Category Archives: Shana Karnes

It’s Okay to Not Know What to Do Next

Today feels weird. 

Weirder than a normal Friday the 13th, full moon, week after time change. 

If you live in Ohio like Angela, you might feel like the world is burning. If you live in WI like Shana, you might feel like, what is happening?

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No matter where you live, we want to remind you that it’s okay not to know the answers today. It’s okay to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wait a while until you begin to try to figure out next steps. 

It’s okay to give kids an (air) hug and send them on their way with excitement in your voice. That’s what they need. 

It’s okay to keep up your usual lunchtime rant sessions alongside colleagues instead of maintaining “social distance.” It’s okay to worry about where we might send our own children if their districts close and ours remain open. It’s okay to continue to allow large gatherings of students to gather in our classrooms for lunch. Normalcy isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.

I’m in a school today and hear teachers saying, “Have a great spring break!” And as soon as the kids leave, teachers are gathering work, finding chromebooks to send home, and collaborating on next steps, preparing for the worst.

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe it’s okay to wait until Monday to see what unfolds. 

We want to create space as a community of teachers here at Three Teachers Talk to support each other. How might we figure out ways to eventually deliver instruction to kids remotely? It’s not enough to just assign StoryWorks, or send links home, or hope our kids have access to Schoology or Flipgrid. How can we continue to create space for our student communities to support each other? How can we make those experiences meaningful…ish? 

But that’s a post for later. 

Today we just want to join together in a collective hug deep breath gesture of support that doesn’t involve droplet transmission of any kind. 

Because we’re teachers. And we got this. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Shana Karnes teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. Together, they support one another’s practice, reassure each other about political, social, and healthcare upheavals, and keep each other motivated to write through the use of witty text messages and snarky GIFs. May you find an equally like-minded teacher friend to help you survive and succeed in these trying times. Connect with us on Twitter at @wordnerd and @litreader, respectively.

Pairing Poetry & Nonfiction

One of my favorite literary pairings is that of a nonfiction piece and a poem. Opinion columns, argumentative essays, editorials, and biographies strike me so much more strongly when I connect them to a short, sweet, descriptive text like a poem.

Maybe it’s because I feel like the prose of Leonard Pitts, Jr. reads more like poetry. Maybe it’s because when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates I feel like I’m listening to a song. Maybe it’s because when I read Mary Karr or Tina Fey or Roxane Gay or Elizabeth Gilbert or Joan Didion I feel like I’m enjoying a piece of performance art rather than just reading “nonfiction.”

So, connecting nonfiction and poetry seems natural to me, which is perhaps why I so loved “Black Like Me” by Renee Watson. Watson, a prolific YA author who’s also an educator, reimagines John Howard Griffin’s original book into a combination essay/poem that feels like a cohesive narrative rather than two separate genres. I loved reading it alongside students this week and discussing how relevant this piece still is, although it’s describing a time fifty years in the past.

The pairing of a poem with an essay was a powerful one with which our students practiced intertextuality and close reading. I urge you to take a look at this text with your students, or try out the poem-nonfiction pairing of your choice…and consider sharing those pairings with us in the comments!

Shana Karnes works in Madison, Wisconsin alongside fabulous students, colleagues, and a professional learning community second to none. She works with teachers in the Greater Madison Writing Project and 9th through 12th graders in all content areas. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Discomfort Leads to Learning

I recently started working with a delightfully sadistic personal trainer named Carol.

Carol has five children, is in her late fifties, and can literally bench press me if I’m not doing squats or pull-ups to her satisfaction. The first time Carol pushed me through a workout, I couldn’t even lift up my two-year-old after our session ended. I groaned in discomfort basically every time I moved for 24 hours afterward and cursed Carol’s name from afar.

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But over the past few weeks, the challenging workout has become gradually easier. I can finish the routine without my legs turning to jelly and grimacing in pain every time I try to climb stairs the next day. What was once incredibly difficult is now the just-right amount of challenging, and the success I feel in surviving one of these workouts motivates me to attempt another one.

As I’ve limped around our high school on the days after my training sessions, I’ve noticed a connection between challenge and growth. My students are keen to avoid discomfort of any kind–social, emotional, and academic. They have a multitude of coping mechanisms that help them disengage from challenge, and it’s impacting their learning negatively, to say the least.

It’s only natural to want to avoid challenge. Recently, a colleague gently pointed out the implicit bias in some of the talk teachers engaged in when discussing students. Her attention to deficit-based language made me blush in embarrassment at first, but a day after thinking over her (fair and accurate) critique, I was grateful for her challenge.

Without feeling uncomfortable, I never would’ve realized that there was a lesson to be learned. Fortunately, this colleague framed her noticings as a call-in to action and revision, rather than a call-out of mistakes made that are unfixable.

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This attitude toward challenge is what Zaretta Hammond refers to as a “warm demander pedagogy” in her work on culturally responsive teaching. Warm demanders encourage students toward growth by forming a “therapeutic alliance between the person in need of change and the person there to help support the change process” (92).

Being warm demanders and encouraging our students to live in the zone of proximal development is difficult, but I believe inviting our students into a place of challenge and discomfort is the most valuable component of the learning process. As teachers, it’s our job to match our students to the challenges and resources that they need to grow as individuals. Indeed, Hammond urges teachers to position learners “so that they will take the intellectual risk and stretch into the zone of proximal development. That’s the point of rapport” (82).

In our classroom, normalizing and valuing intellectual risk–urging students to dwell in discomfort as we learn–is something my learners and I prioritize. This can look like valuing process over product, rewarding choice and challenge rather than compliance and conformity, or offering frequent opportunities to revise thinking and assignments. Within our professional learning communities, this can also look like inviting others to challenge themselves via call-ins and alliances as co-conspirators.

And so I urge you, first and foremost, to read Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. And then I invite you to challenge your students, your colleagues, and yourselves to spend some time dwelling in discomfort: the place where we can most genuinely measure ourselves.

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Shana Karnes lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and enjoys working with her 9th graders and amazing teaching team. She continues to challenge herself as a learner alongside colleagues at the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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.

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