Friday, 19 June 2015

I Read... Please Ignore Vera Dietz

"I'm sorry, but I don't get it. If we're supposed to ignore everything that's wrong with our lives, then I can't see how we'll ever make things right."

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King is the best YA novel that I have read in a long, long time.  I hadn't heard anything about this book before picking it up, and I honestly can't remember buying it.  I randomly picked it up off of my "books to be read" shelf (this is actually several shelves packed to the gills... the life of a reader...) and dove in.  By the next day, I was finished.  I loved the protagonist, Vera, immediately.  Her sass and vulnerability make her endearing, and I couldn't wait to find out what happened to her and her best friend Charlie, who has recently passed away.

Vera deals with real problems in a way that is easy to relate to.  Not once does it sound preachy or like an after school special.  Vera is dealing with an absent mother, a distant father, a dead best friend, alcoholism, an older love interest, a full time job that can put her in potentially dangerous situations, bullies... and she's still in high school.  Despite this heavy load, Vera never comes off as whiny.  She endures each of these issues like a normal teenage girl- imperfectly.  She is a protagonist that I would want young girls to read about and fall in love with.  Is she perfect?  Absolutely not.  But she doesn't ignore her problems and she comes to sensible conclusions because she works through her feelings.  In reality, what Vera does might be harder than all of the physical feats that dystopian heroines like Katsniss and Tris overcome.  The internal struggle the Vera quietly faces shows true strength of character.

The most gripping part of the story is the mystery involving Charlie.  As the book opens, Vera tells us that her best friend of many years has recently died.  The bigger issue for Vera, however, is that she felt like she lost her best friend months before her death.  To her, this is far worse than the death itself.  Put yourself in her shoes- someone that you love deeply dies while you are in the midst of a fight that not only separates you, but results in the two of you being mean to one another.  The lack of closure, the questions of "what if I had been there," the mixed feelings- sadness, anger, fear... Vera is dealing with all of these.  Add to this that Charlie is appearing to her, begging her to clear his name.  Clear his name from what?  The reader will find out eventually through a series of flashbacks.

I feel certain that anyone will relate to Vera for one reason or another- she has so many issues to work through, that you are bound to have something in common with her.  Her model of dealing with her problems to come to a resolution that is real, not perfect, is something that I really enjoyed reading about.

Food for thought... is there a book that you didn't expect to like but you ended up loving?  What was it?

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Teaching Rhetorical Devices

The first time I taught an Advanced Placement course, it was the English Language and Composition course.  It can be intimidating, and I was the first person in our school to teach the course.  I remember looking for great materials to teach rhetorical language, which was something that my students really struggled with.  Through the experience, I learned that it was important to me to put a greater focus on the use of language in all of my courses, whether for advanced or struggling students.  I was excited to come across this edutopia blog by Todd Finley, which looks at using authentic 21st Century texts to teach students how to write with ethos, pathos and logos.

After giving students some background information on Aristotle and the definition of rhetorical devices, students practice using ethos, pathos and logos by creating "Aristotelian Advertisements".  One of the examples that Finley provides is an advertisement for milk.  Other suggestions are to have students pull a random item from their book bag or to create a book trailer using rhetorical language.

(Photo credit:
How might this jug of milk evoke emotion in your audience?

Food for thought... what are some other ways to make "old" ideas come alive for students?

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

I Read... Ru

Ru by Kim Thuy was the 2015 winner of Canada Reads.  Since this year's contest generated so much buzz and excitement, especially with the controversy over When Everything Feels Like the Movies, I knew that Ru would be a must-read.  When I read a brief summary of the book, I knew that I would be reading with a teacher's eye- is this something that I could teach to a Grade 12 class?  I'm always on the hunt for great novels to teach, particularly in English Language Arts 30-1.  It is difficult to find a balance between literature that is accessible, relatable and enjoyable while still being complex enough to write a critical analytical response on the summative diploma exam.

I found that Ru was a very quick read.  It is told in brief vignettes, which I think makes it easy to approach.  Even if I only had a few minutes to read, I knew that if I carried the novel around I would be able to fit in a piece here and there.

The story will be interesting for many students and easy for anyone with an immigrant story to relate to.  It follows the main character, Nguyen, though her childhood in post-war Vietnam.  Her life changes drastically as her once wealthy family learns to live with nothing.  The family flees Vietnam and heads to a crowded refugee camp in Malaysia.  The striking contrast between these two worlds was revealing to me, someone who has never had to leave my home behind to seek a new life.  The author holds nothing back, but Nguyen always has a balance of fear of the present and hope for the future.  Nguyen finally ends up in Quebec, where we get to see her life as a wife and mother.  Rather than move chronologically through these stages of Nguyen's life, the story shifts back and forth between the past and the present.  I was a bit concerned about this as it is sometimes difficult for students to keep track of this type of story (Death of a Salesman, anyone?).  I found it very easy, however, to keep track of the stage of the protagonist's life.  The reality of her life in the three stages portrayed are so starkly different that there was no confusion.

What struck me above all was the beautiful use of language.  I cannot remember the last time I read such a beautiful piece of prose.  Ru would be a wonderful text to use to show the artistry of language, even if only a few vignettes were pulled.  It made me wish that I could read French fluently as I would love to compare and contrast the original French text to the translated English version that I enjoyed.

I suspect that I would not teach Ru as a full novel to a Grade 12 class as I do think that it would be challenging for students to develop their own ideas about the book.  That said, I would certainly pull out excerpts from the novel for a variety of purposes- study of language, reading comprehension, study of a short text.

Food for thought... what award winning books stand out in your mind?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

How to Keep Reading When Life Gets Crazy Busy.

Can you tell it's the end of the school year?  Educators and students alike are working to get through those last few weeks of school, and for many these are the most hectic weeks of the year.  Add my name to that list- I have been swamped!  Between my regular work, wrapping up major projects, helping teachers finish up the school year, getting my son's schoolwork finished, setting up two summer school courses... let's just say I'm toast!

It's easy for me to put reading on the back burner when life gets like this, so I have come up with some strategies that help me fit in a few pages every day:

1. Carry your book with you wherever you go: My son has some sort of sports activity, social event, or class just about every day.  I always bring my current book along in my purse or car so that I know I will get the chance to sneak in some quiet mom time.  While the other moms are gossiping loudly or hovering over their child, I sit on the sidelines and read.  Bonus side effect- while people judge the mom who is on her phone during swimming lessons, I just look like a book nerd.

2. Have several books on the go:  Ladies, are you ever far from a lip gloss?  If you're like me, probably not.  That's because I have the (sometimes expensive) habit of leaving lip gloss all over the place- my bedside table, my kitchen, my car, my desk, my work bag... no place is safe.  I am often the same with books.  I might have four different books on the go- one by my bed, one in my car, one in my purse, one on my desk.  This means that whenever the mood strikes- and whenever time allows- I can read a page or two.  This also helps if I am reading something particularly deep and heavy.  Switching to other books gives me extra time to digest.

3. Create a routine:  At the end of the night, I always read with my son.  He is now onto "chapter books," so we decide on a number of pages that he will read and then he heads to bed.  As soon as we are done, I move on to my own book.  Even if I only get a page or two in, it keeps me in the routine.  I find that this helps my sleep as it helps me wind down and forget about my looming to-do list at the end of the day.

4. Make reading your "time waster of choice":  Everyone needs some time to zone out.  Whether we sit around and listen to music, watch TV, or chat on the phone with a friend, I believe that this time is essential for us to recharge our batteries.  Sometimes I will find myself reaching for the phone or iPad to mindlessly play Candy Crush or some other time suck.  If you have ever played Candy Crush, you know how easy it is to get sucked in.  You think you're going to play for five minutes, and forty minutes later you're still stuck on your level.  I notice that when I play these games, I don't feel good.  I get frustrated with myself for wasting time on something unproductive.  I never get angry with myself, however, for spending too much time reading a book.  Now I consciously try to reach for a book instead of an electronic device.  I still get to unwind, but I feel good about my choice of activity.

5. Audio books count too:  I often go on work related trips to a city that is a three hour drive away, and if I want to visit family I need to drive for eight and a half hours.  I often take these trips alone or with a sleeping kid in the back seat.  For some reason, hearing voices chat helps to make the time go by much more quickly than music does.  If I'm on my game, I will go to the library or download an audio book to listen to on the drive.  My bonus tip- go for a comedy.  There is a big difference between reading Bossypants and hearing Tiny Fey read it to you.  When given the chance, go for the latter!

Food for thought... how do you fit reading into a busy day?