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.

Saturday, October 31, 2020


Our awesome school district has been having many more board meetings than they have had in the past, due to all the options and struggles and opinions in the community - all around COVID19.

I was watching the board meetings as they took place for the start of the school year, but I soon realized I could not watch in real time anymore. I was not sleeping those nights. I need sleep in order to be a somewhat effective classroom teacher. Just when I realize I need to watch the videos on a weekend morning, I felt the need to attend the latest board meeting as it occurred. I am currently teaching as many as 15 students at a time in my classroom, along with as many as 20 at home on a screen. It depends on the day, and numbers are always fluctuating. I shared a few things that make this hybrid time different in my last post.

Our union president, an educator and resident of our district, spoke first. I agree with her entire speech. Here are the statements that stick with me:
  • The teachers... want nothing more than to be with our students, in person, and to deliver quality education for every child. ... We agree with parents and the board that this is important and necessary, and this is what we strive for. We feel strongly that while numbers continue to rise in every community around us, and even [our town], bringing students back in person, full time, without safety mitigations in places, poses a danger for all of us. We are not opposed to in-person learning. We are opposed to unsafe learning.
  • Right now, in the midst of the pandemic, most of us would not invite 25 people into our homes, especially if you didn’t know where those 25 people have been, in terms of who they have been hanging out with, where they have been going with their families, if they have traveled, if they are playing on sports team, etc. This is essentially what happens when 25 students enter our classrooms. It is like inviting 25 people
  • into your home with no background information as to how safe they have been. Middle school classrooms are inviting a different group of 25 children into classrooms every 40 minutes, which would be like having close to 200 people in your home over the course of one day. Right now, everyone in Cook County are being encouraged to have gatherings of no more than 25 people in your home, and the only people gathering should be close friends and family. Bringing back all students at once is irresponsible and ignores the advice of medical experts.
  • The teachers in [our district] are committed to making sure each student has the best education. (She shares how we'll be in and out of school, quarantining, substitutes will be in classes, stress will be added, and some teachers may be forced to take a leave or resign. None of that is good for children.)
  • We truly want what’s best for all our students and would love to be in-person when it is safe to do so. The only barrier standing in our way is COVID19. COVID19 is the barrier.
  • We all want the same thing for our students, families and community. We want students in school, and we care about the health and safety of all.
Other teachers spoke. Parents spoke. I took notes. I cried. Again.

Our superintendent's team put together a presentation that included advice from the district's insurance, current numbers of students in remote and hybrid for each school, and numbers should we stay six feet apart or numbers if we are not six feet apart. The cost to the board should all students go to school in person five days a week (except those remote, of course) was eye-opening to me.

If you'd like to know how a school board meeting in the time of COVID19 goes, check it out for yourself:
This meeting looks a bit different, as the teachers showed up earlier than parents, so the physical room is full of teachers on this night. Everyone who had brought something to say had their time and space to say it, like always. Check previous board meetings to hear more parent views.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

First Week of Hybrid - Observations

I've had one week of hybrid at our middle school. Our hybrid situation goes like this: On Mondays, everyone but the teachers are remote. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have students with the last name starting with A-K, and the rest of the alphabet is home. On Wednesdays and Fridays, it's the other way around. We've had more parents share that their child will be remote just this week, and many students stay home with symptoms of COVID, just in case. So, really, I never know who's going to show up in front of me. Attendance takes longer than it did just on Zoom. Here are some other examples of how my days are changed.

  • When I mask up and walk into the school building, I consider it a wonder that so many educators are still showing up to work. At the school building... With children coming in and out of their rooms up to ten times a day...While many parents of those children are still safely working from home...
  • I can get to the office to check my mail and up to the classroom without touching anything (even though the entire building is (I hope) sprayed down each night. I use my sleeve or lanyard to open doors that pull outward.
  • I get to class and take down the shields students use at lunchtime. The students in the room 10th (last) period put them up so the custodians can spray them down at the end of the day.
  • I set up the laptop, plug in the external camera, the cord for the projector, and keep the laptop charged. Zoom takes a toll on that battery. I unplug the speaker/microphone we were provided, and turn it on, then turn on the bluetooth so the laptop and speaker connect. (I should really do something about all the messy dangling cords, but no one has complained, and I truly won't make the time unless someone does.)
  • Students come to school with their masks on, backpacks on, their water bottles and their lunches. 
  • I'm at the door taking student temperatures (how close we get then!) before they come in for homeroom. I start the Zoom for that period once they're in their seats.
  • Remote students for the day are still coming into Zoom a few minutes after the bell. Since I can't get used to showing one thing on the screen behind me and another in front of me, I've just decided to share my screen. This means that sometimes it's all our Zoomers for the day, or it's our slides plus a couple of Zoomers on the side (and hopefully it's never my email). I try to make sure my in-class students can see our at-home students often. 
  • I switch cameras often, so students at home feel as if they're more involved in the class - my face-time camera (which shows my masked face) or my external camera (which faces the class).
  • I've learned that the speaker that was provided works better on its side. Meaning - we can't really hear anyone from Zoom if it's sitting up like it should. I use the music stand I brought from home to keep the speaker on its side (it's round, and I can't think of any other way to turn it on its side), so we can all hear our at-home class.
  • I have to remember to turn off the speaker and plug in my earbuds when having 1:1 conversations with the kids at home.
  • We've ditched the idea of using the microphone part of the microphone/speaker combo that was provided, as it only covers up to ten feet, and we are all at least six feet apart, so...
  • When having a discussion (we tried for the first time on Friday) with everyone, I have now taped an "X" on the carpet where students in class can stand and share with the kids in class and the kids at home can still hear and see the speaker. I then change the view on Zoom to "speaker," so the person sharing at home is projected large on our screen.
  • We take mask breaks. We'll either jog or run for a few minutes, stand around, or play a short game. Sometimes my at-home students stay on Zoom, and sometimes it's near the end of a period, so I let them go when my at-school students head outside. I pray for at least "okay enough" weather each day. I, too, relish mask breaks.
  • Students get to the classroom one minute after the first bell rings. I haven't even had a chance to spray all the tables as they're using hand sanitizer and grabbing a paper towel to wipe off their table.
  • I feel as if I have six classes now instead of three, as the dynamics are very different. I'd guess teachers who have six different classes now feel they have twelve.
  • Most students stay in their (plastic blue) seats. (All our comfy furniture has been relocated.) When it gets near time to go, students begin to congregate.
  • I keep hearing myself repeat, "Six feet," "Mask up," and "Don't touch your face." I repeat directions to grab a paper towel to wipe down desks and to use hand sanitizer.
  • Three times during this one week a desk has fallen to the floor. Students aren't used to them having their wheels locked in one space (on a velcro dot on the floor to ensure they're six feet apart).
  • I've backed up significantly when a student gets too close outside. One even came into my "teaching area," and my eyes must've bugged out so much that she backed up immediately.
  • I can talk to students about what's on their sweatshirt or about their cool masks.
  • I have one child who has a mask that keeps slipping under her nose. I find myself holding my breath.
  • On Wednesdays and Fridays, students eat lunch in my room behind shields. With our homeroom. Quietly. When it's nice enough out, they will be able to eat outside. It was raining half of our week.
  • I've been eating in the art room - four of us can be in there eating with plenty of space between us. We clean the area before and after we use it.
  • I have my plan period with my remote teacher partner/friend in the hallway. 
  • Bus duty is fast - there is no need for students to linger, and there are no lockers to go to.
  • I haven't been around so many people since March 13th. When I leave the school building, I feel like retching. The feeling goes away shortly after I take off my scrubs and wash up and get my hug.

The students seem to be doing fine in this environment. 

I keep hearing that we need to "care for the students."

We also need to take care of the teachers - who truly want to care for the students (or we would be gone by now). Nobody but fellow educators that are actually trying to connect with - and teach! - students hour after hour know what we're going through. I hope readers here have found ways that are helping you cope. Since our students will most likely have the option of "remote" all year, it looks like this will be the routine until our numbers soar enough (um... 6,000 more cases yesterday, IL?) to go back to being fully remote.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Opportunity Not Taken

I haven't felt like I've had much to share lately that can actually HELP educators. I've got something today that I hope helps those who take the time to read it.

I'll say it again - I work in a well-off district. Not as wealthy as some, but during this school year, we've been provided extra monitors, small cameras for our laptops, and even bluetooth speaker/microphones. I've taken advantage of all of these. I've been fortunate to be able to attend the short training sessions that went along with these tools. I've watched the brief "how to" videos our main office created for us. I'm not saying that anybody but teachers teaching classes all day know what we need, but I am saying that many people in my district are trying. I've benefitted from some of this.

My own administration has also tried to help us in many ways. They've offered Q & A Zoom sessions, and I've taken those opportunities. They recorded a Q & A for our community, and I took the 40 minutes to listen to that one. Two teachers in our building have even offered an exercise routine after school a few times this year. Their own time; no pay. Some are taking that opportunity. I thought of it, but then realized I truly enjoy my walks instead.

Eight weeks in to this school year, the administration at my school offered another opportunity. They mentioned a couple of times to not worry about the cost - it was taken care of. They've partnered with a counseling service. It's a free wellness program with short videos you watch at your own pace. I contemplated it. It was supposed to help with our mindset, heartset, soulset, and healthset. It's to "help educators discover hidden hours in their day, sustain their energy through food and exercise, care for themselves through mindfulness and yoga, and embrace positivity." Sounds like a good goal.

When I first heard of it (during one of our two days provided to help us prepare for hybrid), I thought, "Not another program. Nope." Next, I thought, "It might be helpful if a couple of us did it together. We could support each other further." Then I thought, "It's free to me. It must have cost a lot of money. I should probably do it. I'll get something out of it, even if it's just a little. I'll wait to see if I hear that others are signing up."

An email reminder came. It said there were 16 videos, along with I-don't-remember-how-many pages of a workbook. My gut said, "No way. I'm not going to take a class on top of everything I'm already doing. I don't have time." Yet I still did not delete the email.

One more reminder came (oh, the emails with links embedded in links!) - this time with a time limit to get in our response. My brain said, "Don't delay!" and suddenly I was reminded of one of the lessons in this book that my friend, Rik Rowe, recommended to me.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less: McKeown, Greg:  8601407068765: Amazon.com: Books

The author warned that many opportunities will come our way, and many times we feel guilty if we don't take them. This one had all the signs - it's free! It's helpful! It's on my own time! Hurry up - this offer won't last! And it was tugging at me with each reminder that I should probably take this opportunity. Once I realized this, I put myself through a little test. I told my husband about it, and he said what he normally does, "Do it if you think it will help." I left the email reminder in my inbox. This past Friday was the due date. I let it slip by without responding. And today, I feel good about that decision to pass on this opportunity.

The author of Essentialism talked a ton about our TIME. How we use our time is so important. I need to do what I KNOW works for me. I don't have time for what I think MIGHT work for me. This program offered might be outstanding. Oh, well. I needed to take a pass on it. I've gone nine weeks now into the school year taking care of my mind, heart, soul and health. If I hadn't - believe me - I'd already have quit.

What is my priority this year? (According to essentialists, we can only have ONE priority. That word should never have been pluralized.) 

My priority: My health. Mental and physical. Everything else comes after. A benefit of COVID-19 is that I'm so much better at keeping this a priority than ever before in my life. And I've got a good base as to HOW.

I'm sharing my self-care routine once again, with a couple of additions.

  • I rarely leave work after 3:30.
  • I don't look at my email from 3:15 until the next morning.
  • I'm finding time to send good notes home to students.
  • I don't let myself feel guilty for reading an adult book (as opposed to a young adult book).
  • I'm getting outside - sometimes between classes, at lunch (when the weather is okay), and after school.
  • I'm not on a screen a ton when I get home.
  • I read fiction at least an hour before bed.
  • I'm eating regularly, and well.
  • I have a regular sleep schedule (9pm to 5am).
  • I'm using the pens I like. (Yes, even tiny things like not saving the best for later helps my head.)
  • I'm wearing my mask, washing my hands, and staying 6 feet apart from peers.
  • I'm not saying "yes" to any other positions (lunch supervision, clubs) that do not help me.
  • I'm saying "no" to opportunities that come my way that I'm not sure will help me.
  • I'm letting peers and family know how I feel - I'm not covering it up.
  • At home, I'm spending my time with my husband. (See below - Today we prepared apples to be frozen in order to make our first apple pies some day.)
Here's to opportunities NOT taken! And may those who take them get a TON out of them!

P.S. It's Day 219 since I was told to stay home from school in March. I'll have some students in person on Tuesday, so I guess my count will end at 220. Two hundred and twenty days since my students have been in school. Should be a fun week, even if there's not much learning going on... we'll practice more mental health and being safe first.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Benefits of Teaching Online

Back on September 4th, I was crying ugly before dinner. I remember thinking, "This is harder than the divorce," because I hadn't cried like that since 2009.

This past week, I was just getting into some sort of a groove. I can handle this. I might not like it; it might not be the best way to teach, but I'm getting better. Then we were told we were going to go "hybrid." I have no clue what that will look like. I also had no clue what teaching "remotely" (from school, however) would look like. So... it's time for me to share the benefits of teaching students through a screen. I will be losing some of these benefits in a couple of weeks.

  • None of my books go missing.
  • I don't have to clean up blood.
  • No sign out sheet for a break. In fact, breaks do not disrupt the class.
  • I get more breaks.
  • We can't get each other sick.
  • There's not a lot of in-class drama (that I know of).
  • There are fewer distractions to our class (besides students being on Netflix or YouTube while also "attending" class, and not responding when I call on them or want to give them a shout out).
  • There are no drills.
  • I can eat stinky food at lunch, because I'm not breathing on anyone.
  • Students can have their pets in their laps.
  • I can leave all my supplies out - all over the room if I'd like.
  • We can have 1:1 conferences without disturbing anyone else (THANK YOU, breakout rooms)!
  • It's easier to differentiate by using breakout rooms.
  • I receive fewer emails on the weekends.
  • I now dance and sing at the start of each class as I'm letting students out of the waiting room.
  • I've slowed down my speech and taken my time with my words, as I feel as if everything I say is being recorded once that camera light appears. This has helped me formulate what I want to say, and I hope it helps those kids who have internet problems.
  • I've gotten better at looking at one screen, figuring out who's talking in the other screen, and managing the chat with its private and public messages. 
  • I can teach without wearing a mask.
  • I can head outside the last 5-10 minutes of class.
  • I can yell down the hallway - in frustration or celebration or just when I'm feeling especially loopy after a crazy day.
  • I don't have to wear pants (no worries - my husband won't let me out of the house without them).
  • I don't have to wipe down tables and chairs except the table I may use at lunch.
  • It's pretty quiet.
  • I don't smell student farts after lunch. (It seems as if every year there's that one student...)
  • The "touch up my appearance" button on Zoom works wonders.
  • I have an actual routine.
  • I have our supplies way more organized than ever before.
  • I can still visit with my family outside.
  • I've learned more about how to take care of myself, as it's a true necessity.

My students added my name to our question of the day!

I hope to find ways to recreate some of these with some of my students being in front of me two days a week, and some of my students not coming into the school yet. My gut says that those at home will be receiving LESS of an education than they are now. I really wish anyone besides classroom teachers could come in to a typical class and see what goes on. Maybe then community members could see the physical and mental strain we're under. They may also have ideas for hybrid that we haven't yet thought of.

How I'm taking care of myself:

  • I rarely leave work after 3:30.
  • I don't look at my email from 3:15 until the next morning.
  • I'm finding time to send good notes home to students.
  • I don't let myself feel guilty for reading an adult book (as opposed to a young adult book).
  • I'm getting outside - sometimes between classes, at lunch (when the weather is okay), and after school.
  • I'm not on a screen a ton when I get home.
  • I read fiction at least an hour before bed.
  • I'm eating well.
  • I have a regular sleep schedule (9pm to 5am).
  • I'm using the pens I like. (Yes, even tiny things like not saving the best for later helps my head.)
  • I'm wearing my mask, washing my hands, and staying 6 feet apart from peers.

Please let me know what I'm missing. What are benefits I've not documented? What are other ways you're taking care of yourself?