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.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Best Books of 2022

My list is not extensive by any means, but I need to share out my favorites from 2022 like I have the past seven years. Maybe these aren't my favorites, actually... maybe they're books I believe other people could benefit from if they read them. I read a bit for myself, along with many books I thought my 7th graders would enjoy or books they recommended for me.

     2021 Favorites
     2020 Favorites
     2019 Favorites
     2018 Favorites
     2017 Favorites
     2016 Favorites
     2015 Favorites
     2014 Favorites

Here are the books I would most recommend from my list of 109 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 this year was to read more adult books. Young adult and books geared toward seventh graders just aren't holding my attention like they used to.

Biography / Autobiography / Memoir
     Adult - Yeonmi Park's In Order To Live
and Tara Westover's Educated
Both of these were eye-opening and educational for me.
Adult - Matt Haig's The Midnight Library helped me let go of regret.
Middle School - Corey Ann Haydu's Eventown I'd bet would help a child get past a traumatic event.
Graphic Novel
Middle School - Misty Wilson's Play Like a Girl is perfect for 7th graders!
Historical Fiction
Adult - Dolan Perkins-Valdez's Take My Hand was needed for me when Roe vs. Wade was overturned.
HS/Adult - Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn surprised me with the way it was written - I wanted to re-read so many sections. Good message for young people, too.
Middle School - Silas House and Neela Vaswani's Same Sun Here is one of those alternating narrator books that capture your heart.
How To / Self Help
B.J. Fogg's Tiny Habits was like Atomic Habits, except you connect a habit to other habits you've already formed... Easy to implement!
Tania Israel's - Beyond Your Bubble: How to connect across the political divide helped me have a very important discussion with my parents. It led us to find some common ground!
I'm not a huge mystery reader, but Jennifer Lynn Barnes's Inheritance Games was on our summer reading list for our middle school, and it did not disappoint! Many students went on to read the entire series.
Adult - Chris Lockhart's Walking the Bowl: A True Story of Murder and Survival Among the Street Children of Lusaka was so rich and filled my soul. I listened to this one, and although very long, it was one of my favorites of the year.
Young Adult - The 57 Bus. After abandoning it a couple of years ago, I'm glad I tried this one again.
Poetry / Prose / Novel in Verse
Middle School - Megan Freeman's Alone held a large lesson for me.
Rebekah Lowell's The Road to After helped me heal further from my divorce 11 years ago, even though it was geared towards a young audience.
I only read two this year, and I needed one on helping me manage the classroom, so although I didn't care for the metaphors and the supposedly "funny" quips throughout, Tom Bennett's Running the Room: A Teacher's Guide to Behavior had some good messages I'm still clinging to this school year.
This was my largest genre by far this year, so I'm picking a bunch...
Adult - Laurie Frankel's This Is How It Always Is taught me so much and helped me question more about what I thought I "knew" about gender.
Steven Rowley's The Guncle made me laugh so healthily!
Middle School - Michelle Kadarusman's Berani was so very tender.
Kevin Wignall's When We Were Lost was a great adventure.
Elizabeth Atkinson's I, Emma Freke was one I put off for so long and was much better than I thought it would be!
Adult - Emily Henry's Book Lovers is my favorite because of the witty banter.

Science Fiction
Adult - Max Brooks's Devolution was a surprise, and kept me reading!

Middle School - Joseph Bruchach's Skeleton Man was scary!

I'm still on the lookout for books that stretch my thinking, are written by those with different experiences than me, and are written well. Please comment your favorites (from this year or all time) down below, so I can add more to my list! Cheers to more reading in 2023!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Change Can = Growth

Change that is put upon me... stinks.

At this point in my life, I'm learning to embrace the challenge of change.

Since March 13, 2020, I feel as if I've lived with constant change. It's probably been much longer than that - isn't it true that "the only thing constant is change"??  (Heraclitus?) I just haven't been as aware of it.

Somewhere between February of 2021 and now I've learned that I need to breathe through changes put upon me. I need to slow down. I need to listen better. My life goes smoother when I actually apply this learning and DO the breathing, the slowing down, and the listening.

I fell off my bike on August 27 of this year.  My tooth was chipped (I got it fixed). My face was hurt (the sinus bone was fractured in four places, and the nerve attached is still affected). My hands were hurt (one is fine, the other is as good as it's going to get). My pride was hurt. My pride being hurt has changed to humility. I've learned a lot from that simple little fall.

When I look in the mirror and realize that my face looks normal, I'm surprised, and I'm reminded - again - that so many people hide (consciously or not) so much of what's happening or what's happened in their lives. We can't see all that people are going through. I wonder this about my students. What's behind their smiles? What are they going through that only they or their families know?

I've learned that I don't need to tell everyone about everything happening in my life. I've learned that it doesn't help me to complain about what hurts or what bothers me. I've learned that the latest fall (I've had a few that I've totally recovered from when I was younger) is part of the tapestry of my life. It's a jagged stitch that I can't fix. It's part of my story, should someone want to know it. It's helped me in ways, and I'm glad. 

It's helped me to slow down. Physically, I've been nervous about falling - anywhere - at any time. I fell on such an easy stretch on my bike - with no distractions - so I am now aware I can fall anywhere at any time. I'm much more conscious of where and how I walk. I don't jog anywhere anymore. I watch where - and how - I walk. I'm never on my phone while I'm walking. I hold rails when I'm on the stairs. I move over when there are too many people or it doesn't feel totally safe.

At first, I felt old doing these things. Being so cautious. I questioned whether I was "too cautious."

Now I know that it's okay. I'm 49 for one more month. I am getting older. I am realizing that it's okay to not go fast all the time. It's okay to take my time. It's actually beneficial for me to take my time. I'm not in any hurry to get older, nor am I in any hurry to hurt myself again, or hurt myself further.

This change in me has helped me realize I truly only need to do ONE thing at a time. 

I'm so thankful I can learn from my challenges. 
I wish this for my students. I wish this for my family and friends. I wish this for YOU.
And I hope I can continue to learn from challenges that come my way.

By the way... wear your helmet (I was and I do), and put on those biking gloves (next time).

Monday, October 24, 2022

In Time...

I chatted with Jen Vincent a week or two ago - about writing.

And it turns out... I haven't written lately. She asked why, and I shared that nothing I want to write is positive these days, and I like to put out positive posts, as I don't want my "legacy" or people's perception of me to be negative.

She gave me an idea.

Write what happened. Write about how you felt in that moment. Wait a bit. Write later - sharing what you feel now about that incident/event/whatever it was you wrote about. In addition, write about what you learned. Because isn't that what life is made of? Our ups, downs, in-betweens... They're what make us US. So I thought I'd try it today...


I shared this tweet after a dinner with my parents:

No one commented on the post. I don't know if anyone read it. I know, that in a tweet of 280 characters, no one can share the entire story. So I didn't. And I didn't feel a need to. I just wanted to share that suddenly my mom doesn't have faith in the public education system. And her daughter's an educator in her 28th year. How did I feel when I tweeted it out? Sad. Disappointed in today's "news" that has parents up in arms. Sad that they believe all the stories they hear - that are just not true. Sad they won't do the research and ask at the schools about the rumors. Just... sad for teachers around the nation.

I saw replies when I looked at Twitter again the next morning.
Here's a sampling of the ones I didn't block right away:

How did I feel that morning?
Angry. Mad that if I was smart, I couldn't respond to any of them, because I've learned in the past that that's what they want. Flustered. Confused. I looked at my bio and through my timeline like they wanted me to. Were they all upset because I have my PRONOUNS in my BIO? I felt confused that THAT was what upset them and made them think I should be "terminated" - one even said I should've been aborted.  ABORTED. (That's one I blocked right away.) Sick. Yes, I felt sick. I did NOT want to teach "their" children that morning. I did NOT want to be nice and give grace to any students. I wanted all of them to homeschool their own children, because I thought their children must also be rude, disrespectful, and okay with hiding behind aliases in order to be mean. I stopped the comments on that thread. I was also kind of... afraid. I was glad, however, that I don't really have location information in my Twitter bio.

How did I feel once I got to school?
Still sick about it. Then a peer stopped me and said, "Your parents must watch _____." Yup. He added, "They're obsessed with sexuality," and he laughed. So I thought about it as I got ready for the day ahead.

How did I feel once students showed up?
I was chuckling. If I spent my day talking about sexuality, we'd get NOTHING done. I thought of all the teachers I work with. I've not told anyone at school (teachers or students) my pronouns - because I'm still "old school." I don't feel I need to, as I wear skirts, I'm married to a man, and I think I put out that "I'm a female" vibe somehow. I don't have one student (this year) who wants me to refer to them as a specific pronoun. I never once, the entire day, talked about gender or sexuality - with anyone. What DID I talk about? Taking out our notebooks, being quiet while reading choice books, correct grammar in writing so your story could be read and understood by others, keeping hands (and feet, and heads) to ourselves, using evidence to support your claim, looking through the text, football, hockey, how I'm thankful for their hard work... The normal stuff teachers talk about. The normal stuff teachers have been talking about for years.

That was October 10 when I got the vitriol and harassment. 
How do I feel now, on October 23?
Still kind of defeated. Still sick about how educators aren't trusted by so many - and sad rumors are still going around about what is taught in schools. Sad that parents can't ask their own kids about what's going on. Sad about what the kids in front of me might be being taught just by being around adults at home who think I'm evil because I have pronouns in my Twitter bio. I'm not even sure if I have them in my work email signature, as it's really not something I'm concerned about. I feel... tired. Exhausted. From trying to convince people like my parents that I'm a good teacher, and there are very many good teachers. I never had to try to convince others before. I'm feeling... disrespected. Sad that those anonymous people want me to feel this way - and leave the teaching profession.

What have I learned?
  • I've learned that many people don't know what's going on in their children's classrooms. I've learned that bullies online hide behind masks and aliases. (Garth Vader wanted me to be "brave" and let people comment again - and yet... it was Garth Vader saying this.)
  • If I don't want trolling bullies behind aliases telling me I should be terminated, I shouldn't "rock the boat." I don't like confrontation. I thought I was simply sharing a story with my own network. What some might call an "echo chamber" is what I was looking for right then. I wanted some to say they felt the same - that I wasn't alone. And a couple of them did. Yet... I don't feel it was worth the angst.
  • I've learned to be blunt with some people. There is a parent this year who thinks that at least one of the book club choices I provided to students had sex in it. At conferences, I let her know that no - none of the books on that list have sex in them. I let her know I've read them all, and I encouraged her to read the one we both chose together for her daughter WITH her daughter.
  • I've learned I can't spend my time thinking about what other people think. What good does that do me? I will go for walks outside, keep reading diverse literature to learn about others who have gone through different experiences than I have, to make more bookmarks for my students (it's a soothing balm for me!), and to keep being a role model - kind, caring, and supportive to ALL children.
  • I've learned to give it time... In time, I will feel less angry, less reactive, and I will have learned once again. Life is not without troubles. In my own life, this was a drop in the bucket. It was a bump in my road that helped me learn.
  • I have a lot of wishes... namely that people focus more on what actually harms children... Lots and lots of wishes, and only one vote.

Give it time. 
Try your best. 
Be the person you want to be.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Small Wins Are Bigger These Days

I feel things more (stronger?) these days. Hot is hotter, ice is more painful, contentment stays with me longer. I'm feeling all the feels from this first week back at school. Today I'm at peace, so I'm going to take a few moments and share a few small wins from three days with students...

I've got a few self-proclaimed readers. One, after checking out a book from our classroom library, just keeps reading (even as I'm giving directions). As I nudge him to close his book, he says, "This is going to happen a lot. My teachers are always taking my book away." This is a good problem for me to have. (Even if it's not so great for the other teachers on the team.)

At least TEN students checked out books from our classroom library so far.

We found out that our homeroom students speak eight other languages: Romanian, Polish, Hindi, Greek, Spanish, Assyrian, Lebanese, and Arabic.

One class was 10 minutes longer than my longest (I had a 30-min class, a 60-min, and a 50-min class), so I took them out for a walk around the building. One student walked with me the entire way, and we took turns asking each other questions and sharing stories. 

As I was going over classroom expectations (which I'd stopped doing for a number of years and now I'm back doing - because it's needed), one student was upset that I'd put the cushions away if they weren't used properly. Another replied, "No, it's okay, because it's a privilege, not a right." <<Insert hug here!>>

Five students shared their quick writing with the class already. One started to share, then realized he couldn't read his own handwriting. He took it in stride and he may decide to improve it. (??)

Our school librarian had us check out books from the library on the third day of school!

I get to eat my 40-minute lunch with great colleagues.

My co-homeroom teacher greets kids at the door with me (and we have time to socialize!).

Yesterday, one of my classes found the bookmarks I've made for them. :D

I'm giving out intermittent rewards (T-Wolf tickets students can use as currency for a new school store), which the students and I are excited about!

This year, my co-planner and I decided to do what we saw a sixth-grade ELA teacher do - collect the sticky notes that students are supposed to bring in. I found this awesome big jar we've had at home for awhile. Now we have a place for them, and everyone will be able to use them!

When I did our first read-aloud (First-Chapter Friday - Ghost Boys was yesterday's pick), I thanked the students for listening so well, even though I hadn't gone over that expectation. One student said, "We know when to be quiet." I smiled (NOT through a mask - another win!) and replied, "I would think so, but it's difficult to get back into school mode after a summer off. Thank you for practicing this skill with us today." And I felt corny, and old, and totally okay with all of it.

I'm grateful for all the last two years has taught me. (I won't go so far to say I'm grateful for the challenges that have helped me learn these lessons, but I suppose that's really what it is, right??) I know there will be more tough lessons in the future, should I choose to see the challenges as a tool for learning. I always learn the best from my mistakes, rather than from someone just telling me how to do something. I hope these lessons stick with me for the next six years, and I hope this year is much better than the last two as a result. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

20 Reasons Why I'm Staying

...for another six years...

After the last two years of teaching being my most difficult so far (and I'm in Illinois - I can't imagine teachers in some other states!), I've noticed a lot of teachers announcing their resignations or retirements (due to so much I will not attempt to list here - if you're reading this, you most likely know the causes). I'm heading into year 28. I need to stay in teaching because there's really nothing else I can do at this point to receive this salary, and gosh darn it, I've worked hard to get here, and I believe I do a solid job of it. I have pushed myself to find - and list - some other reasons to stay in this profession for a few more years. I'm considering this a working document for myself.

I'm staying... because teachers DO work over the summer, and I've been preparing for this next school year, planning to make it better than the last (as usual).

I'm staying... so I have the funds to donate to those worse off than me, and to those causes I believe are worth it for the children I'm serving.

I'm staying... because I have no hidden agenda and I am confident I am NOT a "Marxist," "groomer," "indoctrinator," or "evil monster," so I need not be afraid of parents (mine and my students') who believe the picture some of the media and politicians paint about educators.

I'm staying... to be the person I want to be - one that tries to teach 12 year olds HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

I'm staying... to share some windows and mirrors through the pages of books.

I'm staying... to keep trying to prove to my students that what they have to say - and write - matters.

I'm staying... to role model how to slow down in order to work on word choice when communicating (esp. listening, speaking and writing).

I'm staying... to share with seventh graders what I'm learning alongside them - and from them.

I'm staying... because seventh graders never fail to make me laugh every day, and I hope I can help them smile each day, as well.

I'm staying... to keep trying to do what I believe is right for children, to try my hardest to be the role model and teacher I needed when I was their age, to show them that people care about them.

I'm staying... because I may be able to affect another teacher in a positive way that will affect their students for the rest of their time as a teacher.

I'm staying... because I feel some of my coworkers benefit from me being in their circle sometimes.

I'm staying... so I can stand up for children and educators who I feel are being mistreated, misrepresented, or misunderstood.

I'm staying... because there's always that one note from a child or a parent that boosts my optimism for another week or so - that one quick smile or laugh or piece of praise or gratitude that I latch onto because it makes me feel as if I'm doing SOMEthing right.

I'm staying... because this is one challenge I feel I can keep improving at. I know I'll never master how to teach, but I have always - and will continue to - plan on improving with each year.

I'm staying... because I still want to be part of the reason why I feel we have a fairly safe school. I want to be the one to make connections with children and help THEM make connections with each other - to help them to reach out to those who are isolated or shunned. And I have to say it - if I were to die at the hands of a former student from our school, at least I have no children of my own at home who would suffer.

I'm staying... because I've learned so much about how to care for my mental and physical health since the 2020-2021 school year, and last year I felt some success being able to leave most work AT work.

I'm staying... because my husband believes I still have so much to do, try, hear, experience... and because he knows I love my students.

I'm staying... because teaching used to be regarded as a very important profession to be in, and I want to make sure my next six years are valuable to the students in my care.

I'm staying... although I may have scars, the last two years didn't break me, and I feel better equipped to take on the next challenges.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

2021-2022 Digital Scrapbook

Phew. Year 27 is finished. I hope the kids learned something.

So... this isn't really a list of the PD I've done this year... unless actually working is considered professional development (which it probably should be). There are some PD opportunities I took sprinkled in, but this is a shortened version of what I tried to accomplish this school year. I don't think I was as good of a teacher as I was last year. Last year, I was able to connect with more students individually (was it due to Zoom?), and I sent those kids postcards and letters of encouragement all year. Not this year.  


Attended a one-hour session on Evolving Learner: Inquiry-Based Learning

- I tried to keep students three-feet apart. 
- I tried to do attendance correctly. (I only got two emails about it all year!)
- I participated in every Equity Committee meeting at school for the second year in a row.
- I went back to going without points/marks (until the term ends) with my seventh graders.
- I practiced keeping work at work, so I can decompress and process the days at home.

- I quit trying to keep students three feet apart. This group is handsy. Very handsy.

- I was invited to be a contributor to a Twitter EdCamp on #Ungrading - we used Twitter spaces for my first time.

- We went to "mask recommended" due to a lawsuit against IL schools. Bad behaviors increased, respect went down, and I considered retiring early once again.
- I presented virtually on Passion Projects / Genius Hour, and was able to attend one day of the IDEA Conference here in Schaumburg, IL.

- I took a course through our district, provided by a teacher in the district. It was a book study of A Little Guide for Teachers: Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care.
I put hope to the side for a bit, and I learned to be (or try to be) resigned (instead of discouraged) to certain things that are out of my control.
- I began practicing breathing with my students - I logged into the HeadSpace site (which is free for educators). Some students appreciated it, and some made fun of it. At least it helped ME.

- June 3rd - our last day of this school year. I survived, and I was fortunate to be able to keep my family safe. Again, I am learning from the scars. I was able to reach a couple of students in a couple of ways, and I practiced how to breathe between stimuli and my reaction. I read a ton of books (catch me on Goodreads), and I spent a ton of time with my husband.

The bits of love from the seventh graders keep me coming back...

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Another New Learning Experience

Jury Duty... Seven days total.

I was so distraught the Wednesday I found out I might have to be on a jury starting that Friday and for what the judge said could be one week long. How the heck was I supposed to hear a woman's trauma surrounding an attempted rape and murder AND even think of making sub plans for what could be a different sub every day or even every class period? I had a huge headache and I was going to miss our first field trip in three years (my ONE DAY out of the classroom with my students this year) and I was crying on the L ride home. I thought the huge surprises that the pandemic had brought us were done. I thought that routine was back in my life. I was suddenly jolted out of any routine and thrust into the unknown.

Being able to go to school Thursday was such a blessing. I was able to talk to my students about the possibility of me missing our field trip the next day and then being out for what could be an entire week. More importantly to my own sanity, I was able to express my fear about not being able to do it all to my coworkers. My friend & co-planner said she'd take care of it. She said I didn't have to write sub plans for every day. She said she could decide the plans, print out the slides we'd use in class, and talk with the sub about how many minutes each activity should take. I found out I'd have one sub for the Monday through Thursday, and if needed, a different one for Friday. I even had that substitute's email address, as he'd subbed for me the day prior for jury selection. That Thursday was such a blessing to have - and my friend & co-planner's help was such a blessing the entire week. That Thursday, I had some of the best sleep I've had in ages, knowing that the work part of my life would be taken care of.

And I learned - I learned so much.

  1. I need to be taken out of my comfort zone every once in awhile. The pandemic teaching in 20-21 took me WAY out of my comfort zone for so long - oh so many unexpected changes! - that as soon as this new routine was threatened, I was so upset. I reacted poorly. I made it a much larger deal than it actually was. I spent too much time so stressed about it.
  2. I need to ask for help when I'm struggling. My friend/co-planner was ready to help at a moment's notice. She seemed as if she WANTED to help. I needed it, and she provided it.
  3. I am better with a "gradual release of responsibility" than with taking it all on at once. Hubby drove me to the CTA L station Wednesday and Friday, and I learned the L system of tickets and stops. Monday I was able to drive myself, and I learned about the parking payment system at the CTA station. Each day of the week, something different happened that was out of the ordinary, and each day I was able to figure it out. (One day the L I was on was "express," one day I didn't get a ticket when I came IN to park and the gate was wide open, one day I got on an L that didn't go as far as I needed, and on the last day, I almost missed my stop because the announcement was one stop late and I was so immersed in writing notes about what I wanted to say at deliberations.)
  4. I love being told one direction at a time. It's easy to follow. I had to get to the Daley Center downtown Chicago by 9:15. I had to take off my jacket and belt and put those and my backpack through the metal detector. I had to be in room 1604 at 9:30. When I got there, I was told to sign in and fill out a lunch slip. When I was done with that, I was told to get my notebook and wait. When I was escorted to the court room, I was told to take my stuff with me. When I was in court, I was asked to sit down. Since the day of jury selection, I knew I would not be speaking, so all I was expected to do was listen and keep an open mind. At a break, I was asked to stand up and follow the deputy back to the other room. It was also suggested we use the washroom. I did - every time. No one knew how long each day - or each time in the courtroom - would be. No one knew how many days it would be. No one knew which two of us (we were 14 total) would be alternates. No one knew when lunch would come. We were only told what we needed to know, and it was easy to follow. At the end of the day, we were provided our $17.20 check (which I'm grateful covered the $7 of parking and $5 L ticket). I appreciated the simple directions.
  5. We all need to get out of our own "boxes" at times. In the courtroom, I was immersed in the situation. I was listening to and looking at the same people every day (with a number of different witnesses thrown in). Everything revolved around the case. Outside the Daley Center, I was surrounded by unknowns. People everywhere. Each one has their own stories they bring to this life. Each one was heading somewhere, for some reason unknown to me. Each one was thinking different things, feeling different things, experiencing different things. In the buildings surrounding me, I was wondering how many people were in them and what they were doing at that moment. I am always amazed when I'm in a large group of people or drivers or passengers on public transportation at the countless - COUNTLESS - number of stories people have in their lives. It's humbling. It takes the focus off of me and any issues I may have. It puts my own tiny existence into perspective.
  6. Bias can truly be hidden. At the selection of the jury, before the trial began, and again before deliberations started, the judge and the lawyers had us swear that bias or any preconceived notions of the witnesses would NOT factor into our decision as to who was at fault. I knew this. Obvious, right? I'm trying to practice this daily. I've been more aware of my biases since the summer of reflection in 2020, and I swore that I would not let bias factor into my decision. I believe it did, however, make me hear or not hear one crucial piece of evidence... There were eight of us that favored the defense when we started deliberating. Four of us were adamant at one point Thursday afternoon that one of the witnesses was caught lying. I was aghast, as was the juror next to me. We both said, "If I'd have heard that, I would've noted it - instead, I noted it was his word against the other witness!" Everyone left at 5pm Thursday, and we were in a deadlock on one of the four points we had to consider. I arrived home 90 min later, exhausted. Over the course of the evening, I thought of a book I'd read called Think Again by Adam Grant. I believe it was in that book where I read that we are wrong 50% of the time (when arguing about something). We all may think we're right, but obviously some of us are wrong. One tactic he suggested was to consider that I was totally wrong, and that the opposite was actually true. So... how could the other side believe they'd heard that evidence?? Maybe they heard something that was objected by the other side and we should not have let that into our brain. Maybe they saw something on the screen that had to be taken down because the other side had objected... If that was NOT true... how could I be wrong? Maybe I had let my bias of the counsel affect what I was hearing. I heard the witness answer "I do not recall," and I wrote down that it was his word against the first witness's word. Maybe I hadn't heard the next part because I was biased toward the defense even at jury selection. As I reflected, I realized that before I even knew anything about the witnesses or what this case was even about, I had thoughts in my head about the two lawyers themselves. The plaintiff's lawyer was a big, strong, pointing-at-people man. I saw him as a bully. I saw him as a money grubber. The defense's lawyer was a lanky, scrawny, mess-with-his-glasses man, and I saw him as the underdog. I stand up to bullies and I support underdogs. When holding up my right hand, I only thought of the witnesses, not the counsel. I didn't think that bias should come into play... it may have. It may have for me, and it may have for the other four that were adamant they heard that evidence.  When deliberating the next day, I asked everyone to write down their bias (even ever so slight) they had before we even heard any testimony. I didn't ask, but what if... what if we all were on the side we leaned toward in the slightest bit at the end of the trial, as well? I shared that the "bully" lawyer cemented my decision when he was pointing at us in his closing arguments and telling me how many millions of dollars I'd write down on the paper. I asked for hands to see who believed they heard the witness - in front of us - say (whatever I'm not going to go into details for here)... and at least six of us did. So, I changed my mind on the first point. Other jurors thanked me for sharing what I'd been thinking, and we moved on with discussions. I truly believe that my bias towards the lawyers hindered my listening skills in the court room. 

My little lessons this past week - such as knowing which cars will be less stinky on the L and how to get around downtown easily - were numerous. It was my larger lessons, however, that made the week totally worth it. I feel proud that I didn't try to get out of jury duty, and I feel as if we made a good decision in the end. I feel that maybe, in this one case, justice was served, and I'm proud I was a part of it.

One of my views every day from the 16th floor of the Daley Center

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

I'm so glad the IDEACon group who hosted a book club this year recommended this book, and I'm glad I was ready for my next self-help book (I think I'm going to read one a month this year - they really help my mindset). The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.

Before you go and purchase it, know that it has many of the same ideas in other self-help books I've read the past two years... (and some of them I enjoyed more than this one). I think the one that fits with most of these ideas (and was a better fit for me) was The Book of Joy, yet that book wasn't as organized as this one.

So... my take away for this one - do what I've been trying to do - but on a REGULAR basis. At the same time every day, note (say/share or write) three specific things I'm grateful for. Get outside and move. Take 5-10 minutes to simply sit (meditate, reflect), and make those small connections with people (this could include conscious acts of kindness). What I loved about this book is that he shared the research behind his seven principles, and I love that many of his ideas (and new stories!) are helping solidify ideas that had already sprouted in my mind from the other self-help books I've read. This is an easy read, and I think even my 15-year-old nephew would get a kick out of it without feeling preached to. 

Gotta love public libraries - I'm grateful my local library had a copy! 

My personal notes for this book are here.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Celebrating My Resilience

I've gotten more proof this week that I'm a lifelong learner!

Why struggle through something if I'm not going to learn from it? I'm learning this week that I have a hard time learning a lesson WHILE I'm struggling. When I come up / out from the struggle, however, I do make time to reflect. I reflected Thursday and yesterday, and today I'm in the next phase... PLANNING.

I won't go into details about what was going on with me physically and mentally the first three days of this latest school week. I will share that it was NOT tragic. I was not hospitalized, I was not on medication, and I stuck to water, iced tea, and milk all week. I even got to bed at 8pm each night - and slept well! Compared to my normal "how-I-like-to-function," I was spiraling down. It was a three-day stint that could be due to any number of things. Since I've been working hard at not letting these stints happen, I was stuck in the mire for a bit.

Now that I'm back out (a good cleaning/purging, a change of scenery, surrounded by old friends, good books, etc...), I've decided I need a plan for the next time. What's funny / not-so-funny / eye-opening to me as I write this... I KNOW there will be a next time. This, in itself, is kind of calming for me... knowing that this is how life goes. This is how life is supposed to go - we've got to experience the "down" times in order to truly feel the "up" times.
Courtesy of Pixabay

So... Here's my first attempt at a personalized plan to get through those days (in addition to my "regular" self-care routine, which I'm fairly proud of):
  • Don't get on social media 
  • Don't read news or news emails
  • Only watch "Battle Bots" or "Modern Family" or something else that's FUN on these days
  • Read an adult book - fiction or nonfiction
  • Buy ribbon and make bookmarks
  • Use fun pens to write letters of gratitude or encouragement
  • Carve ten minutes for the Calm app
  • Stay off the roads (if possible)
  • And... of course... my favorite... get out in nature... a ton MORE.
I just finished The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, as well. A friend and colleague suggested it. WOW. The last line has me really thinking about my next move. Gratitude for all those around me, for sure. Knowing I'll have "occasional flourishes of despair" will help me, as well - because, as I was reminded this morning, I've made it through 100% of my most difficult times (which have been worse than this past week).

And I'm celebrating my resilience today by making a plan for getting back on track a bit sooner next time. (Or at least to prevent me from flying off the track...!) 👍🏻

What is your routine for getting back on track? I'd love for you to comment to help a fellow educator. ;)

Sunday, February 13, 2022

AND.... I'm back to failing.

This past week was the first week of our district moving to "Mask Recommended."

Monday was the worst day, with tall, unmasked eighth grade boys yelling to other unmasked eighth grade boys, "Put your mask on! You're killing us! It's like a shooting spree in here! Hahahahaha!" 

Third period that morning, I had a seventh grade boy in my class ask me, "Mrs. Kirr? Can you come here for a minute?" I walk over... "What's going on?" he asks. And I'm prepared with a script that was suggested to educators.

By Friday, the hubbub has died down a bit, and we realized... the disrespect has risen. It's like carte blanche now. It's as if these middle schoolers feel they can do ANYthing. Want some examples? Skip this paragraph if you don't want them. After I set up my boundary of four feet in front - where I feel safe enough to take off my mask to teach a bit better (and clearer, and quieter), and let them know I'd wear my mask when I cross over the line, and asking them to wear a mask if they cross the line... one unmasked student goes and sit at my desk chair while he drinks his water during our four-minute break. He argues - a lot - when I tell him he's got to move. Day two - The gum smacking and candy eating is clear as day now, so the garbage can has been getting a lot of use, and the kids are mad at me. The next day, we're doing grammar - kids come up with simple sentences, and then we label them on a diagram. My back is turned. I hear (very clearly - no mask?), "He spits and she swallows." I turn around calmly, the kids get quiet, and I say, "I am your TEACHER. NOT your friend." No one rats out the culprit. And I'm kind of glad. That would be a touchy email home. I've got one student who either hated me before and I never knew it, or just started this week - decides to not mask, so I can see the face. I ask a question, and all I get is a look or I'm ignored completely. I tried twice one day, then didn't talk to this student the rest of the week - I focused on those that would talk with me instead. (This student has a lot of friends and is making connections with tons of people - I'll try again next week, obviously. I didn't want to keep banging my head on that wall this week.) A physical fight broke out at our school this past week. They're THIRTEEN years old.

I go on Twitter to see if I can learn anything that helps. Instead, I see book banning. I see certain trending items, head to it for a second, and see something totally unrelated - an instruction guide on how to perform oral sex?! Seriously? Ban the tech, parents. Read the books with the kids. I see that Russia is close to invading Ukraine. I see there were fights that broke out at a local high school on Monday - due to masks being optional. In that same thread, I read about kids pulling masks off other kids' faces. I do see a kind tweet from our superintendent. Then I log off.

The kids are not good. Their parents are not good. The educators and administrators are not good. I feel we are all failing right now. And I, personally, was struggling a ton LAST February. 

I'm not quitting my job any time soon. I can't, financially. I do know the latest I'm going to retire, however.


Articles I've read lately that show a sign of the times:

Why Teachers Are Dropping Out“The pandemic is exacerbating teachers’ feelings of being silenced,” Dunn says. “They feel like they have no voice in what happens in their classrooms and no say over policy implementation, even in a public health crisis.”

And... add attacks on SEL lessons:

Thursday, February 3, 2022

"Every teacher I know feels like they're failing."

This line in an article in the Chicago Sun Times got to me.

So I decided to do something about it. I wanted to change the narrative in my own mind. I decided to look for where I feel I'm doing WELL at school. I suggest you try it next. Here's what I noticed in just one day...

  • Each morning, I get a song ready for the start of each class. Students can suggest songs, and if not, I'll share an upbeat song I love. When the song ends (sometimes after the bell), that's when we start class.
  • I have a beautiful plant I brought from home. Sometimes students absentmindedly touch the leaves.
  • I share what books I've just read, books I'm currently reading, and books I've just finished. Of course kids can read them.
  • I walk around the room in the morning, erasing pencil marks on the tables.
  • I put notes on the board wishing teams good luck for their games, matches, and activities such as the Spelling Bee.
  • I make small cards and hand them out to kids for special reasons (Spelling Bee, taking a big role when we read a script, being vulnerable when sharing writing...)
  • In homeroom, we share motivational videos or videos the students want to see.
  • My students can hang their work anywhere in the room, as long as it doesn't interfere with our view (of the screen, clock, etc.)
  • I greet each student by name at the door each class period.
  • The sign outside the room is not about me - it says, "Mrs. J. Kirr's Readers & Writers."
  • I try ideas I see on social media. This quarter, I tried "daily dedications." It's still a work in progress.
  • I post student writing for other students to read (if they choose) during independent reading time. I also post a way to provide feedback.
  • I post quotes I love from books I've loved.
  • I have a gazillion books (or so) I've shopped for and scrounged for.
  • I have a station where students can use staples, scratch and full paper, colored pencils, crayons, rulers, scissors, post-it notes, erasers, calculators...
  • I have a bag of feminine hygiene products the girls know about.
  • I get attendance right 99% of our days (after looking at three different tabs on the spreadsheet).
  • I check out books from my own library if the students need a book (like recently when our book club books still weren't in).
  • I read (and take notes or share summaries of) most of the books the students read for book clubs.
  • Let's face it. I read a TON of children's literature... and teaching books, too.
  • I have a sign out sheet instead of using passes. How can I not try to trust the students to make decisions on their own? If I notice their name is on the list a ton in one week, we have a discussion.
  • I write when the kids are writing.
  • I share my writing.
  • I do everything I'm asking students to do. I try the writing lessons ahead of time, so I know (and can share) where students might have trouble.
  • I take photos of our class and share in monthly email updates home to parents.
  • I take the notes I want my students to take.
  • I ask a question of the day to get the kids talking. It's a mix of "would you rather," open-ended, and multiple choice questions.
  • Our room is open between classes... I love the game my 8/9 block plays ("Tips"?) that gets kids from other classes coming in to play. As soon as the bell rings, my students put the ball away.
  • I make ribbon/magnet bookmarks for my students.
  • On Mondays, I set up a glasses-cleaning station ("Buena Vista Avenue") in the hallway.
  • I practice my Spanish on Duolingo every day (ask me about my streak! I know it will be above the 780 it is today!), so I can (someday) talk in some of my students' first language.
  • I give my students pencils when they need one.
  • We have a weekly "Thankful Thursday" time where we share our gratitude.
  • I tell my students "I love you."
  • I try to talk to my students about life outside of school - should they be willing.
  • I'm myself around my students. I'm vulnerable. I'm silly. I'm upset. I'm celebrating. I'm ME.
  • I smile under the mask.
  • I make TikToks and use SnapChat filters. They want me to add a neck tattoo to this one...

I'm a good teacher. So are you.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Half-Way Through This &*%! School Year


I'm shifting once again.

We're sent a letter saying that starting as soon as (could be) tomorrow, we may have students coming without masks. We're provided a Q & maybe A session after school to share our myriad questions about what this might mean - for student attendance, behavior, angst... Not a lot of people asked about staff concerns. We are truly concerned for the students - as is our role. As is our lifestyle, really. We've got concerns for ourselves, but they're always pushed to the side. Ooop! Now it could be next week. Whatever. This isn't anything I can control. I need to focus on what I can control.


Pandemic concerns aside (since that is what others not in our profession have decided)... I wanted to document a shift in my grading practices that happened as a result of our 1:1 end-of-term grading conferences I had with students this past quarter. I collect each student's evidence for reading comprehension and writing skills, we discuss their preparation for class, how much they read in class and out, and their participation, and then students come up with what they think is a fair grade based on our discussion. The first quarter I had some students who said they deserved some sort of "A," even though their comprehension was in the "C" range. I said something along the lines of, "I get it - you tried hard, this is new for you, you didn't know how all this goes... so let's focus on getting your comprehension up by reading more, slowing down, etc." And these students got the A- they suggested - with goals to help them the second quarter.

This (second) quarter that just ended Friday, I had some of the same students do the same thing again. Even with the added writing piece not looking like "A" work (and not revising it when provided the time in class), some were still not reflecting on their skills. After all, they "always" get As and Bs in ELA. I was bummed, to say the least. 

Then I reflected. I have not provided them help to can keep track of their own achievement. Sure, it's all on PowerSchool in the comments section, but do they know how to put it all together? Are any of them doing the math in class every time we have scores but don't let the computer average them? Since averages aren't the best, shouldn't we just go with the last couple? What if they're the same types of scores as the first few? 

I don't have enough scaffolding for the kids who aren't doing "A" work. And I'm not going to put in that effort this year. I thought the year would get better, but we're half-way through and it has not. In fact, I'm going to make things easier on me - and on them. About seven students and I have decided to put their points into the grade book to let the grade book average them - just like all their other teachers do. This way, they can see where they are throughout the quarter and look at the comments on PowerSchool to see how to revise, should they wish to do so.

If I was not concerned about masks, distancing, cleaning, disrespect, hallway behavior, vandalism, earbuds, phones, parents, apathy, students who will only work with certain other students, seating charts that crash and burn every time, then maybe I'd be more invested in making this "no-grades-until the-end-of-the-quarter" thing work for ALL students. This year is NOT that year.

I'm grateful for the students it works for - many seventh graders are reflective enough for me to agree with them and feel comfortable / justified with the grade they chose. I'm grateful my system this year is actually back in place (I skipped it last year) and our documenting is improved from two years ago. And I'm grateful I can go back to "traditional" grading (still more fair than my grades were years ago) for the students that are not reflective - yet.

And I still have some flicker of hope. Our Middle School Standards-Based Grading Committee is planning to once again meet in February. Our last meeting was in February of 2020. Maybe we'll have SBG at the middle school before I retire. Maybe. The last two years, I've learned to not count on anything when it comes to my profession. 

Today I feel I can't turn left, right, go forward or even go backward. I can shift things, however. It's better than last year, right?! For sure. Day by day. Step one: Stay physically healthy. Step two: Take care of your mental health. Step three: Connect with the kids you can. Day by day.