Monday, September 28, 2009

My personal 20 - a life condensed and potent

Life unfolds in moments of magic and doom, tragedy and euphoria.

We all have stories that are worth telling - the stories that define our lives and our identity. These moments hover in time and quiver with portent. I'd like my students to write from a place of emotional truth. Emotion resists disguise and mocks the trappings of deceit.

My students believe that they have nothing to say and that no one could possiblly find truth in their experiences. Yet, when I ask each of them to think of the five events that have defined their lives, the stories appear out of the mist and take physical, emotive form.

As part of our discussion of Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape," we have grappled with the heady theme of identity and its fitful search for self.

What does it mean to be Canadian? How is identity formed? Can story become the truth of our lives? How do the isolated moments that mark our lives, like the bony ridge of each vertebrate, come to form the spine that gives our lives form and function.

As a culminating activity, I was inspired by Kate in the Kitchen, a food blogger whose love of food and words mirrors my own much humbler efforts. In particular, I was moved by the candor, vulnerability and emotional rawness of her Kate's 100. ...a human life, in 100 lines. This was a life condensed and potent. Each item was a story in wait and, together, they form the stories that are worth telling in Kate's life.

I asked my students to extend their understanding of character and the theme of identity formation in "Death by Landscape" by creating a personal 20 for the protagonist, Lois. What are the moments (real or created) that defined Lois' life and identity? As an extension, I also asked students to share the top 20 of of their own lives. What are the stories that are worth telling? How does identity take shape?

Here is my personal 20.

1. I did not learn how to speak English until I was seven.
2. The only thing I love more than cooking is eating.
3. I have always wanted to be a teacher.
4. I don't think I was a very good teacher until I became a mother.
5. Sometimes, after a day of teaching, I go home and cry.
6. I cry a lot - this is a gift and a curse.
7. My temper is fierce and overwhelming; I struggle to keep it contained.
8. I married the kindest and most intelligent man I ever met.
9. We got married at the Chapel of Love in Las Vegas - my marriage may not be legit.
10. I'm energetic and hyper; this makes me lovable to some and annoying to others.
11. When I was 7, I wanted to be white and blond and eat exotic things like meatloaf
12. I named myself Cindy, after Cindy Brady of the Brady Bunch.
13. I know I am my mother's favourite and this makes me feel guilty.
14. When my daughter was born, my heart stretched taut with fear.
15. My father is a story I have buried too deep to be healthy.
16. There was a time when I felt like fraud in both cultures.
17. I spent many years of my life deeply ashamed of my Chinese heritage.
18. I am a boat person.
19. I named one daughter Weijin (imaginative journey) and the other Jian (peaceful journey); their names hold my wish for each of their lives.
20. The wrongs of the world overwhelm me with grief.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reading is messy business...would you have it any other way?

As I dive headlong into the challenge of trying to create authentic and meaningful conversations around fiction with my students, I am buoyed in spirit and in mind by their insightful and engaged conversations around their book club books (see last post). I love that the ideas as they come out in their online discussion treads in the realm of grey...they are complex, messy, tentative, speculative...what more do we want from our readers? Who's teaching and who's learning anyhow? The lines blur and everything else comes into focus.

Below is an excerpt of their discussion around Carol Shield's last novel, Unless, a novel that is layered and complex and yields more questions than answers. This novel's exploration of identity, gender, voicelessness and the roles we inherit and define for ourselves is a stunning testiment to Shield's final waltz with language; this book is the product of a great writer who had complete and absolute control of her craft and was at the pinnacle of her career. That they have jumped in and are sharing their tentative and vulnerable impressions leaves me breathless.


I'm about 200 pages into the book. So far i am not sure how I feel about it as a whole. I really enjoy the writing at times, however the feminist comments by Reta are a little too much for me. For example, the comment about how men don't care about anything that women is completely absurd. Reta sends these letters to editors about how women are not listened to and somehow connecting it to Norah's disappearance. I will be pretty disappointed if the reason that Norah abandoned her whole life was because she felt ignored as an individual because she is a woman. However, I think that it is unlikely that that is the case. It seems to me that the book isn't really telling me what I am waiting for which is what the deal is with Norah. I find that the reader is given little slivers of details of Norah's life before she ended up on the corner of Bathurst, however little is revealed about what is actually happening with Norah leaving me a little unsatisfied. But I don't really mind because many of the passages in the novel are quite beautiful. Like Ms. Quach said, this novel is quite "heavy" and intense, making a bit of a challenge to get through. Reta's quest to discover and understand Norah's journey for GOODNESS intrigues me, however I am always waiting for answers with this novel and never getting any.

Quach, Cindy

hmmm....i don't want to monopolize this discussion (like i did with oryx and crake) but this is really a book about the questions and not so much about the answers. with that said, i do love the sense of feeling discombobulated at the end of the book b/c it means it will continue to live and have a conversation with me (life of pi). i think this novel is about reta trying to make sense of her daughter's silence. interesting perspective: woman, translator of others' work, mother, wife...but who is she? through seen through the eyes of some strong ideas around the role of women, it can also been seen about the desire to find self in the tangle of all our obligations and responsibilities to others.

Confession: I am on page 25, for no good reason whatsoever.

So far, this novel has been completely different from what I expected. To be honest, I've been a bit disappointed in the plot. (What plot?) Reta reveals everything in a matter-of-factly tone that really creates no suspense at all. Even the revelation about her daughter Norah is presented flatly and without any warning. Perhaps that's why I'm not experiencing the urge to read that drove me to binge Oryx and Crake. (Although I'm not blaming my pace on anyone/anything but myself.)

Yet for such an absence of plot (at least in these few pages), many questions have already been raised in my mind. The most interesting is the question of whether translation constitutes art. I can somewhat connect to this question, through music. Having composed, transcribed, and performed music for years (well not transcribed, I've only been doing that recently), I find it hard to argue that any of those tasks is not "art". Yet transcription is clearly akin to translation: for example, translating the "language" of the orchestra to the "language" of the piano. Also, performing music arguably means translating the notes on paper into emotions in sound.

The real reason I decided to post is, of course, that I've just read about the physicist trying to explain to Reta Einstein's theory of relativity. I doubt that this is of major significance in the novel as a whole but I couldn't resist analyzing this short chapter in much greater depth than is probably warranted. Amazingly, Reta's two complaints - "So, the speed of light is constant. Is that all?" and "How can mass ... have any connection with how fast light travels?" echo two of the biggest questions I consistently have whenever I try to understand relativity. This chapter also gives some insights into Reta's character. Her intrapersonal strength, already established by the first chapter, is strengthened by her insightful analysis of Colin's relationship with his wife. That her thoughts always return to Norah reveals just how affected she is by the loss of her daughter. And her question to Colin - "But isn't it possible to think that goodness ... could be a wave or particle of energy" - shows admirable openmindedness, something the physicist clearly lacks. (Note to self: if I ever decide to become a physicist, remember Unless.)

To everyone, sorry for posting an incoherent rant. To my group, sorry for my snail pace. Contrary to what Ms. Quach recommended I do plan to read the majority of this novel during grad weekend. I'll make my next post a lot more interesting.


Now on page 104, and beginning to see the first bits of explicit feminism.

I will wait for more pages before making a final judgement on the validity of the feminism in this novel. However, the little that I've read has already begun to disturb me. The worst was "How do I permit myself to live with a man?", which sounds a lot like "eye for an eye", hate, spite, and various other emotions I've thought about a lot these past few days.

I find Reta's insight that "women have been hampered by their biology" intriguing. From a biological perspective, it does indeed seem that it's women who are asking for more than men, by defying both evolutionary and traditional roles. Of course, this is incompatible with the blatant inequality of the genders, or as Reta puts it, "how [women] are dismissed and excluded from the most primary of entitlements". A possibility: these "entitlements" are in fact naturally masculine and have become "primary" because of male dominance? There's something "inelegant" about this answer to the question, but I'm too tired to think about it in depth at this hour.


I haven't made any progress, but I've been thinking about the differences between the group and the individual. Personally I've always been an individualist. In general, I believe that all valid group goals translate into individual goals, while not vice-versa; hence individual goals are more important. Feminism appears to seek individual goals (even though feminism concerns the entire population of women, the rights it advocates are individual). However, when Reta says that "women have been hampered by their biology", she is making a generalized judgement on all women. When, later, Danielle Westerman asks Reta how she permits herself to live with a man, the former is again making general assumptions about all women. I don't deny that rights (ie. the right of women to live independently) not exercised can easily become lost, but when rights become obligations, I believe that the solution has come full circle in creating another problem.

Sorry if the above makes no sense. I'm still quite confused about my own thoughts at the moment.


Ronnie, I must agree with you that I feel quite confused about this book as well as my own thoughts in its regard. I am finished the book now and like Ms. Quach says, this is definitely not a book about answers, however Reta's journey to discover Norahs misguidance is an interesting one and really makes me ponder the role of myself as well as those around me. Like many, I do believe that woman deserve equality, but the lengths that this book takes go beyond equality of woman and sometimes push to mere hatred of men. The comment Ronnie mentioned about how can Reta live with a man is a perfect example. Her living with a man does not make her any less equal to him, and this statement really doesn't comment on equality. To me it seems as though to embody the voice of many woman who are frustrated with men, even though it is obvious that not all men are the same. At times I really couldn't tell what was more important to Reta. Whether it be gaining a voice for woman? Or trying to understand Norah? Or does she believe the root of Norah's anguish is that she is voiceless. Once again, I find myself only left with questions.


Before I comment on the ending I must say that Carol Shields' stream-of-consciousness style is amazing. I can feel the rise of Reta's mental confusion as she struggles to understand Norah's plight. Her changing signature on the letters she composes as an outlet for her emotions subtly suggests that she herself is undergoing the self-destruction of identity that she believes has struck Norah. And the tenderness of the climax quite easily made me forget that I was holding a paper book in my hands, with my eyelids barely open, while sweating on a couch in a stuffy living room. I was immersed into Reta's world, and I felt her impossible mix of fear, joy, pain, and relief.

My first impressions after finishing follow.

The ending was a letdown. As Micah said it gave no answers. Moreover, I feel that the strong themes of power, individuality, and reality, kittens bred throughout the novel into truly terrifying tigers, were at once tossed into the garbage bin. Everything was set up for Reta to come to terms with her identity, to discard her work as a novelist of writing frivolous lies once and for all (not my view of the art of writing), or even to reveal her final feminist-bordering-on-sexist epiphany; yet, in the end I feel like she all but gives up, and everything reverts to exactly the state of affairs before Norah's crisis. If there's one change that Reta's undergone, I'd say it's realizing the importance of understanding and acceptance. This mere hint of a theme feels quite empty and fake though.

I'm sure I'm missing something. Hopefully as I reflect on this novel in the next few days I will begin to appreciate its ending a bit more.


I'll be honest: I've been stuck in the middle for quite a while now. Nonetheless, I feel obliged to touch on a few points Micah and Ronnie have already discussed (but with a female's perspective) FEMINISM I always thought of myself as a feminist, but Carol Shield portrayal of the female role juxtaposes my own. For lack of a better word, I find her female characters tend to be whiny at times when battling between genders. In particular, when Reta wrote a letter to the magazine publisher, her words did not strike an emotional chord. I understood the importance the letter had for her seeing as it not only related to herself, but to her children. This is not how I would address my female role in society. I was hoping to see a little more leading by example from these mature women and I found it somewhat disturbing to see them still questioning the gender role. Is this an ordeal only experienced in the older generations or will I be plagued with it as well when I age? PLOT The plot lacks drive. The slow pace seems necessary, but at the same time, it is driving me crazy. I want a little more excitement and less worrying form Reta. Her worries about, well, everything is exhausting my mind. My eyes lift faster away from the page than I can read the words. The flawed characters are also hard to swallow at times. CHARACTERS By no means are the flaws wrong. The flaws within the characters makes the story come alive and feel human to me as a reader. In particular, when Reta's friends announced herself as a lesbian (I apologize for forgetting her name), I wondered whether this was because she was extremely bitter towards men or she was actually homosexual. MATURITY I'm not a mother. I don't have daughters and I certainly haven't lost one. I have no published novels, I don't translate books, and I don't write to publishers. I've never lived in a house for over twenty years and I've never been tied down to a man. When I first chose the book, I had high anticipation for what it had to offer; a new perspective, new insight. Unfortunately it turned out to be a lot different. The story, plot, and style create abundant potential that I cannot access for the very fact that it is not my time to appreciate it. Twenty years down the road, I definitely see myself enjoying the novel. Right now, it's hard to swallow. Reading Unless makes me feel angry and rebellious (probably because its a reaction I often with my mother at this adolescent age- God bless her patient soul).

Quach, Cindy
this is a valid point, justine..perhaps the theme lacks the universality that would make it more meaningful across age and gender. this novel is certainly not simple and it does make a reader work as it is densely layered and complicated and confusing. this will make good fodder for discussion.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Living and Reading

Today, I began a second installment of book club with my English 12 students. This was in response to the overwhelming popularity of our first book club foray in February.

This idea came to me intially as I tried to think of ways I could help my students become lifelong readers. How do we see those who are no longer in school "living" life as readers? Akin to those who continue to run long after they have graduated from PE classes, where in society do I see people reading for meaning and pleasure? The answer lies in the book club phenomenon that has swept the US and Canada (Egad! Oprah again!)

The book club offers an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to get together and debate, discuss and decipher books they have all read. Perhaps reading is not the end of the process but rather the beginning of the conversation that good books seem to generate. The book club offers so much for the English student: active reading, engagement, discourse, critical thinking, active-listening, questioning, being enlightened by the thoughts of others. But this is still all teacher speak.

Why do adults CHOOSE to be part of a book club, even though there is no looming authority figure or class assignment? …because it’s fun, and somewhere along the way, all that heady intellectual stuff also happens to follow.

Joanne Leblond, our teacher-library and I lead a brief book talk to introduce students to some books that have been fixtures on bestseller lists and/or are the darlings of critics. From there, students chose the book they would like to read and discuss. We tried to replicate as close as possible the ad hoc conversations about books readers often happen upon - these talks occur in hallways, elevators, during class, meetings and even between between bathroom stalls.
We toss the titles of books to friends and acquaintances all the time.

Oh, you’ve got to read….
Have you read….?
If you love…you’d love…
Oh, I’m reading such a great book right now...

Here is an excerpt of what I shared with the students

What we’d like to replicate here is the sense of excitement and buzz that comes from sharing a good book with a friend.

I don’t want this to feel like a course assignment because, for whatever reason, this robs books of some of their magic. I want the discussion to be organic and authentic.

I have set up a discussion board for each of the books that you can use to bounce around ideas or to ask questions or discuss anything you fancy. I will not be setting specific requirements for when and what you should be posting. I think a reasonable amount would be 2-3 posts/responses by our book club date. The learning will be intrinsic and very personal so post whatever ideas inspire or irk you and post at whatever time of day and at whatever point in the book you like. The point is not to post just to jump through the hoop; post b/c you have something to say or something to wonder or something to ask. Post because you want to engage with another reader. This is a community of readers we are creating.

I want you to enjoy the book and let its ideas wash over and through you. I want you to be a reader. Let's not talk about assessment until after the book club. If you engage meaningfully in this book club, you will be happy with your marks. My goal is to help you enjoy reading; how does one assess this? This is my dilemma. Just read and think and discuss and you will do well.
We will have two weeks to read your books and then meet in a location off campus (real life, right?) The meetings will be organic affairs where participants will drive and steer the discussion on a meandering but nonetheless meaningful path.

On the designated book club date, we lunched, sipped coffee, slurped Vietnamese pho and balanced tuna sashimi on chopsticks at eating establishments throughout the neighbourhood. I attempted to visit every group and in every instance, my English teacher's heart swelled taut at the sight of readers meeting socially over food and drink to talk passionately about their relationship with a book.

Can't wait to see what the second round has in store!

Friday, May 1, 2009

In response to Kim McGill's blog re' collaborative writing.

I think collaborative writing adds a new dimension to the writing process that reflects the needs of our contemporary culture. Although there will always be a place for private and personal writing, the ubiquitous nature of blogs, facebook, twitter indicates that more and more so, writing is moving into the public sphere. Most writing that is published electronically is, by nature, works in progress. We post, we receive feedback (solicited or not) and we often rewrite or reconceptualize. In this way, teaching collaborative writing explicitely is crucial. I have had some success using Googledocs, wikis and track changes in Word.

1. Googledocs - I agree that giving collaborative writing a purpose is essential. Without a authentic purpose, there is simply no motivation to write. The writing itself is not as effective as a product in and of itself.

Working with Google Docs, students wrote a wikipedia articles collaborativey (I used revision history to track their contributions). Students were very excited that they would be contributing to Wikipedia (a previous attempt to draft in wikipedia was a disaster...yikes!). As such, their writing was focussed and directed. What I found quite surprising was the ownership students took of the process...the natural editors in each group took on the nitpicking duties, those with particular strengths in layout took ownership of this domain. The process which evolved was rather fluid in that students also made decisions independently or in groups, to contribute their particular strengths to the piece. Once they had finetuned the piece to the satisfaction of all, groups met face to face to make some final tweaks before uploading to the blowing winds (kind or malevolent) of wikipedia.

2. Wikis - Once again, the purpose of collaborative writing was established. Students groups used wikis on our virtual classroom to create a presentations to be delivered to the entire class. In this instance, we divided up literary terminology into groupings based on commonality; each group would become the experts of one area of terminology (character, irony, rhetorical devices...) and teach to the rest of the class, using their wiki document as a lesson plan, visual aid, note-skeleton. I used history to track contributions.

An added bonus lay in the permanent study notes that students would have access to for study purposes. The class also worked collaboratively to design the test by supplying questions from their area of expertise to a test-design wiki. Boy, did they think they were getting away with murder! But alas, the learning was in writing and knowing exactly what would be on the test!

3. Track Changes in Word: I tend to only used this with senior students because younger ones do not seem to be able to take the suggestions and comments of others and transfer it into meaniningful improvements. After several classes of writing their personal narratives alone, I asked English 12 students to turn track changes on, then walk to a new computer. They were asked to insert comments/suggestions for style, voice, fluency as well as make deletions or additions to the writing. When writers returned to their work, the mark ups were shown distinctly in red. Student writers had the option to either accept/ignore the editing comments made. This process honours collaboration but also gives ultimate veto power to the writer. I think this particular strategy is only effective with more mature students who have already discovered a distinct, albeit evolving, voice.

For me, the value of collaborative writing does not lie in the product but in the process; students are challenged to think critically, negotiate tactfully and engage meaningfully in a real life skill. The learning is layered and seamless.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

fluff or fodder
Last Friday, I watched YouTube videos with my students.

This is nothing ground-breaking nor is it particularly innovative. However, it marks the crystallization of an idea that I've been toying with for a while: the invisible divide that seems to exist between teachers and students. As a beginning teacher, this division was a tenuous and fragile was the facade of my authority.

Perhaps the nucleus of this crystal formed when I heard Alan November say that we are the first generation of teachers whose students do not play the games that we did at their age. Most of us would have shared the common experience of hopscotch, red rover, and kick the can with our teachers. Can we honestly say the same about our relationship with our students? So what? Who cares? Perhaps the only way we can connect with our students is by standing on the foundation of shared experience.

So...a couple of years ago, I dived into facebook. I have absolutely no interest in friending my students; in fact, they all know not to ask until they have graduated...and even then, I'm not sure I would accept their requests. I don't want to be their friends, virtually or literally, but I do want to know and understand the language and vocabulary of their time. I don't want to be on the other side of the divide anymore.

Last Friday, my grade 9's swept into the classroom at the beginning of period 2, eyes feral with hormones and spring; I decided on a whim to share with them a video that has gone viral on the internet (as well as launched Coeur de Pirate's career from obscure Quebecois chanteuse into the mainstream). The kids watched the video, mouths agape, gentle smiles blossoming across and softening their features. Then the most wondrous thing happened, we had a tingling discussion about why certain YouTube videos take flight. Why did this particular video resonate so strongly with people? What part of the human psyche did this video stimulate? What is the power and pull of this video? The discussion was fervent, passionate…and real and grounded in a shared experience.

Then another wondrous thing happened, the energy in the room was palpable and kinetic as every child offered a video on YouTube that they felt everyone needed to watch. These kids spend hours watching videos on Youtube. There was genuine excitement and an intense desire to share discoveries that these students had made when they should have been doing their math homework. Each child wanted an opportunity to present and justify their choice.

Ryan Chung made the most impassioned plea and thus we watched Sandra Boyle’s insanely popular performance on Britain’s Got Talent. Next, we discussed the light this video casts on human judgment and cruelty, and the unexpected glimpses of beauty that mesmerize us in our chaotic lives, and mostly powerfully of all, the revelation of the frailty that lives in all of us.

My students had all seen the videos but they had never thought about why and how these videos affected them in such a way. They may spend hours in front of the computer but they do not have the tools to assess, access and articulate meaning. This is our job: to give students the tools and structures to make sense of what is already monopolizing their time.

It was one of the most magical and meaningful discussions I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Last Friday, I watched YouTube videos with my students and it was good.