Category Archives: Shana Karnes

A Picture Book for Your High Schoolers

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My Antiracist Reading List

Many years ago in my teaching career, I acknowledged a gaping hole in my pedagogical knowledge that’s rooted in an unchangeable part of my teacher identity: being a white woman.

The implications of this were both large and small. I realized that the students in my classroom who were most successful were the white females. I realized that the students I had the most trouble suggesting books for were the students who were not white females. I realized that my family phone call log was full of communication with male students and students of color.

I knew I needed to make a change. And I realized that the one and only variable of my classroom that I could ever control or change was myself.

It was then that I began to look critically at the systems and norms and institutions I had in place or held in place. I examined my curriculum critically and saw a slew of white authors. I found a canon of classics that were long and uninteresting and irrelevant to my students. I found a syllabus, a classroom contract, and a school handbook of rules that privileged a definition of behavior and compliance defined by white people.

So, I did what I considered an extension of my education program: I read theory, reflected, put it into practice, reflected some more; read more theory, reflected, practiced, repeat.

And I got better. My curriculum became more diverse (adios, dead white guys; hello, @diversebooks), my methods became more student-centered (goodbye, long tests; hello, conferring), my critical reflection became more astute (sayonara, mindless grading; hello, assessment for learning). And my students experienced more successes in reading and writing because I was addressing some of the inequities and inadequacies in my teaching.

Here we are, ten years after that realization, and I’m optimistically hoping antiracist teaching has become an educational aspiration that is normative. And, three states and four schools later, I’m still working to grow and improve.

So this summer, thanks to #cleartheair, #educolor, #disrupttexts, and #thebookchat friends on Twitter, my TBR list has been filled with books about antiracist, equity, and inclusive teaching. It’s been hard to find those books alone, and it’s been especially difficult to find voices of color in books specifically tailored to secondary English pedagogies and methods:

After that conversation, I was left with two things: an impressively wide to-read list filled with BIPOC authors discussing equity, and a distressingly narrow slice of books by BIPOC authors who were writing about literacy methods in high school classrooms. Here’s a short list of titles:

  • Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay
  • Fearless Voices by Alfred Tatum
  • Writing Instruction in the Culturally Relevant Classroom by Maisha T. Winn and Latrise Johnson
  • Total Literacy Techniques by Persida Himmele
  • The Write Thing by Kwame Alexander
  • Linking Literacy and Popular Culture by Ernest Morrell

I wondered why there weren’t more books like this out there, so I did some broader reading, too: Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Gloria Ladson-Billings, James Baldwin. At Cornelius Minor’s suggestion, I read Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers.” At my entire Twitter timeline’s suggestion, I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and ordered Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist.

These readings stirred my thinking in hundreds of ways, but it really boiled down to one change I wanted to make: elevating voices that have historically been silenced.

I specifically want to find and read texts by authors whose perspectives have been marginalized, to amplify those voices and others’ whose have been oppressed, and to help students tell stories they’ve not been able to tell before (but that’s another blog post). This cycle, to me, involves considerable struggle, but it is worth it to help change the narrative of who and what matters in classrooms. This is our tireless work, and my goal this year is to keep at it unflaggingly, with boundless energy, because it matters.

I hope you, too, have dug deep this summer into the changes you hope to make in your students, your teaching, and yourself. I wish you strength this school year as you internalize Baldwin’s words in his talk to teachers: “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it.”


Please share your thinking in the comments: who might you add to this reading list? What changes are you hoping to make this school year? Please also consider joining our writing team!

Shana Karnes lives, learns, and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and babies. This year she’s working with the Greater Madison Writing Project at the University of Wisconsin. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

A Poem to Start Your Notebook

Each morning, I receive two poems in my email inbox: one from The Poetry Foundation, and one from The Writer’s Almanac. One morning in July, I received “More of Everything” by Joyce Sutphen, read it, and thought, wow. That would be so powerful to write beside with students.

As it turns out, some pretty brilliant thinkers receive these same poems in their inboxes, and they took the same poem and ran with it in a beautiful direction:

I often have my students write beside poetry inside our notebooks, but Linda Rief and Penny Kittle have inspired me to bring poetry to the personalization process. I love the idea of having students glue this poem into their personal photos and collage pages we create: it prioritizes an individual, emotional response to literature that is valued in the workshop classroom…and the results of the thinking around this text are beautiful, too.


As you and your students begin the school year and personalize your writer’s notebooks, perhaps you’ll consider adding a text to the start of your journals. Will you share any poems or short texts you frame your year with in the comments?

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin with her husband, daughters, and cats. She is teaching and learning alongside amazing teachers through the Greater Madison Writing Project this year. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Q & A: How do you grade the writer’s notebook?

Questions Answered

For all the years of my teaching career, my students have always kept writer’s notebooks. We personalize our covers and create our own book lists and dictionaries, practice writing, sketching, and glue-ins to make every writer feel at home, and then go about the work of filling those empty pages with ideas, practice, drafts, and beauty throughout our time together. I do this work beside my students, and we inspire each other–the same way I see my teacher mentors do this.

Because of this framing, students are invested in their individual writer’s notebooks, and they are carefully and creatively cultivated. As a result, when I collect the notebooks, it’s not for the purpose of accountability: it’s for the purpose of students sharing something they’ve chosen with me, and for me to gather some information about where my students might need more instruction.

Just as students have their choice reading books lying open on their desks when we talk about their reading lives, they have their own writer’s notebooks lying open when we confer about their writing lives. I can see, and guide, students’ work in the notebook on a daily basis, so when I collect notebooks, most of what I’m seeing isn’t new to me.

Students select two pieces of writing they would like feedback on and flag them with post-it notes, then turn in their notebook every two weeks. I browse through their writing, have a look at their TBR lists and personal dictionaries, and write back on the pieces they’ve noted.

Once per quarter, I ask students to do a “journal harvest,” in which they revisit their writing from that quarter, assess their growth as a writer, set new goals going forward, and choose one piece they may have abandoned to harvest, revise, and polish.

If my classroom were gradeless, that would be that: daily conferences, biweekly turn-ins, quarterly harvests. That gives students a variety of feedback types and times, and gives me, the teacher, enough information to help move individual writers and the class as a whole in their writing growth. Because I have always been required to enter grades weekly into an online gradebook, I make turn-ins worth 20 points and quarterly harvests worth 60 points.

Students who do the work with fidelity and demonstrate growth earn the full points possible. Daily conferences are filled with self-assessment, which informs my “grading”–it’s easier to help award points to students when they’ve already set their own goals and assessed their progress during our conversations during the week.

As always, I treat the notebook as “workshop, playground, repository,” via the guidance of Tom Romano in Write What Matters. It is a place for students to “think, ruminate, speculate with the pressure off and the stakes low” (16), and as such, our grading should reflect that.


Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Shana Karnes lives in Wisconsin and teaches writers, educators, and her own small children how to improve their lives with literacy. As a new resident to the Dairy State, she’d love your recommendations about things to do. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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