Category Archives: Community

Teacher Identity Matters

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write but one I felt compelled to write. As a teacher consultant, I work in a variety of schools across the nation and overseas. This particular day I was in a school filled with students new to our country, who have tremendous gaps in their literacy backgrounds, and whose parents struggle to make ends meet. In small groups, teachers were discussing their identity as readers and writers.

“I don’t read except for some informational text,” one teacher said. “I just got burned out in college reading all those books I didn’t want to read.”

And who was this teacher? The interventionist. The professional whose job it is to support striving readers: those readers who don’t know how to choose a book, who don’t have the strategies they need to read with understanding, and who haven’t experienced the pleasure in finding a book they love. I wondered how she could instill the joy and love of reading if she didn’t know it for herself. How could she help students develop their identities as readers if she doesn’t view herself as a reader?

Then I heard a teacher in another group say, “I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without reading. And I know I’ve never gone a day without writing something.”

“What?” someone in her group asked incredulously. “You write every day?” It was clear that the other teachers in her group shared that response. What those colleagues didn’t understand was that this was a teacher who was a member of the literacy club that Frank Smith wrote about years ago, a teacher who could open the door for her students to also join this club.

Overhearing these conversations reminded me of conversations with teachers in other schools and made me think about the importance of a teacher’s identity, particularly in a readers and writers workshop:

  • “I can’t get my kids invested in their writers’ notebooks. They won’t use them unless I stand over them.” When asked about her own writers’ notebook, she shyly admitted she hadn’t kept one since college.
  • It was day one of a two-week writing institute for teachers. I explained, “In the mornings we study writing instruction and in the afternoons, we write ourselves.” At the first break, one teacher left with plans not to return. Her colleague explained, “She hates to write.” And who was the disappearing teacher? A high school English teacher.
  • A principal – formerly a high school English teacher – told me, “High school students hate to write. You have to do something to trick them into it.” When one of her teachers asked for supplies to beef up her writers workshop, the principal turned her request down, convinced that those supplies would be a waste of the school’s limited funds.
  • With surprise, I watched one of the most caring teachers I had worked with teach a grammar lesson. “When do you use semi-colons?” she asked. And when a student answered correctly, she threw him a piece of candy. She posed question after question about conventions, tossing out more candy when students gave her the right answers. When we debriefed, she told me that she hated teaching grammar  and didn’t know any other way to engage her students in thinking about the rules.
  • Down the hall from that teacher, I watched another teacher confer with one of her young writers. Opening her writers notebook, the teacher said, “I hated the way this part sounded, so I thought I’d try using a colon and list some ideas, just like what we saw in Barbara Kingsolver’s story the other day. Why don’t you give this craft move a try and let me know what you think.”
  • “Those young adult novels are lousy literature. I would never assign one to my students.”  When I asked about what she had read recently, she told me that she hadn’t read a young adult novel since college but trusted the judgment of her friend the librarian.
  • I watched another teacher confer with a reluctant reader. “You might try tScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 5.00.36 PMhis one. I loved it,” she suggested as she handed him Kwame Alexander’s Crossover. A few days later, the student shyly asked the teacher for another book just like that one. And the teacher found one and then another for him. Because this teacher read young adult literature, she could bring herself into the classroom in the same way Julie Swinehart did in her blog about summer reading.

Teacher identity matters. Our identity as readers, writers, literary scholars, even editors carries over into the classroom, shaping our interactions with students, the plans we make, the structures we put into place. A teacher who sees herself as a reader can share her enthusiasm and knows the value of providing choice and time for students to read. I wonder if a teacher can create a dynamic readers workshop if she doesn’t love to read?

And what about writing workshop? Can a teacher design and implement a writers workshop if she never writes herself? Or can he promote the value of a writers notebook if he doesn’t keep one himself? Can we nurture our students identities as readers and writers if we aren’t a part of the literacy club?

I wonder.

 

How do you nurture you identity as a reader? As a writer? What impact does your identity have on your reading or writing workshop?

 

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.

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

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.

“It’s Beautiful” – A Simple Reminder

Happy Holidays!

I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I hope you are finding your holiday break restful and rejuvenating, filled with warmth and time with family. I know I am enjoying spending time with both mine and my husband’s extended families. Both of our families are large and loud and full of children under the age of ten. It’s chaotic and joyful and, honestly, one of my favorite gatherings of the year – on both sides.

While sitting in church on Christmas Sunday, my three year old niece brought me a coloring page and began to use my lap as a table. The last one to grab crayons, she was stuck with a really drab brown. She enthusiastically scribbled and scrabbled and scratched her ugly brown crayon all over that coloring page with – seemingly – no rhyme or reason. Breathing heavily, she gave it her all for five frantic minutes.

Then she stopped, held up her art, and sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

My heart melted. Of course it was. She saw beauty where I only saw a mess.

It reminded me of conferencing with my students. There’s always something worth praising, something beautiful in their writing. I don’t know about you but my first instinct is to start with what we can fix, where I can teach by showing what the student can do better. When I start conferencing after the break, I want to remember my niece and ask my students: What do you LIKE about this piece? What’s beautiful?

I think that reframing will make for a good moment in our conferences.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently reading and loving Mo Willems’s picture books. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

How To Break Up With Your Phone

I have told every student I know about How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. I’ve also told my friends, family, and actual strangers in the grocery store. Today, I want to tell you about this book.

Price, a health and science journalist, began writing this book only after she felt compelled to break up with her own phone (she writes about this moment with poignancy here).

As I write this, twenty teens are in front of me in a study hall. Of them, ten are studying or working on projects for another class. Three are gossiping. The other seven have their heads bent, phones in hand, screens scrolling. When I ask students what they do on their phones, they tell me–Instagram, YouTube, games. Passive apps that require no interaction and which don’t provide much “content” for absorption.

When pressed further, one student told me she was a little shocked to realize she’d never thought about what it was she actually did on her phone–it was just a reflex.

Too many of us do the same thing. I worry about the impacts of this habit on our society in terms of interpersonal interaction (read Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle or The Shallows by Nicholas Carr if you’re as fascinated with this topic as I am), but I also worry about it as a teacher of readers and writers.

A passage from Price’s chapter on attention span gets to the heart of digital vs. print reading:

If you’ve noticed that reading a book or printed newspaper doesn’t feel the same as reading the same material on your phone or computer, you’re not crazy. It’s not the same.

When we read a book or the paper, most of the distractions we encounter are external… This leaves our brains with plenty of available bandwidth to think about and absorb what we’re reading. …

But when we read on a phone or computer, links and ads are everywhere. …when mental fatigue causes us to give in to our brains’ natural preference for distraction…we reinforce the same mental circuits that made it hard to sustain our focus to begin with. We get better at not staying focused.

How to Break Up With Your Phone, pp. 56-58

The implications of this are massive. As more and more English departments shift to online textbooks, and as more and more of our students have a phone in their pocket, it becomes much more difficult to sustain attention to anything, let alone the habit of deep reading. A generation of distracted, solitary young people is being born before my eyes.

I fully look forward to a generation of young people who chooses to reject the addictive lure of mindless technology use–which, perhaps, I can help speed along by throwing this book at every teen I see–but until then, I’ll keep sharing what I’ve learned from this book with everyone I know in an effort to get them to break up with their phones.

Shana Karnes is working on breaking up with her own phone by making more frequent trips to her local library in Madison, Wisconsin. Reading print books before bed and in spare moments leaves her feeling more relaxed and intellectually productive at the end of a busy day filled with teens and her two small children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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