books · education · literacy · reading · teaching

The Reluctant Reader

As the new school year begins I find myself preparing to face three classes of reluctant readers.  I am sure many of them will be feeling some anxiety and pressure as they enter my class for the first time this coming Tuesday.  They won’t be alone.

After three years away from a traditional classroom, I will be returning to a regular timetable, predictable hours and a steady prescribed curriculum.  I am nervous and anxious too!  However that being said, I am looking forward to connecting with my grade 10s and 12s who will be motivating me each day to get up and help them to find their writing and reading groove.

In my seventeen years of experience as a classroom teacher I have seen many changes especially when it comes to Ministry expectations and trends in education.  One thing that has not changed is the emphasis on reading and writing strategies; only the strategies have gotten smarter and better considering the teenage brain.  Research tells us that teenagers need sleep and a lot of it (9-10 hours a night) to function and pay attention in class.  For a classroom teacher and their students, the struggle is real.  I have to motivate and encourage those sleepyheads to read and write as early as 8:30 a.m.!  I’m in for a challenge because the students are already coming into the class with some pre-existing issues.  From self-esteem, to functional literacy skills and learning disabilities I will have my hands full.

A few strategies that I have picked up along the way are from author Marilyn Reynolds.  Reynolds first came to my attention at the beginning of my career as I was pursuing additional qualifications in Reading and Library.  Her approach to education is very refreshing as she has over 30 years’ experience working with at-risk youth.  Her book I Won’t Read and you Can’t Make Me: Reaching Reluctant Teen Readers published in 2004 is still relevant today.  Reynolds has helped me tremendously when working with both at-risk students and those who are unmotivated.

Some strategies she uses with success (and that I have adapted myself) include:

  • Respecting students including their experiences, attitudes and choices regarding what they choose to read
  • Helping students become accountable for their actions
  • Practicing reading and writing each day

I found that all the above strategies are incredibly helpful but the respect piece is most important for classroom success.  In my years as a teacher I have learned that all these young people come from all walks of life and each person has their own story to tell (or not).  This influences what is available to read in class.

IMG_2788One of the strategies that I have implemented is to visit the library on a scheduled and predictable basis to refresh the book collection and change up our day-to-day scenery.  I have students who only gravitate to graphic novels while others ask for specific authors that reflect a particular demographic like Sister Souljah’s Midnight series.  Other students have asked for only non-fiction books like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Series or yearly National Geographic Almanacs.  I have also included Reynolds series of novels that she wrote that are geared towards young people including titles like Telling and Love Rules.

Further I found that timely feedback is so important to a reluctant reader and writer.  Whether they have just finished their first journal entry or written a paragraph, my feedback is key.  Students also like to be read to no matter how old they are.  I will often choose a novel or non-fiction piece that we can read a little each day.

I had tremendous success several years ago when I chose to read the story of Steven Truscott to my class.  At the time we were studying In the Heat of the Night by John Ball and I wanted the students to see that injustice can happen at any time and to any person.  Real Justice: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death by Bill Swan was the perfect pick for that class at that time.  Because I was working with so many students who had experienced troubled times like an arrest, they could relate to story.  They were particularly outraged at the sentence Truscott received because of his age.  I heard many of them exclaim, “That’s my brother’s age!” or “I was fourteen when I was accused of…”  We followed up the unit with some media footage of Truscott who was acquitted 48 years later.

As I get ready to merge back into the classroom I hope to implement some if not all of these strategies with my three classes.  The appeal to make it through the doors each morning with acceptance, respect and a treasure trove of reading materials that they may learn to love.

 

books · Canadian books · Canadians · dogs · library · reading · summer · witches

Summer Reads

As the summer comes to a close with the temperatures getting cooler each night and the sun setting a little earlier each evening, I think back on all the books I have read over this nine-week period.

Thirteen books have passed through my hands during the hot months of July and August and some were page-turners while others left me wanting for more.

I found these books in libraries, on my own book shelf and on the shelves of book stores, both big box and local and in an airport.  With each read I was transported to a different time and place depending on the genre of the book and the focus of the author.

The summer started with the novel by Canadian author Katherena Vermette who first came to my attention with a fantastic collection of very Canadian short stories.  I did not want to pass up her debut novel The Break and I was not disappointed.  Although I have already blogged briefly about this novel, I wanted to mention it again as I liked the characters and the stories.  A brief synopsis was shared with a friend of mine who asked what I thought of it:

“I really liked it. I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a hard time connecting to Stella and her inability to react. It was not the easiest subject to write about but the author did a good job in creating the different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.”

As a dog lover I picked up two different novels completely by chance at my local public library in Hamilton at different points during the summer.  The first called Ordinary Dogs, Extraordinary Friendships: Stories of Loyalty, Courage and, Compassion is a non-fiction book that chronicles the amazing life and adventures of Pam Flowers and her trips into the Arctic with her team of sled dogs.  Her tales are harrowing at times and this would be a great read for young adolescents who happen to love dogs.  After reading this book, I had a greater respect for working dogs and the people who love them.

More recently I finished the short book Good Dog, Stay by renowned American author Anna Quindlen.  It is another account of dogs and their people; those who love them and bond with them.  I liked this book and Quindlen’s devotion to the different dogs that came into her life and bonded with her children with a focus on her Labrador retriever, Beau.  It is a sweet story for anyone who has had a dog and loved it and the heart-wrenching decision to put your dog down when it needs to end its’ suffering.  Get the tissues out for this one.

As the summer passed I made more time to read including a collection of short stories called Boundary Country by Tom Wayman.  Some of the stories I really liked as they often reflected my countries vast and varied landscape and climate.  This was my first introduction to Wayman who is otherwise known in the literary world as a poet.  He seems to have a keen grasp of the human condition as he writes each story sometimes using historical events to frame the narrative.

Into my hands came more Canadian authors including Margaret Laurence as I re-visited her writing style through The Fire-Dwellers and laughed out loud as I read through the highly recommended Home From the Vinyl Café: A Year of Stories by Stuart McLean.  Although both authors are deceased, each book reminded me of the greatness of some of my country’s authors and how incredibly Canadian a book can be.  The narrative, the setting and even the dialogue is uniquely my country’s own as I read through each book.

I also found myself reading a few graphic novels as the summer went on.  One I was extremely excited to find, as it had been on my “to-read” list on GoodReads for some time.  Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was one of the best reads this summer.  The subject matter is sad and depressing but how Chast presents the true story of her parents aging and eventual deaths is so authentic.  The cartoons are fantastic as she chronicles her parents and their eccentricities.  As a person who has lived through the experience of watching a parent die as a result of a chronic illness some of what Chast says is relatable.  Although my father died at the early age of 64 and Chast’s parents live into their nineties, the relatability is similar.  I really recommend this book to anyone who is at this stage in their life where the roles are reversed and one is caring for an aging and/or dying parent.  An uncomfortable topic to be sure, but Chast’s wit and genuine reflection on this terrible time in an adult child’s life is written with true compassion and care.

The lazy month of August came and I flew through Miller’s Valley when I ran out of something to read while travelling back from Las Vegas.  This was my first Anna Quindlen novel.  I had always wanted to read something by this much celebrated American author but opportunity to do so never materialized.  The novel started slow but gained some momentum as the family saga played out focusing on protagonist Mimi Miller.  It is a cautionary tale related to water sustainability while Quindlen creates both likeable and unlikeable characters for the reader to absorb.  I was pleased with this book and will read more of Quindlen’s work.

While in beautiful Las Vegas I was continuing to read Into the Water which I had started before we left for our trip. The much-anticipated follow-up novel from best-selling author Paula Hawkins had me intrigued.  I had heard a podcast (Q) on CBC radio where Hawkins was interviewed and discussed her writing and the incredible success she received following her excellent debut novel Girl on the Train (which I loved!).  I did like the novel as it read much like a mystery, but it is so hard for any author to follow the kind of success from a stellar debut like Girl on the Train.

The last two books I wanted to blog about in this post are very different from each other.  The Witches of New York is by Nova Scotia author Ami McKay who I know from her terrific first novel The Birth House.  McKay is an author I really like.  She incorporates quite a bit of historical information into each story and this novel is no exception referencing the horrific Salem witch trials (Into the Water referenced the trials too).  All three protagonists are very different but oh so likeable!  The book is filled with beautiful illustrations and poetic verses and witches’ spells that all add to the story.  I was sorry when it was over.  McKay’s imagination and the ability to weave together an engaging tale is a true gift.IMG_3110

The last book for this blog post is another book that I had wanted to read but kept missing.  A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects should be mandatory reading in all Canadian schools.  Jane Urquhart is a Canadian author who weaves together a historical and engaging account of fifty objects that connect to Canada all neatly illustrated by Canadian Scott McKowen.  Not every Canadian would have chosen the same fifty objects that Urquhart did but they are good choices that tell a story of our nation coming together to become the country that it is today, and will continue to be as the world changes.  I liked this book because Urquhart does pick some strange things like a tractor and a shoe, but the more the reader reads, the clearer the reasoning is for her choices. I learned new tidbits and facts about my country.IMG_3219

As the summer comes to a close and I get ready to head back into the classroom, I will have new books to share with my students and family.  Now to get to that list for Autumn…

books · Canadian books · reading

The Great White North: The Importance of Reading your Country’s Authors.

My country recently celebrated 150 years.  Canada Day celebrated on July 1st each year offers Canadians a chance to celebrate their heritage, our flag, our uniqueness and each other, often with the help of a 2-4 (case of beer for you non-Canadians out there).  Like any country that celebrates a birthday we Canadians pulled out all the stops for this big birthday bash.  I happened to be celebrating with my family at our trailer in Ontario.  There was a big fireworks show at dusk; a bike race where the kids and adults could show off their pride with red and white decorations and flags.  Most people were also dressed up in red and white for the day and weekend.  If you were fortunate to be in our nation’s capitol for the festivities (Ottawa) like my cousin was, Canadians were in for one heck of a fireworks show!

Aside from National Pride, Canadians have much to celebrate when it comes to acknowledging our amazing writing talent both past and present.  As a young child I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables by beloved Canadian author L.M. Montgomery.  Anne had red hair like me and she spelled her name with an “e” just like my middle name. Although I was not an orphan, I sometimes believed I was after the horrid tales my sister would tell me about how I fell off a turnip truck or came from outer space.  Anne is a character that any child could relate to.  She got in trouble for silly things, had a crush, turned beet-red after being embarrassed, and had challenges growing up.  I remember a highlight in my twenties was finally going to P.E.I. to Green Gables!  Oh how I loved the idyllic setting and seeing Anne’s house up close along with learning so much about L.M. Montgomery.  Montgomery created other characters aside from Anne Shirley but she will be forever one of my favourite childhood heroines.

In university I was introduced to one of my all-time favourite Canadian authors Alice Munro.   Lives of Girls and Women was part of the syllabus in first year English at the University of Western – Brescia College in London, Ontario.  What an incredible pick from my professor!  This book was love at first read and I went on to read everything Munro has published since.  Munro has a very unique writing voice.  Her characters and plot lines are very relatable yet also uniquely Canadian.  She uses real towns as the backdrop for many of her stories and her incredible use of observation skills adds a richness to her stories.

Like Munro, Carol Shields is also a favourite Canadian author.  As a teen, I first found her through her novel The Stone Diaries.  Shield writes in the raw.  Her stories unfold through the eyes of characters who are faced with sometimes terrible circumstances and tragedy as is the case in her novel Unless.  Shields created characters who are vulnerable when they need to be but also funny and sweet.  She is also the author of short stories which happens to be one of my favourite genres.  I have always liked her writing as she created very memorable stories and characters.

Recently I have consciously tried to read novels and works from Canadian authors when I can.  Elizabeth Hay is a newer favourite as is Stuart McLean, Farley Mowat, Richard Wagamese, Tracey Lindberg and Heather O’Neill.  These authors all write in a very different voices with different stories to tell yet each time I finish one or all of their published books, I leave with something new to think about.  It might be a new perspective on a social issue, a story that has been lost, or just the pure enjoyment of reading.

Most recently I finished The Break by Canadian author Katherena Vermette.  I first came across Vermette’s writing on the shelves of my local library.  Her short story collection North End Love Songs beckoned to me.  As a fan of short stories I was not disappointed. Her stories reminded me of my hometown and the people in it although it takes place in Winnipeg’s North End.  Contrary to the title, these stories were not all sunshine and roses but gritty tales that could be ugly at times.  When I saw that she had published a novel, I had to buy it. I really liked it and I had a hard time putting it down. I did have a difficulty connecting to her one character Stella and her inability to react.   The subject could not have been easy to write about but Vermette told a captivating story by creating different narrative voices to reveal each part of the story.  She will be a writer I will continue to seek out and read. 

There is a great benefit in reading the authors that come from your own country.  In this blog post I have only captured a minute snapshot of those Canadians I admire.  Whether you find a writer who tells real tales or fictitious ones, it is worth reading those voices.  It is a great way to “see” and experience the country from varying perspectives.

book club · books · reading

Why I Love My Book Club

My book club is a place where I can seek refuge from the world for an hour once a month to have active and insightful conversations with the women who are part of it.  I like to think that the book club that I belong to is unique as our membership ranges in age from 40 to most recently, 94.  I love these women and what they bring to the club.

This past Saturday I attended the funeral of our leader Dorothy Johns.  She very recently bequeathed the title of leader to me as she became sicker with those things that plague a 94 year old person including poorer eyesight.  I was so humbled by this appointment and took it (and continue to take it) very seriously.  Dorothy was a force to be reckoned with. She was one of the kindest and compassionate people I had the privilege of knowing even if it was for a short time.

One thing we had in common was our passion for reading. Dorothy was a person who took the time to research the books we would be reading through our Hamilton Public Library spending hours researching the reviews of books and the author biographies. She often tried to incorporate best-sellers with Canadian authors into our list for the year.  This gave all of us the opportunity to read books we may have otherwise passed on while browsing the book shelves.

Being part of the this book club means a lot to me, as not only an avid reader, but a person who values the insight of the women who are part of it. Each woman brings a different perspective to the books we read including such first-hand accounts of living through the First World War.  Other women of the group have been incredibly candid discussing stillbirths and miscarriages as we read Call the Midwife.  For the one woman who shared her sorrow with us about her stillborn baby, it was the first time she had ever talked about her child openly.  There were a few tears shed that meeting.

Further the women in the group have worked in various professions including nursing, education and law.  They have lived through not only different decades but different centuries sharing what it was like to live through (and survive) The Great Depression in various parts of Canada and abroad in the 1930s.  They have lived to see segregation and Residential Schools be the norm of a society in the 1960s and beyond.  After reading Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, it sparked an intense and lively conversation around Residential Schools in Canada and how finally, Canadians are speaking about this horrific event in our storied history. One of our members who is incredibly passionate about social justice issues spoke so passionately about the issue and what she remembers seeing and hearing as a child.  I was so moved by her thirst for justice.

Book Club has also been a great place to laugh out loud as we discussed some ridiculous characters from novels recently read or the antics of some of the memoirists  (Farley Mowat in Otherwise).  Book Club is a place where there are no walls.  We laugh freely, can debate fiercely and most of all, share our love of reading.

I hope I can make Dorothy proud by following her example.  I have some big shoes to fill.

comics · reading · Snoopy

Hello Snoopy! Why Peanuts continues to be one of my favourite comic strips

For as long as I can remember I have loved my stuffed Snoopy well before I knew who Snoopy was and where this amazing dog came from.  I became an avid reader of the “funny papers” due to my grandfather’s unknowing influence.  He used to say to us grandchildren after we were ready to leave from a visit, “see you in the funny papers.” As a little girl I didn’t really get it until someone pointed out that my grandpa was saying goodbye each time and that the funny papers referred to the comics section in our local newspaper.  Ever the literalist, I started to read them.  Much went over my young head until I discovered Charles Schultz’s iconic Peanuts strip.

What I love about Peanuts is that everything was observed from a child’s point of view. Snoopy was this heroic dog that could be and do anything.  Charlie Brown was a character that generated much sympathy and Lucy was that bossy older sister.  Children and adults can relate to the every day ups and downs of the Peanuts gang, often seeing themselves in the characters that Schultz created.  As Schultz stated, “If you read the strip, you would know me. Everything I am goes into the strip…” (schultzmuseum.org)  Schultz was a dedicated artist who created great stories through his strip.  Another thing I love about Peanuts is the innocence of the writing but there are also take away lessons and it is funny.

By far, Snoopy is my favourite character from the Peanuts gang.  Snoopy could imagine going anywhere and being anything from the Red Baron to a detective to even Santa Claus.  He is loyal to Charlie Brown and observes the children around him through silent thoughts and musings only really sharing with his side-kick Woodstock.  As a child I could relate to Snoopy in a number of ways.  I wanted to go different places and experience the world.  I wanted to grow up to be a detective, a ballerina, a journalist, a doctor and so on.  My imagination was in rapid fire mode as a child.  That being said, I could also see myself in Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and even Charlie Brown.  This social circle of friends experienced many of the same events that I did as a child including similar emotions and obstacles.

As an adult I came to understand and appreciate Schultz’s genius even more when I realized that as he was writing the strip he could comment on world events in the 1950s right through to the end of original publication in January 2000.  His commentary was never malicious or said with ill-intention as he wanted his readers to laugh yet appreciate what he was trying to say during some tumultuous times in society. One could argue that Schultz was ahead of his time by including comic strips that tackled integration in schools, co-ed baseball teams (including dogs), and comments on technology like the Space Race between the Americans and Russians.

Peanuts has stayed with me long after the last strip was written.  My son enjoys Peanuts too laughing along at the mishaps of the gang and the observations and antics of Snoopy often resulting in discussions about the characters at bedtime.  I appreciate that Schultz opened a world of comics to me later encouraging me to look beyond books and explore traditional comic books and graphic novels.  This is why Peanuts continues to be my favourite comic strip of all time.  See you in the funny papers!

kids · reading · Robert Munsch · storytelling

Tell Me A Story – when the art of storytelling promotes reading

Robert Munsch is one of Canada’s best known storytellers.  I had the opportunity to see him live at Hamilton Place when my son was young; too young to appreciate the sheer genius of this person.  As my son grew older his admiration of Munsch grew and he looked forward to snatching his stories off the shelf at our local library.

So much of what Munsch says in a story is how he says it and that resonates with both children and their parents.  He is loud, he is ridiculous and most of all, he is honest in his books.  Children can relate to the characters and the situations that each of Munsch’s protagonist finds his or herself in.  For example in Mortimer this young boy promises to go to sleep but chaos ensues with his love of noise or as some might see it, his singing voice.  Given the right amount of enthusiasm, this can be a hilarious selection for bedtime.  My son loved that song and laughed each time I sang it to him in my loudest singing voice.  Further Munsch’s story Makeup Mess is so absurd that the listener cannot help but laugh at Julie who is just trying to find the right way to express herself.  The story is very clever in the sense that it teaches indirectly about financial literacy or saving your pennies and the importance of believing in and loving oneself.    

If I tell those Munsch stories and others like them in a dramatic, enthusiastic way, I am encouraging my children to read.  They want another story or for me to tell it again!  If you have ever had the chance to visit a really good children’s section of your local public library or observe a JK – Grade 3 class in action during story time it can be captivating seeing all those little bums move closer and closer to the reader, eyes wide and giggling as the story unfolds.  This is a skill that these librarians and teachers have.  They are natural and the flow of the story keeps those children listening.

“Storytelling is the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, often with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and instilling moral values” (Wikipedia, 2017).  When one examines our different cultures there is almost always some sort of history of oral storytelling that reveals who and where we came from. When I was teaching the older grades, we would study the ballad.  This form of writing was genius for its time period.  We studied The Highway Man by Alfred Noyes, The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot and another by Eliot, The Love Son of J. Alfred Prufrock.  These poems, spoken with dramatic flair and feeling made each protagonist come alive.  This was always one of my favourite sections to study as both teacher and student.  The stories would provoke questions and invitations to study that particular writer further thereby promoting more reading.

As both a parent, a teacher and former teacher-librarian, I have the highest regard for master storytellers like Robert Munsch who can captivate a reader with the greatest of ease.  It is a difficult skill to possess and not everyone is a natural storyteller like Munsch. But don’t be discouraged.  Read to your children in your silliest voice, loudest or quietest tone and with your best facial expressions.  Your children will be delighted!

books · death · library · NYC · reading

Some have Disney World. I have The Library Hotel.

Customs officer:  “Anything to declare Miss?”  Me:  “Just books.  Mountains and mountains of books.”

“Book lovers never go to bed alone…” is the tag line for the amazing Library Hotel.  I had the thrill of visiting their NYC location in March.  I wanted to do something spectacular and memorable for my milestone birthday.  And what better way to celebrate (for me!) than to visit this beautiful boutique hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  From the planning stages to the booking stage, I was pumped.  This small hotel boasted rooms organized by the Dewey Decimal system along with many other perks like a 24/7 Reading Room and fresh continental breakfasts served each morning.  The staff was delightful and so helpful as my husband and I organized our few days away.  We wanted to make the most of NYC while we were there.

Although both of us had previously visited NYC, it had been a while.  The hotel was thoughtful providing weather forecasts each evening for the next day, turn-down service and little touches like a card for my birthday with truffles.  Another perk of the hotel was the offer of FREE BOOKS in the lobby while we were guests there.  Although the copies were advanced editions, it was a unique perk of the hotel.

We were close to many places and favoured to walk as the weather had yet to turn to the nasty snow storm.  As we explored the city we found little book shops tucked away, the New York Public Library, The Strand Bookstore and Grand Central Station.  The streets were clean and the people friendly as I had remembered.  It wasn’t Las Vegas or any other spectacular holiday destination like Disney World but as a book lover, it was incredible!

We stayed in the Communication Room which housed its own library of books to read.  In my feature photo for this post, many of those books are photographed.  The rooms are small but cosy and we would read in our room or move into the Reading Room just to relax and unwind after a day exploring this iconic city.

Now let’s get to the books!  At the time of our trip I was reading Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going by Patricia Pearson. Certainly a heavy subject on a birthday holiday but it happened to be my book club’s pick for the month.  I found snippets of time to squeeze in chapters here and there.  I did like the book as it was well researched while connecting it to the author’s own personal experiences with death.  I certainly feel more educated about near-death-experiences (NDE) and how both secular and religious people can open their minds to experience what happens after we die.  From a personal perspective I witnessed much of what the author was exploring as my own father faced his final days in hospice three years ago.  The book offered me some comfort as I looked back on that sorrowful time yet I imagine this book is not for everyone as some of the nonagenarians in my book club opted; understandably; not to read the book.

As we prepared to leave my idea of paradise on a snowy March morning, I left without regret.  The Hotel Library was one of the most inviting hotels I have ever stayed in.  For all you book lovers like me, it is a must-see.  I look forward to visiting again or exploring one of their other locations around the globe.