Tag Archives: Shana Karnes

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?

#PoetryChat Tonight, 8ET

poetry-prompts-rantLet’s talk poetry.

A few months ago, a pre-service teacher I know asked me to give her some feedback on a poetry unit she’d written.  Her mini-unit, a 25-page document filled mostly by her professor’s formatting requirements, troubled me for a few reasons.

First, as Amy established, poetry is more than a unit–it’s a powerful way of teaching linguistic precision, the art of writing, and the freedom of expression.  It shouldn’t be a two-week item to scratch off a curricular checklist.

Further, pre-planning a unit in such a detailed way takes the power out of learning. “You’re doing too much of the thinking in this unit, and your students aren’t doing enough,” I wrote to her. She had selected every poem, every genre, and every skill for her students to learn–in doing so, she took away a valuable opportunity for her students to seek out, evaluate, and share found and original poetry.

Second, this teacher’s unit was full of contradictions.  I loved seeing her ideas about including slam poetry, spine poems, blackout poetry, and other engaging, unique poetry possibilities.  However, I was confused by what seemed to be an obligation she felt to teach every literary and poetry term ever.  “Focus on getting your students to learn how to WRITE poetry by studying other AUTHORS of poetry,” I advised. “When Dickinson was writing poems, it wasn’t because she was like ‘oooh I love metaphors’–it was because she had a broken heart.”

In teaching poetry, it seems like too many of us are yoked to an antiquated view of poetry–metaphors, dactyls, metric feet.  We are focused too much on the HOW of poetry, and not enough on the WHY.  As we teach our students, let’s focus on them as poets, not simple readers of poems.

Join us tonight at 8ET for a #poetrychat about ways to transform our students into poets by getting poetry off our shelves and into their hands, introducing them to mentor authors, and encouraging play with nontraditional poetry forms.

#PoetryChat Questions:

Warm-Up: Your favorite line or phrase from a loved poem

1. Why do you think many students find poetry intimidating or inaccessible?

2. When you teach poetry, how do you balance the students’ READING of poetry and WRITING of poetry?

3. What are your favorite genres of nontraditional poetry (prose poetry, spine poems, etc.)?

4. Who are your favorite mentor poets? How do you use them to teach your students?

5. What can our students gain from novels in verse? What are your favorite in-verse titles?

6. Let’s finish by sharing our most successful poetry teaching stories. What’s yours?

Before and After

Our Compass Shifts 2-1Here in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, we’ve been back to school for a little over a week.  I’ve managed to learn all of my students’ names, most of their reading interests, and a few of their writing hang-ups.  My students seem to be quickly figuring out that stubbornness or apathy are no match for the genuine obsession I have with reading and writing, and getting my students to do both well.  They sometimes look a little taken aback as they sit facing one another in my beautiful blue classroom, watching me do a booktalk or model a writing lesson with the zeal of a stage performer, but that’s okay with me.  I’ve worked hard to portray all of the passion and enthusiasm inside of me as we’ve framed our reading and writing workshop, and when I see all eyes in the classroom on mine, a book, or their own words on a page, I feel like I’m doing a good job.

But the thing is–I feel completely out of my element here.  I’ve only been teaching in this classroom for seven days.  I’ve only been in this state for two months.  And I’ve only been Mrs. Karnes since June first.  Combine that with the fact that this year, I’m giving myself over to the workshop model entirely, and everything about my life feels completely different.


You see, I had a great teaching job in Cincinnati at a small school north of the city.  I taught wonderful classes–AP English, Honors English, a reading elective–and headed excellent activities–National Honor Society, Academic Team, ACT/SAT Class.  I had a gorgeous lime green classroom, a curriculum I could plan for in my sleep, and cooperative students who answered the questions I asked correctly.  I did a lot, but my job felt easy.  I had plenty of time to plan a wedding, finish my Masters degree, and work a second job outside of school.  All was comfortable and I was content.  But then, I was swept away by love to another state–away from the family, classroom, and colleagues I had all been so familiar with.  I got married and moved here without a job lined up, and quickly realized how frantic I was to teach again.


I was fortunate enough to land a position at my new school thanks to a unique license type I had due to the Ohio-West Virginia transfer.  Here, I would be teaching general level English and one journalism class, plus advising the yearbook staff.  None of this seemed very glamorous–and my new classroom certainly wasn’t very exciting either–but hey, I was just glad to have a job.  I reasoned that the textbook series was the same, my classroom library held the same books, and I had two big crates full of sample writing prompts, essay questions, reading projects, and test-prep questions to get me through.

Then came the University of New Hampshire and its Summer Literacy Institute.  This worldview-altering learning experience completely revitalized me as a teacher.  I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from our teacher-leader, the amazing Penny Kittle (if you haven’t read her books, get with the program and READ THEM!).  After two weeks of ideas, inspiration, and insight, I decided to take the fact that I was in a new school with a flexible curriculum and use it as an opportunity to completely overhaul my teaching.  I threw most of the contents of those two big crates in the garbage and started fresh.


So here I am, workshopping it up in West Virginia.  While I’m still getting used to planning and prepping for this model, I’m happy with the way things are going.  I spend much less time “teaching” than I’m used to, but much more time conferring one-on-one with students, helping them find good books, talking about their reading lives, and working with them on their writing.  I still get a jolt hearing “Mrs. Karnes!” instead of “Miss E!”, it still feels strange to bring my teacher bag home to a small apartment instead of my old house, and I don’t have a pile of worksheets to grade or a set of chapters to assign.  But my students are reading.  They’re writing.  And they’re doing both seriously.

I’m in a different state, with a different name, teaching in a different way.  I may not feel comfortable, but I do feel right at home.

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