Category Archives: Shana Karnes

Lift Off: This One's for You, Teachers

“For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.”

I’ve been so fortunate throughout my teaching career to work within true professional learning communities. My colleagues have been passionate, informed, and welcoming, and as a result, those dreaded professional development days have never, in fact, been days that I have dreaded.

“But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. Disruptive. talkative. A distraction.”

Today is one of those days for our team, as we meet to discuss planning concerns, student successes, and vertical alignment. To frame the day, we began by reading the transcript of a truly beautiful spoken word poem: “Lift Off” by Donovan Livingston.

This poem was performed originally at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 convocation ceremony, and on reading the transcript multiple times, I only find more layers to unpack.

“She told me that our stories are ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars.”

As a learning community, we kicked off our day by standing and reading lines from the poem that struck us powerfully–lines I’ve italicized and woven into this post. Beginning a day with a whipshare of Livingston’s words was a centering way to frame discussions around our work with attention to equity and justice.

“Beneath their masks and mischief, exists an authentic frustration.”

I highly recommend sharing this poem with your teaching team, students, or anyone else who might benefit from rich language around learning. If nothing else, watch it just for yourself–it will help you lift off as you begin your day.

“Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come.”


Shana Karnes is fortunate to live and work this year in Madison, Wisconsin alongside many professional colleagues both in the Madison Metropolitan School District, as well as the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Rollercoaster of a Teaching Career

Last week, I began a new teaching assignment–the seventh in my career.

As I familiarized myself with my new role, new students, and new colleagues, I couldn’t help but reflect on how many turns my teaching life has taken over its twelve year span.

RIP the Vortex, my first looping rollercoaster

I once heard Penny Kittle refer to her ideal reading life as a rollercoaster–some easy, downhill books; some tough, uphill climb books; some that make you want to puke and abandon the ride; some that make you scream with exhilaration and joy.

My teaching life has been a lot like that: a rollercoaster of good years, hard years, long years, and fast years. It’s been a wild ride of new states, new schools, new colleagues, and new subjects. It’s been difficult, and fulfilling, and exhausting, and uplifting.

My rollercoaster teaching life, as full of ups and downs as it is, is a ride that I don’t see ending anytime soon. In fact, as my personal life settles down in the next few years and my husband’s job will no longer require us to frequently relocate, I hope to see some of the bumps and hills even out.

And as much as I loved rollercoasters as a teenager, I’m getting older. I’m ready for a smoother ride.

As a teacher, this means cultivating a sustainable, healthy practice that allows me to feel comfortable and confident as a teacher, while also providing enough excitement and novelty to keep me engaged and interested.

My One Little Word for this year is curate, which I hope will keep me focused and restrained. I’ve been concerned about the health of my teaching practice for a while–my classmates in a summer NWP course noticed that I have a penchant for trying to do/read/learn/investigate/accomplish way too much when it comes to teaching. My friend Chris gave me this invaluable advice: instead of learning more, curate my inquiry process. Hone it. Sharpen it.

And it’s been so helpful, to feel allowed to do less–to make it a goal, in fact, to say “no” more often, or click “save for later” in my Amazon cart for that newest teaching book, or keep thinking about how to improve the depth of my reading instruction without worrying that I’m dropping the ball on writing.

The truth is, teaching is an unsustainable profession if we don’t give ourselves permission to curate. When I was brand new, single, and 21, I relished the fact that I beat the principal to school every day. I loved spending 12 hours in my perfectly-lit, freshly-painted classroom.

But now that I have children, a home, and a slew of other responsibilities to care for, I have to curate. I may not have the most Pinterest-worthy classroom in the future. I may not have the neatest classroom library; I may not sponsor three clubs; I may not volunteer to be on all the committees. But I will be able to do the work I love, which is having a life that allows me to take my daughters to soccer practice and read my students’ fascinating essays from the sidelines.

I hope that this year is a year in the rollercoaster of your teaching life that you enjoy–whether you’re hurtling down the big hill, looping with abandon, or slowly creaking up a steep slope. I hope that you’ve thought of one little word to help focus you, and that it helps you enjoy this year’s ride.

Shana Karnes is enjoying the ride this year with her 9th graders in Wisconsin. She looks forward to moving one last time, to Columbus, Ohio, where she hopes to curate a life that balances teaching, family, and fun. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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.

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