Thursday, October 28, 2010

Anything but junk…

Recently, I attended a workshop presented by the author of Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf (612.82 WOP 2008), which was all about the brain and the wonder of reading.  One of the things the author said that really struck me (besides all the really interesting stuff about reading – another blog) was about the brains of people with dyslexia.  That these are brains that are needed in our world.  That there is nothing wrong with these brains.  That these brains process information differently.  And that many of these brains belong to famous people renowned for innovative thinking, people like Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Auguste Rodin (for more names check out the website Famous People with the Gift of Dyslexia .
I just finished reading Patricia Polacco’s book The junkyard wonders (823 P756J8 PIC BK) which I found very touching and reminded of Maryanne Wolf’s comments.

It’s based on Patricia Polacco’s own experiences in school when she was placed in a class with lots of ‘odd’ children known as the junkyard kids.  The kids in the book all have different learning and physical needs, which does not perturb their teacher, Mrs. Peterson, one little bit.  She encourages them to see beyond their perceived limitations and believe in themselves.  A cruel insult from a boy, not in the class, demeans the name of ‘Junkyard Wonders’ given to them by Mrs. Peterson. To help them understand what is wonderful about junkyards, the class pays a visit to one, looking for objects that can be transformed into something new - “forget what the object was…imagine what it could be!”  The enterprise is successful after a few tribulations bravely met along the way

A brief afterword by Patricia tells what became of a few kids from her ‘tribe’ in this class; one became the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Company in New York, one a textile designer invited to work in Paris, another an aeronautical engineer for NASA and of course, Patricia herself, a well-loved children’s author/illustrator.

This book was a great way to reinforce Maryanne Wolf’s premise about the brilliance to be found in the minds of people who think differently.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Little black book

The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin (535.6 CoB 2008 PIC BK) can be used to engage kids on many different levels, cognitively, emotionally and physically.

In this book, a young blind boy tells us what colour means to him. Colours become associated with things that stimulate his other senses, such as the taste of red for an unripe, sour strawberry or the pain a scraped knee, yellow for the soft feathers of baby chicks,the tart, fresh taste of lemon ice cream for the colour green or for the "king of all colours", black, the feel of his mother’s silky hair.

The book also provides its own textual associations; we can feel Braille text as we read the narrative at the same time.  Because the pages are black, the illustrations (also in black) have been done in glossy, slightly raised relief. The images catch in the light as the pages are turned, begging the reader to rub their fingers over the whole page.

As far as classroom usage, this book makes great connections to science units about the senses, blindness (also health) and colours.  The Black Book of Colors would make an interesting addition to art lessons, as well.

Literature often takes us into the lives of others showing us places that we can’t or won’t go, both in terms of real places but also places found only in the heart and mind. The strength of this boy’s ability to ‘see’ colours despite his blindness allows us to understand and empathize.  No big drama here.  He just ‘sees’ his world a little differently than we do.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Voices from India

I often speak to students about finding books with ‘authentic voice’.  Meaning, books that authentically reflect the culture of the story being told and, ideally, told by an author from that culture.

Most often I direct this to stories about Native North Americans told by Native North Americans.

But recently I’ve been trying to find books that do the same for other cultures and have found a couple of publishers from India that publish children’s books in English (amongst many languages).  Tulika Books  and Tara Books  have published several folk stories from different parts of the country,,often illustrated using traditional artistic techniques:

Eyes on the peacock’s tale: a folktale from Rajasthan by Vayu Naidu, art by Nugdha Shah.

The rooster and the sun by Meren Imchen (from the Ao tribe in Nagaland)


And land was born retold by Sandhya Rao, art by Uma Krishnaswamy (from the Bhilala tribe in central India)

Night life of trees by Bhajju Shyam (from the Gond tribe in central India)

A non-Indian tale, The Flight of the Mermaid by Gita Wolf and Sirish Rao, is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, but illustrated by Bhajju Shyam a Gond tribal artist. Really interesting to see such a well-known European story illustrated with Indian illustrations.

In addition to the folktales, I’ve enjoyed reading a couple of titles that reflect everyday life told with an Indian perspective.  These books are written for Indian children and not necessarily for children in North America, assuming some familiarity with the culture. Here are two nonfiction books that I enjoyed:

Hina in the Old City by Samina Mishra is about a 10-year old girl, Hina, who lives in the walled city of Delhi, Purani Dilli, with her familywho are traditional craftspeople (zardozi embroiderers).  Suggested for grades 5 and up.

Riddle of the Ridley by Shekar Dattatri describes the annual migration, breeding and laying of eggs by Ridley turtles on the beaches of India.  We see what Indian scientists are learning from their ongoing research.  Suggested for grades 3-7.

A couple of fictional titles I liked include:

Out of the way, out of the way! by Uma Krishnaswami about a village that expands into a busy city but cherishes and preserves a tree planted long ago by a child, now a grandfather. Suggested for grades 1-4. 

That’s how I see things by Sirish Rao and Bhajju Shyam tells the story of an artist with an exceptional imagination, creating unusual animals that speak to him.  Very playful.
Suggested for grades 2-5.

Over at Papertigers  there is lots of information about books from India written and illustrated by Indian writers and artists that is well worth checking out.

Anyone else know of good books written with an ‘authentic voice’ from places outside of Canada and the U.S.?  Please drop me a line if you do.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Anything but blue…

Blue Lipstick by John Grandits (811 GrB 2007) is such fun.  It’s a book of concrete poems that tell the story of a teenage girl, Jessie, and her everyday trials and tribulations, from hair-colouring gone seriously awry to ditsy cheerleader types to lame school assignments.  Ah, the life of a high school student…

First thing in the morning we see a milk carton with a public awareness announcement that Jessie’s brain is missing due to lack of sleep from texting with a girlfriend all night.

We see the people in her life, parents, brother, friends, teachers and schoolmates listed and figuratively divided by a wall, separating those she connects with and those she doesn’t. (Guesses as to where bro’ falls, anyone?)  This list and wall are revisited towards the end of the book with more people added to ‘her side’ as her ‘walls’ slowly breaks down .

Jessie’s voice is clear, fresh and appealing, conveying inner confusion, losses, insecurities, triumphs and humour about everyday events that seem very immediate.  Check out her ‘emotional chart’ with her moment-by-moment ups and downs (from ‘ridiculously happy’ to ‘ticked off and ‘I hate everyone’)

This book would have wide appeal to a variety of readers just for the clever manner in which the story is told.  Underdeveloped readers might be drawn in by the visual storytelling, shortness of the book and find this less daunting than full pages of text . Suggested for grades 5 and up.

The book might inspire a class project about concrete or narrative poetry. A super way to model ‘unique’ ways of storytelling. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Surprise! Guest blogger – Ken Dyer

I’m so lucky.  And so are you, just to let you know. 

Ken Dyer, a former MT student from the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary, has agreed to be a guest blogger over the next few months.  Ken was in the education program in the early 2000s and since graduating, has been teaching in China.  Every summer he returns to Calgary and spends considerable time in the Doucette Library preparing new lessons for his upcoming teaching year.

Which means – Ken regales the library staff with all sorts of stories about his experiences in China, both teaching and personal, some funny, some sad and many that just leave me open-mouth and shaking my head.  It really is a different place.

This post introduces you to Ken and how he got started teaching in China.  He is willing to answer your questions, so ask away.  If you want to know about teaching in a foreign country this is your opportunity to learn more.

Unfortunately, due to filtering from the Chinese government (Ken can't access the blog directly) I will pass your questions/comments onto Ken through email and then  post his comments on the blog.  It may take a little time for you to get a response but iIt will be so worth it!

How did you end up teaching in China?

Not many people will ask this question of themselves and others, but I was recently asked this question by a friend, Tammy Flanders, at the Doucette Library.

In the past, maybe one was wanted by the law for some infraction of the rules, or they wanted to spread the “good word” to the godless people of China.  Some may have wanted to be a modern day Marco Polo, not the name calling game, but the explorer type.

When I think back to my own reasons for going to China, they certainly had nothing to do with the first two points, but a little to do with the latter.

As I recall, I had just finished my last practicum at an inner city school that made me feel more like a prison guard than a teacher, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but I do that!  It had been a rough six months, with the teaching and breaking up with a nice gal I had been seeing.  It seems I had a need to escape and a desire to explore.  It was at this moment that one Thomas Patten, a self-proclaimed expert on China, offered a “get out of teaching in Canada card” to me and three other teachers.

We, …, well, mostly Thomas, planned where we would be going, what we would be doing, and even what we should be thinking.  Thomas is a nice guy, but too controlling for my taste.  Mind you, nothing compares to the guy I roomed with for three months in China; I went from prison guard, to asylum inmate!  I am hoping to write a book about my first experiences in China and this guy will be my comic relief!

Thomas made teaching in China sound like paradise and after what I had been through, I wanted to try something different and I was up for an adventure.

We all said our good-byes to our families and boarded a plane to that mysterious country called China.  As I endured the flight, which is a really long flight, I thought about China; I really knew nothing about it but the things we all hear – it was communist, every one loved Mao, they made a lot of cheap stuff we all buy, and about Tienanmen Square.  Thomas had said one thing that really stuck in my mind: China is a paradox.  These words, I have found, are the most accurate way, I think, to describe China.  In subsequent messages you will glean the reality of those words.

When we arrived in Dalian, China I was excited and a bit apprehensive about being a teacher at a university.  Prior to that I had only taught at elementary schools.  I was certain teaching at a university would be much different than teaching kids in Canada.  For one thing, the Chinese students at university should be much taller, shouldn’t they?

I recall preparing for my first day, believing I was ready for the task, and well organized.  I walked into the room which was amazingly old fashioned; desks and chairs alike were bolted to the floor.  They were all in uniform rows: 2 chairs, space – 4 chairs, space – 2 chairs; forming rows from the front to back, no variation, it all seemed rather, …, restricted.  The walls were painted in mundane colors of green at the bottom and a dull gray at the top; when I looked at the front of the class I could easily imagine the Chinese phrase, “Long live Chairman Mao” was only one or two layers of paint below the surface.

The students entered, many with wide eyes, and the murmurs soon rose to a loud chatter, but not a word of English was spoken.  I approached the podium, and began the class.  I gave a brief introduction and asked if there were any questions.  All of the students, sat straight up and rigid as soldiers on parade, but no one said a word, no hand was raised.  I thought this odd as I was told that many of my students may have never seen a foreigner let alone had one as their teacher, so why don’t they have any questions?  So I repeated the question more slowly, and no one spoke or moved.  My heart started to beat audibly; at least I thought I could hear it pounding out the warning: “Shit! They don’t speak English at all!” 

In moments of terror and panic, I often can think clearly, which is a beautifully odd characteristic to have.  During my introduction I had noticed that one girl in the front row, who I later learned was called Zinc, was more animated than the rest of my group. So I asked her, “Do you understand me?”  There was a pause, which felt to me like a life time, but she leaned forward, and said, “Yes.”  I asked why no one asked any questions. She told me that you have to ask someone directly.  In China, at that time, students didn’t respond to general questions, you had to ask a specific student.  That all soon changed in my class, as they found their foreign teacher was nowhere as authoritative as their Chinese counter parts.

Another draconian habit was also quashed fairly soon in my class.  When students got over their fear of their foreign teacher, they would indicate their desire to ask a question, by not raising their hand as we do in the West, but rather by snapping their arm up from being flat on the desk to a rigid, L-shaped salute!  When I indicated I was ready for their question they would stand with their hands behind their backs and speak.  I informed them that the salutes were not needed, just ask and no need to stand; my listening was just as effective whether they stood or sat.

After these cursory problems were overcome, things moved happily forward, and I learned an important lesson from this experience.  Even though I was prepared to teach, I was unprepared for China.  I, naively, believed that the classroom would be the same no matter where I was.  Cultural differences did, and still prove to be extremely important when teaching, and it behooves one to learn a bit of the local culture so as not only be a good teacher, but not offend anyone unknowingly.  It is very easy to be unconsciously ethnocentric.  I’m still learning this lesson.

As an aside - if you are curious about the name Zinc, you haven’t seen anything yet. We will get into names Chinese students choose for themselves later and you will be surprised.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Internet support for Groundwork Guides

I’ve just had it drawn to my attention that a fantastic series of nonfiction books published by Groundwood Books, called Groundwork Guides, now have free down-loadable teacher’s guides available on the Internet.

I can’t say enough good things about the Groundwork Guides. They cover a range of topics from climate change, the oil industry, democracy, imperialism, news and media, hip hop, growth and development of cities, sex and pornography, technology to contemporary surveys of slavery and genocide, appropriate for grades 10/11 and up.

As you can see, they tackle many of the big topics that we see time and again in the news but done in a tone that lays out the facts in a respectful, informative and causal manner that will appeal to teens.  Now, I haven’t read all of the guides but have skipped through many of them and have read at least two more thoroughly.  I’ve found the texts provide very succinct and authoritative overviews on each of their topics.  At least one of these, Sex for Guys is used in Ontario schools for sex education. CBC News ran a feature on the book, interviewing young men who had read it and who liked its straightforward manner, telling them what they want to know.

Check out the Groundwood website for the short guides, usually 12 pages that typically included discussion questions and activities, suggestions for instructional approaches, and cross-curricular connections. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Swapping books and favorites.

I just found out about a book swap by mail.  What a great idea!

The idea is to exchange favorite books between people -- you mail out one of your favorites and someone 'out-there' will send you one of theirs.  How cool is that!  I know!

Think of the possibilities.

This is being hosted by the blog Playing By the Book and you'll find all the details you need to know about to participate in the swap.  You provide the details (your name, mailing address, email, etc.) and blogger, Zoe will make the match.

I'm in.  What about you?
The real challenge will be picking out just one favorite.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Woven stories

Textiles, in general, hold a certain fascination for me.  I love the tactile quality of producing a textile and that they can touch people across time and space. I love the potential for them to tell a story, both explicitly and implicitly.  The potential for them to capture the imagination of kids is also a real possibility.

A current exhibition at the Military Museums in Calgary recently reminded me of this power.  This exhibition showcases rugs woven in traditional Afghani style but that now depict weapons and other machines of war such as tanks and helicopters, reflecting the seemingly never ending conflict this country endures. This is a recent adaptation marketed primarily to non-Afghanis, such as soldiers and diplomats.  What a cool hook to tie in to current affairs.

I’ve always enjoyed looking at medieval tapestries showing battles being won and lost, maidens, mythical beasts, and glimpses of the lives of the rich (if not famous), which allow us to see a time past.  Quilts sown by black slaves, subversively offering clues to routes to freedom under the noses of cruel masters, also offer rich narrative and capture the imagination. Nothing like secret codes to appeal to students.

The Doucette Library recently purchased two arpilleras (similar to the one shown but not exactly the same) (958 Cou 2006 AV) from Peru that introduced me to another form of textile storytelling.  These particular pieces are brightly, embroidered squares of cloth showing marketplaces in city and country settings.  Great resources for the grade 3 social studies Alberta curriculum which studies Peru.  But, wanting to know more about them, I typedarpilleras’ into Google and brought up references that takes this craft back to Chile and how it was used primarily by women during the regime of Pinochet as a form of protest about ‘the disappeared’, family members how were kidnapped and arrested by the government often never to be seen again.  What an interesting way to tell a story.  Maybe not for grade three but certainly could be used at the high school level where the curriculum looks at different types of ‘isms’ and governments. Or, you could talk about the importance of cooperatives, where many arpilleras are created as a source of income for the poor living in the slums of Peru.  So many layers can be embedded in a seemingly innocuous tourist souvenir.

Here are a few books that tie textiles to story:

   Memories of survival by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz (940.5318 KrM 2005) - Suggested for grades 6 and up.  An elderly Jewish woman constructs several fabric panels that tells of her survival in Poland during the Holocaust.

Whispering cloth: a refugee story by Pegi Deitz Shea (823 Sh3W PIC BK) - Suggested for grades 2-6. A Hmong girl living in a refugee camp learns, from her grandmother, the craft of making pa’ndau, story cloths that are a source of income and comfort as she tells her own traumatic story.

Dia’s story cloth (973.0495 ChD 1996) - Suggested for grades 3 and up.  A true story about another Hmong family living in Laos during the 1960s and their escape to Thailand.  Includes lots of information about this art form and its importance to the Hmong people, a history of Laos as well as a personal history.

Stitching truth: women’s protest art in Pinochet’s Chile by Dan Eshet (waiting to be catalogued)- A study unit that looks at how women ‘fought’ back against the terror of Pinochet’s brutal government.

Art against the odds: from slave quilts to prison paintings by Susan Goldman Rubin (709.0407 RuA 2004).  Suggested for grades 5 and up.  Includes a chapter about American slaves quilting maps to freedom.

And two more examples of actual textiles in our collection: 

Sujani story cloth (954 Su 2006 AV) - An embroidered cloth that depicts everyday life for a woman living in rural India.

Metis sashes (970.00497 M Hab 2005 AV) - These sashes directly connect the history of the Metis to the development of Canada telling us of the importance of the sash both practically and symbolically. 

Join Nonfiction Monday Roundup at Madigan Reads to see a list of recent blogs dedicated to highlighting nonfiction resources.

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