Shifting to the Student-Centered Classroom: An Interview with Joy Kirr

Shifting to the Student-Centered Classroom: An Interview with Joy Kirr

Joy Kirr (@joykirr) teaches 7th Grade Language Arts at Thomas Middle School in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  She is also the author of Shift This! How to Implement Gradual Changes for Massive Impact in Your Classroom.  In this conversation, Joy and I discuss the changes she implemented and what you can do to achieve a student centered classroom. 

  1. Tell me about your journey as an educator. How did you get to where you are today?  1:35

Joy started her career as a special education teacher, then a reading specialist, then became National Board Certified, but eventually she wanted to be in the regular education classroom.

  1. How did you transition to student centered learning? 3:08

Joy credits her student-centered classroom to working closely with students as a special education teacher and a reading specialist.  She was a little isolated from her coworkers, so Joy relied mostly on her students to determine what was best for them.  Also, while she was a special education teacher, Joy was in hundreds of classrooms.  She observed countless teachers and learned that the most successful teachers were the ones who listened to students.  So Joy’s transition to a student-centered classroom was designed specifically to give her students what she knew they were craving: voice and choice in the classroom.

  1. What problems did you notice in the regular education classroom and what changes did you implement in order to make your classroom student centered? 5:45

Joy answers this question with a scenario from early in her regular education career.  Check out how she shifted her unit on The Outsiders below.


Teaching The Outsiders

Teacher Centered Problems

Student Centered Solutions

  • 8 weeks
  • Teacher tells students what is important from the reading
  • Very little discussion
  • All students “reading” at the same pace
  • Take a week to study for the test
  • Inauthentic questions on the test
    • What was the name of Soda Pop’s horse?
  • 2 weeks
  • What do you think is important from the reading?
  • What vocabulary do you need to know?
  • Students write discussion questions, those questions become writing prompts
    • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Comprehension checks instead of tests
  • Extension activities for students who finish early


  1. How did you go about getting support for these changes from your administration? 15:16

Joy credits much of the support she has received from parents and her administration to always “sharing your why.”  She is absolutely transparent in everything that she is doing because it allows people to see the great things that her kids are doing.  At one point during Joy’s career, she met a gentleman by the name of Ewan McIntosh.  Ewan’s idea was to allow students to find a problem at the school, ask students how they want to fix it, and then give them the opportunity to solve the problem.  Ewan expands on this in his TED Talk on “Problem Finders” which you can access here.  Joy was inspired by Ewan’s idea and began to look for ways to incorporate more student voice and choice in the classroom.  She has also had very supportive principals and superintendents and Joy says that getting their support is vital for teachers who want to make changes but might be afraid of potential repercussions.  Fear is such a motivator for many people and we agreed that teachers need to be positive examples of risk takers for our students.

  1. Knowing that you made big changes to your classroom, how did you land on gradual shifts for your book? 18:46

Joy started her student-centered journey first with an iPad pilot program and then with Genius Hour.  The iPad program was specifically designed to be a lot of work for the students, but they actually had a lot of voice and choice throughout the program.  Joy and her students had to send information back to the program operators and the students really liked that their opinions mattered.  This iPad experiment is what lead Joy to see the value of a gradeless classroom.  There was so much work associated with the program, there was no way that Joy could grade all of it.  But since the students were enjoying what they were doing and they felt the work was relevant to them, her students were still completing the homework, even though there was no grade attached. 

Joy also admits that currently she is not doing Genius Hour.  We discussed the importance of not stepping on other teachers’ toes and building and maintaining positive relationships with your colleagues.  One of Joy’s colleagues asked her not to do Genius Hour when they started working together a few years ago because she wasn’t ready for that big of a shift.  Now, a few years down the road, they will discuss bringing it back if they believe it will help students.  The beauty of Genius Hour for Joy though, is that it showed Joy the value of incorporating student voice and choice into her classroom on a daily basis, which she does.  So there is not as much of a need for Genius Hour, because Joy’s students have a lot of freedom to explore their passions and interests in Joy’s classroom anyway.

  1. What is Genius Hour? 24:14

Put simply, Genius Hour is when students decide what they want to learn, do, or create.  Then the teachers gives them time to explore those interests.  We don’t discuss this final point, but usually students give some sort of presentation at the end of a Genius Hour project.  There are plenty of examples on YouTube, here is one example.  Joy uses this time (it can be once a week or two weeks at the end of a grading period, to really get to know her kids.  She is not just sitting at her desk and catching up on emails, she is entrenched in what the students are doing and attempting to be a vital resource on their journey of self-discovery.  The things that Joy learns during this time, she uses to give her students a better learning experience the rest of the week.  These sort of relationships are nearly impossible to develop in a teacher-centered classroom.  Students can find content anywhere in our technology driven world, but they can’t search the internet for the relationships that we build with them.

At this point, I ask Joy if she grades any of her Genius Hour projects.  She said no way!  When students ask how much a project or assignment is worth, they are actually asking, how much effort do I need to put into this?  Not every student appreciated the shift away from grades, mostly because they have always relied on grades to tell them how important an assignment or project is.  When you give students freedom to explore their passions and interests, they aren’t used to it, but it is absolutely vital that they know how to operate in that freedom if they want to be successful in the world today.   The great thing: Joy’s students are doing the work because they chose what to do.  They see the value in it, and they don’t need a grade to see that value.  For more on Genius Hour, also known as 20% Time, check out my article on it here.

  1. How did you transition to a gradeless classroom? 33:34

First of all, you should know that Joy is required to give grades at the end of each quarter.  So “gradeless” is kind of a misnomer.  The more important shift is moving away from arbitrary grades that don’t mean much and devalue learning, to giving targeted feedback on meaningful tasks.  We know that grades don’t help students learn.  We also know that grades devalue lifelong learning.  Every single teacher has experienced an issue with grades.  There is a big focus on grades, GPAs, and class rank because colleges and universities value them.  What Joy does with the gradeless classroom is put the emphasis on the learning.  Also, many teachers fear that if they don’t assign a grade to something, the students won’t complete it.  There is faulty logic in that thinking.  The real issue that teacher is facing is that students won’t do the work in which they don’t see value.  Joy’s students work very hard on the assignments and projects in her class because they are meaningful and students can see the value in them.

  1. What does feedback look like in your classroom without grades? 41:19

Joy really hasn’t changed her classroom very drastically from her colleagues’ classrooms.  She still uses the same lessons and assessments, but instead of a letter grade for a particular assignment or project, she gives her students narrative or video feedback.  Joy is attempting to fix the problem of averages.  If a student struggles mightily for the first couple weeks of school, then gets their butt in gear and improves for the rest of the quarter, their grade will not reflect the improvement that he or she has made.  The feedback that Joy gives is specific and targeted to help that student improve.  We all know what happens when we give a grade and feedback on an assignment.  The student just looks at the grade and doesn’t take the time to read the feedback.  Joy’s students can’t do this because her entire class is designed around feedback and improvement. 

At the midpoint of the quarter, Joy prints out each students grade report (all of the feedback that she has given them so far) and she asks, “What do you think your grade would be at this point?”  This allows Joy to show students the value of improvement, because many students that struggle will undervalue themselves because they are still thinking in terms of averages.  They can see how much they’ve grown, and Joy makes sure their midpoint grade reflects that growth.  At the end of each quarter, Joy sits down with each student and has a conference with them to determine their grade.  Her focus is on progress and achievement, rather than averages.  Students must now advocate for themselves and present evidence-based arguments for the grade they think they deserve.  Joy points out that unfortunately, these letter grades are still arbitrary, there’s no real way to fix that, but at least now the students have a say in their grade.  She adds, for the teachers that are worried about students giving themselves a higher grade, that if a student is overvaluing their work, she negotiates a compromise with them.  She then writes a contract with that student for next quarter to help them realize the importance of self-evaluation.  These students often inflate their own grades because they are operating under the misconception that grades should be about the work you do, rather than what you have achieved or how much you have progressed.

  1. How do you manage all the work that comes with giving students narrative feedback? 49:08

There are two things that Joy does to help manage her feedback time more effectively.  Firstly, she sets aside about a week and a half at the end of each quarter for her conferences with students.  During this time, students are working on self-directed projects and activities.  We didn’t really go into much detail about these student-directed activities, but they seem fairly self-explanatory.  Secondly, Joy creates a system of codes to put in the comment section of her gradebook.  My guess is that the easiest way to do this is to figure out what feedback you are giving over and over again, then create a document or use a text expander program that will allow you to copy and paste the comments quickly into the gradebook.  She also will create screencast videos to give her students feedback on their writing, then copy and paste the link into the comments section (these videos are unlisted on YouTube).  Joy adds that it is a lot of work, and sometimes she is tempted to just put a letter grade or a numerical score.  She knows from research and experience, however, that students learn the most when they are only given feedback.  

  1. Is there anything else that is really important for the student-centered classroom that we might have missed? 52:52

Joy’s answer to this question was wonderfully simple.  One-on-one conversations are the key.  If you spend time getting to know your students and use what you know to drive your instruction, you will automatically be making a bigger impact on their lives.

  1. What is your number one tip for shawesome educators? 55:08

Time is of the essence.  Spend your time changing what you think need to be changed.  Take time to reflect and adjust as necessary.

My Top Takeaways

  1. Make student voice and choice the foundation of your classroom

Every day, in most classrooms around the world, students are told exactly what to do and how to do it for eight hours a day.  This is really inauthentic to the adult world.  If adults wait for someone to tell them what to do and how to do it, they won’t be very successful in their lives.  In order to be successful in the adult world, our students must experience this freedom right now.  We need to be giving them the opportunities to explore their passions and choose what to learn and how to learn it.  Some kids will struggle.  Heck, a lot of adults would struggle with that freedom too.  That is exactly why it is so vital to give students this freedom now.  Whether it is through Genius Hour, learning menus, or by simply asking students what they want to learn, teachers can set their students up for success for years to come.

  1. Give meaningful feedback

I know the gradeless classroom is a big leap.  It’s scary.  What teachers need to understand is that our grades are arbitrary, they devalue lifelong learning, and they don’t provide an accurate picture of what a student can do.  I’m not asking you to go gradeless.  What I will encourage you to do is to devalue the letter grade itself.  It’s not nearly as important as it once was.  Some colleges are even adding portfolios as part of their applications, because they know grades don’t provide an accurate representation of a student.  The learning behind the grade is what matters.  And that is exactly what Joy has done.  She has helped her students see the value in achievement, progress, and improvement, rather than going for the highest grade just because someone a hundred years ago decided it was important.  I encourage you to do the same.

What do you think?  Are you on your way to a student-centered classroom?  How do you incorporate student voice and choice into your classroom?  Let me know in the comments below!


Joy’s Twitter: @joykirr

Joy’s email:

Joy’s Book: Shift This!

Genius Hour Livebinder:

Text Expander:


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