Category Archives: Shana Karnes

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Imitating Poetry: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

Shana’s post in 2015 is a mini-lesson how-to for introducing writers to the process of imitating poetry.


Reading more poetry with my students has been a goal of mine these past few years, and it’s been a goal I feel has been readily achieved with ideas like creating Heart Books or reading novels in verse.

But writing poetry–well, that’s a different story.

Students who aren’t accustomed to writing poetry need a scaffold before they can leap into free verse composition without a topic, genre, or form prompt.  For this scaffold, I use imitation.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Identify patterns of language, structure, and punctuation in a given poem; Modify the style of the given poem to suit your purpose; Create a poem in the style of a given poem.

41KeFnbnPfL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Lesson — Before the mini-lesson, I will have already booktalked two of Mary Oliver’s books–A Poetry Handbook and Dog Songs, which is always a favorite with my students.  As the mini-lesson begins, I’ll read to them from Oliver’s chapter on imitation.

“You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate,” Oliver begins. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.”

“I have some poems here today for us to imitate and investigate,” I follow up.  I pass out the following options, lately garnered from my incredible poetry seminar with Mary Ann Samyn:

“Read over these quickly, and choose one you’d like to imitate.  Then open to a fresh page in your notebook.”

“I’m going to write with you, and I’m going to choose ‘A Display of Mackerel,’” I say.  “It seems long, but look how short the lines and stanzas are.”  I put my chosen poem under the document camera.  “Now, this poem is about a display of fish, and I want to imitate it and write about a display of something.  There’s a pretty big display of colorful objects in my room…” I trail off.

“Your library!” Nathan helpfully supplies.

“Yep,” I agree.  “I’m going to imitate this poem and write about my bookshelf.  I’m just going to change a few words per line, but I’m going to keep all the punctuation and the numbers of words the same.  It’s so easy to write poetry this way.”

On the document camera, I begin my imitation next to Doty’s original:

They lie in parallel rows,                   They rest in slumped rows,

on ice, head to tail,                           on shelves, spine to spine,

each a foot of luminosity                   each a sheaf of wisdom

“See how easy that is?  I keep Doty’s structure, punctuation, and even some of his words.  I just change a few to make the poem about my display of books, rather than his display of mackerel.  Now you take a few minutes to give this a start.”

We set about writing together.

After 10-15 minutes, we each have a full imitation poem.  We break into small groups, working with others who imitated our same poem.  We read our poems aloud.  Feedback is given on what we notice–similarities to and diversions from the original, and the effects of both.

Follow-Up — We’ll practice imitation a few more times before we leap into writing poetry independently.  When we do, I’ll ask, as always, that my students create a small anthology of their work on that genre–some samples of their early forays into poetry through imitation, as well as a few examples of their own independent attempts.  I’ll definitely include my “A Display of Books” in my own anthology, as I find it a lovely description of my library that I’d like to preserve.

My Imitation Poem: “A Display of Books”
by Shana Karnes & Mark Doty

They rest in slumped rows,
on shelves, spine to spine,
each a sheaf of wisdom

creased with cracked spines,
which divide the plots’
most gripping sections

like bands of color
in a double rainbow.
Vibrant, luminous

prismatics: think indigo,
the wildly rainbowed
spectrum of a springtime rain,

think sun spearing through clouds.
Wonder, and wonder,
and all of them in every way

unique from one another
–everything about them
a onetime blend of letters. Thus,

they’re all creative expressions
of a million different souls,
each a tenuous effort

of the soul’s footprint,
writer’s essence. As if,
after a lifetime of drafting

at this printing, the author’s
taken irreversible steps,
each as permanent

in its inked completion
as the one next door
Suppose we were shoulder-to-shoulder,

like these, the same but different
from our universe
of neighbors—would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be in print? They’d prefer,

plainly, to be award winners,
forever honored. Even now
they seem to be straining

forward, heedless of their lifelessness.
They don’t care they’re ink
and simple paper,

just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were imagined:
all, all for all,

the rainbowed shelf
and its acres of brilliant words,
in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How eager they seem,
even on shelves, to be different, selfish,
which is the price of publication.

Alternatives to Reading Logs: A Return

Three Teachers TalkJoin us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

Shana’s post from 2017 sources readers’ ideas for alternatives to reading logs. The ideas are here, and the document is still open for your additions.


Ahhh, Labor Day weekend–that first glorious three-day respite from back to school, or the last vestiges of freedom before it begins.  Whatever this weekend is for you, I hope you’re using it to relax and recharge before we see bright, smiling faces (or sleepy ones) tomorrow.

I bet you’re using a book or two to help you enjoy this weekend–what are you reading?  I’m reading little bits of Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue whenever I can squeeze it in (usually as I fall asleep).  In longer chunks, I’m reading Scaachi Koul’s memoir, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, which is a perfectly-sized series of essays for my busy days.

In quiet moments on long weekends like these, I wonder what our students are doing.  Do their reading lives mirror mine?  If the answer is no…what can I do to help them become readers?

And, more pressingly–is there something I’m doing that’s preventing them from becoming readers?

Reading homework, requirements, levels; book reports, assignments, due dates.  None of these are what I’m tying to the books I’m reading this weekend.

But is that true for our students?

This article from School Library Journal talks about the work done by librarians to match a person to a book.  They call it readers’ advisory.  Then, they lament that so many classrooms discourage the important work of “talking with a child, observing body language for clues, and walking together through the stacks while offering suggestions” and rely on leveled bins, assigned texts, or assessment-bound reading units to get kids to read.

How much of what goes on in my classroom is readers’ advisory–and how much damages that work?

Slide2I’ve been thinking since last May about how we should stop grading independent reading.  The best and brightest in our teacher hive give us their advice and wisdom in books, blogs, and articles, with quotes like this one from Donalyn Miller.  Books, time, encouragement–these are themes we see repeated in what students need to blossom as independent readers.  Nowhere do we see that we need to measure, assess, or grade them.

To be sure, our kids need our instruction and guidance to grow as real readers.  Conferences, follow-up activities, book clubs, goal-setting, talk, and self-assessment are powerful tools to help move students forward.  How can we prioritize those things instead of more measurable (and infinitely less revealing, rewarding, or authentic) methods like reading logs, records, and quizzes?

Well, we really want to know.

Please share with us:  what are your alternatives to reading logs?  How do you approach a gradebook that must be filled, and fill it with meaningful activities tied to reading?


Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 7.15.11 AM


In that Google Doc, we’ll work to compile a series of alternatives to reading logs, and share them here for everyone to benefit from.  You can also leave a comment on this post, write on our Facebook page, or tweet to us.  Together, we can create a repository of ideas and strategies for approaching independent reading in a way that’s authentic and helpful this school year.

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, chocolate (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

%d bloggers like this: