Tag Archives: Shana Karnes

What Teachers Need


Love this meme Mike teased the students with!

I’m thinking of Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” this morning, but I’m thinking about what teachers need.  I know I need something right now, because this job has me in the winter of some serious discontent, as Shakespeare says.

After this year, I am leaving the high school classroom.  I am starting to get very nervous about it.  Perhaps part of my anxiety comes from the fact that I’m seven months pregnant, but I think the majority has to do with the fact that a big part of my identity is teacher…and when I’m no longer one, who am I?

Next year holds lots of promise for me–motherhood, PhD work, teaching some Education courses, presentations, and more time for writing.  But I know that I’ll miss working with the teens in my classroom.

Right now I’m struggling with finding things to sustain me, because I have an excellent student teacher.  He’s teaching all six of my classes, doing all of the grading, and generally thriving on his own.

I get to plan with him, but then I sit in the back of the room and observe.  There’s always something that needs to be taken care of, whether it’s editing pages in the yearbook, running copies, or filling out paperwork.  But I am still so bored.


Running into two of my students at the gas station was the highlight of my day yesterday.

I miss conferring with kids–our daily meetings at the bookshelf to talk about what to read next, or poring over their notebooks together, or sharing an exciting mentor text.  I miss the active work of discovering texts that I want to share with my students and urge them to reproduce.  I miss doing booktalks every day.  I miss conducting the symphony of rustling notebook pages, shuffled piles of books, or scribbling around poems.

A former student teacher observed that my typical day only consists of about 50% teaching.  The other 50% is made up of grading, making copies, lesson planning, running errands, going to meetings, and all of the not-so-fun tasks of our jobs.  They’re all essential to being prepared for the big show–the lesson–but I’m learning that I really hate those parts of my job when they don’t lead up to the ultimate experience of teaching.  It seems that they are mindless and pointless, and it makes me wonder about how teachers who have mandatory curricula, or who choose to teach straight out of a textbook, sustain themselves in this profession for decades.  I worry about their health!

I am craving the autonomy I’m accustomed to in my teaching.  Choice, independence, and purpose are just as important for teachers as they are for our students.  They sustain us in our quests to create lifelong readers and writers.  Without them, we’re just going through the motions of any job that doesn’t require creativity and energy and dynamism.

authenticityWe teachers need everything our students need:  timely, specific feedback (a great deal of it positive); the resources to do our work well; someone to listen to us and thus validate us; choice in what we teach and how we teach it; an identity as a teacher who is part of an authentic community of educational professionals.

It’s not every educational community that offers those conditions.  We often must go beyond our own school walls to fulfill those needs.  I’m thinking of Meenoo Rami and her excellent work to connect and sustain educators through Teacher2Teacher, and her important championing of the needs of teachers in Thrive and through #engchat.

I am depending upon Meenoo’s wisdom to get me through this winter–a winter both literal and figurative–and upon the wisdom and inspiration I find in my friends on Three Teachers Talk, Twitter, and more.  If you find yourself struggling, too, remember what teachers need–and do whatever you can to get it!

How do you sustain yourself in the winter of your teaching?  PLEASE share in the comments–I, for one, am dying to know!

Mini-Lesson Monday: Freezing Time

dumplinIt’s -4 degrees in West Virginia today, which might explain why I’m thinking about the narrative skill of freezing time.  I’m also thinking about it because I’m reading the fantastic Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, the story of an unconventional small-town beauty pageant contestant.  As I read, I was aware of how quickly the writing hooked me–I began to look for reasons why, inspired by Writing With Mentors.  My noticing of Murphy’s freezing of time to show me the thoughts and feelings of her narrator, Willowdean, reveals two skills I’d love for my students to utilize: the skill of reading like a writer and imitating the craft they notice in their own writing.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels:  students will identify and categorize Murphy’s craft moves, then revise their own narrative drafts to apply the concepts they learned.  Or, in the language of the Common Core:  Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed); Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

Lesson:  I’ll introduce Dumplin’ during book talks by describing the plot and passing out the following excerpt:

The car behind me at the drive-thru backfires, and I rush inside.  My eyes take a second to adjust to the dim light.  “Sorry I’m late, Bo,” I say.  Bo.  The syllable bounces around in my chest and I like it.  I like the finality of a name so short.  It’s the type of name that says, Yes, I’m sure.

A heat burns inside of me as it rises all the way up through my cheeks.  I run my fingers along the line of my jaw as my feet sink into the concrete like quicksand.

The Truth:  I’ve had this hideous crush on Bo since the first time we met.  His unstyled brown hair swirls into a perfect mess at the top of his head.  And he looks ridiculous in his red and white uniform.  Like a bear in a tutu.  Polyester sleeves strain over his arms, and I think maybe his biceps and his hips have a lot in common.  Except the ability to bench-press.  A thin silver chain peeks out from the collar of his undershirt and his lips are red with artificial dye, thanks to his endless supply of red suckers.

He stretches an arm out toward me, like he might hug me.

I drag in a deep breath.

And then exhale as he stretches past me to flip the lock on the delivery door.  “Ron’s out sick, so it’s just me, you, Marcus, and Lydia.  I guess she got stuck working a double today, so ya know, heads up.”


I give students a specific purpose for reading, since we’re looking at this text as a mentor.  “While I love a lot about this book–the author’s diction, how her word choices change the narrator’s voice and reveal her personality and sense of humor, and the fantastic chemistry between Bo and Will, today I just want to pay attention to how Julie Murphy paces this scene.  As you read, you’ll notice how she just freezes time so you feel like you’re holding your breath.  Annotate how exactly she does this, and we’ll talk about it in five minutes.”

I read alongside my students, modeling notes on craft with the document camera.  After five minutes I ask them to share at their tables, very specifically, what they noticed.  Then, I solicit from each table group one craft move they saw, and where it was in the text.

“Well, dialogue kind of brings you back into the present, like at the end when Bo says something and kind of snaps Will out of her daydream,” one student offers.  I write on the board, dialogue–keeps you present.

“Awesome.  What else?”

“The long description of Bo’s appearance stops the action,” another says.

“Yep.”  I write on the board, description–freezes action.

We continue until each table has shared a craft move they’ve noticed.

“Okay, so today during workshop, I want you to think about how you might play with freezing time in your narratives.  Use what we talked about to help you revise the pacing in your scenes, and if you think Dumplin’ sounds good, add it to your what-to-read list.”

Follow-Up:  During that day’s workshop, I’ll confer with students and see where they might be strengthening existing moments of freezing time, or adding some brand new ones, in their narratives.

Later, as we finish the narrative unit, we’ll return to the anchor chart we’ve been adding to and create a rubric that reflects the skills we’ve focused on, one of which will be pacing.  I’ll also hope to see lots of students reading Dumplin’ over the coming weeks–doubling a booktalk with a craft study lesson is usually a highly effective way to get kids hooked on a book.


#FridayReads: 7 Author-Talks Students Love


This week’s author-talks

As my students and I returned from a full nine days of Thanksgiving break this week, getting back into the groove of workshop was tough–for all of us.  I was totally whacked out from frantically finishing NaNoWriMo, and the kids were all out of sorts from too much turkey and not enough routine.

I needed something that would hook them back into the magic of reading and writing workshop–wonderful books, but more than that…wonderful authors who write those books.  So this week and next, my booktalks are all author-talks…book pairings by high-interest authors students love, whose stories captivate and amaze and inspire.  Here are seven book pairings by the same author that are insanely popular with my readers.

Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl & Carry On Fangirl goes over well with my seniors for two reasons–one, it was drafted during NaNoWriMo, and two, it begins on the first day college for the main character, Cath.  Cath is an unabashed fangirl who writes her own fanfiction–and that’s where Carry On comes in.  Carry On is the fanfic that Cath spent most of Fangirl writing.  For a generation who grew up reading as many alternate-ending fanfics for Harry Potter as they did, this unique pairing is a instant hit.


Inside Countdown

Deborah Wiles, RevolutionCountdown – Penny Kittle has been singing the praises of Revolution for two years now, first at UNHLit and then again this year at NCTE.  It’s a brilliant multigenre novel that blends photos from the sixties with the narrative of a girl struggling to deal with that tumultuous time in history herself.  Countdown, the first book in the series, is even more popular with my students than Revolution is.  The series helps bring to life something they study in history class again and again, all in a unique, compelling format.

Chris Lynch, Freewill & Inexcusable – The award-winning Inexcusable tells a story of sexual violence from the perpetrator’s point of view.  Kids are compelled by this tale’s unique presentation of a controversial event, and it helps boys and girls alike gain a new perspective on an act that is often discussed but rarely experienced.  After they read Inexcusable, I recommend the Printz-nominated Freewill, the story of a boy who is oddly compelled to create totems in his wood shop class after a rash of local teens begin committing suicide.  Themes of grief, guilt, and creative outlet make this one a hit with my students too, as does the unique fact that it’s told in second person point of view.


Inside Wintergirls

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory & Wintergirls – Most students at our school read Speak in ninth grade, and they begin to appreciate Laurie Halse Anderson even more when they read Wintergirls, the story of a teen who battles bulimia and anorexia.  The writing in this book is stunning, and the plot is compelling.  When kids finish this un-put-down-able book, I recommend The Impossible Knife of Memory, in which a teen girl struggles with her father’s PTSD after his return from Iraq.  The novel hooks both boys and girls, as it follows both the father and daughter’s struggle.

Matt de la Pena, The Living The Hunted – In The Living, Shy is excited to get a job on a cruise liner…until “The Big One”–a major earthquake on the Pacific coast–hits.  Most of the passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship are killed, save for a few, including Shy, and a few people also on the dinghy he clings to for life.  When Shy learns a secret that people will kill for, he goes from just being one of the living to being one of the hunted.  This believable suspense series hooks my students.

Screenshot 2015-12-03 at 4.18.48 PM

Inside Symphony for the City of the Dead

M.T. Anderson, Feed & Symphony for the City of the Dead – I learned about Symphony for the City of the Dead, a powerful book detailing the siege of Leningrad during World War II, while standing in line to register for ALAN.  Kim McCollum-Clark told a few of us teachers and librarians about this amazing story, which pairs gripping exposition with historical photographs from the time period.  Amid brutality, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a symphony for his dying city that uplifted both its citizens and the Allied forces working to free them.  The spies and death and music of the book intrigue my students, and I recommend to them Feed when they finish.  Feed is eerily plausible, the story of a future in which smartphones aren’t in our hands, they’re in our heads.  The feed contains advertisements, social media, news, sports, and anything we currently look at on our phones–all behind your retinas.  When an accident disables Titus’ feed, he struggles with life beyond the feed, and it’s a haunting cautionary tale my students are compelled by.

Jason Reynolds, The Boy in the Black Suit & All-American Boys (with Brendan Kiely) – I picked up The Boy in the Black Suit last year at ALAN, and this year I scored All-American Boys after Amy’s recommendation.  In Black Suit, the main character wears a black suit every day for his job at a funeral home, although his peers think it’s some weird tribute to his mother’s recent death.  Matt feels like he is barely getting by until he meets Lovey, who is a model of strength despite dealing with even more tragedy than he.  All-American Boys is a timely novel that alternates between points of view of Rashad and Quinn as both boys–one black, one white–deal with an incident involving Rashad, a fist-happy cop, and Quinn as a witness.  It is haunting and beautifully written and incredibly eye-opening for my readers.

What author-talks are guaranteed to engage your readers?  Please share in the comments!

#3TTWorkshop–Individualizing our Students’ Study of Vocabulary


Students in Jackie’s class write their vocabulary words on the board.

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday and Thursday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Today is the second and last installment of this week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana on vocabulary instruction.  Please join the conversation in the comments!

What are your best vocabulary activities?

Shana: For me, best practices surrounding vocabulary all happen in the writer’s notebook.  Curating a personal dictionary in that particular section, sharing those words with friends, and doing fun, in-class follow-up activities with those words seem to work best to get my kids authentically reading to find new or interesting words in their books.  We do things like write a poem using ten of our words, create a pass-it-along story in which your sentence has to contain a word used contextually, or create an illustration of a particular word and hang it up.  The more play there is involved in our study of words, the more my students actually begin to pay attention to vocabulary in both their reading and writing.


A list of vocabulary words students found in their independent reading books.

Jackie:  For the past couple of years I have wanted to integrate vocabulary instruction into my curriculum, but it wasn’t until this year that I moved forward with the process of carving out a specific section of students’ writer’s notebooks.  As Linda Rief says in Inside the Writers Readers Notebook, “We also need to ask them to pay attention to words in their own reading and their own listening, to notice words that they don’t quite have a grip on as writers and speakers but which they come across fairly often” (Rief 23).  As Linda Rief suggests, my students collect four words from their independent reading book or whole class reads per week.  They record these words as well as the parts of speech, synonyms, and the sentence in which they found the word under a separate dictionary section in their Writer’s Notebook.  

At the beginning of the year I was worried about summative assessments and meeting the needs of my students through our new competency-based grading system.  I “assessed” my students on their vocabulary by having them first memorize the words and then complete whatever the task-at-hand was for that day.  I’ll admit that a quarter into the school year I have already abandoned this method after growing frustrated with the results.  Naturally, students chose easier words when there were higher stakes assessments at hand.  They sacrificed learning for grades and in turn, asked fewer questions, instead focusing more on grades and less on word acquisition.

This is where you helped me most, Shana.  After tossing aside the summative assessments, I had students compile a dictionary of their words on the board, and we spent 15 minutes simply playing with the words and writing stories and poetry.  These biweekly activities breathed life into an otherwise stressful vocabulary lesson.  Soon my students were asking questions about how to use the words through context clues, and I was giving minilessons on integrating words into sentences based on the parts of speech.  For the first time, students began playing with vocabulary instead of trying to find shortcuts around the system.
Do you use independent vocabulary instruction? What activities do you use to help familiarize students with new vocabulary?

#3TTWorkshop–Teaching Vocabulary Through Independent Exploration


Students in Jackie’s classroom write vocabulary words on the board.

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana explores the value of shifting away from the more traditional modes of rote memorization and more toward wordplay.

1. Why do you integrate vocabulary study into your classroom, and how do you approach it?

Jackie:  This is my first year integrating vocabulary into my freshman classes.  Previously I had taken a traditional approach, relying on the Oxford-Sadler books in my junior/senior Advanced Composition classes.  The problem was that by the end of the year, many of my students would forget the twenty or so words we had memorized every other week.  I knew something had to change, so I returned to the words of my mentors, Penny Kittle and Linda Rief, to gain a better understanding of how they approached vocabulary.  Now instead of having my students memorize lists of prescribed vocabulary, they find four words per week and store them in the dictionary section of their writer’s notebooks.

Shana: I love the study of words, so one of the things I always find myself noticing about an author is the type of vocabulary he or she employs.  Diction makes up a great deal of a writer’s style, so I think it’s important to study it.  I am fortunately not required to adhere to a certain program or set list of words, so I tend to approach the study of vocabulary more along the lines of noticing words that are in our reading and writing.  I don’t have a formula or routine for vocabulary study, although as a general rule I try to set aside mini-lesson or quick-write time about every two weeks.


Ryan’s words for this week include “nebulous,” “jettison,” “inchoate,” “unnerving”, and “aphorism,” all of which he found from his independent reading book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

2. What is the inherent value of vocabulary study?

Shana: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the inherent value of vocabulary study.  Vocabulary acquisition is just one little piece of the puzzle that makes up literacy, but it seems to get so much attention from the powers that be.  For example, last year our school had two schoolwide goals–one of them was “vocabulary.”  What does that even mean?  Do we want our teachers teaching more “vocabulary words?”  Do we want our students memorizing more “vocabulary words?”  What is the difference between academic and non-”academic vocabulary?”  I’m just not sure that vocabulary acquisition is as big a piece of the literacy puzzle as our testing/curriculum planners believe.

Jackie: I agree wholeheartedly with you, Shana.  I am not required to teach vocabulary, but every year I tell my students that reading helps build one’s vocabulary.  The more I thought about it though, the more I wondered how these skills translated, how my students would develop their own lexicons if they never actually stopped to think about the words they were reading.

Unlike your school, though, my school’s major initiative has been towards Common Core-based instruction.  Fortunately, part of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language requires students to “also have extensive vocabularies, built through reading and study, enabling them to comprehend complex texts and engage in purposeful writing about and conversations around content.”  I believe vocabulary study shouldn’t be about isolated memorization; instead, it should allow students the freedom for wordplay.  When students are given the freedom to not only pick their own vocabulary words but also share them with their peers, they are more likely to explore definitions, find connections, and play with usage.  I receive more questions about context clues, Latin roots, and parts of speech during bi-weekly vocab lessons than I have at any other point in my career.

#FridayReads: Learning to WRITE WHAT MATTERS with Tom Romano

IMG_9890With the release of his newest book, Write What Matters, this year marks the tenth year I’ve been reading and writing beside the words of Tom Romano.  If you’ve not discovered his wisdom on injecting writing voice into student work, his guidance about writing to discover, or his brilliance in coining multigenre…you’re missing out.

This summer, at the UNH Literacy Institutes, Tom Newkirk talked at length about the guts it took for Tom Romano to publish Clearing the Way in 1987–the first “teacher book” of its kind.  Guided by the research of Donald Graves and his contemporaries, Romano explains the text’s origins to his reader:

“This book is born out of my own struggles to write well and fourteen years of working hard with teenage writers.  Both the writing and the working have been worth it.  They are fine passions.

Thus began my pedagogical education–I read Clearing the Way in my very first English methods course in 2005.  Chapters like “The Crucial Role of Conferencing,” “A Creative Current,” and “Literary Warnings” showed me the possibilities if I created a classroom full of passion and verve and real writers.

IMG_9889Next I happened upon Crafting Authentic Voice, in Romano’s own writing methods class at Miami University in 2007.  A quote from page five of this book hangs prominently in my classroom to this day: “Voice is the writer’s presence on the page, the writer’s DNA.”  I point to those words when I endeavor to help students develop voice.  Chapters like “Enter Craft,” “The Five-Paragraph-You-Know-What,” and “Imitation” have guided my teaching of writing, and I see in those topics the work of Katie Wood Ray, Penny Kittle, and Georgia Heard.

Blending Genre, Altering Style I read in my Master’s level writing methods course, again with Romano himself.  This book helped me flesh out the nuts and bolts of teaching multigenre, which remains to this day both the most effective, enriching work I do with my students, and their very favorite thing.  Reading and writing about chapters like “The Many Ways of Poems,” “Genres Answered,” and the practical “Evaluation and Grading” led me to present with Romano on the many possibilities offered by multigenre at NCTE13.

I’d been teaching five years and was already living in West Virginia when I read Fearless Writing, seeking more guidance about teaching writing.  Practical chapters like “Easing into Poetry Through Imitation,” “Crafting Narrative,” and “Self-Assessment: Raising the Blinds” pushed me to take my teaching of many genres to new heights, with wonderful student results.

Last year, thrashing in the throes of a difficult PhD program, I sought wisdom from Romano in Zigzag, where his chapter “Meltdown” showed me empathy, peace, and guidance.  “I’d never been more at peace with a big decision,” Romano writes of leaving his own doctoral program.  I did the same, and I’m at peace too.

Now, as I prepare to welcome my first child into the world, I’m contemplating where my career will take me.  I’ve long known I don’t want to try to sustain my level of involvement with teaching high schoolers while trying to be a mom.  But I don’t want to leave the amazing, sustaining, nurturing community of teachers and writers and thinkers I engage with here at TTT, or at NCTE, or on Twitter.  I don’t want to leave my tribe, as Penny Kittle says.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 5.34.59 AMAnd, again, Romano is here to guide me through my next steps–Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others is lately ordered from Amazon and on its way to me.  I know that chapters like “Trust the Gush,” “Risk and All,” and “Who Are You to Presume to Write?” will guide me as I wonder about my future teacher-writer identity.  I know that this book is what I need right now:

Many want to write. But sometimes they lose heart. They are cowed in the face of so many fine writers of fiction, memoir, poetry, columns, and creative nonfiction. Their confidence wanes. If you want to write, but are hesitant, let Tom Romano lift your confidence. In Write What Matters you will find discussions of writing processes that make sense, demonstrations of effective strategies to try, advice about developing productive habits to get your writing done, and examples of illuminating writing from fearless writers, both professional and novice. Your voice, your vision, your way with words matter. They are tied to your identity. You know that you are more alive when you put words on paper. Accept that you not only want to write. You need to write. Write What Matters will help you learn to dwell in your written words and craft them into writing worth reading by others.

Pick up Write What Matters, or any of Tom’s many other works of wisdom and power.  Let Tom Romano lift your confidence–in your writing, your teaching, and your passion.  His words, and he, have been my single most reliable, important mentors as I seek to be a teacher of writing, a teacher-writer, and a plain old Saturday-morning-notebook-storyteller.

#FridayReads: Whole-Class Novels to Teach, and How to Frame Them

This past summer Shana and Jackie found that we’d both taken on a unique experiment within some of our classes–we had decided to strip them of whole class novels and instead focus on independent reading, book clubs, and smaller whole-class texts.  As workshop teachers confident in the power of choice reading, we each felt that this shift would be both empowering and inspiring within our classrooms.  After our year of experimentation, we both left our classrooms with unique perspectives on the power of whole-class novels as well as how we would incorporate them moving forward.

Today is the third and final installment of our week-long discussion using Google Docs.  Please, join the conversation in the comments!

41Cx8mY2UNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Question 6: How is it different to be forced to teach a certain novel versus to be able to choose the ones you teach?

Jackie: I will readily admit that I am “forced” to teach To Kill A Mockingbird and Macbeth at the freshman level.  That being said, I love teaching both of them and am fortunate that my students respond well to both pieces.  The challenges are certainly different though.  I must create student buy-in or else my students will drag through the next four to six weeks of our unit.  I frame each lesson to fit their needs and I make sure to fit the book into a workshop structure the best I can to create consistency.

I do believe that teachers must have a choice in what they teach, though.  We must be allowed to tailor our lessons to fit the needs of our students.  Independent reading allows us to understand our students as readers and individuals, which in turn, allows us to further assess what books our students might connect with best.  Fortunately for me, the freshman team I work on is progressive and forward-thinking.  They’re always willing to try new things, which oftentimes involves integrating contemporary works.

Shana:  This summer in Tom Newkirk’s class, he innocently posed this question to our class:  “Why is the defining novel about race in our country written by a white woman?”  He was referring to To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, as many of us were discussing its lately-released sequel.  That question, so casually tossed into our midst, made me think about why the canonized novels taught in schools are often so heavily prescripted.  Why does Harper Lee have a voice of authority about being black in America?  Why do my rural students need to read a particular story about race?  I know why it’s important to read stories about people different than us–I would argue that it’s essential to building empathy and a broader worldview to read widely–but why does Harper Lee hold the monopoly on that topic, and not someone like Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston?

As usual, I have raised more questions than I’ve even attempted to answer, but I’m still not sure of the correct solutions.  I think it’s preposterous to have a rote schedule of “books to teach” for all teachers in a school when it’s blatantly obvious that the community of every classroom is different, which means the culture of its students is always unique, which means that no child ever needs the same book at the same time.

Jackie: It’s funny that you bring up Tom Newkirk’s question.  As I was sitting next to you, I had one of those hide-your-face-moments when I thought, “Oh geez, I teach To Kill A Mockingbird!”  As I said earlier, I am required to teach this book, and while I love it, it does not meet the needs of all of my students.  Teaching in New Hampshire, I have a predominantly white population.  This means that their understanding of race relations and their exposure to diverse literature is rather whitewashed.  We desperately need new, diverse voices to help our students understand and empathize with a variety of individuals.  The precious few books we read together should be based on the needs and interests of our students instead of being dictated by a one-size-fits-all approach.

Question 4: What is the most effective way to frame a whole-class novel and create student buy-in?

Jackie: At the beginning of the school year I discuss the different types of reading we encounter as lifelong students.  I explain that, as a reader, I read for pleasure as well as for knowledge.  Oftentimes those two paths can and may cross, but typically my personal reading life looks drastically different from my professional reading life.  I love pouring through popular YA lit, but in the same breath, I can’t get enough of dissecting poetry with my AP Literature class.

This same pattern applies to my students’ reading within our classroom.  As a class we must learn to maintain a fruitful and engaging personal reading life that allows us to not only learn from our literature but to also explore our own interests and passions.  That being said, we mustn’t overlook the power of dissecting and discussing language and craft as a class.  Reading whole class novels reinforces the fact that no two people read a book the same way.

Shana:  If choice is the golden guide to teaching of reading, then I think the culture of a classroom must dictate the novel we read.  While A Raisin in the Sun was immensely popular in my inner-city Cincinnati classroom, it completely flopped here in West Virginia when I tried to teach it.  The inverse is true of Huck Finn; wildly successful in WV, but a total fail in Ohio.  Thus, I seek to hear the themes my students return to again and in again in their writing and conversations–this year, we are engaged in many discussions about political rhetoric, the origin of power, and the struggle that class/social/financial/ethnic differences create.  Thus, I’ll seek out novels that explore those themes to help us engage with them more fully.

In closing, we leave you with a list of the most successful whole class novels we have taught as well as a list of the books we would teach our current students if given the opportunity.

Most successful novels I taught, from Shana:28c4d1f2e8d048f702c3dbf0990aca8c

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What I’d love to teach, based on my current students, from Shana:

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Most successful novels I taught, from Jackie…(you’ll notice some repeats):51BWES5VL2L

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (read aloud and performed as a play)

On Writing by Stephen King

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What I’d love to teach, based on my current students, from Jackie:

Sold by Patricia McCormick

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments! We would love to hear your perspective on whole class novels and how you incorporate them into your classroom.

Click here to read day two of our conversation.

Click here to read day one of our conversation.

Whole-Class Novels: Why Do We Teach Them, Anyway?

This past summer Shana and Jackie found that we’d both taken on a unique experiment within some of our classes–we had decided to strip them of whole class novels and instead focus on independent reading, book clubs, and smaller whole-class texts.  As workshop teachers confident in the power of choice reading, we each felt that this shift would be both empowering and inspiring within our classrooms.  After our year of experimentation, we both left our classrooms with unique perspectives on the power of whole-class novels as well as how we would incorporate them moving forward.

Here is day two of our insights and discussion we’ve had over the past week using Google Docs (click here for day one).  Please, join the conversation in the comments!

Question 3: After a year without whole-class novels, how did you feel?MTI5MzY0OTk4NTM0MjQwNzM0

Jackie: At the beginning of the year, I felt like a rebel.  The thought of not only allowing but also empowering students through independent reading went against the entire curriculum within our department.  All of my colleagues taught whole class novels, which meant that none of my students had experienced the pure freedom of choice.  That being said, three-quarters of the way through the year, I missed whole class novels.  Despite having unique successes with the independent reading, my classes lacked the communal experiences of reading, discussing, and simply just enjoying (or sometimes hating) a novel together.  By the end of the year, I found that both my students and I missed some components of reading whole class novels.

Shana:  I reflected on my teaching after a year without whole-class novels (mind you, many novels were read through book clubs, literature circles, reading challenges, and independent reading), but I felt like the one thing that was lacking in all of my instruction was the idea of sustenance.  I wasn’t seeing my students sustain an idea for an extended period, or grapple with an issue over time, or try to live with a topic for more than two drafts and three weeks.  The case was the same in their reading and writing–I wanted them to have more length in their thought processes and I wanted us to engage in those long thought processes together.

Question 4: Why is teaching a whole-class novel valuable?  More specifically, why do we do it, and what skills are taught?

brave-new-world-bookShana:  I am not sure why I used to teach whole class novels, or, specifically, why I taught the novels I taught.  I know that there were valuable instructional methods behind the way I taught them (thematic units, Socratic circles, exploratory essays), but I don’t know if I had a sound rationale behind the obligation I felt to actually teach multiple novels to all of my students.

After a year without them, though, I find that the collective classroom experience of reading, interpreting, and discussing a novel produces a route for a unique connection to a text that cannot be achieved without reading as a group.  I missed the experience of coming to a new, shared understanding of a text as a whole class, and I felt that my students missed out on that experience as well.  I don’t believe that when I read plays independently in my undergraduate Shakespeare capstone that I would have comprehended, connected to, or engaged as passionately with those plays alone as much as I did through our frequent in-class discussions, activities, and writings.  I don’t want my students to miss out on that experience either.

Jackie: This year I am teaching AP Literature for the first time.  I took the challenge believing that this new course would be somewhat of a paradigm shift for me compared to my contemporary-lit based freshman English class.  The more I prepared, the more I yearned to discuss my thoughts, questions, and analyses of texts.  I went so far as to ask everyone around me to read these canonical classics and discuss them with me.  Preparing to teach AP Lit reinforced the social significance of reading literature.  At its base, dissecting stories as a group is interesting and engaging.  Beating the crap out of them is not.  I agree with you, Shana, in that the experience of sharing a text is one of the blessings of being in an English classroom.  Once students graduate from high school, they rarely have the opportunity to interact with texts in a classroom setting.

Shana: I love that the way you prepared to teach was to ask friends to read books with you, then discuss them.  You engaged in an authentic book club there, as I know you have your students do now.

More of our discussion will follow tomorrow.  Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments!

Whole-Class Novels: To Teach, Or Not to Teach?

This past summer Shana and Jackie found that we’d both taken on a unique experiment within some of our classes–we had decided to strip them of whole class novels and instead focus on independent reading, book clubs, and smaller whole-class texts.  As workshop teachers confident in the power of choice reading, we each felt that this shift would be both empowering and inspiring within our classrooms.  After our year of experimentation, we both left our classrooms with unique perspectives on the power of whole-class novels as well as how we would incorporate them moving forward.

Over the next three days, we will post our insights and discussion we’ve had over the past week using Google Docs.  Please, join the conversation in the comments!

imagesQuestion 1: How did you decide to get rid of of whole class novels?

Jackie: Last year I was faced with a unique opportunity: the English Department voted to end popular College Preparatory Advanced Composition course.  Despite the well established curriculum, I tossed aside the typical whole class novels in favor of independent reading. As a primarily freshman English teacher, I am required to teach one Shakespeare play and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Advanced Composition gave me the opportunity to focus on smaller whole class reads and mentor texts within daily writing workshops without devoting whole units to one book.

Shana:  After six years of teaching, I wasn’t really sure why I felt compelled to teach whole-class novels.  Every year, when I picked up Catcher in the Rye, I dreaded my job.  I hated that book, and I had no idea how to get my students to love it or connect with it.  It felt like a chore to drag my students through “reading” that text (mostly they were SparkNoting it, sometimes with the assistance of their football coaches–true story).  I knew that not every student loved every novel that I did (particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God), and I knew that I didn’t love every novel my students read on their own (particularly everything by Nicholas Sparks).  I started to wonder–what would my teaching be like if I didn’t feel compelled to teach a whole-class novel…merely because I should?

Jackie: The eye opening experience for me was definitely during my first year of teaching.  I began integrating independent reading into my curriculum and I suddenly found out how many voracious readers I had in class.  My teaching was getting in the way of these students’ education! I like how Shana puts it–I also knew that my students didn’t love the novels I did (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) and in the end, if I gave them freedom, I too would learn much more about literature, reading, and teenagers.

Shana:  I like that Jackie mentions the issue of devoting whole units to a book–I loved having the freedom to design units of study that weren’t anchored around a novel, but rather a different genre.

Rye_catcherQuestion 2: What were the positives of having no whole class novels and what were the negatives?

Jackie:  After a year, I have found both positives and negatives to removing whole class novels.  Getting rid of whole class novels allowed me more time to focus on the positive aspects of the workshop model.  Naturally student choice led to easier student buy-in, and I spent less time convincing students of the value of reading.  As a result, we spent more time cracking apart smaller whole class reads like essays, poems, and articles and truly contemplating the author’s choices and craft.  Additionally, I liked that I could assess students and discuss their growth based on their own reading goals and progress.  

I have yet to find a solution to the “be on this page by this day” debacle that comes with teaching whole class novels.  Too often whole class novels lead to less differentiation and more stress, which can lead to the “gotcha” feel that comes with discussing larger, longer texts.  

That being said, there was a lot that I missed about having whole class novels.  Losing a longer common text meant that students didn’t have the common classroom experience of connecting over both the successes and frustrations of working through a complex text together.  I was surprised by how much students want to discuss their reading with classmates.  While reading can at times feel solitary and maybe even isolating during the actual act, in reality, reading complex texts is a communal activity that unites groups through a variety of perspectives, opinions, and interpretations.

Shana:  The positives were that I felt like my curriculum map was much more relaxed and flexible, in contrast to the years where I felt like I had to teach a minimum number of novels and “fit them in.”  I also loved seeing my students’ love of reading skyrocket as they engaged in choice and challenges on only an independent or small-group basis.

The negatives were more nebulous–I just felt like something was missing.  Our learners crave a challenge, and navigating a difficult novel is a challenge all readers relish if they have autonomy in their reading of that novel.  Reading a novel together provides an opportunity for me to create instruction that scaffolds a student’s reading skills up to the level of that novel, allowing them to participate in a reading experience they may not have been able to enjoy otherwise.

I also really missed being able to ascertain the barometer of a class’s feelings on a certain theme or issue through discussions of a complex text.  Crime and Punishment explores issues of morality, regret, and psychology in a far more complex way than “The Tell-Tale Heart” ever could, and although both stories have very similar themes, the novel lends itself to the sustenance of thought, evolution of a character, and length of a reading experience that I so craved for my students.  I also think that some reading skills specific to stamina, fluency, and automaticity cannot be practiced or taught effectively without a lengthy text, so I felt that last year, my students missed out on practicing those skills.

Jackie: While we both feel similar in the value of whole class novels , I know that neither of us would return to a set list of novels.  Whole class novels allow us to engage in common discussions but independent reading lays the groundwork for students’ stamina and confidence.  I don’t start my first round of literature circles until the second quarter because of this.  As much as students need a communal reading experience, I believe they first need a taste of independence and success.
Shana:  I still haven’t figured out the whole reading schedule thing either, nor how to create buy-in for every single student so that they autonomously, independently want to read a novel.  I struggle with the this-page-by-this-day conundrum, too, mostly because I feel like that creates a certain accountability that kids get hung up on, because it relates to the dreaded word GRADES. 

More of our discussion will follow tomorrow.  Be sure to join the conversation today in the comments!

Click here to read day two of our discussion.

Simplify, Simplify: An Invitation

We’re six days deep into the school year here in West Virginia, and I am so happy, fulfilled, and content.  The start of this year has been the smoothest of my seven years, and our readers and writers workshop is coming together more quickly than it ever has.  I think it’s because of all of the invitations and welcomes that have been flying around our classroom, rather than the commands and directives of years past.

Amy’s post on inviting students to just talk helped me simplify the structure of my first week of lessons.  I strove to make our first days together as inviting as possible–as laid back, relaxed, and caring as I could.  Students were drawn to our classroom library with an invitation to check out whatever book they’d likethoreau-simplify.  They were intrigued by an invitation to write daily–nulla dia sine linea, in the words of the inimitable Donald Murray–as we set up our writer’s notebooks.  I invited students to just read for pleasure, to just listen to a poem to enjoy it, and to just write for fun.

My invitations all centered around simplicity.

I want to slow down my thinking this year.  It seems my brain is always flying at a hundred miles a minute, and I bet my students’ minds are too.  I will invite my students to simplify their thinking–to streamline their thought processes, open their minds, and just write.  Just read.  Just talk.

This year, I’m inviting everyone in our classroom–adults and students–to put away their phones.  We read this article to understand why that may be necessary, as our devices can distract us without our consent.  Part of this conviction came after I read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, an award-winning YA novel about the mindlessness technology can fill our lives with.

I’m inviting learners to resist letting their lives be frittered away by detail, to simplify, simplify.  We will do more with less, and we will do all of our reading, writing, and thinking more deliberately.  These first six days have been marked by that simplicity, and I hope to continue that trend all school year long.

What are your goals this school year?  What do you hope to achieve with your learners?

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