Category Archives: Shana Karnes

Artifacts of Our Learning: A Classroom Museum

One of the things I love most about learning is how dynamic it is–how sometimes there is tangible evidence of growth in thinking, but how (many) other times it’s invisible to our eyes and others’ when we’ve learned a lesson well.

It’s an art, in my opinion, to try to represent our thinking to others–through talk, images, poems, music, or any genre. That’s why in the past, so many of my final projects with students have been multigenre–it’s much too hard to try to encompass learning in one simple genre.

This year, as I wondered how my students might share their learning with one another at the end of the year, I kept coming back to the concept of art. Any creative offering is an artifact of the artist’s mind in one particular time and place–what Picasso created in his early years is much different than his later works.

For a final assessment of our learning, I asked my students to think like artists whose works would be displayed in a museum, and to bring in something that represented their learning. To prepare, I asked them to look back at their early notebook writings and one-pagers to discover artifacts of their thinking about our readings, their writing, and their growth as teachers and thinkers over the semester, and to write a brief explanation of how their learning was represented.

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Our classroom was transformed into a museum that was a diverse, multigenre affair. We played music as we set up our artifacts and their explanation cards around the room.

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Once our artifacts were on display, students set out papers or their notebooks for peers to write on, and we each rotated around the displays and wrote notes to one another. There was lots of talk, writing, and laughter. It was a lovely, celebratory atmosphere.

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Students came into class with representations of their learning; they left with tangible artifacts of their peers’ feedback. Making learning visible has been a key theme of ours this semester, as a book by that same title was our central text study. In addition to a summative representation of learning, I hoped to get my students thinking about how to represent their thinking in a way that wasn’t literally getting it down on paper.

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I paired our end-of-year museum of learning with individual conferences with students about their final assignments and projects. These two activities–the visible representation of our learning, and our talk through it–were the things that helped me not only pop a grade into the gradebook for students, but end the semester on a high point, feeling connected to my students and optimistic about the future of our collective learning and growth…which, as is true for all artists, will never end.

What are you thinking of doing to wrap up your time with students? Please share your ideas for student reflections, self-assessments, or showcases in the comments!

Shana Karnes is wrapping up her semester with students at West Virginia University, finishing a yearlong C3WP workshop with the National Writing Project @WVU, and delightedly bidding adieu to the longest winter ever. She’s excited to start a summer of reading, reflecting, writing, and collaborating with her PLN…and spending time in the sun with her two lovely daughters! Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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My Students Teach Me 5 Strategies To Use Today…and So Much More

You know, growing up, I didn’t have very many female friends.

Teenage girls are a difficult species, and when I was one, I was sensitive, shy, and pretty happy to stay solitary. Frankly, I found my middle and high school peers a little scary, and a lot intimidating. I happily read books in lieu of having girlfriends–or boyfriends, come to think of it.

But, since teaching is a very female-dominated profession, I’ve been unable to avoid working with women on a daily basis.

And I am so thankful for that.

Becoming a teacher has taught me a great many things, but one of the most beautiful things it has brought me are so many amazing friendships with strong, intelligent, passionate, driven women. Women like my Three Teachers Talk sisters Amy and Lisa; women like my work friends Marissa and Elaine; women like my college-level colleagues Audra, Sarah, and Sharon; women like my college classmates Maggie and Caitlin.

img_0076And for the past two years, as I have worked with preservice teachers of all content areas and grade levels, my students have been almost exclusively female. These ladies embody girl power as they work through the stringent requirements of our program and navigate the emotional ups and downs of their first days of teaching.

This weekend, I was so lucky to get to chair a presentation by five of my secondary English teachers, in which they shared a successful strategy they’d used in their classrooms. As I watched them confidently lead a room full of English teachers through activities and questions, I felt both like a proud mama and their soul sister.

My kids have come of age, and have joined our teacher tribe.

img_0077At our WV ELA State Conference, Elizabeth, Brittany, Sarah, Victoria, and Rachel shared one each of their tried-and-true strategies with participants.

  • Elizabeth shared her brilliant “I Wish I Could Have Said” notecard idea, in which her students jot down ideas they never got to share in whole-group discussion, partner talk time, or in writing. Elizabeth collects their cards periodically and responds in a variety of ways. Her handouts are here.
  • Brittany shared a critical literacy activity she uses for either reading or writing in which her students read a given text through a specific lens. She scaffolds this activity to be as simple as reading for sensory details, or as complex as reading through the lens of postmodernism. You can view her handouts here.
  • Sarah shared an activity in which she staged a murder scene in her classroom, having her students evaluate the scene like detectives in order to craft claims and support them with specific details. She used this as a lead-up to her argument writing unit. Her handouts are here.
  • Victoria shared how she brings games into the classroom to help her middle school students practice democratic curricula and choice. After they work through a game, they craft a product that narrates their experience in multiple genres. You can see Victoria’s handouts here.
  • Rachel shared a post-it note strategy in which her students wrote in pairs in response to a specific question or prompt she gave. Then, she’d conference with students about the given topic, using their post-it as an artifact, providing multiple opportunities for students to think through and revise their responses. She shared how this could work as a brainstorming activity, pre- or post-assessment activity, or spin on a quickwrite.

As I reflect on all these young women have taught me over their past two years in my cohort, I am struck by how much more than just their educational wisdom they have unknowingly shared with me. They’re full of great ideas and effective strategies, but they’re also full of strength, humor, perseverance, compassion, and joy.

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Young educators can teach us so much. Let this be a lesson to listen not only to their fresh-from-college, research-based ideas, but also to be inspired by their energy, optimism, and idealism. The success of our profession depends on them, and our students will soon be in their capable hands.

And, if you’re open to learning…you never know what they might teach you.

Shana Karnes is thankful to teach at West Virginia University, where she works with preservice teachers in the College of Education. She is the mom of two-year-old and five-month-old daughters and wife of an orthopedic surgical resident. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Getting Around the Gradebook: How (and Why) to Go Gradeless

I spent a good portion of my spring break last week catching up on reading all of my students’ writing, and their thinking was a real treat. It is a blessing to work with preservice teachers, whose idealism and energy remind me of the optimistic fervor with which I tackled any challenge that came my way as a new educator.

As I read their work last week, I left comments, asked questions, and gave feedback. Often, I wrote thank-you notes to kids at the end of their papers–thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you for sharing them with me. Thank you for being you.

I did not leave grades.

I have believed for a long time that grades are part of the systematic destruction of our students’ love of learning. We’re killing their creativity, as Ken Robinson discusses in his TED talk that my students and I watched on the first day of class this semester:

We began our year with Ken Robinson’s powerful suggestion that we educate students out of their creativity–and yet, that we must teach students to survive in a future that we can neither predict nor imagine.

We next read Paulo Freire, who suggests in A Pedagogy of Freedom that the purpose of teaching is to create the possibilities for the production and construction of knowledge, that “what is essential is to maintain alive the flame of resistance that sharpens their curiosity and stimulates their capacity for risk.”

Just take a moment and let that sink in. THE FLAME OF RESISTANCE! THE CAPACITY FOR RISK! It’s beautiful, people!!!!!

So, where do grades have a place in this utopian vision for great teaching and learning?

My students’ thinking, which aligns with my own, suggests that they don’t. In fact, they create a dystopia: Jamie writes that students have shifted from being “programmed for learning” to just experiencing “programmed learning.” Kat lamented that “students are taught to anticipate rather than participate.”

It is essential that things change.

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See? He’s totally Colin Firth

After becoming enamored with Ken Robinson’s Colin Firth-esque looks (to my mind, at least), I picked up his book Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. He narrates the audio version, and as he speaks to me in his adorable British accent, he advocates for a vision of change to the systems through which children learn.

Ken argues that schools and learning have long been erroneously thought of as mechanized processes, and that as such, efforts to reform them have been framed as simple tweaks, such as one would make to an industrial process in order to streamline it. But Ken presents a clear argument that learning is not an industrialized process, but rather an organic one: a complicated, complex system that cannot be standardized.

When I finish the book, I am sure I will be able to go and fix everything that is wrong with education today, but in the meantime, I’m content to a) recommend it to you, and b) stand firm in my commitment to make changes where I can.

I reflected, and found a place to make a change.

The change I made this semester was in removing grades from my classes. I had to cheat a little to do this, but I like the way it’s worked out. While I’ve always longed to do away with grades, I struggled with how to do so within the confines of a system that makes me put grades into a gradebook.

I found the answer in one of Tom Romano‘s syllabi from my Teaching Writing class with him:

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(Yes, I save syllabi for years. Electronically. I’m a teacher, okay?! That means I hoard.)

That was it, I decided. Eureka! Do the work. Do it well and do it on time. You’ll get an A. No ifs, ands, or buts.

 

Now, as I read student work via Google Docs, I focus on leaving organic comments, questions, reactions. I push and prod, pull and praise. I focus on what’s important, as Amy writes here.

My students receive feedback from their critical friends and me, and engage in a conversation with all of us in the comments. We talk about their work in class, read it together, and pull out highlights and paste them into shared Google Docs, like these from our midterm self-assessments:

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(At the end of the semester, I’ll compile those highlights, some variation of which we do weekly, into a printed anthology I’ll give to each student.)

In my grading spreadsheet, I give full credit to match the point values of each assignment–10 points for one-pagers, 50 points for major papers, 25 points each for self-assessments and notebook turn-ins. No thinking about percentages or worrying about fractions. Just an A for work done well and on time, because it removes the pressure from students to worry about their grades.

Because I teach teachers, I get to be very meta about my processes, and I’ve practiced giving strong and thoughtful feedback alongside my students. We study our students’ (and our own) products, discuss what learning we see being made visible, and work to improve our feedback methods and messages each week:

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If I can’t remove grades, and the stress that comes with them, I’ll give all students a grade that makes them stop worrying about whether they’ll attain that A or not. That is what I have been longing to give them: learning unfettered by the pressure to boil down their thinking to a number or letter.

All thinking, reading, writing is worth so much more than a grade. It’s worth a reader, a respondent, a friendly ear, a coaching eye, a nurturing nudge.

This is my cheat code for how I’ve managed to get away from being a grade-doling disciplinarian, and come to enjoy being a truly engaged teacher of my students’ growth.

How do you get around the gradebook? Please share your strategies in the comments.

Shana Karnes teaches preservice teachers at West Virginia University, works with practicing ELA teachers through the National Writing Project @WVU, and reads approximately 562 books a day with her two daughters, ages 4 months and 23 months. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

 

West Virginia Teachers are #55United: About the Strike

img_7280This week and last has seen my wild and wonderful state in the news quite a bit more than we’re accustomed to. Today marks the sixth day of a statewide teacher work stoppage brought about by decades-long frustration over legislative inaction to prioritize a long-term solution to problems with teacher benefits, salaries, and qualifications. As a result, every single school in all 55 counties of our state is closed.

Since I’m not teaching K-12 anymore, I’m a little removed from this strike, but as a teacher who is invested in public education, I’m very much aware of the reasons teachers are protesting.

A good place to get acquainted with the reasons behind the strike is this lovely post by Jessica Salfia, our West Virginia Council of Teachers of English president.

The skyrocketing insurance premiums Jessica mentions are a large part of teachers’ frustration. The proposed changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, known here as PEIA, would impact not just teachers but all public employees. The new premium and deductible schedule, created when state funding for PEIA decreased, would mean a huge increase in monthly insurance premiums, annual deductibles, and maximum out-of-pockets.

For my family, for example (PEIA is our only insurance option, since my husband and I are both state employees), our monthly premium would increase from $140 a month to $308 per month. Our annual deductibles would increase from $1025 per person to $2600 per person.

The legislature initially offered a 1% pay raise per year over 5 years–$404 per year, which is 1% of the average teacher salary, and is all they’re offering to every teacher, regardless of their salary or experience. Even over 5 years, that raise would not offset the proposed increases to PEIA costs. Educators–and all public employees–would effectively have their paychecks cut.

In addition, legislators had bills on the table to lower teacher certification standards to fill some of the 700+ teaching vacancies in our state, to remove seniority, and to reduce the power of unions in West Virginia. This is all on top of the fact that West Virginia teacher salaries rank 48th in the nation–the 3rd lowest in America.

img_7278It’s clear why teachers are frustrated, right?

Fast forward to Tuesday of this week, when Governor Jim Justice announced that he would find the funds to offer a 5% raise immediately to teachers while a task force worked on a long-term solution to the PEIA problem. This article from The Atlantic details Justice’s expectation that with this solution, teachers would return to work this Thursday. (The article also does a wonderful job explaining the strike in more detail, with context given by my friend and colleague, Audra Slocum.)

Today is Thursday…and schools are still closed. As I drove to work this morning, teachers were still lining the major roadways with their signs waving in the cold rain. A chorus of horns drowned out my radio in support of the teachers’ efforts.

The strike continues.

My students and I will watch this video message from John Green in class today, and we’ll discuss what education might look like if Green’s vision of public education–a vision in which all citizens valued their right to a quality, free education and were willing to collectively fund it because they believed in its importance–were reality.

img_7279That is the heart of why teachers are protesting, in my opinion, and it’s why I support the #55United effort. Our students’ right to a high-quality education is of paramount importance. It is with that education that they can enact change, as the students of Parkland have this week. When we value education and educators, we show our faith in our young people. West Virginia seems to lack a commitment to high-quality education when it proposes to lower teacher certification standards, salaries, and benefits to an unrealistic, and damaging, level.

I became a teacher because I wanted to change the world for the better. I wish the taxpayer base, legislative bodies, and voting public who can influence the direction of public education in this country believed that of all teachers, so that our profession could be elevated to its full potential.

What are your questions about the West Virginia teacher strike? Please leave your questions or messages of support in the comments, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter!

Shana Karnes lives and teaches in West Virginia, whose students, teachers, and mountains are wild and wonderful. She works with preservice and practicing teachers at West Virginia University and is a proud member of the National Writing Project at WVU and the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Everyday Activism: Enacting Change in Your Classroom

I’ve waged a war between sadness and hope this week in my teaching life. Sadness that yet again, another mass shooter took the lives of students and teachers. Hope that this time, the response would be different.

This is the first mass shooting I’ve followed news coverage of since becoming a mother, and accordingly, my sadness is magnified a thousandfold. I cannot imagine losing one of my precious children; I could imagine it even less before I had them.

But, my hope is greater after this tragedy, too. I’ve been so warmed by stories of students who survived the shooting mobilizing to enact change, like this one from NPR. “This kind of activism feels really different, compared with past mass shootings,” says journalist Brian Mann.

These passionate students-turned-survivors have spurred me toward activism, too. I don’t think there’s a simple solution to this complex, multilayered problem–and I don’t think our national conversation should attempt to polarize the issues of gun control and mental illness. I don’t know the right way to deal with either of those issues, but I do know a place where we, as teachers, can begin to enact change.

That place is in our classrooms, where students like Nikolas Cruz can sometimes go unseen for so long that they transform from lonely teenagers to angry gunmen before our eyes.

Our classrooms, where so often we have students so busy working toward meeting standards that they barely have time to meet our eyes, or one another’s.

Our classrooms, where, yes, great learning happens–but where teen realities like bullying, rejection, and failure happen, too.

Are you seeing these layers to your students’ identities? Seeing beyond who they are as readers and writers, and into who they are as friends, sons, daughters, boyfriends, and girlfriends? Who they are as social beings outside our classrooms?

We must see our students this way. We must make every effort to foster conditions of inclusivity, to teach in culturally responsive ways, to, simply, see our students as people and not just learners. When we do, we transform from spectators to activists.

Desiring to build community is no longer just a nice goal to have in addition to covering content standards. The ramifications of leaving students alienated are becoming more and more significant.

Inclusivity is no longer just a buzzword–it has become a matter of life and death.

Our teens are unhappier than ever, bombarded by apps that promise connection but in reality deliver isolation. They feel so lonely that they are spurred toward violence–toward themselves or others–in alarmingly increasing numbers. Nikolas Cruz is just the most visible product of this horrific trend.

There is so much we can do to see our students, to help them feel seen. Glennon Doyle writes here about a way her son’s teacher thoughtfully fosters inclusivity and interaction in her classroom by “breaking the codes of disconnection” she unravels when she really sees her students.

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I must have felt that message keenly when I planned my classes this week, since I packed in as many small-group or partner talk- and feedback-filled activities I could. My students wrote to one another–about having patience with and faith in our students–in their notebooks. They got into groups to talk about ways to individualize curriculum, and created anchor charts with their takeaways. They formed different groups to devise a list of creative alternatives to traditional tests, so every student could feel successful, on a Google doc.

My students also wrote their autobiographies this week, and workshopped them with a partner they don’t usually talk to. As I scanned through their comments on one another’s work, I was filled with joy:

“This makes my heart happy!” one student wrote in her response to a classmate’s heartfelt description of his fiancee.

“I feel sorry for anyone who will be Alex’s colleague–in a good way! She’ll be one of the best teachers at her school and will push her colleagues to be the best that they can be.”

“I’d love to work with a teacher like you.”

I watched my students read their peers’ comments, and little smiles stole over their faces.

A huge, happy grin stole over mine.

In response to violence, I drew my students closer–to one another, to our subject, to me. I wanted them to have the chance to see one another, to feel seen, and for me to see them more clearly as people and not just students. Workshops like these bring students together. They work, and if you’re skeptical, here are five reasons you’re wrong. When we teach into our students’ needs–both academic and personal–we make a difference. We enact change–every day.

And maybe, we save lives.

Please comment and share ways you help your students see one another and feel seen. We’d love to know how you do this important work.

Shana Karnes loves her work with preservice teachers at West Virginia University, with practicing teachers through the National Writing Project at WVU, and with her amazing thinking partners here at Three Teachers Talk. She is hopeful that this generation of students and teachers will be better, kinder, more open–and she will never stop trying to make that hope a reality. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Finding Teaching Inspiration in the Dark of Winter

I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice.  The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.

But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice.  Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.

And now, in the dead of winter, I’m exhausted. It feels like I have no ideas. I’m looking for inspiration in my teaching, my reading, and my writing–inspiration I never seem to be able to come up with on my own. So I’m going back into my notebook and re-reading my summer entries, where I was full of ideas and energy.

This summer, I worked with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute.  As we read and wrote and thought and planned about argument writing, I jotted down two things in my notebook I could do that would withstand the crush of the reality of our profession and inspire me all year long.

Embrace the Wobble

Ounnamed_origne of our central texts for the institute was Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen.  This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga.  The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose.  We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.

GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one–we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it.  “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4).  It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.

What this looked like in terms of our theme of teaching argument writing was revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation.  This new mindset required all of us to “wobble” as we tried to conceive of it, and we wobbled in even our understandings of its many moving parts–what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices.  As we were flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we all wobbled with the confidence we’d eventually reach flow.

This semester, as I wrestle with finding energy and inspiration in the wake of having two small children, the new pose I’m trying out is going gradeless. It’s reshaping the way my students and I dialogue about their work, but it’s still an uphill battle to wrestle them away from the temptation to wonder what their grade is…or my own inclination to compulsively give my opinion on their work in the form of a letter or number. I’m definitely in the midst of the wobble, but I’m hopeful that by the end of the semester, I’ll get closer and closer to the state of flow.

But whenever things do start to (finally) go smoothly, I’ll need to yank myself out of my newly-found comfort zone and get into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.

This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers–just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.

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Become a Writer

Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.

Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:

  • Sharing articles with colleagues
  • Commenting on education blogs
  • Participating in Twitter chats about educational issues
  • Joining organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English
  • Participating in local workshops

Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27).  These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.

Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable.  If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer:  What It Means to Teach as a Writer.”  These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it.  From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome:

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Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher.  It is a fight, with two kids under two plus a job and a household to keep up with, to find time to write, to read, to engage. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve missed a Twitter chat or skipped notebook time to tend to a crying child, fold some laundry, or cook a meal. But I find that whenever I can eke out 10 minutes of writing time, meaningful Twitter conversation, or professional reading, I feel better. I feel inspired.

I hope, like me, you’ll make an effort to keep a writer’s notebook, blog regularly, and write beside your students every time you see them in class.  Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer–although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily–is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.

As you find yourself wondering, in the dark of winter, how to get excited and inspired once again, try these two things: wobble and write. Here’s hoping for a speedy end to winter and all the joy and optimism the spring always brings…as we work to become better teachers every day.

Shana Karnes teaches in the College of Education at West Virginia University, writes in her notebook whenever she can squeeze in the time, mothers two daughters under the age of two, and reads voraciously at the oddest moments–at the gym, during middle-of-the-night feedings, and at stoplights. Find Shana on Twitter at @litreader, or read more of her writing at the WVCTE Best Practices Blog, where a version of this post originally appeared.

 

A Reading Conference with Tom Romano

I am fortunate to be on friendly-emailing terms with the great Tom Romano, from whom I’ve learned much about good writing instruction, multigenre, and student voice.

So when I received an email from him the other day, asking for book recommendations, I laughed aloud. My most excellent writing mentor, asking me what to read next?

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I admit, I balked a little at first. This was like having Tiger Woods ask you what golf club to try next. But then, I fell back on my tried-and-true reading conference strategies, which I’ve used countless times over the years with reluctant and prolific readers alike.

As with any student, I had much of what I needed in order to give a good recommendation between the request itself and my background knowledge of Romano. When students need help finding something to read, we’ll often meet at the bookshelf. As they stare blankly at the wall of books, one of the first questions I ask is:

“What are you in the mood to read?”

Often, students can give me a feeling–something fun, lighthearted, serious, or challenging–or a genre–romance, nonfiction, adventure. It’s even better when they can give me specific titles that relate to their preferences. I usually glean these titles by asking:

“What’s the last book you read that you loved?”

In his request, Romano gave me all the information I needed–he wanted something literary, something like The Nightingale (which I’d read after Lisa recommended it to me), Atonement, or All the Light We Cannot See. He’d also answered another question I usually ask readers:

“What’s your reading plan?”

Knowing where a student will be reading this book–at work in short spurts, at home in long stretches, or on a crowded bus on the way to an athletic event–impacts my recommendation as well. Here, Romano told me he’d be reading for long, uninterrupted stretches of time in airports, so I knew I could suggest something all-consuming.

So, I stuck with my usual formula:

I recommended three titles.

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Exit West is a title I’ve heard a great deal about and would love to read, but haven’t gotten to yet; The Secret History is an amazing hidden gem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt that I read about 15 years ago; and A Man Called Ove is a new viral title that made me sob hard over Girl Scout cookies and coffee as I finished reading it. My three recommendations usually consist of something old, something new, and something I haven’t read yet.

I wrapped up my pitch as I always do, with a clincher:

A promise of what the book will do for the reader.

A week went by, and last night at 11 pm, I received another email from Romano:

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“Loved Ove.”

A successful end to a successful reading conference, if you ask me…but of course, like any other conversation about books, I couldn’t let it end there. I just had to throw in one more recommendation, which I always do for my students when they return a book:

“If you liked that book, you should try ______________.”

This quick exchange of emails, like so many off-the-cuff conversations we have with students, was packed full of powerful data about a reader’s interests and abilities; a teacher’s knowledge of texts and titles, and most importantly, the transaction between the two parties–a shared endeavor to find a just-right book at just the right time.

All our words are imbued with purpose and power when we are discussing literacy. Reading conferences don’t need to be formal, sit-down conversations all the time. They have just as much weight when they’re held standing at the bookshelf, passing in the hallway, or from afar via email. This reading conference with Tom Romano reminds me: never take any of our talk about books for granted.


Do you have a what-to-read conference “formula?” What other titles might you recommend to Tom and me? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is eagerly awaiting the end of flu season so she can go back to work without worrying about her two tiny daughters getting sick…again. When her family is actually healthy, she teaches preservice educators at West Virginia University, goes for long runs while listening to even longer audiobooks, and tweets about reading, writing, and school at @litreader.

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