Category Archives: Shana Karnes

Let’s Talk Summer Reading–Without the Pressure

Summer is one of my favorite times of year for reading. I love lying out in the sun with a light paperback, curling up in the corner of the couch with a classic, or falling asleep with my e-reader in my hand under a whirring fan.

Summer reading should be fun for everyone, but especially for teachers and students.

Instead, it’s become such a controversial topic–a buzzword laden with hidden meanings and tensions and polarizing sides. Much of the discourse around reading, and education in general, feels exhausting to me lately. Banned books, mandated books, and everything in between can spark vitriol in teachers who profess to love our students, profession, work.

summer-reading_xs.jpgBut, as ever, reading is the great escape.

And we need that escape–I feel like I never get a break from teaching, and when I do, I don’t know how to seize it. But one thing I love doing in the summertime is reading a book without looking for craft mini-lessons, or thinking about a booktalk I’ll give, or which kid I’ll recommend that title to. That kind of reading can wait until August.

So let’s talk about summer reading, without the pressure. I don’t want to argue with anyone about whether students should be assigned books, or required to participate in book clubs, or the danger of the summer slide or the 20 minutes of reading per day.

I just want to talk books.

Here are some genres and titles I’ve loved so far this summer, and I would love desperately need your recommendations. Please leave them in the comments!

download-1.jpgMurder-Mystery

Still Life is the first in the Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny, and I’ll forever remember reading it in beautiful Canaan Valley, WV during an anniversary getaway. This beautifully written murder-mystery is set in a small town in Canada, and our hero, Gamache, is a quiet observer of human nature, which helps him solve mysteries. I adore the way Penny crafts his thoughts about what he sees, and how many lovely backstories are woven through each mystery in this series.

Page-Turners

download.jpgThe Word Exchange was completely, compulsively, un-put-down-able. Alena Graedon is a new author for me, and her tale of a world that loses its grip on language once a massive tech company monopolizes and commoditizes words was, for me, perfectly timed–I’ve been a little unsettled lately by my observations about how addicted to technology everyone is, and how afraid I am of what it’s doing to my students, and could potentially do to my children. This book spurred me to action in terms of deactivating my Facebook and Instagram accounts and making a conscious effort to leave my phone in another room–to make space to just be, and be bored, and have time to think and wonder and ponder.

download-2.jpgThe Power by Naomi Alderman was just wonderful. It had all the elements of a gripping adventure story, along with a powerful message about what corrupts us. In this novel, women develop an electrostatic power and a society shifts from patriarchal to matriarchal in the space of a few generations as a result. The effect of women suddenly becoming more physically powerful than men leads to widespread revolution in everything from interpersonal relationships to world leadership. It’s beautifully written, too.

download-3.jpgDear Martin was a book I’d been recommended a thousand times, it seemed, but after reading so many books that felt similar–The Hate U Give, Long Way Down, etc., I just couldn’t pick it up–but I’m so glad I finally did. Nic Stone crafts this novel as a series of letters from young Justyce McAllister to Martin Luther King, interspersed with transcripts of news reports and first-person narrative. It’s complex and thoughtful and plausible and readable and powerful. I loved it.

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Nonfiction

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing is Daniel Pink’s latest offering, and as usual, he has an insightful book that has applications for me as an individual, a parent, and a teacher. Pink discusses all the elements of timing that govern our lives, from being a “morning person” to a “night owl,” to the power and importance of building in breaks, taking naps, and seeking out social and alone time. He frames this all in the usual compelling narrative style that makes his writing so readable and interesting to me.

download-4.jpgTeaching Books

180 Days is proving difficult for me to get into. I’ve had it on my desk for over a month, but every time I pick up this collaboration between Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, I feel like I’m having an emotional battle. My former classroom teacher self wars with my preservice teacher professor self wars with my currently nonteaching summer self when I read about the decisions that go into planning for a packed, skill-building, book-loving, writing-doing, meaningful, 180-day school year. I think it just contributes to that overall feeling of exhaustion I have, so maybe I just need to pick it up when I’m a little more rested.


What are you reading this summer? What books and places help you take a break from teaching? Please share in the comments or on Twitter via @3teacherstalk.

Shana Karnes is enjoying summer reading in West Virginia with her two daughters. She spends lots of time at the public library, the university rec center, and Target–because books, running, and iced coffee while shopping are joyful things. Shana works with practicing teachers through the National Writing Project and formerly taught preservice educators and high school students. Let’s talk reading on Twitter–I’m @litreader for a reason!

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Can’t Turn Off the Teacher

It’s finally summer break! That wonderful time of year when I can shut my brain off entirely–no reading, no writing, no thinking.

That’s the goal, anyway. What ends up happening is a week of mindless Netflix binges (this year it’s Suits, because I want to see Meghan Markle pre-princess), romance novel reads, a few days at the beach, a few household projects tackled.

Then it’s right back into teacher mode, even when I don’t want it to be.

Listening to a podcast? Oh, sounds like a great format for conferring. Texting with my family about a book? Oh, what a great genre for a literary autobiography. Selling a car on Craigslist? Oh, what a great authentic writing piece for my high school students. And the list goes on:

I can’t seem to turn off my teacher brain, even when I crave the break from the school year summer provides.

Image result for when daniel pinkI grapple with this every summer. As a new teacher, I tried to make myself take the whole summer off from thinking about teaching, feeling like I was doing something wrong when I started doodling writing units or reading activity ideas. Later in my career I felt satisfied if I could turn off my teacher brain for just the month of June, and get back into the swing of things starting July 1.

We all need breaks. Daniel Pink’s latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, reminded me of that. He gives some background on the effectiveness and helpfulness of “vigilance breaks” and “restorative breaks,” the latter of which are taken to help sharpen our mental acuity after too much thinking and focus around one task. Without breaks, we lose motivation, make more mistakes, and work less efficiently.

Teachers, you deserve a break.

You need a break.

But if you’re like me, and you just can’t turn off the teacher–that’s okay too. It’s okay to read a book as both a reader and a writer. It’s okay to buy a frozen pizza as a mentor text for the make-your-own-pizza kit you buy to make with your two-year-old. It’s okay that when you say “I love you” to said two-year-old, and she says, “okay,” back, that you think of The Fault in Our Stars and know that she means “I love you too.”

This summer, I hope you’ll find balance as you sink into your off-duty teacher self: taking classes, scrolling Twitter, reading and writing at a pace without deadlines. I hope you’ll embrace the fact that even outside the school year, you can’t turn off the teacher.

Shana Karnes is spending her last summer in West Virginia exploring the wild and wonderful state, taking her kids to various WV landmarks, enjoying the mountains and history. She’s tackling all the projects she totally neglected during the school year–one of which is doing some writing for herself…even though that writing usually winds back around to teaching topics. Find Shana on Twitter @litreader.

3 Ways to “Wrap Up” Your School Year

I am an unabashed gift giver.

I love tangible ways to express my appreciation for friends, students, family, colleagues, and anyone else I count as important.

…I also love shopping.

But with an impending move to Wisconsin on the horizon, I don’t love clutter in my home–so I am gifting left and right. That was part of the inspiration this year for how I wanted to finish the semester with my students–students I’ve been with for multiple years, in some cases, and others who I’ve only gotten to know and learn with for one semester.

Like any ending, this one tended to color the ups and downs of our school year into a tone more rosy than reality may have painted. With two kids under two, a hectic semester of required assignments, and the ever-present student mood swings offered by snow days, spring break, and finals week, we all struggled at times to stay committed to our work. No school year is ever smooth, or perfect, or simple–but I still like to celebrate its end annually with something tangible. As such, I give each of my students a gift at the end of every year, and have every year since I began teaching.

Here are three ways I “wrapped up” the ending of this school year–literally.


The Gift of Reading

Two groups of my students and I have been together for two years now, and in those two years, I’ve gotten to know these kids (I mean, they’re adults, but I will always refer to my students as “kids” when I think of them) incredibly well. They will be teaching in all content areas, in all grade levels, but still–I can’t seem to turn off my English teacher brain long enough not to say, hmmm, I know exactly what book that forward-thinking history teacher would like.

So this year, I pulled from my own bookshelves one or two books for each of my students–for their personal reading, for their classrooms, or both. In each book, I wrote the student a note, then wrapped each book individually. This time-intensive gesture has been rewarding in spades as my students contact me to tell me they’ve read and loved their books.

The Gift of Writing

We use Google Docs quite frequently, and one of my favorite activities to have students work on is to respond to a writing prompt on a collaborative Google Doc and proceed to write, think, and argue together on one page.

So this year, I printed out every collaborative Google Doc, group-written book review, team-created list of strategies, or class-crafted series of ideal classrooms, social justice non-negotiables, and pedagogically challenging teaching moves that we’d created and bound them together into a class “Anthology of Awesome,” which each student received.

On our last day of class, we shared the anthologies with donuts and coffee. I also brought thank-you notes for students to write to one another–personal messages they hand-wrote and hand-delivered to their critical friends, who had helped read and respond to their work all semester long.

With these pieces of writing in their pockets, my students left class with tangible reminders of the intellectual portion of our time together.

The Gift of Family

For better or for worse, with the end of each school year together, a class is like a family. Some members are dysfunctional, some are estranged, but in general, we’re a bunch of former strangers who now love, appreciate, and respect one another more than we did four quarters ago.

To help us remember this time together, I wrote my classes each a letter that highlighted each student by name, and comprised some of our memories together, our shared goals, and our funny moments. I added this letter to the beginning of our class anthology to serve as a reminder of our Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 7.11.46 AM.pngstudents’ names and personalities. For my future teachers, I created our ideal school, in which we’d all teach and get to work together forever. In past years, I simply wrote a letter of well-wishes to my kids, and included each student’s name and a little compliment toward them all.


As we wrap up this school year, these simple gifts are things you might consider crafting to help end your year with students on a high note. It’s easy to get caught up in the end-of-semester hubbub of grades, exams, and packing up classrooms, but I hope you’ll pause to commemorate a year of learning as a group in some way with your students, as well.

Please share how you “wrap up” the school year meaningfully with your students! We’d love to know in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter!

Shana Karnes will soon be leaving the wild and wonderful mountains of West Virginia for the great lakes of Wisconsin. She is excited to continue her involvement in Appalachian education by leading institutes with the National Writing Project at West Virginia University this summer, but will otherwise be relaxing and devouring as many books as she can during her two daughters’ nap times. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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.

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.

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