Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 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 their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why Should We Be Connected?

Thank you, Andrea!

Whoever you are, I'd love to be in your classroom, learning from YOU!

A little background... Mr. Zac Leonard (co-creator of #EdTechAfterDark) keeps tweeting out this Flipgrid, asking teachers to share their viewpoints. After I shared mine, I continue to look back and listen to other teachers to hear how they answered.

So far, Andrea has my absolute favorite answer (yes, I listened/viewed them all):

I am in total agreement with Andrea. And you know what? Being connected DOES make me a better educator, and a better person. I have days when I'm not the best version of me. Then I get connected again with people - online or face to face - and I regroup. I remember what I'm supposed to do, or who I'm supposed to be. I so appreciate learning from other educators who love to learn and help one another improve.

What are your thoughts? Are you heading over to the Flipgrid right now to add them? Perhaps you'll comment on this post, instead?

If you know Andrea, please connect me to her - I want to learn from and with this fabulous educator.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Saying "Yes"

I almost said No.

When Caren Kimbarovsky contacted me about being on a panel to talk about "personalized learning" at the local NICE meeting, I immediately thought - I have so much to do that weekend, and I've already committed to so many things in April. Then came another thought - I don't have school the next day... and I've never been on a panel before.

So I said Yes.

And I LOVED it.

As a connected educator, you get asked to do many things that are not in your normal job description. For the month of April, I was asked to speak at a mini-conference in the AM before an edcamp in the PM, review a book before it comes out, moderate two chats, attend a half-day edcamp, and be on this panel. I said YES to all but one. I'm so glad I was able to be a part of this panel. Check out the participants:
We were given free dinner (Chipotle and cookies!), and a few of us chatted prior to the start of the discussion. My goal was to listen more than I spoke, and that was very easy, as I was in the presence of educators that have done way more than I ever had. I was so eager to learn from them!

I had to share my take-aways (and reminders)...
  • Jon Bergmann shared that the "one thing every teacher can do tomorrow" is something I'm already doing! Video/audio feedback with screencasts for their students! When he started describing this, I practically jumped out of my chair. I'm on the right track!
  • A participant in the audience shared that his students reflect back in the same manner. I know one of my next steps now!
  • We were all reminded, once again, that the tech does not matter - RELATIONSHIPS matter. No idea is right for EVERY student. Some students will still not do the work. TALK with students. Do not let the idea that not every student will work stop you from trying new things in class.
  • "Relevance" is the word I kept thinking of for these two hours. If we continue to make learning relevant to our students, more will step up to the plate to practice and learn the skills.
  • We need to have a common language - and we need to SHARE this with parents and students, so they, too, may advocate for change in education.
  • I am not overwhelmed with "too many things to do." Teachers on this panel seem to be doing even more work than I am - all for the sake of personalizing the learning.

Coming home with the windows down and the radio cranked up, I knew I will continue to say YES to many of these opportunities, as they continue to reinvigorate me. I may not do everything in my class that I'd like to try, but I'm surrounded by others who inspire me to keep on keepin' on!

Monday, April 10, 2017

End-of-Quarter Paper Trail

Yes, we go without marks throughout the quarter.

No, it's not just one simple letter grade at the end of each quarter.

Students and I prepare throughout the quarter, creating and collecting evidence.

We then confer with each other, and fill in the front of this sheet with evidence, and the back with goals for the next quarter. Students also choose their own comments for the report card, and have the opportunity to provide even more information for their parents.

What comes next?

The paper trail... explained here:

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Shift Report Card Comments Over to Your Students

So you don't want to go "without grades" yet, but you do want to BEGIN to go that route...

One way is to incorporate REFLECTION into more of what you do in class.

At the end of the quarter, why not let students choose their own comments for the report card / progress report?

Here's how I give this responsibility over to the students...

We currently have 100 comments from which teachers can choose. Many of these do NOT apply to ELA class, such as "Needs to study harder for tests" (we don't have "tests" for students to study for in ELA) or "Does not meet minimum class standards" (because if THAT happens, I'm not doing my job!), or "Shows all steps in math work." So I share with students the comments that DO apply - and there are still about 60 from which to choose!

Sixty comments is a bit much to look at. I go a step further. I separate them into "Comments that show room for improvement" and "Comments that show what you do well." I ask students to find one of each, and then explain WHY they chose those comments.
Feel free to make a copy of this document and edit your copy to add the comments your district uses.

What I can NOT tell from the choices students make is if they truly believe this is true or not. I often wonder... Did he put that comment on there because other teachers have chosen that one for him? Did she choose that comment because she truly believes she "contributes positively to the classroom atmosphere?" What I CAN do is ASK. I ask for students to chose one comment from each side (with a possible third comment thrown in if they'd like it), and then I TALK with them about the comments.

Here's what I find...

  • There are miscommunication I can clarify, such as when one student chose "Is easily distracted" along with "Is attentive and a capable student." I don't have to ask how he thinks he can be both distracted and attentive, because I see the answer in his reason why... He wrote, "I attend class every day, and am capable." Ahhhh... Here's a great opportunity for him to learn what "attentive" means. 
  • Some students are so very hard on themselves, and some think they are the best students ever. They are in 7th grade, so not everyone is good at reflecting yet. One more reason to do this!! 
  • Other students are spot on. Check out these comments, and what students said about why they chose them, just from this past quarter alone...

Student-chosen comments, and their reasons why...
Is doing satisfactory work, but could do better.
     - "You can always try more."
     - "I am okay in reading, but I could look back in the text more."
Is not working up to ability.
     - "I could do a little extra."
Needs to listen and follow directions.
     - "Sometimes I need reminders to stay on task."
Needs to be prepared on a daily basis.
     - "I always forget my binder."
Is easily distracted.
     - "Sometimes I don't pay attention."
     - "I get distracted and off topic a lot."
     - "I just get off track. I have a short attention span."
Needs to improve organizational skills.
     - "Sometimes I can't find things in my ELA binder."
     - "My binder is a mess."  (So she took the time to organize it right then!)
Work is satisfactory, but could improve with less socializing in class.
     - "I sometimes talk a lot."
     - "I do talk in class, but my work still meets expectations."
Has some difficulty concentrating in class.
     - "Sometimes I get off task."
     - "Sometimes I zone off. I think I would do better by not getting distracted."
Greater care with assignments would improve performance.
     - "I know I can do better with some things."
Has weak grammar skills.
     - "Sometimes I rush through things and don't use my grammar skills."
Completes own work well, but is disruptive to others.
     - "I'm disruptive sometimes."
     - "I do complete my work, but I sometimes distract others when I'm done."
Completes work satisfactorily.
     - "I could do better."
Is attentive and a capable student.
     - "I know I can do anything if I try."
     - "I can do better, but I don't try."

Now these comments and reasons why are sent home to parents, so they can see their thinking and ask them about it, as well. They are not surprises to students when they get their report card, and they are not blown off... "Is a joy to have in class - I always get that one." (In fact, only a handful of students chose "Is a joy to have in class" this quarter!)

And then there's Jimmy.* He chose comment #80 - "Maintains on-task behavior." In ELA, Jimmy does all his work, participates in class, revises his writing, reads at home and at school... and he chose this comment, which I think is quite boring. I went through the list and checked off about twelve other positive comments from which he could choose. He tells me, "I was trying not to be too narcissistic." Gotta love seventh graders learning how to reflect! (I had to look up how to spell that one, too!)

*Jimmy is not his real name.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Seventh Grader Reflections - A Snippet

Just a snippet of two conferences I had with students regarding their grade for third quarter today... Just a reminder - we've had no grades/marks all quarter, and students need to give me their evidence for reading, writing, and grammar.

A conversation with "Lisa"*
Me - "Why do you think you earned a 'B' for reading?"
Lisa - "Well, my comprehension scores are 97% for literal, and 91% for inferential, but I only shared two of the five books I read this quarter."
Me - "What makes you think you have to share more than two?"
Lisa - "You said if we share books, it helps other students read them."
Me - "What stopped you from sharing them?"
Lisa - "I didn't really think anyone else would like the other three I read."
Me - "Do you think we should share books we don't necessarily like?"
Lisa - "I don't know."
Me - "I think it's valuable to share books you DO like. You show here that you read 30 minutes each night?"
Lisa - "Sometimes less, if I'm busy. But I always make up for it on the weekends."
Me - "I still don't understand why you think you earned a 'B' for reading. Your evidence proves otherwise."
Lisa - "A 'B+' then?"

Lisa is so hard on herself. She had THREE goals for next quarter, when she clearly earned an 'A' for reading, writing AND grammar. Her goals were very high, so we discussed making them manageable so she didn't stress herself out!

A conversation with "Kyle"
Me - "It says here that you believe you deserve an 'A' for grammar. I don't see any evidence listed. Let's write down the pieces you submitted for feedback and go over the feedback that was given. ... For each of your three pieces, the feedback was 'needs improvement.' Do you remember what that would be as a score in a 'typical' class?"
Kyle - "Um... maybe not good."
Me - "On a typical rubric, that's a D. So... you've got three pieces that show your grammar skills at a 'D' level right now."
Kyle - "I revised one a lot."
Me - "Yes. My notes say you revised this one three times. My notes also say that I asked you to look back at my feedback. You seem to have added MORE writing to the piece instead. Is there a reason you didn't follow my feedback to add capital letters and periods?"
Kyle - "I didn't really read it." (Kyle had asked for WRITTEN feedback instead of video feedback this past quarter. I gave him one sentence that showed where he was doing well, and one sentence that suggested a revision. This was in lieu of a 2-5 min video.)
Me - "So... (trying to not let my emotions show on my oh-so-transparent face)... Was a one sentence suggestion too much for you? Would you prefer the video feedback again?"
Kyle - "No. I just wanted to write more."
Me - "Writing more is not getting better at writing. In fact, you wrote more without adding any capital letters or ending punctuation. When did you learn how to capitalize names and the beginnings of sentences?"
Kyle - "Um... First grade?"
Me - "So... You wrote more - without adding any capitalization or punctuation. You didn't improve your writing. Revising is what helps you improve."
Me - "Let's regroup. Let's look at the evidence, and reflect more accurately now on what you think you have earned as a grade for grammar."
Kyle - "Um... A 'C'?"

Big sigh. Sitting with Kyle for double the time it should take to confer is a struggle. Not giving grades or marks throughout the year is one of the toughest things I've tried in my teaching career. Even though the struggle is real, I won't give it up.


This is one reason: Some students need a TON of practice reflecting. Some have either never had the chance before, or just simply need more practice. I'm definitely giving them the opportunity to practice.

There are oh-so-many more reasons. You can discover some of them in the video I share with parents, but today's conversations were a glimpse into one other huge reason. Reflection is a skill that needs to be practiced in school. I don't know how much it's happening in some homes.

*No doubt - the names here are fictitious.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Word Choice - "Let"

I follow a teacher who often says in tweets, "I let my students...(fill in the blank)."
It rubs me wrong each time I see it.

"Let" = "Allow" = "Permit" ... just seems so... bossy, I guess.

So... I wondered what teachers could use instead. I tweeted out for help:

Here are the responses I received, and my reflections...
Mr. Wolski went the student route. This makes sense, and when I cannot say something without precise language that makes me sound like I'm the boss, I ask students what they'd say.

Megan and Lorie suggested, "I provide opportunities for..." or "I encourage students to..." Ah... these sound more like what I'd want to say. This offers choice, as Mr. Wolski was saying, and also just makes me feel more at ease. Does it mean I'm a pushover? Does it mean we don't learn anymore in class? No. It's a simple shift in words that makes a huge difference in demeanor.

I'll be moderating #HackLearning on Easter morning (April 16th) at 7:30 am C.S.T. with the following questions, because they are on my mind DAILY:
And the call to action, which is something I struggle with daily:
Please join us, so we can learn all learn from each other!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Kids Deserve It!

I usually ask for teacher books as gifts or donations, but sometimes I WIN them before I can even ask for them! Hence the reason I was able to read Kids Deserve It: Pushing boundaries and challenging conventional thinking by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome before Christmas! David Karnoscak and I won our own copies at ICE17!   ;)

I was going to read one short chapter a day. Kind of like a devotional for a month. You know what happens when books have short chapters, though, right? Yup. I just kept reading. It was kind of like a James Patterson book with teacher ideas instead of mystery and suspense.

What I liked most about this book were the questions after each chapter. I'm a big question girl. One of the lessons I've learned from shifting the culture of my own classroom is to ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS. Let them percolate in your brain. The answers - or some semblance of an answer - will come.

Therefore, I share today my favorite questions from Kids Deserve It.

  • What's an idea you've wanted to try, but haven't?
  • How can we encourage more educators to connect outside their four walls?
  • What's the biggest fear holding you back from innovating?
  • What are some ways you've built deeper relationships and connected with kids?
  • Find one thing special about each child and celebrate them. (Not a question, I know!)
  • What needs to change in order for you to be a better leader?
  • When's the last time you chatted with a colleague about "wins" they've experienced lately?
  • How do you fight the feelings of doubt that creep up regarding your abilities?
  • How can we ensure we're making an impact that matters?
  • How can you turn negative comments you hear into positive messages?
  • What is your message?
  • What have you seen someone else do that you've been itching to you yourself? What's stopping you?
  • In what ways can you celebrate others more often?
  • How are you making school the best possible environment for kids?
  • When's the last time you built up someone you work with? Take time today.

I've tweeted them out, and I have a feeling I'll keep sharing them - to keep me and other educators push boundaries. Which questions make you think? Which questions will push you further? Which questions will you share with colleagues? Keep asking them. Our kids deserve it!
Feel free to share - it's encouraged!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seek Support

One of the lessons learned that I shared at the ICE conference the last two days was to seek support. Educators who are trying new things often feel alone.

At your own school...
     Who do you know at your own school who can help you with hardware? Software? Innovative ideas? Editing? Parents? Administration? School morale? Go to them - seek them out. Make the connections.

In your district...
     Who in your district is changing things for the better? Who is an inspiration? Who pushes you? Who supports you? Surround yourself with these educators.

On social media...
     When you stick you toe in, you'll find new ideas around every corner. After you're immersed in the deep end, you'll find that you're questioning others - and yourself. You'll be tired of the echo chamber, and you can now reach out towards people who push you further. These will be the connections that have the possibility to lead to big change in education.

The major benefit of seeking support is that you become more CONNECTED to educators who want to help. And then you get to MEET them in person and learn even MORE from them! This is when you do NOT feel alone - you get to be with your tribe!

I want to thank the following inspirational educators for the thrilling two days of learning and the filling up of my soul at the ICE 17 conference...

Amber Heffner - for the invitation to be a spotlight speaker! (And for all the nerves that came along for the ride!)

Jen Smith - for the nudge to update my profile picture, the eight bottles of water, the first dongle I tried, introductions prior to me speaking on Thursday, and for being my buddy and my "pusher" since 2012! Bonus: thanks for getting a Hokki stool to room 239, as well!

Carrie Baughcum - for the wholesome blossoming as a marigold for all educators. What a trip to hang out with you in what's become your element! How #HotSauceFantastic

Maureen Miller - for helping David Karnoscak and I win Kids Deserve It! (See my next post for lessons learned...)

Jen Vincent - for the second dongle - given at the drop of a hat!! - at the start of my first presentation.

Amy Lamberti - for the third - and final - dongle of the week. I just purchased my own today!

Dana Ladenburger - for being the catalyst to our "aha moment" at dinner (no, not the chili or the carding) and the beautiful sketchnote for my culture shift presentation, too!

Lindsay Zilly & Kristin Beeler - for the sketchnotes for one of my personalized learning presentations!

HS Senior who did not share his name - for coming up to me after one presentation and letting me know he thinks all teachers should hear my message.

John Wawczak for letting me know how much the LiveBinder has helped educators at your school. Just the motivation I need to keep editing it to make it better and easier for teachers and parents to use!

Catching up with so many fabulous educators! I started writing down all the familiar faces (Amanda, Heidi, Shawn, Jim, Traci, Joe, etc.) I was able to actually SIT with and chat, and then I lost the list!! UGH! I have no doubt that the person who found it will be following some stellar people soon. You know who you are! Thank you for making the connections again and swapping stories!

I'm so glad I got a chance to sit and talk a teeny bit with Steve Wick again, as well. His top tweets from ICE17 are here, and even though I didn't get to see his sessions, I know he always shares valuable information you can use TODAY! Next time I need to "relax" before I present, I'm checking out one of his myriad sessions!

My favorite tweets... that keep me inspired and ready to try to improve what's happening in schools!

I've had such support on this journey! Thank you to all the educators that continue to share online and inspire teachers like myself. Thank you to all the presenters I've ever seen in my career so far. I am so very fortunate to be able to learn from you.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bad Apples

Why do I always think of what to say once I'm away from the conversation? I hope to some day be able to stand up for ALL students at the moment it would make the most impact. I still have a long way to go. I recently heard someone talk about something that has made my stomach churn, and I wish I'd been able to say what needed to be said.

This person said something to the effect of...
"Sometimes there are bad apples in a class that can ruin the learning for the other children."

I could see what this person was talking about, but it was my position to listen and help, not correct. Next time I hear the phrase "bad apples" used in this context, I hope I have the strength to say the following...

These children you call "bad apples" are this way for a reason, and it's up to us, as their teachers, to find out why. 

Consider actual apples... 

~Some have not had the chance to mature quite yet. We need to allow them time to grow under out guidance and nurturing.

~Some have not had enough water or sunlight. We need to provide them nourishment.

~Some have been attacked by pests. This may leave scars. It is up to us to help those scars heal, and to look beyond them to see what else is inside.

~Some have been bumped and bruised. Why did this happen? It is up to us to find the reasons why, and to try not to let this happen again - at the very least while they're in our charge.

When it comes to the "good apples" in the bunch, consider what they can learn from those not as compliant (or perhaps not as fortunate) as themselves...

~At the very least, they can learn how to work with distractions. They'll most likely need to do this in the workforce.

~Better yet... (and the teacher should facilitate this)... they can learn to ask questions to get to know others better, and thus understand others better. It's called "empathy." Maybe once they reach out, they see what it's like in someone else's shoes, and possibly change a life for the better.

There are no "bad apples" in class. 

There are misunderstood children who have been managed instead of talked to. 

I hope, for everyone's sake, that if the teacher does not reach out, there are children in the class that will

Seek out the lonely children. 
Seek out the children who act out in class. 
Seek out those that "bring the class down." 
TALK with them. 
Discover their story. 
Nourish them by listening and attempting to understand. 
Help them grow. 
It's how we, too, grow.
It's part of being an educator. 
It's what we do.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Lessons from Five Years of Navigating Twitter

This February marks my fifth year of using Twitter!
Here are some lessons learned, in the order in which I learned them...

Lesson 1: It's all about the hashtags...
Those "number signs" attached to words help categorize tweets. You can search for teachers or ideas through hashtags, and you can ask your questions or share your ideas to a wider audience by using hashtags in your tweets. Check Cybraryman's pages for which hashtags might work for you.

Lesson 2: Act on Opportunities
My first edcamp was a result of a "chat" on Twitter - the date and place were tweeted out (Thank you, #EdCampOshKosh!), and I made a tiny vacation of it. What a difference it made in my teaching career! Take the opportunities that come across your feed - whether it's joining in a chat, heading to an edcamp, or submitting a proposal to present!

Lesson 3: Meet Educators Face to Face
The reason why the edcamp was so powerful was because I was meeting my PLN (personal learning network) face to face. These were REAL educators who wanted to solve REAL problems. These were not complainers - these people were DO-ERS. What inspiration!

Lesson 4: You Don't Have to Read All the Tweets
Meeting Karen Liernman (from British Columbia!) near O'Hare airport was enlightening. Here was this woman, not afraid to get in a car with me and head to dinner to meet two other teachers she'd never met! When I told her how difficult it was getting catching up with my feed every morning, she said, "You're still following your feed?" She proceeded to tell me all about Tweetdeck...

Lesson 5: Make Lists & Use Tweetdeck (or Hootsuite)
Your feed gets to be "too much" when you follow over 100 people (at least it was for me). Time to make lists... I currently have 71 (71??) lists... including middle school ELA teachers, teachers who provide time for Genius Hour, people I've met face to face, EdCamp friends, etc. This tool helps me stay organized! I use some of these lists as columns on Tweetdeck. Then I add columns for certain hashtags I'd like to follow, such as #ttog (teachers throwing out grades), #elachat, and my district's #d25learns. And, since I have some people I don't want to miss, I have a "first" list that's private to me. I check this column daily.

Lesson 6: It's Not about the Numbers
Although it makes a difference, it really isn't about the numbers. I say it makes a difference, because the more followers you have, the more chances you have of getting help with your query. But it's also true that the more hashtags you know how to use, the more answers you'll get, as well. (Again - you really don't have to follow ANYONE in order to learn from educators on Twitter.) If you have a TON of people following you ("TON" = this number is subject to your feelings; could depend on the day), they may reach out for help, and suddenly you've got a few side jobs. Think of it like this - you've had many people help YOU on Twitter, so the more followers you have, the more you may be helping other educators. It's these connections that truly make Twitter worthwhile for all educators. With a large amount of followers, you still need to be cognizant of your time management. That leads us to lesson seven...

Lesson 7: You CAN Take a Break
I've been cutting down on Twitter time this month, as I've got so much actual school work to do. I've also taken a week or two off of Twitter during vacations. It's okay to be immersed in a vacation! It's okay if you miss something. If it's valuable for others, it will make its way back around to you eventually. Sometimes I take a break to do other things that I don't HAVE to do (such as write this blog post). What if you don't respond to someone right away? That's okay, too. People should be aware that everyone has a life offline, and that life should come first.

Twitter is a TOOL. 
Make it work for YOU.

What lessons have you learned about using Twitter? Please respond in the comments below!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

How To... End the Quarter When You're Not Giving Marks

There are so many steps when you're teaching without marks. I only use narrative feedback as of this year with my 7th grade ELA students, so I needed to create a spreadsheet with the list of items that need to be done during the quarter and then what needs to be completed at the end of each quarter.

The spreadsheet is located HERE, and an explanation of how I use it is in the video below. It's long, and it's not perfect, but it's finished. I hope you can use it or the documents included to begin something like this with your own students!

One of my "geniuses" is being organized. (Thank you to Angela Maiers for asking me on a Skype call one time!) It takes some sort of organization to take on something like this. I've tried to make it easy on you, just in case you'd like to join me in this wonderful adventure...

My resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                    Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect
                                    My own reflections on this journey

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Challenge Your Own Ideas

I just finished reading The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening true story of a whiz kid and his homemade nuclear reactor, by Ken Silverstein, from 2004.

David Hahn lived in Commerce Township, MI (a suburb of Detroit), and loved science. He wanted to collect each element on the periodic table. He wanted to... well, you can tell by the title of the story. Feel free to read it for details, but this is not a book review.

This is what caught my eye, from my teaching viewpoint:
If he'd been interested, David would have found it a simple matter to learn about the cons as well as the pros of the atomic age. But as with newfound converts to any cause, David wanted his ideas reinforced, not challenged. Certainly, the Curies and some of the other nuclear pioneers had suffered as a result of their labors, but that hadn't kept them out of the laboratory. For David, as for his heroes, the thrill of discovery made worthwhile any risks. (p 56)
Myriad stories of nuclear disasters and failed breeder reactors later...
Hence, despite coming of age at a time in which all the assorted screwups and accidents of the atomic age had generated a powerful antinuclear movement, David remained comfortably cocooned within the confident optimism of the 1950s and 1960s. His passion for the atom was fueled by the conservative family and community environment in which he was raised, as well as a natural aversion to intellectual challenge (which does not bode well for a career in science). "I tried not to read anything that would disappoint me or make me negative," he said candidly of his research strategy. "If I knew it had a critical perspective, I wouldn't even pick it up." (p 133)
YES. I remember when I first started learning about Genius Hour, I would NOT look at any blog posts or articles that went against what I wanted to hear. After awhile, however, words written against this type of learning really stuck in my head. I started to leave comments on their blog posts, sharing my thoughts. I really didn't want to see what they wrote back, but gradually I became interested more in the conversation than the one-sided "echo chamber" that I had fallen into. I created a new tab on the LiveBinder for opposing views.

My seventh graders experienced something similar this week. No matter how much we stress that we discuss ideas so that we may LEARN from others, I have a few who believe in one way or the other and will NOT budge during a fishbowl discussion... yet. They do NOT want to hear the other side... yet. They say they are listening, and yet they keep going back to what they'd already said before, or they share more of their own ideas, not even taking time to acknowledge that someone else spoke. They wanted to continue the discussion in the next period because, "I just have one more thing I need to say."

My last class, however, came to find peace in their fishbowl discussion on Friday. They admitted that there are different perspectives, from different times in the story. I happened to catch it on camera.
After this was said, their discussion petered out, and they agreed to disagree, without any animosity afterwards. They're learning to accept different opinions - so difficult at this age. I have a plan to help my other two classes see different perspectives the next time we conduct a fishbowl discussion... I'll let you know how it goes in a future post!

As teachers, we NEED to research. It's our duty to seek the opposition. Seek out other educators who have tried what we want to try in the classroom. Read or hear their stories of triumph, and of failure. Read about successes they celebrated and pitfalls they endured.

I believe it's also our duty to share what we're trying, so we can INVITE opposition. I share with parents every two weeks (our class updates are here). When parents express that they are not happy about something I'm doing (or not doing) in the classroom and my ideas are challenged, I become more reflective. I see through another lens and question the ideas once again. I conduct more research. I ask more questions. When educators challenge my ideas on Twitter or on this blog, I can now see it as an opportunity to GROW.

Here's my challenge for you: Start a blog if you haven't already. Write about what's important to you. Share your ideas. Watch your reflection become more useful, and watch your ideas develop and change. Do not become like David Hahn - in jeopardy of hurting yourself or those around you. Share, and seek responses - positive or negative.

Ready to start your blog? Here are seven tools compared by Richard Byrne!

Monday, January 30, 2017


Talk. Talk. Talk.

So much negative talk on television. On Facebook. On Twitter.

It can get to me sometimes - I need quiet. Solitude. And then Monday rolls around...

How am I supposed to be my happy camper self around others when I'm so bummed by what I'm seeing on television and social media? First, I thank my parents for my first name, and then I do what I'm really good at - start a new day with a fresh perspective. This attitude has always helped me through what life may throw my way.

So what do I do? Well, first I tweet out what I think is a beautiful message...

Only it has a terrible error for an ELA teacher... SEW?!   REALLY, JOY?!?!   SOW!! SOW!!
I don't see it until I'm at school when I'm on the class Twitter account and see that my superintendent retweeted it! Yikes!! It has 30 retweets! Oh, my... there goes my reputation!

Anyway... I get to school and say "good morning" (with a smile!) to all I see. One response sets me back five paces, however...

"There's nothing good about it" is one response as this person continues down the hall, obviously not wanting to talk. Sigh. I'm back where I was Sunday night. Thinking about all the negativity.

Since I've resolved to try to complain less this year, I don't say anything until I confide in a friend at the end of the day. She listens (she's one of the best listeners I know!), and offers something to this effect... "Maybe there's something else in their life that really is getting them down."

Bam. It hit me. I should have listened. I should have not thought about my OWN thoughts. I should have turned around and followed this person and LISTENED.

I'm good at listening to students. They are my focus throughout the day. I need to truly listen to coworkers. If I want more for our world, it starts with listening. Why didn't I take my own advice and show kindness by simply listening?

I made up my mind to chat with this teacher tomorrow morning - to see if I can help in any way. Even if it's just to LISTEN.

More Here: 3 Reminders on How 'Just Listening' Is Sometimes the Best Approach
                   8 Ways Listening Leads to Learning

What Do "Real" Readers Do?

"How can we prove we're reading?"
A common question from students when you are not giving marks in an ELA class and students have to give evidence for their grade at the end of each quarter...

I began my first version of Genius Hour in 2012 because I was upset with how little my students were reading. Come to think of it, this was probably my first attempt at classwork without a grade attached, too. Instead of requiring a book project for ONE book a quarter (and many being able to get that "A" without actually READING the book), students were now reading what they wanted one day every week, and sharing what they read somehow (their choice). This was the first way I included independent reading DURING class. (It was my 15th year teaching, but only my 2nd year in an ELA classroom - forgive me for not including independent reading prior to this!)

This School Year...
Fast-forward, and my classes have no grades until they provide evidence to me at the end of each quarter why they should have a certain grade. I currently ask students to keep track of what they're reading on the in-class log we pass around each time we read independently in class (15-20 min a day). I take these home at the end of each Thursday and decide who I will have a conference with that Friday. (All other times, I'm reading alongside them.) These conferences could be to ask what they're reading at home (since the log shows they are NOT reading at home), to ask if they could give more book talks (as the log shows they are finishing books and not sharing them), or to ask them to challenge themselves or even a simple, "Have you read ___ yet?" The in-class log has proved to be valuable, and they pass it around (on a clipboard with attached pen) without much distraction each time we read.

They are not fans (yet) of keeping track on their own of what they're reading. They don't see the reasons why. I have provided a log for each student in the past, but it seemed a chore for them to write down what they finished, and what they abandoned. I never had a log when I was a student, and I've read about the negative effects of reading logs, so I don't require them to have one at this point in their lives. These logs were great to help me have conversations with students about what genres they enjoy, or encouraging them to branch out of their comfort zone, but the fact that it was a "chore" and that some students would lie on it was detrimental to the entire independent reading experience. What are our goals? Read MORE. ENJOY reading. That log did not help us reach our goals.

Some students feel fine speaking in front of the class. I record their book talks, add them to our Weebly here, and we're currently practicing giving feedback (that only I used to give) using this form. This feedback gets copied and pasted into the online grade book, so they receive same-day feedback and something to focus on the next time they share.

I ask students to provide evidence to prove that they are reading at least 20 minutes each day outside of class. The in-class log is the only resource we have right now that is a constant for all students. Then there are the students who don't mind giving book talks. My other students want to know what else they can use to prove that they are reading outside of class.

The true question I need to address, however, is this:
     How can students share what they're reading?

If they are sharing the books they love, they'll be proving that they're reading. More importantly, their peers will soon be reading those books. (That is the hope! That is the goal!) It's the great circle that gets them reading more and more. I am excited for students to add more books to their "to read next" lists! (Ahem - like "real" readers do!) So maybe the even BETTER question is...

What do "real" readers do?
     1) Being a "real" reader myself, I keep the books I've read in two places - a Google doc for each year (so I can keep track of my "gaps" - I still don't read "enough" mysteries), and on Goodreads, so I can keep track of what I've read - organized by categories I establish. (I also love Goodreads to keep track of books I WANT to read. My "to read next" list is on Goodreads, accessible from my laptop, iPad, or phone. I ask my students to create "to read next" lists - most are currently on the last pages of student binders.) Goodreads is not an option for many of my students, as they are not all yet 13. I've heard good things about BiblioNasium, and I've just created an account...
     2) As a "real" reader, I also blog about books I love. Sometimes I give a book review, other times a brief synopsis, and still others I blog about what I did as a result of reading the book.
     3) As a teacher / reader, I give myriad book talks, and share book trailers with my students.

Because I want my students to be life-long readers, I'm suggesting these
Blog (or Paper to post in the room)
     -Book reviews
     -Thoughts or actions after reading a book (reading response options listed below)
     -A letter to the author
Book advertisements
     -Movie clip / book trailer / commercial
     -Book talk (in class, or for announcements)
     -Book blurb right IN the book or ON the book, and put on a "student recommendations" shelf
     -"What I'm reading" - tape a picture of the cover of the book on their locker or on a wall w/their name & picture
Big Idea Notebooks
     -Thanks to Penny Kittle's Book Love, we have these themed notebooks to share our reading.
Reading Response Options
     -These are such fun for me to read, too! Students post these on our bulletin board (unless there's a spoiler...)
BilioNasium (or Goodreads!)
     -I will see what I can do to include this resource into our days.

How can I tie these into gamification? More points for more authentic audience reach, of course! 1st time advertisements get the most XPs (experience points). Too many students sharing about the same book gets old for students. I dabbled in gamification last year, and am willing to try again. I just REALLY want reading to be its own motivation. I know there will be seventh graders who do not love reading, so I'm keeping the gamification route open...

Thanks for the push from Sara Wilkie tonight, who shared with me Shaelynn Farnsworth's post on Alice Keeler's blog about "6 Alternatives to Reading Logs..." She's got more ideas here! Thanks to Sara, it was time for me to hit "publish" on this older draft! It doesn't have to be perfect to publish...!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Feedback In Lieu of Grading - Quarter Two

My reflection this quarter is for my students... I'd like to share with you your thoughts and suggestions, and how I'd like to proceed. Let's keep having the much-needed conversations about learning!

First class, block 2/4 Responses:

Let's address the concern in the last comment. (Yes, I moved the comments I wanted to address down to the bottom in each of these photos so I could see them better and be able to share them with you in order to write this post.) When we meet in our 1:1 (one-on-one) conferences, I let students know if I agree or not, and why. There were only a handful of students this quarter that I did not agree with, and those students didn't have evidence to support the grade they chose. In those cases, students created goals (or in some cases, we created small contracts) so that next quarter the student would be more accurate in his or her reflection. I also stated on those students' sheets that I did not agree and reasons as to why we had disagreements. In eleven (out of 67) instances this quarter did the final grade a student gave him or herself not match my own assessment of those students' reading, writing and grammar skills combined. The parents were made aware through the comments on our 1:1 conferencing sheets. I usually share something along the lines of "Your child was very reflective in his assessment of himself this quarter" or... "Your child and I disagreed on her grade for writing (or reading, or grammar), and have created goals to help her more accurately assess herself next quarter." Since we need to focus on learning, those eleven students have stricter guidelines now that, in fact, promote more learning through revisions or showing their skills during comprehension checks.

As a result of similar feedback from a parent last quarter, I added a small spot on our 1:1 conference sheet so parents would have a better idea of what I thought. Since I believe that school should be focused on learning, and that grades will reflect that learning, what I added was a reflection scale. This scale is to communicate to parents how reflective and how accurate student evidence was. I will continue to revise our 1:1 conference sheets to reflect parent and student suggestions.

Second class, block 5/6 Responses:

That last comment - "...sometimes I want to know what my grade is during the quarter..." Let's do it! Let's use the documenting sheets I provided each person, and figure out the midterm grade half-way through the quarter! The reason for creating the documenting sheets was so that students can pretty much always know what their grade is at any moment. Also, at any time during the quarter, you and I can meet to discuss the current evidence. Just ask!

Third class, block 8/9 Responses:
The last three comments here caught my attention. "It is challenging..." I like the challenge aspect - proving your claim is what so much of writing in our class is about. Proving it with evidence that students choose seems fitting for ELA class (and social studies, and science...)

The fact that "some students will truly benefit... and some will not because they will slack off" seems to be true for any type of grading.

"I prefer teachers grading us so that it is definitely the grade you are getting." Since we agree on a grade together, that is definitely the grade you are getting. If I truly disagreed with the final grade, I would intervene, parents would know I did not see the same evidence the student provided, and we would create a plan for the next quarter that would help the student be more reflective and accurate in his or her self-assessment.

Suggestions from all three blocks:

Line 2 & 9: Here are more writing prompts that you can use throughout the year. These are on our class Weebly under "Student Resources --> Writing Challenge" and also under "FAR --> Writing Guidelines." ;) It may seem as if I have not been giving more encouragement to write in class. I try to balance our reading with our writing, and it's always in my plans to provide more time for writing in class. Some students ask if they can write instead of read during independent reading time. That is an option for those who read on a consistent basis at home. You can always choose to write outside of class, as well. Add it to your independent reading practice at home.

Line 3: Let's remember to provide time IN class for this to happen. (Note: Some students already do this on their own.)

Line 4: I'm back and forth on "participation" points, as I've read a lot about introverts and how they are still retaining content from the class even without participating. Participating can cause introverted people actual, physical pain. We will have times when we need to present, but the culture of our classroom is trust, and I do not think it is fair to grade oral participation in this class.

Lines 5, 11, and 12: I will provide a mid-term check in this next quarter. We will use our documenting sheets to do so. This may be a good time for me to provide you with what I think your grade should be for reading, writing, and grammar at this point in time.

Line 6: Sorry. I have read too much research against traditional grading to go back now. Until our district uses standards-based grading, this system is more accurate and fair than how I used to grade.

Line 7: One time I made a change in a student's grade - by accident. I typed in the wrong letter on the wrong line. The parent gave me a heads up and I was able to correct it before it appeared on any final grade report. I have triple-checked our 1:1 conferencing sheets this time, so as to not repeat that error again (I hope!).

Line 8 & 10: I'm aware that for some students this type of grading can be "nerve-wrecking." I ask you this - can "traditional" grading also be nerve-wracking if you're at a 89.6% or if you have a test or a project due on the last day of the quarter? Use the documenting sheets to their full potential. They're with you so you know where you stand at any given moment and have more control of your final grade. Share more books with the class (orally or written) so you counter-act any "low" comprehension check data by proving you understand what you read. Submit more writing than is assigned so you have more choice as to what evidence you'd like to use for your writing and grammar portions of class.

I hope this is what students will feel by the end of this school year...

My resources so far: "FaR" tabs of our classroom Weebly
                                    Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder for parents to inspect
                                    My own reflections on this journey

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Going Places

I have a dear friend who lost her mom last week. My friend is the epitome of the word "woman" - strong, vibrant, and full of life. She joined the estimated 250,000 in the Women's March in Chicago this weekend. She posted a quote from her mom on her Facebook page the morning of the march.

Previously posted on February 3, 2012...

What if...?

It made me think of a conversation we had at lunch the day my friend returned to school. We were commenting on a video that had her youngest child in it. Her daughter, as we said, is "going places. She'll do whatever she wants to in life." We all nodded, and I thought of my friend as I saw her agree, as well. Guess what? SHE, too, is "going places." She has done, and can do what she wants to do in life, as well.

She's in her 30s, and found her loving husband in the science department. She has worked tirelessly to achieve her doctorate. She is currently raising four children, and works way more than 40 hours a week. She is a leader in her department, and on her team. Her voice is valued in any committee or meeting she may join. She is looked up to by many. Some day, I fear, she will leave us for what she wants to do next - whatever that may be. She can do whatever she wants to in life - she is that kind of woman.

Next, I thought of all the other women and teachers I surround myself with. So many of them (us) are "going places," and doing what we want in life. Why do we sometimes feel as if we aren't? I believe it's the words we hear...

"She dresses like a teacher."
"She teaches middle school."
"She has children."

These three sentences could be translated like this:
"She's a hero."
"She's a hero."
"She's a hero."

Why don't some of us hear those words in our heads? I have realized I'm a fairly insecure person. I've been trying to "fake it 'til I make it," but it's a daily struggle. I know if I act confident enough, my students will believe I am confident, and I will be a better role model for them. So I continue to share what we do in the classroom that I believe is right for students. I continue to share others' ideas in order to give them a voice. I continue to be that person that quotes leaders and inspirational people.

Because we NEED the positive words in our lives. We NEED the support.

If you don't already, start leaving the room when the negativity seeps in. Smile, and then excuse yourself. If the meeting or family time has turned into a complaint fest, either try to offer a solution, or find those who will work with you on one. "Leave the darkness behind..." We are what we speak. If we sow seeds of what we CAN be, the fruit will start to grow. Focus on "hope and peace, empathy and kindness..." We need to start with ourselves.

What if we did "live in the light..."? Change your inside voice to say, "I am going places. I have already succeeded in my life. I am ready for more success. I am open to new ideas and insights. I am a hero to my children. I am a hero to my students. I spread good messages. I speak with kindness and compassion. I am an ear if someone needs me. I am passionate. I am confident. I am qualified. I am determined. I am strong. I am able. I am blessed."

Don't let those whispers of doubt in.
You can't think negatively and expect to live a positive life.

After the march, my friend said she felt "empowered."
Shouldn't we all? At all times? Don't we have a choice to be what we want to be?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Made with Fotor

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Whispers of Doubt"

I was fortunate to meet and eat with Sara Donovan at Panera last summer. She chooses her words well, and I envy her skill. Read her thoughts on her blog: Ethical ELA.

Three words she said to me rang something deep in me. 
"Whispers of doubt." 
I wrote them down when I got in the car. I needed to process them and write about them some day. Today's the day.

Whispers of doubt seep in...
   when we try something new
   when we want to say "no"
   when a "good morning" is not responded to
   when a student rolls her eyes
   when students struggle
   when the timing is off
   when a coworker sighs
   when we feel alone
   when we don't feel we can commit
   when we work for 12 hours on a weekend
   when we get one negative parent remark 
          (even alongside six positive)

Whispers of confidence creep up...
disguised as an EdCamp
full of passionate teachers
   foster parents
supportive - ALL...
If it's best for children.

If it's best for children,
shouldn't you...
   make time for what you believe works
   stand up and defend what's right
   speak out to the world
   share the ideas
   work on prioritizing the problems
   then work on solving the problems
   speak what you want to happen
   listen when others share

Even if you have whispers of doubt.

I love my career. Job. School. Coworkers. 
I wish we could get together in edcamp fashion more often.
I also love these "edcamp junkies" who are a special tribe.
Thank you Rebecca, Carrie, Maggie, Ben, Josh, Megan, Andrea, Michael, Heidi, Aggie, Ashley and Chuck Taft ;) for another stellar #EdCampMadWI
I am blessed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Will They Work?

January and February in seventh grade... I think these are the two months students work the least. If I remember correctly (and I think there's something that helps me forget every year), these are the two months that we think "seventh graders just don't care about their grades." (Heck - even with Genius Hour! Have you seen Karl Lindgren-Streicher's "The Suck"? It was written on this date in January, two years ago!)

Well, in a no-grades classroom, they seem to care even less.

Because really, they're coming up with their own grade, right?

Yes... and no. Yes, in our ELA class, they tell me what grade they believe they've earned for reading, writing, and grammar, and then average these. (I know - still not a perfect system!!) However, they have to give evidence for each, and also set goals for the next quarter. These goals will be reflected upon and used towards their grade in the next quarterly conference.

I often hear doubt when I talk about not having any grades in the gradebook until progress reports come out. "Why will they work if they don't get a grade for it?"

And THIS is why I went all in - because many seventh graders WON'T work if they're not getting a grade for it - in a TRADITIONAL classroom that includes points for large and small assignments. 

Thank goodness I do not have a traditional classroom.

If we don't stress *** and follow through *** that it's all about the learning, they will not work (as much). How can we mean that it's all about the learning if we're assigning points?

I'm preparing to write on our walls. Yes, write on our walls. The cement blocks, to be exact. (I received permission last year and will this year be brave enough to do it!) We're going to create reading goals that will take us into June. We'll paint our progress towards our goals on the cement blocks. (In fact, I just found a great ONLINE tool to do so! Check out this spreadsheet via Flippity!) My seventh graders don't think that our homework to read for 20 minutes a night is as important as their other homework. I know this and am reminded of this weekly when I sit with students and talk about their reading during tiny conferences on Fridays.

So what do I do? I go back and talk about the importance of reading. I go back over the reasons WHY we should read every day. Today I did it via Penny Kittle's way in Book Love. During our reading time in class, we took down the pages we read in ten minutes, then did the calculations listed here.
After we did some math in ELA class, we reviewed again just WHY we should be reading.

We need to have a rock-solid WHY, so when students struggle with the HOW, they have motivation to put forth more effort.

Sure. Some of my students won't do the work - regardless of whether there is a grade attached or not. That won't stop me from striving to get the message of WHY out to each child I meet - so we use our 180 days to talk about LEARNING, and not spend any time talking about points or grades.

In the comments, please share the ways you motivate your students to learn - especially if you're going sans grades!