Category Archives: Shana Karnes

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.

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.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer?

A nonnegotiable in my classroom is that everyone is a writer. We work from day one of class to establish identities as writers: we create writer’s notebooks, we discuss writing routines, we practice writing every day.

But many of my students struggle to see themselves as writers because their definition of “a writer” is so narrow. They are beholden to culturally-entrenched images of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens–studious, quill-wielding, miserable, alcohol-fumed, slaves of the pen.

It takes some time to convince kids that despite the intrigue that persona presents, that it’s not true.

I recently encountered a strategy for defining authorship that I continue to return to for its simple brilliance. This school year, I’ve been visiting classrooms of practicing teachers, and one of my favorite places to visit is Gloria Kok’s classroom.

One of the first things that struck me upon entering her room was an entire wall devoted to writers. As I visited over multiple weeks, I realized that her students had created the five points of their working definition of what it means to be a writer. They had also brainstormed personal heroes who fit their definitions. The wall is covered with the likes of everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Oprah Winfrey to Langston Hughes to Tupac.

Frequently, Gloria asks students to use these points to frame their own writing reflections or goal statements. I’ve begun to do this myself, as I’ve visited her classroom so frequently–so much so that I’ve found myself seeking out definitions of what a writer is in my reading and work.

A favorite writing mentor of mine is Donald Murray, whose books I pick up anywhere I find them. I recently acquired Write to Learn, and one of my favorite and most personally relatable definitions of what it means to be a writer comes from his second chapter:

“Not knowing what I will write, or even if I can write, means I will not write what I have written before. I have begun a voyage of discovery. The initial satisfaction from writing is surprise: we say what we do not expect to say in a way we do not expect to say it.”

This approach to writing–that it is an inexpert art full of magic and whimsy, but helped along by the discipline of practice and study–is my personal favorite. The post-it notes papering my desk with quotes by Donald Murray attest to the similarities of our beliefs: these definitions help encourage, refocus, and discipline me on mornings when I do not want to sit down and write.

I encourage you to do the same thing with your students, writers, and even yourself: create a definition of what it means to be a writer. Put it down on paper, hang it on the walls, shout it from the rooftops–whatever works to teach yourself that your belief in yourself as a writer is what matters.

Shana Karnes is a writer who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her desk is covered with quotes about writing, pens, poems, abandoned coffee cups, and discarded crayons, stickers, and paint from her children. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

A Picture Book for Your High Schoolers

Image result for the word collector

I’ve always been a little puzzled by my dichotomous love for both classic, canonical literature and…….unabashedly romantic, sometimes risque, always happily-ever-after……..romance novels.

But as I thought more about it, I realized that what I love about the classics is their lasting potency, the punch that their language and stories deliver, no matter when they’re read. And what I love about romance novels is watching the classic, timeless journey of a fall into love.

And, thanks to a coffee-fueled epiphany in my notebook, I realized that being a teacher of readers and writers was the perfect career for those two passions of mine: I love to see my students falling in love with reading and writing.

Last week, I read a new book to my daughters that struck me as the perfect illustration of that journey into love with words: The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds.

As I read, I was struck by what a perfect picture book this would be to share with my high schoolers. Not only is it chock-full of SAT vocabulary words (which, while that is a concept I loathe, I do admit is a lovely list of cool words), it shows the power and joy of language and all that it offers to both readers and writers.

If you have this book, I urge you to read it with your students. If you don’t, the video linked above does a great job telling the story as well. The possibilities for linguistic play and discovery as you study the text are endless, and endlessly enjoyable–and don’t we all need that kind of joy in our classrooms, as often as possible? Try this text out for one way to bring some sunshine into this dreary Friday.

Shana Karnes lives and works with teachers in Madison, Wisconsin. Her two daughters push her to discover new texts and sneak in the reading of grown-up ones as often as possible. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

3 Ways to Help Students Tell a Story They’ve Never Told

This morning, with the new audiobook release of Don Graves’ Children Want to Write (narrated by two of our teacher heroes, Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk!), I’m thinking about that true fact: children do want to write. We all do. Our minds are, after all, made for stories.

Children Want to Write (Audiobook)

But to tell our stories is a challenge in so many ways. We live in an age of distraction, many of us are often silenced by society, or we struggle to find an audience we trust.

But most of all, many of us don’t know how to tell a story if we’ve never seen a story like ours told before.

Stop and think about this concept, etched in my mind by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop with her concepts of books as windows, mirrors, and doors. I’ve spent a good deal of my planning time outside of school finding books that can act as windows, mirrors, and doors for my students to either see through, see themselves in, or walk beyond.

But I’m interested today in the way we go further with that discovery. Once you find yourself in a story, how can you tell your own? I realized years ago that I wasn’t just reading voraciously to find my own story; I was looking for a storyteller with whom I could identify: a living, breathing mentor text. I found it when I met Penny Kittle at the New Hampshire Summer Literacy Institutes, a teacher-writer-mother who counseled me on sustainable ways to balance my young children with the work of teaching well.

Until I met Penny, and was bolstered by her support and willingness to share her own story of struggling to be a mom-slash-teacher, I didn’t know how to tell my story. And until I did, I couldn’t be a living, breathing mentor text for my own students, who were thirsting to tell their own stories.

As English teachers, we are blessed to have the opportunity to be that mentor text for our students: teacher-writers who practice, every day, finding and telling stories that resonate. It’s my favorite part of this work, the joy of getting to read and write powerful stories alongside our students. We can offer space for storytelling in our classrooms in three key ways–with vibrant mentor texts, opportunities for playing with genres, and the time to tinker and devote our study to narrative.

  • A well-stocked classroom library, frequent and varied book talks, and mentor texts that flood our students with diverse voices and stories offer our students windows, mirrors, and doors through which they can discover empathy for others and themselves. Seeing a range of stories disrupts the concept of “normal” and helps students see the world in shades of grey, rather than just black and white.
  • Quickwrites and mini-lessons that allow students to play with genre offer possibilities for storytelling they may not have considered: poems, lists, fiction, memoirs, vlogs, podcasts, and multimodel texts show how we can allow the concept of story to flourish in any medium.
  • Time to write: every day, in quickwrites and in workshops, but also over time–when we devote more than just a unit, or a quarter, or a set of standards to the idea of story. We put our money where our mouths are when we return to story again and again, through concepts of argument, informative writing, or creative fiction and nonfiction.

When we offer our students these ingredients, we create a recipe for storytelling that brings authenticity, relevance, and power to our classrooms. A community of readers and writers can be transformed into a workshop of storytellers, who speak and listen through the powerful lens of narrative.

We invite you to share in the comments how you bring story into your classroom!

Shana Karnes loves to read, write, and find stories everywhere in Madison, Wisconsin alongside her two young daughters, hardworking husband, and inspiring teacher friends. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Put Down Your Phone; Pick Up a Poem

Last year, for the first time in 10 years, I taught a collection of middle schoolers whose energy and hormones knocked the wind out of me every day. But there was something different about these 7th and 8th graders and the ones I’d taught in 2008: between classes, there was no physicality, no leaping across the room to gossip, no noisy giggles between huddled heads. Instead, there were searches for a phone charger, quiet smirks over the latest Snapchat, screens quietly being double-tapped as teens scrolled Instagram.

Image result for distracted

I worry about what the constant presence of technology does to our brains. But I worry far more about what we are missing out on when we spend every free moment on our phones rather than just seeing the world around us. In line at the grocery store, sitting at a stoplight, on a treadmill at the gym, I see everyone around me on their phones.

No one looking up. Looking out. Noticing. Absorbing. Living.

I realize I sound a little old and crotchety here, but it’s a real concern of mine: that the beauty of life is fading because no one is seeing it. That at the least we aren’t noticing what’s around us; that at the worst, we feel isolated and alone, disconnected, hopeless.

Early on in each school year, I read a number of articles, poems, or excerpts from books with students. I booktalk The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. We study excerpts from Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle and Brain Rules by John Medina. I ask students to look at their screen time use in their settings and reflect a bit on their habits by attempting to journal their activities for 24 hours.

More deeply, we read the poem “A World of Want” by Tina Schuman, and the article “The Eight-Second Attention Span” by Timothy Egan, together. Schuman’s poem laments “the phone[‘]s chirp” and the “conga-line of cravings” presented us by society and technology in concert; Egan’s article advocates for deep, meaningful activities like reading a book or gardening to help us focus our attention.

The combination of these readings, the journal, and our in-class discussions that spark stories of distraction help students see an authentic need for disconnecting from their phones and reconnecting with the world. We then read the poem “Rereading Frost” by Linda Pastan, which drives the point home: we talk about noticing and “decide not to stop trying.”

I then propose a resolution: putting away our phones not just in class, but beyond, when we’re reading, when we’re noticing, when we’re composing. This habit-forming feeling of connectedness spurs students to be stronger thinkers, readers, and writers, and builds our classroom community as well.

Please share any readings or practices you share with students to help them be better noticers and digital citizens in the comments!

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her children, husband, and cats. In her spare time she endeavors to put down her phone so she can read, write, and think about the world. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

How Healthy is Your Practice?

It seems like self-care, wellness, mindfulness, and balance are all the buzz these days. Yet, too often, I see self-care employed as a marketing technique or a rationalization tool: buy this face mask! Do some mindfulness coloring! Treat yo’self to that $6 latte! Schedule a 6-night, 7-day spa retreat in Switzerland! IT’S FOR SELF-CARE!!

Yeah, no.

I admit, I bought into the hype a little bit and splurged at Target a few weeks ago in the “self-care” beauty section. But when I struggled mightily to successfully peel off the peel-off face mask that was supposed to “refresh” me, I didn’t feel refreshed. I just felt like a moron when I looked at my patchy, half-green face in the mirror. Instead of feeling satisfied, I felt, “wow, I can’t even PEEL OFF A FACE MASK.”

Not helpful, y’all.

Instead of having a teaching-life balance that somehow makes me think a peel-off face mask will help me feel less stressed (but instead makes me feel like a Halloween makeup artist), I need to have a teaching-life balance that is rejuvenative all on its own.

As a teacher, it’s a constant struggle not to get to the point in a school day where I don’t feel overwhelmed. When I think about the orientation courses in my inbox, the IEP feedback forms sitting in a folder on my desk, the messy disaster that is my classroom library, the toppling stack of writer’s notebooks students submit for feedback every other Friday…I don’t feel the need for some little moments of self-care. I feel the anxious, grasping need for escape to that spa in Switzerland, except I never really want to return from the spa to my real life.

We cannot let ourselves get to this point.

As teachers, we have to cultivate a practice that is more responsible, more sustainable, more respectful to the fact that we are HUMANS, and that we should feel ABLE to do our jobs, to do the work of teaching because we love it, and not because we’re suffering from some teacher-as-martyr delusions of grandeur and existential suffering.

A tweet about this very feeling from Dulce-Marie Flecha stuck with me–so much so that I still remember it, word for word, nearly five months later:

This sentiment struck me, forcefully, in mid-April: when tests were looming and assemblies were rampant and the science fair kept interrupting my carefully-crafted multigenre lesson schedule. I was so stressed out by the daily practice of teaching middle schoolers, on top of having two kids under the age of three and a life in general, that I really felt I could not do the work of teaching. I knew I had to make a lasting change that was more sustainable than trying to survive on coffee and weekend laundry marathons and naps.

Tami Forman writes in Forbes that self-care is actually kind of boring: it’s boundaries, it’s saying no to things we know we shouldn’t take on, it’s turning off the TV so we can actually get some sleep. It’s the little things, the simple habits that make our lives manageable.

Image result for onward elena aguilar
I’m reading Onward this year with a group of colleagues, which offers guidance for how to know yourself and your limits as an educator, so you can design a sustainable teaching practice more successfully.

And as an English teacher, it’s crafting a curriculum, a classroom, and a culture at school that don’t require me to give feedback on every single paper, to grade every single page a student reads, to be on every committee or lead every after-school activity.

We have to do what we can, the best we can.

If you’re spending too much time stressing out about your inadequacies as a teacher, consider how you might revise your teaching practice to be more sustainable, more balanced, more enjoyable. It’s more than just throwing that stack of papers you meant to grade in the recycling bin: it’s thinking carefully about how you might shift the cognitive load in your classroom toward student self-assessment, conferences, and peer feedback rather than just being all on you. It’s something that’s beneficial for teachers and students alike.

Ask yourself: how healthy is my teaching practice? And let us know in the comments how you’ve made shifts to keep your work and life in balance, so you have time to read all the latest and greatest YA, doodle in your own writer’s notebook, and daydream poetry.

Shana Karnes lives and works in Wisconsin alongside many smart, thoughtful, inspiring English teachers via the Greater Madison Writing Project. She enjoys reading, writing, and poem-ing in any spare time she gets when she’s not with her two baby girls and hardworking husband. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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