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.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Lessons I'm Using - Revisited

I headed into this school year knowing I learned a TON last year. I learned about how to better take care of myself, and I learned about how to teach better (which came from taking better care of myself - fancy that...)! I was ready for the challenges ahead!

And then the school year started.

And it was still extremely difficult.

I had thought the struggles from last year were behind us. I didn't think to expect brand new struggles that we really hadn't encountered before. So... I needed to really focus on the lessons I thought I had learned...

I had a plan to tweet them to share with my peers. I had sixty of them, and I'd choose which I thought would fit the week, then schedule them on my Tweetdeck. This was my post introducing them, these are the actual tweets (with my "first day of hybrid" photo), and this is the spreadsheet I kept modifying with my original lessons. Once the school year started, I was able to go slowly, setting up a routine, helping everyone get to know each other better, and trying to stay mentally healthy. Sharing the lessons was helping me focus on my ONE priority: my health (mental and physical).

A few weeks in, and I started to feel the strain.

Although the lessons I kept revisiting did help me in those moments, I was still losing sight of what I wanted to learn... I was still losing sight of who I wanted to BE as a teacher... and as a person.

This week, I printed out the lessons I had shared for the first sixty days with students this school year. (Day 60 for me was Wednesday.) I decided there were too many. I needed lessons that encompassed what all of these were saying. Here's how that looked on my living room floor (do other teachers work on their living room floors??):

I found six themes.

I had lessons about breathing and being present. I had lessons about listening and relationships. I had lessons about gratitude and attitude. I had lessons about life changes and struggles. And I also had practical lessons I can incorporate every day and others I can incorporate into my school day. I will keep working on the lessons in these last two categories until they become habitual.

Going forward, I will focus on these four important actions:

  1. Be present in each moment by taking time to stop... and breathe. This will slow me down and make me more effective at whatever I'm trying to do.
  2. Listen. This will help me to be more present, stop, and breathe (#1). It will also help those to whom I'm listening.
  3. When I'm sad, mad, frustrated, or just not doing well, I need to practice gratitude. This will, once again, slow me down (#1), listen (#2), and be reminded of how fortunate I am.
  4. Remind myself - Life provides many opportunities for me to practice these lessons. It will have its ups and downs, I will feel like this again, and if I am present in each moment, I will be living fully.

I believe these four actions will help me be the person I want to be. One of the lessons I learned about life is that I'm always becoming who I am - and who I want to be. I will keep trying. I will surely fail some days. And I will try to learn something from each challenge.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Shifting End-of-Term Conferences

So... we still don't have standards-based grading at the middle school level. We were well into our second year as a committee when the pandemic shut everything down. We haven't yet started up again, and I am so ready to be there instead of still hearing about extra credit and late penalties and..... Anyway...

I had also been going without grades until the end of the term for five years and then had to stop my own 1:1 grading conferences in March of 2020 - due to the pandemic and how we were teaching from April until June. And... last year I decided it would be too hard on me (and the students) to try going without grades. Was it about accountability? Honestly? Yes. The good news? We're BACK!

This is my sixth year of going without grades in our seventh grade ELA class (albeit not consecutive years - I forgive myself - and I blame the pandemic). I've learned to be proactive with parents. I've learned to share a TON with parents - a "welcome to 7th grade ELA" letter, the grading letter (after I have the discussion with students), updates on what's going on in class each month, helpful links to find books or publish writing, and pictures of the students plopped into a WeVideo. I've TRIED to learn to not get headaches wondering what the parents will think of the grading system (even if only ONE parent ever balked about it - but he was downright mean), and I've found being proactive really helps alleviate the stress. This year, as I was taking our writing time in class to write affirmations to myself ("I am fair. I am kind. I am caring. I am doing all I can do with what I have..."), I decided I needed to send one more reminder home that one grade (the final one) will be appearing in the online gradebook at the end of the quarter. So, during our next writing time, I wrote (and later sent) this:

Student grades will be posted and shared soon. My hope is that my 1:1 conversation with your child is comprehensive and helps the student become reflective. We'll be emphasizing the skills I believe they'll need in order to succeed and improve in reading and writing. You and your child will be receiving an email with the notes we discussed attached, and this should explain how we got to the grade that will be put in PowerSchool either the day we have the discussion or the very next day. If you need more information, please check with your child first, then reach out to me. These 1:1 conversations (that take time - we've got them scheduled the next two weeks) with seventh graders are one of my favorite things about going without grades during the term. Please ask them how it went once you get the report!

I then changed the form I had used in the past. I've used forms before where students and I fill them out in pen or pencil - both of us filling parts of them out ahead of time. Then I would copy them and send a copy home, never knowing if it even got home. This term, I typed in student responses and my observations on the spot - on a form that only included what we accomplished this quarter. We looked it over, I downloaded it as a PDF, then sent a copy to parents that day. The final grade was posted onto the grading platform (we use PowerSchool) later that day. The reason for this - What if parents are like many students, and look at the grade but not the feedback? In this way, I'm postponing the grade a few more hours, to give them a chance to read through the notes with their child.

I save our 1:1 conferences for our independent reading time. In those twenty minutes, I can get in solid chats with three students. I like to share snippets, and I haven't blogged in a long time, so here I go. 

All names are changed.


Ada had a difficult time deciding on what her grade should be. In my eyes, and according to our grading guidelines (that are subject to change each year), she should have a solid A. She kept telling me she "can't make decisions." The more she talked, the more I realized she thought I would do what "every adult" does to her - make her feel like she made the wrong decision. We checked off the list, put the A on the document, and then it was time for her to come up with a goal. Ah, but this, too, demanded a decision be made on her part. At this point, we'd already gone past the time students had to read independently, so I felt I should walk away from her and help other students. I'd let her try this on her own. When I got back, she asked, "Can I type it in?" YES! Her goal was worth the wait. She wants to be able to accept feedback from me without getting upset about it. Tough to measure, but it's a goal that speaks to her feelings of judgment from adults.

Alan struggles in ELA, yet he's put forth the effort of looking at tips I provide and getting better at his comprehension checks (our articles of the week), and he even revised his writing two times. According to the checklist, he should not be getting a B or an A. We went back to his articles of the week, and noticed the improvement. He was proud of his grade, and he created a goal of asking for help understanding what what the questions are actually asking.

Kim is so, so quiet during class. She will, however, ask me for help when she needs it during independent work. I commended her for that, saying, "There are some students here who are still 'on mute.' I don't know why they don't ask me for help - they must be scared of me or something. Nice job advocating for yourself when you need it."     ---     She replied, with her hand patting my knee, "Mrs. Kirr, you're like the least scariest person in this school." I'm not sure if that's a good thing, but I'll take it.

One other bit of discussion I feel I need to document... During parent/teacher conferences, one parent said that when he got the letter explaining about the grades for this year, he was very impressed. He wanted to write back, but he said his written English is worse than his spoken English, and knew he wanted to wait until he could tell me in person how much he likes this philosophy. He also thanked me for sharing so many books about, and written by, characters and authors that are "not what Americans deem the 'norm,'" but that belongs in an entirely different post.

Lisa avoids school. Last year was really rough on her, and this year she's been in school more, but when she's not here, she misses classwork and doesn't take the time at home to catch up on it. She chose the last day of our 1:1 conferences to meet to talk about the grade, and I made sure to not let her know she was going to go the next day... I wanted her in class! She did come to school, we chatted about the evidence, and she thought she should get a B. I asked her to go through the grading guidelines to show me what she accomplished, and she noted then that her comprehension skills were in the 60% range. So... she adjusted her grade to a C. This was up from last year when she received all Ds and Fs in ELA. I told her that if we only relied on the computer, she would be receiving a D. This encouraged her to continue reading the entire time in class and putting forth the effort in writing, as well. I reiterated what we'd said at parent conferences - that when she's in classes, she does better.

Email comments from parents this time around:

  • We could see much thought had been put into the evidence document. Thank you for the meaningful recap. 
  • We really like your format.
  • Thank you for the detailed summary of ____'s First Quarter grade.  ____ and I spoke about his grade last night and he seems satisfied...
  • We really appreciate the feedback.
  • Thank you for your time and effort...
  • I appreciate the feedback and the chance to see ____ comment on his strengths and weaknesses.
  • This is great feedback and I’m glad to know ____ is doing well in class for the most part. We will encourage him to read more independently so he can reach his goal...

Some teachers would disagree with the grades we came up with. Oh, well. I feel that the reflection process is worth it, or I wouldn't put in the work doing this. I do have one student who told me it would be less stressful to her if she had "typical" grades. She, however, takes three times longer taking short assessments during class (the articles of the week and the book club book check ins), because she strives for 100%. I truly think she may have ulcers early in life due to the pressure she puts on herself. We should not be adding more stressors to children's lives - Some student don't do so great in certain classes, and some feel they need to get 100% or they're failures. Oh, how I wish we'd get going with the standards-based grading discussions once again!!

Other posts of mine regarding 1:1 conferences with students

Even more resources: 
     Frequently Asked Questions for Parents on our classroom Weebly
     Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents (and teachers) to peruse
     My own reflections on this journey (since May, 2012)