My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve our lives through research based on our interests. What will we learn? What message will we share? This is a log of our learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Benefits of Comprehension Checks in a "No Grades" Classroom

They are not called quizzes in a "no grades" classroom. They are called by their purpose - to check comprehension. They also do not have the downfalls of typical quizzes. They do NOT affect a student's grade.

The first comprehension check I passed back had mixed responses from students.

     "I thought you said you weren't going to grade us."      (I'm not.)
     "Does this go in the grade book?"      (As a comment.)
     "Will we have more of these so I can raise my grade?"      (Yes... and no.)
     "Can I retake this?"      (No.)
     "What does this mean?"

The first comprehension check had five questions. In my spreadsheet, these were the possible comments students received in the online grade book:

Yes. It looks like a mark, but it does not get computed in the gradebook.

As a result, it is ONLY INFORMATION. It is feedback for the student and parents.

As a result, we had a valuable conversation about literal vs. inferential questions.

As a result, students were curious about why they had one or more wrong.

As a result, their final grade does not get knocked down a notch (or boosted).

As a result, students read more closely the next time we had a comprehension check.

As a result, students were not inclined to cheat.

As a result, students do not groan when I hand them out. They know they are checking their comprehension on this one piece of text. They do not have to use this piece for evidence in their final grade if they have better evidence from which to choose.

As a result, I have never given so much formative assessment. I used to despise how it kept raising some grades and kept knocking down others. I felt guilty putting the grades in the grade book. Now I truly view it as formative assessment in its pure form.

Three comprehension checks later...

I am "grading" the four literal questions. The backside of some students' work was not completed. One wonderful benefit of this type of learning - I do NOT feel guilty marking it as "2 out of 4 literal questions answered correctly." Students will know it is because they did not follow the directions.

Hopefully, as a result...  they will follow directions more closely next time. In ALL of their classes.

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, October 2, 2016

Grade Book Help for Parents - Without Grades

Help for parents (and students)!

I've created a video helping parents see how their child is doing in ELA class - without any grades in the online grade book! I hope this helps parents better understand the system (which will be constantly evolving, I'm sure).

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Parent Questions

I'm starting to get parent questions - our fifth week in of school.

Image from Pixabay
I need to create a Frequently Asked Questions page for parents to help them understand our "feedback and revisions" (AKA "no grades") system. Sure, I've got pages on our classroom website here and here and myriad blog posts about it here, but the answers to the questions they're asking are not there.

It's time to create a new page of FAQs and answers.

What would YOU ask if you knew your child was going to have to give evidence for his or her own grade? The FAQs page is coming soon - after I read and provide video feedback on 62 more pieces of writing this week. In my spare time...

Oct 1, 2016 Update: Here is our FAQs page!

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, September 11, 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name...

I'm not going to call our time "Genius Hour" this year.

Catalysts for this change:

  • No longer will we have one day (= one hour) a week dedicated to this time.
  • Last year, my priority was getting this whole "no grades" routine to work, so I feel that our Genius Hour time suffered as a result. I need a fresh start, with a new focus, so it is more successful for more students this year.
  • I needed to move this time to the end of the quarter, so I could have time for conferences with students about their choice of final grade, and look through the evidence they'll have collected. The time allotted students will still be the same amount.

What was NOT a catalyst of this change - the name "genius." I've written about it before, and still stand by these ideas. I do believe you have to buy into a name before you can expect students to do the same, so this was a difficult endeavor for me.

So, after scouring this page on the LiveBinder for other people's ideas (yes - I not only curate ideas on that behemoth of a binder for parents and teachers, but for myself as well), I've decided on "Independent Inquiry." I'm wondering why it wasn't already on the list! We're going to break the year into four different Independent Inquiry projects. Quarter 1 will be focused on creativity - and may end with the Cardboard Challenge. I'm not sure of the date for it yet, or how it will come about, but I'm going to try and see if students can focus on creativity. Quarter 2 will be focused on teaching their own talents, or teaching a new skill. Quarter 3 will focus on a 20-day challenge, or ways to improve ourselves, and Quarter 4 will be more wide open. Hopefully students will be able to use something from their "wonders" that we'll be accumulating through our articles of the week. All of these are very, very sketchy plans, and I'm ready to change them when I see a different idea I can steal! (Comments below are ALWAYS welcomed!!)

Since the focus will be the last two weeks of each quarter, plans will be structured differently, and hence the different themes, if you will, for the learning focus. I do not have it planned out yet, but my goal is that it be structured as such: A mini lesson / reason for learning each day, then time to work independently. Each day will also include a reflection or exit slip. The last day or two of the quarter will be reserved for sharing our learning.

Whatever the focus will be - it will be based on student curiosity.
Whatever the focus - it will be independent for the most part.
Whatever the focus - my goal will still be to encourage students to be life-long learners.
Whatever the focus - students' ideas will be honored and celebrated.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Introducing Feedback in Lieu of Grading to 7th Graders

One full week of school was finished. This was the year I was not going to put one grade in the "grade" book until the end of each quarter - with EACH of my ELA classes! I'd already put in two pieces of evidence in the online grade book - with feedback on enunciation and volume (from their short presentations) such as these:

There had been no talk of grades yet - we were building classroom culture! It was time to let students know that there would be NO GRADES in the online grade book this school year, as I felt I needed to give a heads up to parents prior to Parent Night. How I would approach the subject took some planning, as I wanted to make sure students knew WHY we were going this route.

Step 1: Let students know we need to have a serious discussion. In order to have the discussion as a large group, we need to first hash out how each person feels by having smaller discussions - where every voice can be heard. Show them how "Marker Talk" ("Chalk Talk" from Making Thinking Visible edited by Ron Ritchart) works, and show them what valuable comments and not-so-valuable comments look like for this activity. Inform them that after this quiet activity, everyone will have time to voice their questions and concerns with the class.

Step 2: Execute the Marker Talk activity. I used these four questions: What do you think about coaches? What do you think about learning? What do you think about points on school work? What do you think is unfair about grades? I put these questions on large pieces of construction paper so that students could write around them.

Step 3: Bring everyone together - no tables or chairs - all on the floor in a group. Display the construction paper discussions on the board. Share Dylan Wiliam's ideas about feedback.

Step 4: Ask how this idea relates to the questions they were asked during the Marker Talk activity.

Step 5: See where the discussion goes, and address concerns and questions... And hand out these two sheets to help us keep track of what we've done, what we've asked feedback for, and what we'd like to keep for evidence.

The first two classes before lunch were so quiet! One student "wants grades." One student figures after he gets three pieces of writing back that are good, he's done working for the quarter. One wonders if she'll have help along the way, so she can get the grade she wants.

I AM SO EXCITED. I recorded reactions, but my last class gave me this priceless screenshot from the video - right after I said I would not be putting any letter grades in the grade book...

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

Monday, August 22, 2016

Be Your Best

The humidity had broken. It was 60 degrees, sunny, and the moon was still out on my morning walk. Watching a plane leave O'Hare - against the blue of the sky and alongside the sun, I thought back to the days without a plane in the sky. Thoughts of the last children's book about 9/11 I'm reading this summer (Eleven by Tom Rogers) came to me, and I wanted to get back home to finish it today. As I rounded the corner, I noticed the backpacks. Oh, my! School has started for District 214, and students of all shapes and sizes were walking to Elk Grove High School. I slowed my pace so I wouldn't pass them up, knowing that I was probably more of a happy camper than they were. I wondered about their day ahead. Their youth, their fears, their friends, their classes... I even took a picture and put it on my Instagram account, wondering how my own previous students would spend their first day in high school.

The kids veered off into the parking lot behind the school while I walked further along the sidewalk bordering the school. Minivans and SUVs were in line to drop off their children in the front of the school. Where were the buses? Do they come earlier? Traffic was horrendous, and I wondered if they'd let me cross to the other side. I did get across safely, and then continued to walk the sidewalk on the opposite side of the front of the school. I noted to myself to never go East on Elk Grove Blvd on a weekday morning! Cars were backed up, then many made u-turns to get back on the main road. More cars started appearing from side streets - high school kids with their licenses and "new" cars with their loud mufflers. I wondered if this was the way of the mornings to come, or if there was any other system. I had to cross a small road that led into the side of the school lot. The next car in line (looked to me to be a high school student, but I'm no good with ages - it could have been a brand new teacher) let me go, and I waved a thanks.

I crossed, heard the revving of yet another engine and then BOOM! I found my hand covering my mouth in surprise as I turned and saw the car that had let me pass had hit another one in this intersection leading into the school. Ugh. Cue stomach drop. Since I didn't see the accident, I didn't cross to the other side to help - there were already many in line who had seen what had happened, and I would be a hinderance.

As I continued my walk, questions bombarded my brain...
  • How will those drivers' days go as a result of this?
  • What will this do to their attitude at school (as a student? as a teacher?)?
  • How will this affect their families?
  • Do they have insurance?
  • Who was at fault?
  • Will they be without transportation for a bit?
  • How long will it take them to get through the paperwork and into school?
  • Will the staff scold them when they walk in?
  • Will they remember their schedule or locker combination? (I STILL have these dreams!)
  • Will their teacher give them "the look" when they appear well after the first bell?
  • What will the other drivers' (now waiting for a clear path out of traffic) days be like from here on out?
  • Will they be late for important meetings?
  • What will this do to their attitude at their jobs?
  • What will the parents say to the kids when they got home?
  • Who will judge all those affected as a result of their attitude this morning?
  • What other repercussions will come of this one incident?
Too many questions to list.
No answers. Just speculation.

I looked around and tried to soak up this last Monday of my summer. I saw a bicyclist, and even a unicyclist heading to EGHS. I saw a few more stragglers walking. Turning the corner towards home, traffic just kept coming. I wondered, as my husband and I often do, "Where are all these people heading?" They all have a so many stories. I wonder what has already happened to them this morning that will affect their day ahead?

If you're getting ready for the year to start, or you're in your first, second, third week already, or even if you're "down under" and have been teaching for a few months in this school year already, you've got lots of plans. You've got so many stories to share. Your head is full of ideas. You've had many things happen TO you, and have reacted in many different ways. There is one thing we need to make sure we do in school. Every day. For the kids, and for the adults just the same. No matter what our own day is like.

Just be your best.

It's all we can do. We cannot always know when an accident has happened in the morning. We cannot always know when a beloved pet has died. We cannot always know when a child has written a note that explains why he doesn't want to live another day. We CAN - be our best. For everyone we encounter.

How do we do this? I have three ideas, knowing I'll fail at these throughout the year, but I'll keep coming back to them as reminders, and I'll keep practicing. It's all I can do.

Suspend judgment.
Ask, "How can I help?"
Let others know they matter.

What will you do today - and tomorrow - to be your best? Please comment. In this crazy world, we all need all the help we can get, and we are better together.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Recording Booth

All too often we want students to record in class. How can this be done without asking them to work in the (busy) hallway not under supervision? It's time to make a recording booth for INSIDE the classroom! My husband is the man in my life who can make (and fix) ANYthing. Thank you, Bob, for helping make this small dream come true for our 7th graders!


  • 5 pieces of acoustic tile, 12 inches square (I found 6 pieces for $16.99 on ebay.)
  • Thick cardboard (Bob has ours saved in the attic from the washing machine back in 2014.)
  • Box cutter
  • Packing Tape


  • Design it so it's 12 inches tall and deep, and 16 inches wide, with the front (12 x 16) open. (Easier said than done, I know. Bob is the expert I go to.)
  • Cut, bend, and tape.
  • Stuff in acoustic tile.
  • Place an iPad in it.
  • Begin recording!

Voila! Half an hour's work in the living room on a Saturday! As Ryan O'Donnell pointed out to me in a tweet, it will reduce ambient noise, provide personal space, and give a sense of professionalism.  I'm excited that the scholars in room 239 will be able to use this recording booth for book talks, reflections, movie making, and more!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Does AdSense Make Sense?

When ads began appearing at the bottom of posts of educators I respect, I got turned off.

When ads began appearing on posts of educators who had just recently begun blogging, I was put off even more.

When teachers ask me to retweet their request for Donors Choose, I have to decline. It's one of my unwritten personal policies for how I use Twitter.

I'm not in it for the income. I'm in it for the outcome.
These are the thoughts running through my mind this morning. I have not promoted anything on Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram, or my blog that I have not read, questioned, or supported. I do not put requests on Donors Choose for my own students, as my district is fairly affluent and I do not want to take away from those who are struggling. I have donated to Donors Choose, and been rewarded knowing that I could help in small ways. These are all personal preferences everyone has to consider in their careers - whatever background we come from or circumstance we're in currently.

So seeing the ads on other blogs, although they turned me off, the message of the educator posting their thoughts was more important to me. I could overlook the ads. I have no clue why they added advertisements (that this world already has so much of) to their posts, but I realize it's a personal preference. Yes, they may lose some readers, but they didn't lose me. I know how to skip over the distraction. I've often wondered if AdSense would ever make sense to me.

Then it came to me today - I've learned how to skip over the distraction pretty well! How many of us who use tech daily have learned this skill?

It also came to me - I don't need the money that might come from having ads, but I could use it to help OTHERS. What if...

So I've decided. I, too, will add to the list of myriad educators who are adding advertisements to their posts. I am going to do this for GOOD. I resolve to donate any earnings generated (I have no clue how little or large they will be) from AdSense back into education. I will use any funds earned to help teachers on Donors Choose, to donate to schools themselves, or other causes for education that I believe in. Perhaps I can use the funds to help classroom libraries grow, or to give backpacks to those without, or to support children with no access to technology at home.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hacking Literacy - My Take Away

I am on Gerard Dawson's (High School English teacher) email list to get updates to his blog, so I was able to get a PDF copy of Hacking Literacy before it was published! I then proceeded to read this gem in two days...

The first three hacks (focus on the reader, develop a reading culture, and develop a classroom library) assumed that the teacher is a reader him/herself. I almost feel that a chapter was missing - how to read A LOT as a teacher. If teachers who are non readers (of children's / YA literature) actually read this book, they may get the hint that it's pretty imperative they start reading children's books. These three hacks validated what I've been trying to accomplish in my ELA class, and would benefit those who are on the edge of turning their classroom reading culture around.

The fourth hack - Implement Assessments that Build Community - is where, suddenly, my brain began thinking, "What if?" If you've been following my blog at all, you'll know I'm focused on feedback instead of grading. How DO teachers assess independent reading? How can my students use their independent reading to prove that they're learning? As Gerard was talking about the various ways students can share their reading with the class, I nodded my head as I notice familiar ideas, such as Penny Kittle's Big Idea Books, book talks, book reviews, and so on. I then added some of the ideas to the document I'm going to give students next year to keep track of their writing, grammar, and reading comprehension. This portion looks like this:
I then had an "aha" moment! I am so focused on feedback - how can I make it easier for me to give specific feedback about what students did well sharing publicly, and on what they can improve? Create a simple Google Form to fill out! So... I did. Here is my first attempt at creating a form that I can use to quickly check off boxes that apply to students sharing their books publicly - whether it's a book talk, video, on Instagram, etc. - Feel free to copy it and make your own!

What makes me geeked about this form is that I can copy and paste the information as a narrative into the online gradebook as feedback for my students. I'm excited for this short cut! The more feedback students receive on the books they share, the more they may try to improve by sharing even more books with their peers.

As the author states... "Building a culture of readers is not easy. It takes time, patience, and consistent application of effective strategies ... It means empowering students to manage their own learning and measure their own progress. As the teacher releases rigid control and invites students to collaborate in building a culture of readers, the energy of the classroom transforms itself..."

Monday, July 25, 2016

Feedback in Lieu of Grading in ELA

The link to this video will be sent home with parents, to help explain our grading in ELA for the 2016-2017 school year.  See this video and my full philosophy at our classroom website here.

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, July 24, 2016

Boston Full

I have one of the best lives... I was able to make it to Boston for the third time in my life this past week. (My lessons learned from the other three trips are posted under the tag "BLC.") It may seem sad to some, but Alan November says we need help if we think of BLC as a vacation...! We love learning from other passionate teachers, and I have found many people from my tribe here. Of course, Hubby came along and enjoyed the history of Boston - and helped me brush up on history lessons my own teachers didn't make stick!

I'm just going to share quick take-aways, or this post would be ten times as long... I'll try to not share all the great stories, but if you want to hear them, let me know!

Tuesday -
My Passion-Based Learning (Genius Hour) workshop this year had 19 participants! Oh, it was so great to have many voices sharing with each other. I enjoyed the four hours, and felt I was able to convey many messages, and share the myriad resources I've collected. Let me know if I can host this workshop somewhere near you! I've been invited back for next year, so put it on your calendar!

We then spent many hours in the North End! Cannoli, "One if by land...," a peek at the water, and a talk with a mailman about the relay boxes still in use.

Tuesday evening was a quick meeting for presenters... here are some of the presenters at this conference: Kathy Schrock, Kathy Cassidy, Kristin Ziemke, Karen Lirenman, Joyce Valenza, Reshan Richards, Laine Rowell, Amy Burvall... How did I get here?!

Wednesday's keynote -
Dr. Eric Mazur - Ask students to apply concepts, to DO the teaching, and get out of lecture mode as quickly as possible. He shared a great tool - Perusall - that ANY teacher who uses text in their teaching can use, as long as students have tech at home (or give them time in school).

Wednesday's sessions -
After the keynotes I presented twice today - and I learned from my audience! Mary Lou Buell came up to be at the end of my sessions, and thanked me for sharing the struggles I've encountered with Genius Hour, including the parent that thought it was "crazy," the students that hurt your heart because they'd rather "learn from the teacher," and the teachers who ostracize you. I was also very fortunate to meet and chat a tiny bit with Michael Albert (Al?!), as well - he's the only one in his school who's trying Genius Hour, and he, too, has the same issues. These are my people!

I needed a way to advance my slides on Google presentations, and I hadn't purchased a clicker. I downloaded and worked with Demobo at home. It didn't work on game day. My phone did not like the same wifi that my laptop liked. I asked Brian Mull what he used in his presentations, and then ordered this clicker before Friday's keynotes. Another issue I had was that my videos didn't stream beautifully the first round, but worked fine during my second hour. I received a tip from Jim (tech help!) I can use next time - download the videos first onto my laptop. (I hope I can do this with my two videos from TubeChop, as well.)

We then spent many hours at Fenway... what a blast! Red Sox won big against San Francisco.
Big Papi
Thursday's keynotes -
Prior to the keynotes, I was able to chat with Sylvia Tolisano once again - she updated me on her amplifyEDucation site - such possibilities!

Homo Sabet Tavangar - I need to find out where her grandparents are from - she told us an amazing story of their rebellious acts that led to her mother and herself being able to read and succeed. We need to learn other people's stories from around the globe so we can promote empathy.

Mike Pennington - He's a "wasabi mix of all the people's ideas here... at BLC." YES! Aren't we all a mix of the people who we surround ourselves with? After a shooting at his school, Mike started worrying so much about his students' frustrations that his teaching took a nose dive. After a few more months of dealing with this stress, he decided he had to move on and become an administrator. My take-away: Teach kids to notice and create perspective. Every child will struggle. Let them struggle, and teach them how to overcome struggles that they will encounter.

Kristin Ziemke - Listen to children. You need to know what's going on in their lives so that they can actually learn when they're with you. First grader Diego's blog post and father's response meant that they "preserved our next 7 hours" of class together, as Diego's fears were alleviated. What are our students thinking while we just go on with our curriculum? Even I was worried about when/where I'd get lunch on this full day! Destiny, another of Kristin's students, came up with this six-word story after reading about Ruby Bridges - "Segregation seems like it's never-ending." LISTEN to children's stories. They can teach US every day.

Jordyn Zimmerman - Attends Mentor HS in Ohio. Before attending Mentor, she'd previously struggled throughout her educational career at other public schools. Jordyn has autism, and has difficulty expressing her thoughts through speech. She has since been introduced to an app on her iPad that can help her communicate. She used this app to give her presentation. Some of her speech is on this Periscope, but the tears in the audience and the standing ovation proved how moving her message was. I had a tough time when she said she was suspended multiple times and then moved to a new school where she was being asked to touch her nose and head and given candy if she complied... This was AFTER she had mastered certain skills at her schools. She shared about many of her feelings in school, which were mostly a "combination of anger and devastation." Her five lessons for teachers: 1. Students want to learn. 2. Don't assume you know how your students feel or what they think. 3. Have high expectations for ALL students. 4. Always be kind. "Special" should never mean "separate." Say hello in the hallways, even if you don't know the student or the student doesn't respond. 5. Know one way or another, you will be a part of your students' lives forever. I was fortunate to thank Jordyn in person at the airport. She needs to know she matters!

Again and again, we were reminded of the significance of practicing empathy in our schools. I had a good cry with Rik Rowe after these four speeches!! Oh, so great to see this friend in person once again. Lesson - Take TIME to talk with children and listen to their stories.

Thursday's sessions -
Aaron Polansky - GeekSox: Beyond the Curriculum - When we focus on connections, test scores improve. Connection drives attendance and learning. The most important letters are: R. U. O. K. ? He told us about a freshman's story of eating by himself, and what his school did about it. In his school, they have three rules - Be kind. Be honest. Improve the situation. We should all walk around with bags over our heads so that we judge people by the exchanges we have, not by how they look. May your insides always outshine your outsides. (Our outsides could change in a moment.) When fear stops showing up in your life, it's because you are nearing your true self. ~Brendan Burchard. Treat people as if they're good. ~Todd Whittaker

Starr Sackstein - Empowering Learning Through Mastery - I'm on the right track. Others feel the "fingernails on a chalkboard" when they are surrounded by teachers who still use points as punishment and rewards. We come to BLC and are surrounded with teachers "just as crazy as us," and teachers who deal with the same struggles. Dan Welty and Rik Rowe were in this session - my tribe!

Brian Mull - Making Thinking Visible with Nearpod - I can now see the uses of this tool and would love to try to implement this type of instant feedback in class! I'm also thinking of using this in my next workshop or sessions on Genius Hour.

Sara Wilke - Q2 - Don't have "bogus inquiry" lessons - give students time to pursue what they want to know! Books to read: Make Just One Change, A More Beautiful Question, Blink, and Thinking - Fast and Slow. We go too fast. Stop. Listen. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Sara led this the way we should lead all sessions - if we want our students to learn / do in a certain way, our leaders need to do the same. I need to learn how to incorporate more DOING in my one-hour sessions about Genius Hour.

Friday's keynotes-
Bob Goodman - Get there early! (And borrow furniture!) Do not deny students science and math.

Linda Liukas - There is always something else to get excited about! Girls can do anything! Linda's character Ruby teaches kids about coding! Computers can never give an opinion or have a feeling.

Then it was time to go home... and I was drained. (And FULL!)

My big take away...
This year will be my best yet. I've come to realize my angst doesn't come from the classroom very often. Yes, I struggle with many things, but I see those as challenges, and I work on decreasing those struggles. My true angst comes from teachers (who are never IN our classroom) who don't think what I'm doing is right, or even best practice. I realized this week that I haven't taken the time to sit with them and explain the reasons WHY I still have Genius Hour or WHY I'm not grading my students' work and only giving feedback instead. That's on me. I cannot expect them to buy in to ideas or think I'm sane if I don't take that time to explain. I focus on the reasons why in the classroom so students can buy in, but I haven't done so with teachers in my own school. Instead, I react - and often with frustration. I know I let other people's opinions get to me. I have for years. It's become a habit. Well - I'm ready to break that habit. I am doing what I'm doing for the KIDS, and not to please the teachers. My goal for the upcoming year? When working with adults, do what I do with my students: Listen first. Take the time to process. Take the time to plan what I'm going to say, if anything. Say what I hear them expressing, then say what I feel/need slowly, and perhaps in question format to get them thinking further. If I cannot do this, I will ask that we finish a discussion on another date, so we all have time to think about certain aspects of it for a bit more.

One theme I work into my workshop = Let It Go. I advise participants to do what you know is right for the kids, even if other teachers ostracize you. I will be taking my own advice. I will work to find the balance, so that I do not end up being one of those veteran teachers who hide in her room all day and stop talking to anyone because we don't see eye-to-eye. Instead, I would still like to be a person who leads by example, and question other ideas. If other teachers are condescending and are open to discussion about the reasons why, I'm ready and willing to take time out of our busy days to share. If not, I'll just let it go, and be happy I'm able to do what I can to make my classroom culture of trust and inquiry thrive.

Find all of the session notes here.

Want my tweeted notes? There are some gems / quotes in my notes here in Storify.

Thank you to November Learning and administration in my district for supporting me on this journey! I've been asked to come back to host another workshop next year, and if you need a nudge to begin something like Genius Hour, I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Who Teaches YOU?

Getting my haircut today, I had to ask: "Who does YOUR hair?"
Hairstylist - "One of the gals here."

A couple of months ago, I asked my massage therapist, "Who gives YOU massages?"
Therapist - "Before I hire new therapists, they have to give me a massage."

Got me thinking... I teach 7th graders. Who teaches ME?

This summer, I've pruned my PLN a bit. I've made sure to center around those that teach me. And it's made me feel much better. Much like my hair cut today...

You may not be able to see the difference, but I can feel it. It's the same during the school year...

Tomorrow, I'm heading to my first #PatioPD, thanks to a generous teacher who likes to try new things and learn from others. How else do I make sure those that impact my teaching get my attention? I use a tool such as Feedly to follow their most recent blog posts. I put them on my "first" list on Twitter, so I'm sure to catch their good vibes (tweets). I check on the hashtags they're using so I can "hang out" (virtually) with those other teachers who have growth mindsets. These people teach me by being great role models, and I learn invaluable lessons from them that, in turn, impact my students.

So... who teaches YOU? 

Who helps you to be your best for children? Where do you go to keep refreshed, challenged, and positive during the school year? Please respond in the comments so I can always go back to this post when I need a pick-me-up! I can then share your ideas with more educators - thank you for helping me learn! A shout-out to Sean Scanlon and Rakhi Mistry for inspiring this post.

Update: PatioPD on Thursday had me like...

Saturday, July 2, 2016

TTOG (As Much As I Can) - Pilot Year Reflection

I'm excited about next year because of how this year went... One class of mine gave themselves their final grade and grade-report comments each quarter, using proof from four categories.

Here's what we did...

  • I was forthright with parents from the start. A letter went out the first week of school, and I updated parents with an email to our ELA class updates every two weeks.
  • First quarter, we created a chart so students can fill it in with proof they've collected.
  • We came up with myriad ways (and one central location) to prove our learning (this document is always changing).
  • I began a document with comments I could copy and paste into the online grading system, thanks to Mark Barnes' SE2R idea. These are brief and not perfected, by any means, and I'm excited to add more this next year.
  • We used a survey at midterm (which I've already edited for next year) for one check in.
  • We discussed "effort," and how much impact that should or should not have on grades. Our final decision was to keep effort out of the grade. If students were putting in the effort, they should get the grade. One of the quotes students liked - "Don't be upset with the results you didn't get from the work you didn't do."
  • I created sample examples of videos students could create to explain their grade.
  • Students shared videos with me explaining their grade while providing proof. For students who did not prepare, or who did not develop this skill of reflecting in this way, I met with them one-on-one to come up with a final grade.
  • First quarter was fairly successful, knowing all we didn't know!
  • Second Quarter, students in this class gave better feedback and quality boosters than my other classes. We also decided that the final pieces for proof did NOT have to be published. Students did not want their essays about Phineas Gage on their blogs - totally understandable. This is more fuel for making our writing more meaningful for students.
  • I began giving video feedback - very valuable. I've learned how to use Explain Everything and Screen-cast-ify efficiently as a result.
  • The first parent inquiry was about revisions - did her son HAVE to revise his writing? This was the catalyst for the Feedback Loop, which I actually think I need to throw out or totally revamp for next year.  AUTHOR'S NOTE - Feedback Loop REVAMPED August 1, 2016: 

  • The reason for revamping the feedback loop is that I realized third quarter that I AM STILL GRADING MY STUDENTS' WORK! Ugh.
  • I created a document (and they were on the board) of Independent Writing Prompts. One step toward making writing more meaningful for students...
  • I continued grading my students' work the rest of third and fourth quarter. Students were used to it, and we actually had fewer "assignments" fourth quarter due to testing, a three-day outdoor ed trip, reading The Outsiders Whole-Novels style, and presentations for Genius Hour.
  • All year, I felt like I was cheating my other classes who did not give themselves a grade at the end of each quarter. I have spent the first month of this summer excited that my other classes will be taking this trip with me this next school year!

Here's all the parent feedback received...

  • "I think that students have learned to reflect and improve more (w/teacher's help) minus the stress of 'grades.'"
  • "Twitter account was insightful."
  • "Small amount of homework is great."
  • "My son seems more interested in reading than recent years. If grading himself did that, then this approach was very successful."
  • "I don't know if it is luck or parent approach, that my children are, for the most part, self motivated to learn, or at least, do good in their classes. Especially ___ - she has always done a good job in school. I do like grades - I believe healthy competition for good grades is a motivation for kids (people) to raise their bar. We have a motto - Most of the time, the results reflect the effort. If tremendous effort is put forth, and child is still struggling, then intervention is needed. We don't mind As, Bs, and Cs, as long as effort is applied."
  • "When it comes to grading, while it is important, it's more important that the child is learning. Grades can be somewhat subjective so as long as the child is improving on the subject, being graded is secondary."
  • "Hopefully during the process the kids took more ownership of their results, they were always given a chance to correct, enhance or re-do - so if this happened grades should all be good."
  • "My attitude towards the grading process has changed with the introduction of a collaborative process between teacher and student. Much like a class with a more 'traditional' grading system, students were given ample feedback on assignments from the teacher. What made this class unique, however, is that students were also given a sense of ownership in this process. It was no longer a one-way communication of grade from the teacher, but the process became a tool for ongoing engagement between the teacher and student. I would like to thank you, Mrs. Kirr, for covering not only the classics, but encouraging students to explore their individual interests. It is very apparent to us as parents that you love to teach and that you are expanding 'traditional' boundaries in an effort to encourage reading, critical thinking, and self-reflection. Thanks also to the administrators at Thomas and District 25 for supporting these new learning methods. We are grateful that ___ had the opportunity to participate in this process."
  • "_____(Child) had an outstanding year in your class. He was quite uncomfortable at the process of your grading system and the responsibility on his part at the start. He shared his fears about this with me. But as the year progressed, he fully was invested and loved how the class and grading system was run. He is very independent with the process and never complains. He has grown from all the opportunities to be a leader and the responsibility that was offered throughout the year. I believe _____ enjoyed the process and understood that it's not just about grades. Your updates, communication and suggestions/insights to the parents are top notch. I learned so much from what you shared to us. Thank you! Keep doing what you are doing!

Here's what I've already changed...

  • Next year we'll have THREE categories to prove - reading comprehension, writing, and grammar. I have changed the language to say "grammar" instead of "language usage" (from the CCSS) to make that section clearer to students. I have also taken out the "speaking and listening" portion, as most students proved they were "listening," and some students still never speak in class. I've read some information about introverts and reflected on my own 7th grade year when I never spoke in class. Although I will continue to encourage each student to speak up (and give myriad opportunities, of course!) and add to our class culture, I will not ask students to include this in their grade. Sometimes they over-inflated this portion of their grade, and sometimes they seemed embarrassed that they had not participated vocally. I'll try it out this way for this coming year. I will still keep track of who participates / contributes through speaking, just in case some students may want to use that to tip their grade one way or another.
  • The new feedback loop in my head just says - write, get feedback from a peer, revise, get feedback from a peer, revise, turn in to teacher for feedback, revise, etc... I'll add it here when I complete this version.
  • I will not put a "NI, D, P, or M" (Needs Improvement, Developing, Proficient, Mastery) on student work, rubrics, or the online gradebook. I will continue to keep these notes in my own paper gradebook, just in case students need guidance giving themselves their final grades.
  • Effort... A gray area. I have decided to keep track of many aspects of student behavior, including but not limited to being prepared for class, and speaking up with contributions in class. These will only come into play in regards to students' grades if they bring it up on an individual basis. We'll address effort at that point.
  • Our plans for genius hour (to be renamed?!) will be moved to the end of each quarter, as I will now be involved in one-on-one conversations about grades with EACH student at the end of each quarter. This past year, I only needed to meet with a few students. Next year, I plan to meet with all of them, even if they choose to create a video ahead of time. I found this time to be very valuable.
  • We'll have a "plus/delta" chart up in the room every day for students to add what went well and suggestions for change.

Here's what I still want to do...

Make every "assignment" relevant to the world - something students can put on their blogs for the world to see. Since many students do not come up with writing on their own, I need to create more writing options for them throughout the year. I am currently reading Kelly Gallagher's In the Best Interest of Students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom. I'm hoping for more writing workshops and fewer larger assigned pieces of writing.

Give feedback in chunks - which means not one assignment coming in to me from all students at the same time. A year-long project would be great for this. Again... another idea from Mark Barnes in ROLE Reversal... I also need to provide students with more time to give feedback to each other! I'm collecting resources here to figure out how to best use our time.

Get my coworkers on board. However, I can empathize with why they don't want to do this. I am also tired of hitting my head against brick walls. So I will continue to speak of our successes and tribulations, but getting other staff on board right now is not a priority of mine, especially those not within our ELA circles.

Continue to keep tabs with the language I use with students, other teachers, and parents. I need to make sure they know I'm most interested in how students use feedback for reflection and revision in all four areas of ELA - reading, writing, grammar, and speaking.

Phew! What a glorious mess! Please comment with your favorite student-to-student feedback tool, and add any hints or advice or words that show we are in the same boat! Or... please challenge these ideas, as I, personally, learn best when my ideas are challenged!!

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

Designs for this post were created using Paper and Explain Everything.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Don't Blink

As we write this (June 20), we are at a KOA in Poudre Canyon, CO, just north of Fort Collins. We've taken daily drives, alternating between town tours and landscape tours. We took our travel trailer on this 1,000 mile trip west, and Bob drove the entire way (with two-night stops in Omaha and Ogallala, NE) through all the wind and hills on our way here. (We did get somewhat of a friendly wind heading east...)

Today (Day 11??) was the ride up route 14 - the Cache la Poudre (hide the powder) Canyon. It goes right from our campground up and over the Rockies. The Cache la Poudre River is Colorado's first nationally designated "Wild and Scenic River." We decided to make it up a ways, eat our packed lunch, then head back down.

The canyon doesn't disappoint.

We've been in awe this entire trip. We've used myriad ways of saying the same thing - marvelous, miraculous, awesome, breath-taking, beautiful, gorgeous, amazing, unbelievable - all for something, to us, is indescribable. At one point today, Joy said, "At every turn, there's something new." Bob responded with, "Don't blink."

There's so much to see that looking to the right, you miss everything to the left. If you look down, you miss everything that's up. It's hard to take it all in. There's no way to take it all in, as long as you're moving.

We took "slow-vehicle turn offs" and drives that led to parking lots, and then we tried to take in more. As long as we were driving, however, there was no way to take it all in. If you've ever driven on a mountain road, you know it is required to keep moving along most of the road.

Last week (Days 1-3 of our first vacation this summer), Joy was feeling like a slacker when it came to learning with her PLN. You can only do so much without a laptop! This trip has reminded her that time with loved ones is an "all-in" gig. There's a time for work, and a time for play, and when we are together, it should be OUR time.

Joy is reminded of Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate lesson on "immersion." Bob knows she is "all-in" when it comes to teaching. She has learned the lesson (again!) to be "all-in" when AWAY from school. Today's ride was another reminder of the reasons WHY you should immerse yourself where you are. Sure, we'll miss some things to the left or above if we keep moving, but if we STOP... stop and take it in when we have places to "pull over"... we'll have more fulfilling experiences.

For all of you who are #NotAtISTE, soak in where you actually ARE. Immerse yourself with the people around you. Yes, you will miss some ISTE lessons, but if they are good, teachers will share them and they'll come back around to you.

Just because we're on vacation does not mean we stop learning. What are lessons you are learning (or being reminded of) this summer?

~Co-authored by Bob and Joy Kirr

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

2015-2016 Year in Review

My 21st year of teaching...

I started the summer off with a BANG! Headed to University School of Milwaukee's Summer Spark conference and watched, enthralled, as Dave Burgess was on FIRE for two hours! More about the conference in this post...

I hosted the AHSD25 Genius Hour Workshop on 6/18 - only six people came, but I gave it my all, and my wish is they will incorporate student-driven learning into their days.

BOSTON! BLC15 Conference led by Alan November's great team. Presenting and attending, and enjoying the town! I held a "Master Session" on Genius Hour, and three hour-long sessions for the next three days!
I put my blood, sweat & tears into creating the "FaR" tabs of our class Weebly.

I was invited BACK to Boston for BLC16!
I was able to create and implement our first QR Code Scavenger Hunt!

Survived Parent Night - parents in my last class are on board with students grading themselves!

Attended and facilitated sessions at EdCampIL in Northbrook
Helped organize, then attended and facilitated sessions at EdCampChicago in Libertyville
My last class of the day graded themselves for the very first time! Wrote a portion of what I learned from these students and this experience in this post.
Sally Doulton was inspired by my scholars and wrote about it here.

The Best Lesson Series: Literature was published! Yes, I bought one for my mom for Christmas!
Gallit and Denise had their Genius Hour book published! And I was honored to write the Afterward!

Nothing spectacular happened. I am grateful for the consistency in my life!

Enjoyed another birthday. I like my 40s!
Received another signed copy of Teach Like a Pirate from a parent of a previous student! (She told me, "I was listening to him, and I thought - 'This is Joy! This is Joy!'" What a compliment.)

Presented a 50-minute session regarding Genius Hour in LaGrange
Presented a 3-hour workshop on Genius Hour at ICE
Attended my third EdCamp Madison (#edcampmadwi) and created my first memes!
Parents Enjoying Presentations

Enjoyed actual REST during Spring Break.
Finalized my NBCT renewal submissions!

Was spotlighted in the Daily Herald
Enjoyed helping to organize and then attend EdCamp Chicago in Elmhurst
Enjoyed the half day of EdCamp DuPage at Wheaton North H.S.

Enjoyed attending and facilitating sessions at EdCampIL in my own district
Celebrated when ten parents came to Genius Hour presentations
According to student and parent feedback (blog post to come), I successfully (?!) had one class of students give themselves their final quarter grades for a full year.
Ended the year sending out 266 good notes home to parents. (130 last year!)

This upcoming year...
I've got nothing but VACATIONS scheduled for the summer, a couple of edcamps to attend in the fall, and my focus for the next school year will be on making those student connections once again.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Genius Hour - Year 4 Reflection

I am going to begin with this: I was not as focused on Genius Hour this year as I had been in previous years. My focus was on students grading themselves. Since I just can't do it all, I believe our time in Genius Hour suffered because of this. I will add, however, that at least two other seventh grade teachers also said that this year was tougher on them and their students, as well.

What I wish I had done:
  • had more one-on-one conversations... Students were so independent this year, I left many of them alone. It showed when they presented.
  • posted more of students' learning in the room
  • asked students to share their findings and ideas more often with others
  • given more examples of presentations and ways to present
    Some presentations were very interactive!
Changes we made this year:
  • We slowed down when it came to introducing Genius Hour. We did not have a project the first quarter, except for the Cardboard Challenge.
  • We added "Teach Me Your Talent," which went well. It could have gone better, of course. Sadly, I did not write a blog post reflection on this event. We WILL be doing this again.
  • We added a week's worth of speaking practice to prepare for "Teach Me Your Talent" and their final presentations.
  • We asked students to present during ELA class once again (having them all on one day last year was demanding, and I missed many of my students' presentations). We had many complaints about it, but felt it was great speaking practice. 
I gave students a three-page survey this year. I received 43 responses. Included in this survey were these five questions. (Thank you to Adam Schoenbart for many of these questions!)

I think Genius Hour was valuable.
     Strongly Disagree   O     O     O     O     O   Strongly Agree
                                     1      2      9     14     17     <-- The results (out of 43)

Students were asked on this survey - "What value did you find in Genius Hour?"
  • Getting to do things you usually do at home in class.
  • Learning and perfecting new skills and ideas.
  • Time to find out what you like.
  • It taught me to stay on task.
  • It let us learn about ourselves.
  • I learned a lot about myself.
  • I learned to not give up.
  • Creativity.
  • None.
  • You got to learn exactly what you want to.
  • It helped me learn to be more responsible.
  • It was time for me to do what I like.
  • I became a better reader.
  • I found a talent that I didn't know I had.
  • I found it valuable researching a topic that I enjoyed.
  • I researched something I've always wanted to know.
  • I found I was able to be creative and happy doing something in school.
  • I learned more about a topic I liked.
  • It showed us what we want to learn and what we've learned.
  • It was a good opportunity to work on personal projects.
  • I got to choose what I wanted to learn about.
  • I learned about time management.
  • We could show people what we did.
  • It helped me challenge myself.
I enjoyed Genius Hour.
     Strongly Disagree   O     O     O     O     O   Strongly Agree
                                     1      3      6     13     20     <-- The results (out of 43)

Students were also asked, "What advice do you have for teachers who are giving students time for Genius Hour in the classroom?"
  • Keep them busy and don't let them not work.
  • Make sure you check up on them and give suggestions.
  • Let them free.
  • Make sure they do Genius Hour, not homework.
  • Give them some ideas about what to do.
  • Give them a checklist, checking off stages of accomplishment.
  • Give them more outlines for what to do.
  • Make sure kids are focused on their work.
  • Maybe give more time.
  • Give them full periods. (We used 60 of our 80-minute block.)
  • Start earlier than we did.
  • Maybe allow 10 minutes of free time.
  • Leave the students to work at their own pace and let them learn.
  • No grading.
  • Present in your own classroom.
Students were also asked, "What advice do you have for STUDENTS who are given time for Genius Hour in the classroom?"
  • Use it to your advantage.
  • Make sure you use the time given.
  • Use your time wisely. x 6
  • Think hard about your project.
  • Don't just play games when you actually have work to do.
  • Focus and pick a topic that will really help you.
  • Work as hard as you can.
  • Do what you actually enjoy.
  • Always work on your project. Procrastinate AFTER you finish.
  • Brainstorm ideas that you are good at doing or want to be good at doing.
  • Take this time seriously. It's really fun if you do it correctly instead of goofing off.
  • Choose something that means a lot to you.
  • Really commit and pick something you actually want to do.
  • Don't play games. Mrs. Kirr will catch you.
A few successes I want to document:
  • We had our first rocket launch during a presentation - nobody even came CLOSE to getting hurt!
  • TEN parents showed up to watch presentations.
  • More actual products were shown during presentations. 
Changes I'm considering for next year:
  • After four full days of presentations and then reading Tony Klein's reflection on his year of Genius Hour, I'm going to try a gallery walk of some sort for presentations at the end of the year. I'd like to include the other teacher on my team, and maybe even the other TEAM of 150 more students! As long as we have more time in class for students to present short bits, I'm not too worried about losing the aspect of students speaking in front of many other students. We'll still focus on the message and how it's communicated.
  • Also because of Tony's post, I'd like to add a couple of categories for awards! Most interesting topic, most informative...... what else?! I think we'll see some themes develop once they start their final projects.
  • Because I'm implementing students grading themselves with all of my classes next year, I'm going to need time during the last week of each quarter to have conferences with my students about their grades. This means I'm thinking of four days of Genius Hour-type learning in a ROW, at the end of each quarter. I can also include three to four more days prior to these days, spread throughout the quarter (or the last 3-4 weeks before the end of the quarter). It would still be about eight days per quarter, just at different spots.
  • The first quarter I'd like to focus on creativity and collaboration. We'll end it with the Cardboard Challenge.
  • The second quarter we'll focus on ourselves. We'll begin with "Teach Me Your Talent," and end with a 20-day challenge (inspired by Matt Cutts). We will work on speaking skills this quarter.
  • The third quarter can focus on research. We'll work on the "how to," and end with our own research question that we can use for fourth quarter.
This is the plan for now. Of course, I need to talk with my cohorts, and two of the four of us will be new to 7th grade next year.  What always rings true with Genius Hour-type learning is that there is NO ONE WAY. My motto when it comes to Genius Hour is still, "Just keep tweaking, just keep tweaking..." It will be a challenging and fun year, and I'm looking forward to it!