Confessions of a Grown-Up Fangirl

I have finally discovered the cure for a story hangover.

You know the feeling I mean–turning the last page of a book, watching the final scene in a movie, knowing that the work of the creator is done when it comes to the characters and worlds you’ve come to love.

I’ve been known to enter depressions when I get to the end of a beloved book series (Harry Potter, notably), TV series (Bones wrecked me), or classic novel re-read (Pride and Prejudice still upsets me when it ends). But recently, like many in the Star Wars fandom, I was emotionally ravaged by the conclusion of The Rise of Skywalker.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the ending of the film (I didn’t); I was also distraught that the nine-movie space opera that spanned 40 years had come to an end.

So, I did what I always do when I’m just not ready for a story to end–I turned to fanfiction.

And I certainly wasn’t the only one–there were thankfully already thousands of stories to read, with no shortage of choices when it came to theme, characters, length, or writing style.

So for weeks now, I’ve continued to immerse myself in the Star Wars world I love, and I’m just now coming up for air. The difference in my emotions is remarkable, as it’s now my choice to exit the story’s universe, rather than it being dictated by a non-negotiable end to a film (in which I left the theater sobbing).

After reading pretty much every “fix-it fic” (fics that seek to change the ending to a more palatable one), I realized that there were still some details I wanted to read about that I couldn’t find in any published stories (like, hello, that Death Star scene should have had much more dialogue!).

So I did basically the nerdiest thing in my life and started writing fanfiction.

Writing stories using someone else’s established characters and worlds was shockingly easy, even though I’ve never really tried to write fiction before. And because of the community of kind and voracious readers in the world of fanfiction, I didn’t even hesitate to hit publish on my stories, which began with notes about how new I was to the writing side of things.

The comments, kudos, and hits kept me motivated to write like nothing else could. I wrote a few short stories that were self-contained, but couldn’t help starting a longer story that I could only write a chapter of at a time. Having readers comment that they were desperate for the next chapter spurred me to write in the early morning hours before school.

In talking with my students, I am constantly shocked by how many of them have had similar experiences–they read and write fanfiction about their favorite books, movies, TV shows, video games, and even musicians and artists. “Fanfiction is always there for me,” my former student Victoria recently told me.

I hope to nudge more students toward reading and writing fanfiction in my classroom, as it’s a wonderful way to grow as a writer and reader. In the meantime, I’ll continue my own reading and writing journey as an enthusiastic, unapologetic, grown-up fangirl.

Shana Karnes teaches 9th graders in Madison, Wisconsin. When she’s not geeking out with her students about literacy, she’s reading with her cats, writing with her coffee, or telling stories to her two young daughters. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Using design challenges to bring rhetoric to life

In Gumption Nick Offerman [aka Ron Swanson] includes an anecdote about author George Saunders seeking to impress his community college guitar teacher with a song he had learned. Unimpressed, the teacher told him, “If you don’t change your life, you’re going to be a very unhappy young man.” Offerman follows it up with this description: “What he then explained to George was that, sure, he had mechanically nailed going through the motions of the song, but without paying any attention to how it sounded.” Essentially, it had no heart.

One of the challenges of teaching something like rhetoric is that it can get reduced to terms and concepts that become mechanical. I can teach students to identify pathos or label the audience of a piece, but it somehow feels separate from the real work of analysis or writing that is covered so well here. It can become academic. One of my goals this year was to commit to finding more authentic applications that would allow us to think about rhetoric in less academic ways. As our school district worked with Allison Zmuda to immerse ourselves in personalized learning (more on this here), one of the models we spent time with was the Stanford Design School approach to design thinking, and it opened up some good ideas about how to explore rhetoric through design challenges. This visual captures the heart of the design thinking process:

Design thinking process from the Stanford Design School

What it is

A design challenge essentially lays out a problem for a team solve–they must design a solution using a process–followed by a presentation of their design where it is compared with other teams’ designs. We began to use this process by doing a series of rhetoric challenges throughout the semester. Each asked a team (5-7 students) to focus on a specific, practical rhetorical situation and to design something that forced them to make rhetorical choices based on the audience and purpose. I saw these as formative tasks that allowed students to explore some new argumentation techniques that would get immediate feedback from other teams (we do this kind of game-show/reality TV style) when presented. 

The questions I kept asking myself: what could they build that would show their understanding of rhetoric? What would challenge them to see the value and importance of their rhetorical choices for specific audiences?

What we tried

In Unit 2 (Friday Night Lights: the culture of high school sports), students had considered a range of issues from concussions and CTE to payment of college athletes and competition’s consequences on mental health. For the design challenge (see the full doc here) students had to create a 10-second ad (designed for phones) that repaired the ethos of the NFL or NCAA by pairing the organization with a cause and a spokesperson. They had to wrestle with the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals in really interesting ways to make this happen. Other examples of tasks we tried:

  • Unit 3: on solving school shootings (problem-solution structure): “As a team, design a solution to limit or end school shootings in America between 2020-2050 and persuade a specific audience to implement the policy.”
  • Unit 4 perfectionism clip sharing (types of evidence): “Make a problem/solution argument using a variety of types of evidence to capture what it’s like to battle perfectionism and how one can find balance.”
  • Unit 4 t-shirt design: “Design a T-shirt that encourages MHS students to flip the narrative when it comes to their inner critic and negative self-talk.”

Each team would present and go through a round of on-the-spot feedback. I cold-call people from other teams (think Shark Tank)  and ask questions about the content and the presentation method:

  • What was the strength of how that group presented?
  • Did their choice of spokesperson really help the ethos?
  • Between the last two groups, which did a better job of reaching the specified audience?
  • Was their solution stronger than your group’s?
  • If you could change one thing about yours after seeing theirs, what would it be?
  • Which group did the best job of engaging the audience about their ideas? How did they do it?
Bell 4 students give feedback on t-shirt designs in a gallery walk.

What I liked

By the end of each design challenge we had spent rich time in collaboration, had meaningful discussions about the functions of our rhetorical choices, and delved more deeply into our content in authentic ways. A few other positives I saw:

  • Making thinking visible through the products/presentations
  • Getting on-the-spot feedback about the value of your rhetorical choices and the social construction of our understanding of rhetoric 
  • Using the design thinking model to talk about the parallels to the writing process

The end goal is to understand the heart of rhetoric better and at a more practical level, and to then make some of the same moves in our writing that we make in the design challenges. To notice more about how it sounds and not just play the right notes. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He tweets about English-y stuff when he can remember to from @MHSCoates.  

Building Reflection through One-Pagers in AP Lang (and letting kids be kids)

The end of the semester is stressful for teachers and students alike. Students have essays, projects, presentations, and other summative assessments due, and teachers have to assign and grade them.

This semester in AP Lang, I decided to assign an assessment that wasn’t overly-stressful. These are eleventh graders, after all. This is the toughest year of school they’ve had: their semester was full of PSAT, SAT tests, more AP classes than they’ve taken before, and generally harder classes than they’ve seen before. Plus, the stress of growing up is looming. Their senior friends are applying and hopefully getting into college. They can’t deny it anymore. They will be adults so soon.

Meanwhile, they are still kids. They are kids who are taking AP Lang and learning about structure and rhetorical devices; it’s no longer about what they think the message of the text is, like when they were in the lower grades. It’s somehow different. Their brains are full and sometimes fried.

That’s not to say that we don’t have fun in our class. We laugh, we discuss issues, and we learn. We also independently read together.

Our focus on independent reading gives them some autonomy that they don’t necessarily get in other classes. It also means they have a responsibility to pick books, drop books, and read books. A lot of them.

Which brings me back to the last assessment of the first semester. I assigned a one-pager which included reflection, facts, rhetorical analysis, and art. Eleventh grade students don’t usually create art in an AP level assessment (unless it’s an art class, yes), and they loved it. LOVED IT.

I know some AP teachers are all about teaching their students about the “real world” and I get it. Yes, the world is big and tough and sometimes mean. When they are adults, deadlines will matter a lot and sometimes no one will care about an individual’s opinion, and certainly crayons and colored pencils likely won’t be part of their college career or actual career.

But you know what? My students are still in high school. They aren’t adults. They still like to color and draw. (And don’t many adults in the real world like to do this, too?)

I sometimes allow my students soft deadlines – because let’s be “real” – the adult world has soft deadlines, too. For example, this post was supposed to be ready back in December! But real life happened, and the wonderful women who are in charge of this blog gave me a pass, which was necessary and for which I am grateful. I’m okay with teaching my students that the “real world” is like that, too.

Back to the summative assessment: My students brought their semester reading to class: actual copies of books, readers/writers notebooks with lists of what they had read, dropped, and loved. They brought their markers and colored pencils. And they brought their positive energy. It was one of the most fun days of a summative assessment I’ve ever experienced.

We posted our one-pagers in the hall so all of our secondary students can browse them when it’s convenient.

The final one-pagers were fun to make, fun to read, fun to grade, and now that they are publicly posted, they are a great way for students to talk about who reads what and how much. It helps with the development of our reading community, not just with our eleventh grade students, but with all of our secondary students.

I’ve posted about this topic before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. It’s a nice wrap-up to the semester and it encourages students to celebrate their reading successes, which leads right into deliberate and informed semester two reading goal-setting, which we are working on now. (Stay tuned!)

Please don’t misunderstand. My students write essays and take tests and do research. But I don’t believe that all of those types of assessments are necessary at the end of a semester or school year (there are other times for that). This individualized reflection coupled with the group “going public” by posting in the hallway is powerful. Students see their growth and can celebrate it, but they can also see where others are and maybe set their sights even higher than if they’d stayed private with their goals.

How have you wrapped up your first semester, AP or otherwise? I’d love to learn some new strategies and ideas.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

A Return to Flexible Seating

After introducing flexible seating into my junior/senior English classroom last year, I reflected in July about what I liked and didn’t like about the classroom arrangement.  After implementing some changes of my own and many reader suggestions (thank you!), I wanted to reflect over another semester of flexible seating.

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What I changed this fall:

  • Furniture Arrangement:  This year, I made smaller pods of seating. I got rid of the large round tables that ate up a lot of the room and actually moved in more traditional desks (partially due to larger classes).  With the additional space, I was able to fit two smaller tables and a set of chairs for students to work, providing more options for spaces. The room has a nearly-equal balance of seats that require students to use clipboards for writing and desktops or tables.
  • Expectations:  We had a discussion about the purpose and role of flexible seating in the classroom at the end of the second week of school and set guidelines together versus rules.  Students were granted permission to move the furniture to better facilitate group work or sight of the whiteboard, with the stipulation the room comes back to order when the bell rang.  We also discussed the importance of creating a single classroom environment, not one of multiple little pods, and facilitating that through direct eye contact.  I also shared my goal that the classroom feels more like a home than a place of rigid learning, but that homes are to be respected.  
  • Ownership:  While I still reserve the right to ask a student to make a better seating choice, I started the year by asking students to change seating areas each day for the first two weeks.  I believe this established that no one has a “spot,” but we share the space based on need and how we are feeling each day. Additionally, students are required to select a seating new area of the classroom every six weeks or so, which coincides with our school’s midterms and quarters.

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With larger classes this year, the room is more crowded, but feels more, well, flexible.  Removing the large, cumbersome tables also makes re-arranging the desks and chairs for a Socratic Seminar much easier.  I also have enough desks to facilitate an inner circle of desks and an outer circle of chairs. With smaller tables, groups are naturally formed which is a time saver and I can check in with one area at a time for conferences or work checks. Additionally, with less traditional seating available than with last year’s set up, my students and I have utilized the luxury of the cafeteria tables right outside my door.  While one class period a day may not be able to access these additional workspaces because of the lunch schedule, the cafeteria tables have become an extension of our classroom and great for spreading out groups or when we need more table space.

With very few reminders, students have been respectful and able to flow between small group learning and whole-class learning.  I notice students craning their necks to look at their peers or myself when talking and students.  While some classes are more open to moving daily than others, I find more students are switching around where they sit every few days, are moving based on what we are doing in class, and voluntarily switching seats to accommodate peers.  Students this year take responsibility for their seating choice for the day and have not “claimed” a seat as students did last fall, sitting there through the spring. Sometimes, I confess, the classroom does feel disjointed, like when students are working independently and chatting with those close to them, but I remind myself that at least they’re in a community, not isolated desks of individuals.

While the set-up and general facilitation of non-traditional seating is not always easy and I’d love to make my own place in the classroom just as flexible, students unanimously responded across six classes that they prefer the arrangement and choice to rows of desks, especially for reading time.  So if it works for them, I will make it work for me!

Maggie Lopez wishes everyone a happy, productive 2020 full of excellent books!  She is currently reading “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann after thoroughly enjoying “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You can connect with her @meglopez0.

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

Using Workshop as an Opportunity to Listen, Connect, and Grow

My daily schedule, which is based off of an example in Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s book, 180 Days.

I know the importance of listening, mainly because I know what it feels like to be ignored. To share an idea, only for someone else in a group to quickly move on to something else. What happens next? Silence. This is exactly what I don’t want in my classroom. I want my students to feel comfortable enough to speak up and write about topics that matter to them. I want them to see that I care, and I am listening.

This is where the freedom of the workshop model comes in handy.

Two recent book talks.

For book talks, I choose titles that are written by authors that students love, or need to be introduced to. (I have students complete a survey at the beginning of the year so I know what they like and dislike right away.) I choose excerpts that they can connect with, and others that will shock them. Their to-read lists grow longer and longer.

During independent reading, I can confer with students. Sure, it’s often about the titles they are reading, but sometimes it’s my way of letting them know that I see something is different, and possibly wrong. I can check in and see what I can do to ease a worried mind. Or, maybe it’s my chance to applaud them on a job well done.

Quickwrites can incorporate poems, video clips, and excerpts that connect to topics students long to discuss. School should be a place where students can speak freely about topics like anxiety, current events, racism, the difficulties of growing up, and so much more. The possibilities are endless.

Mini-lessons may be brief, but I can work in some of my own writing here. This is where I put myself on display, and students can see I am a struggling writer just like them. Comfort and ease are added to our classroom.

Independent work time provides another opportunity for sharing ideas, whether it be through talk or writing. Students can write a piece with a peer, or one that’s all their own. Students can share their passions and frustrations in small-group or whole-class discussions. I can check in with them. I ask questions, if they need assistance, and what’s something they are proud of.

Finally, we share. Students share a new idea, a line they are proud of, or a word they’ve never used. We applaud one another. We build our community.

In today’s world, I am proud that I can give my students a classroom that is safe and inviting. Workshop makes that possible.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers and writers. At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

When Your Teaching Life Throws You a Curve…

Hit a home run.

Or at least make contact, get on base, and rely on your teammates and experience to get you across home plate.

This new year, the new decade, reminds me that teachers often face new challenges and situations. Think about that student who transfers into your school nine days before the semester ends or the joy and then horror that flashes through your mind when you see that new copiers have been installed.

Sometimes though, we face new adventures that even vast swaths of experience cannot prepare us to handle the way we parry and deflect most of what’s throw at us. For me, a move away from athletics pushed me toward new classes that revealed just how comfortable I had become in my almost decade working with seniors. Last year freshman English and freshman Pre-AP English classes taught me about patience and pacing. This year sophomores and AP juniors force me to flex muscles I never knew I had and push me to explore the boundaries of my workshop pedagogy.

For those of us who face the anxiety of teaching a totally new class, a new unit of study, or even a new lesson, consider this advice:

  1. Lean on the pillars of experience around you.
  2. Trust the reading and writing workshop process.
  3. Build a team.
  4. Explore your literacy.

I’ve been blessed to leap into these last two years, and the change they promised, with groups of teachers who had been there before and knew what to expect.  Their knowledge and willingness to support me allowed for less time learning new content and more time planning effective lesson delivery.  While I have many questions, they seem to always have an answer that guides me back on the pathway to success.

Lean into the workshop that supports reading and writing because it invites literacy learners to feel safe within the routines and community that literacy learners need. New learning happens much easier then the teacher and the students feel comfortable and safe with each other.

Growing your support system beyond your teaching team is important. Living on front street with your students about your inexperience can be a scary proposition, but it can also invite them into the type of relationship where they understand that you will all grow together and that they are not the only ones being asked to shoulder a growth mindset. As for the adults in the building, instructional coaches are there to help you and support you, looking for clues to the type of help you need, listening when you struggle, celebrating your successes because they own a piece of your potential. Lastly, but no less importantly, build relationships with your administration. Extend the invitation for them to be in your room and learn about the students that pass through your life on a daily basis.  Admin isn’t there solely to handle disruptions or crisis. Rather, they, like every other educator in the building, have a vested interest in the success of your students and deserve the opportunity to experience your greatness.

Never forget the value of reading and writing beside your students. When you aren’t sure how to fairly and authentically assess the writing tasks you ask your students to perform, write your own response.  When you ask them to revise their writing, invite them into your process to help you explore your ideas.  They will jump at the chance to support your writing the way you support theirs. Share your reading life too.  Your reading life will engage them just as deeply, and as they learn more about what you like to read, they will learn more about you and, perhaps, about their own compassion.

Most importantly, trust the process. Believe in yourself in the face of new experiences. You owe it to the students and to yourself.


Charles Moore recently returned from a 2025 mile road trip vacation where he learned about new people and places and loved every minute of it. He encourages everyone to try to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park and The King Center. Bring some tissues just in case a high school band spontaneously shows up to play for Dr. King.

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