visited our classrooms or talked with any teachers here first.

When he first started talking about our five (six, really, including balance) senses, I wondered... what does coming into room 239 do for my students? What do they feel when they see this?

Instead of him telling us this, what he did was show what happens when we're in one spot for too long. Listed here are my notes... hang with me as I try to explain some of what he said in the hour he was here.
  • What is around us has an impact on our well-being. This could be what weather we wake up to, the people who surround us, and even the look of a room when we walk in. I wondered... what do my students feel when they walk into room 239?
  •  Daylight is a natural stimulant. And something we lack in fall and winter. 
  •  Fresh air and plants and trees are also natural stimulants. I am SOOOO glad I committed to getting my classes outside as much as I could this year! Not only is it healthier for me personally, but for them as well.
  • Body in motion is ALSO a natural stimulant. When we stand still, we're most likely NOT still. We vary our posture to fit our body's needs. We move for stimulation. If not, our discomfort will come into our consciousness, and affect our thinking.
  • Sitting still slows down brain activities. 
  • After 20 min (on average), we (adults) have brain and body fatigue without movement. Ah, yes. As at faculty meetings. Or conferences. Oh, man - especially if we're in folding chairs or on bleacher seats!!
  • Sitting = Less blood flow
  • Less blood flow = Less oxygen for your body
  • Less oxygen for your body = Decrease in neuroplasticity
  • Decrease in neuroplasticity = Decrease in problem solving
  • Decrease in problem solving = Risk factor for cognitive decline
  • It's ALL connected.
  • We are made to move regularly - more than six hours a day. Our bodies were not designed to sit still in a chair.  As he's sharing all of this, I wonder - how much do I, personally, sit each day? I decided to wear a stopwatch to see. I kept forgetting to turn it on and off. After school, however, I sat for at LEAST 2-3 hours! I did notice that in school, during independent reading time, I either sat on a Hokki stool (where I could keep moving) or on the floor (where I could keep moving).
  • Dr. Breithecker called these chairs (that we have in our classrooms) "stupid" chairs. According to his idea of a "stupid" chair, these the wood ones I have in our class are also stupid. They don't let students MOVE, and they're "one size fits ... no one."
  • Students with ADHD often don't release enough dopamine - MOVEMENT releases dopamine.
  • If there is no necessity to sit, it's not smart to sit.
  • The ability to pay attention increases when given the opportunity to move.
Here are my "stupid" chairs that have been in our school for years:

Hopefully the fact that Dr. Brithecker was invited to speak to us means schools are considering changing their furniture to best fit our student population. I am so thankful that my ELA teaching counterpart / friend / "work wife" was there with me! What a valuable hour of professional development. We volunteer to host the next classroom furniture replacements! 👍

What have I already done in regards to furniture? I signed up for a class years ago to learn about flexible furniture (and then be awarded with it), but didn't get in. I won one Hokki stool at the ICE convention the year I was a featured speaker (that one might come home with me when I retire). I've put in a few grants for Hokki stools. (The last one got approved - TWELVE of them! I kept four and the others are in other classrooms.) I tried to use my yearly "supplies" budget for a few better chairs, but I was informed that I could not request furniture - even if it was under budget. I'm tired of asking  for furniture. I'm tired of bringing in my own, and buying some of my own (yoga balls have busted, a small rocking chair and a wooden stool - both from Goodwill - broke early in their careers).

Not-so-side notes: Our newer classrooms from the remodel of our school received new flexible furniture. I have my parent's old rocking chair, my co-teacher's old gaming chair, a garage sale swivel stool, my grandpa's old swivel & rolling office chair, old tables and chairs from our re-furnished library (which hosted fundraisers for money for new flexible furniture - can we, as teachers, do this?!), and cushions galore [three inflatable (more grant money), fifteen foam bleacher seats from Home Depot ($2.50 each on sale), and six outdoor cushions from Goodwill ($3 each)]. I know it to be true - Education is the profession where we bring supplies from home TO work.

What's next? I'll keep planning activities that get students up and moving, I'll keep building in breaks throughout our lessons, and there's no way I'm getting rid of cushions and floor space to sprawl. I'll keep the casters on the tables so they're easier to move. I'll continue to keep at least one table shorter than the rest. And, of course, I'm hoping for an overhaul of the furniture that is currently in room 239 as soon as possible (and before I retire).

How about some photos of our eclectic room 239???

Papa's office chair
First, the furniture that has been personally brought in: Papa's office rolling chair, the rocking chair my mom rocked me in, a foot-stool-turned-chair from Goodwill ($10), a folding camping chair I used when I bike/camped (it broke the second day it was used), and two old gaming chairs from my co-teacher's house (one is now broken), a wooden swivel stool my neighbor was giving away, and a Hokki stool I won at an ICE conference...
Why sit on the rocking chair, when you can sit on the foot stool?
He's sitting on the foot stool, using the chair as his desk.

Foot stool as stomach flattener...?
Rocking chair + foot stool

If you'd like to see more of our class in action, check out the parent tab on our Weebly for videos.

    An old teacher chair? Sure!
   Sometimes a couple of $3 Goodwill cushions are all we need...
The floor IS a favorite sprawling place for some...
And sometimes, we feel like reading in a tight corner of the room...

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I added all these photos, I remembered a post I wrote in 2012!!
(If you have already read Shift This, you may find this older post familiar for a different reason!)

Comments about YOUR learning spaces are very welcomed below. Thank you for reading this far - let's get our kids MOVING! I hope that long gone are the days of saying, "Sit still."