Experiential knowledge and Story time

Thinking of Reading Strategies and what might work best for each age group when found myself circling back to the simple concept of “story”.  We tell a story; we share a story; we read a story; and we critique a movie if the story within it lacked “substance” or simply asked us as viewers to work “too hard” to follow a plot and grow with the characters.  And readers of all ages too want to identify somehow with the characters- to be taken on a Roller Coaster Ride, perhaps, to be given a slow and steady walk from beginning to end- maybe; Readers “know” if a book appeals, even before we teach students how to formally analyze plot and character development and where to look for symbols and themes.

Had the pleasure yesterday evening of being reminded of this when a student became enthusiastic about the social issues within To Kill a Mockingbird- a modern “classic”, filled with so many nuances and options for discussion that I had to marvel anew how the book had actually been taken off of some reading lists.   The characters in this story have become near stereotypes, representing segments of society to be either admired or feared.  Racism, social conscience, economic differences within society, justice- a justice system for all?, children versus adults and understanding of “big” issues, social norms and social responsibility, individual versus society- the list of discussion topics goes on.  And though Harper Lee’s book is not the only one to call attention to the discrepancy between the way the world ought to be and the way the world often- in fact-is, this text may either make a reader grateful that it is now 2014- and issues depicted belong to the last century, or sad, that it is now 2014, and issues depicted may still be prevalent, in spite of many reasons to believe that by now, “everyone”  should know better.

Story then is what keeps a reader’s attention; the young child laughing as Mortimer climbs up the stairs “thump, thump, thump, thump”, the older child learning Greek Myths along with following Percy on his adventures, the high school student reacting to a character in The Help, or marveling at the formality within Pride and Prejudice, is absorbing how others- writers- have seen their society, and chosen to encapsulate in written form aspects of social interaction, some comedic, some tragic, some simply “as is”, that we, readers, might gain a little bit of insight and also question what we take for granted- how we interact with others; how others interact with us.

Story, oral and written, keeps us engaged. Young students require help in building vocabulary that will later be used to decipher the stories they are expected to read and make sense of through their academic years. One of our bigger tasks then is how to encourage vocabulary building, vocabulary usage, vocabulary extensions. And this task begins in preschool, where we sing songs, use movement and gesture to get at emotion, encourage play acting of various characters, and in general start the foundation for literacy acquisition. In doing so we are also encouraging the beginning of empathic relating, the ability to care about another and to feel that the other’s experience matters. Stories help us to move across artificial and real boundaries, boundaries of time and space, boundaries of religion and race, boundaries of culture and country. And while I am one who finds reading can actually transport a reader from the here and now into the story itself, I work with struggling readers daily. So I look for as many variations of story as possible, to cultivate an ability to encourage the reader to move beyond his or her own stereotype- a label possibly imposed by an academic institution- and to read first for pleasure in the story, then to evaluate the story; to read at a level that allows for absorbing the big picture within the tale, and to connect that image with what the student already has experienced. And regardless of age, to allow for the recap- the retelling of the story, the part when the student is able to say “I did this” (meaning I did the reading) for while retelling may not be the same action as summarizing or analyzing, retelling offers a strong practical reward- the student hearing his or her own voice while sharing ideas.  Isn’t this a central goal of a writing conference?

Six Words for Fall, and an image

Fall Leaves Pumpkins

Brilliant, beautiful, crunching! Children, jumping, glee!

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving; what are you feeling grateful for?

Finding the Super Heroes

Before there was a Captain Underpants we had Captain America, and Batman, and Superman and a host of other super heroes with Wonder Woman, and some of the Legionnaires thrown in as female “role models” too. Today we are seeing a revival of sorts for these “super” heroes through a revised media, with the characters bridging the gaps between original comic stars and the ones we are meeting through the TV, internet or movie screen. The screen characters have been adapted, modified to be in keeping with modern expectations, yet maintain a quaint throwback to those original paper heroes; the ones that were featured in the comic “books” of old.

True confessions- I enjoyed the antics of Kato and the Green Hornet on TV, but rarely read comics as a child; there were so many other books, magazines and reading material to select from- we lived a ten minute run across a park from a library, in addition to having an abundance of written material in the home. Still, as an adult I read the work of Dr. Krashen, and then began to review comics to discover not only what their attraction might be, but also to find this added vocabulary challenge which Dr. Krashen wrote about. Indeed, peppered throughout a piece is a great deal of vocabulary; it was therefore such fun to watch the new Gotham series and hear two actors emphasize the following word: “lackadaisical”; lovely – the repetition of a single word bringing home those years as a graduate student and the clear learning about how reading, to be an effective vocabulary builder, must engage or appeal to the reader. Whether parent or teacher, hearing a child laugh out loud over the adventures of a nerdy character, and then wanting to read the next in a series, be it the earlier mentioned Captain Underpants or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or The Dork Diaries, and there are more in this “reality non –superhero comic style” genre of books today is a relief to many who worry if the child will engage with a book.

Engage; as in get together with; how wonderful that we now recognize the difference between active reading and passive actions. Active readers are engaged, wondering what will happen to the character, how the adventure will unfold, whether new characters will play a major or a minor role, and, without meaning to, absorb the vocabulary built into the tale! Have you a young person around who thoroughly got into the sport of Pokémon, collecting the cards and noting the characters’ super powers? And then a few years later, when being introduced to mythology began to recognize that some of those card characters resembled the ancient characters of yore?

Today young adults and older adults glued to both the book and the television series, following along with George RR Martin and his “Game of Thrones” are not merely reading and watching humans struggle over issues of power and in combat with forces of nature- the non-human characters who also enter the story generally as a destructive and to be feared force remind us subconsciously that the ongoing struggle of good versus evil is rarely clear cut and easily defined; instead this struggle appears to be ongoing and circular, intense, passionate and ever changing. Ultimately we experience along with the characters; when the story engages, we care, hoping our “heroes” will survive once more and challenge what ever issues they are newly confronted with; we also like a story which shocks us; which doesn’t always tie up the ends in an expected fashion. Perhaps the appeal of comic book characters is that they aren’t us, we don’t have to expect to have their abilities to defend a city or “to leap tall buildings in a single bound” but we still enjoy that someone’s imagination has created them for us- that these parallel universes can exist, and that for a brief interlude, we can sigh along with princesses, challenge a fire breathing dragon, combat evil from inside a space ship, or spin a web like Spider Man, while rescuing whomever is in distress. Real and imaginary work together inside the space we label “story”. When wondering with families about books their child should read, I change the word should to could- what is the student curious about? Sometimes it is title that appeals, other times, a text a friend recommended, and occasionally, serendipity enters the scene, and a word on a page simply brings to life an emotion and for the remainder of the story- a reader is enthralled.

For the struggling readers, the individuals to whom reading is anathema please remember to include story in the everyday- and allow for on screen, tv, movies, magazines and comics to fill their imaginations with how stories are told. Such learners crave the antics of super heroes too!

Everyday; anyday- but not all day

I awaken to the morning sun
Bathed in the glow of “Tomorrow”
Knowing; fully well;
That tomorrow is finally
It is -

I prefer the whir
of the cars on the Allen
Whooshing (by)
outside and below-
than the sounds of the clanking, hissing,
and croaking; keys dropped, shoes knocked
steam through the pipes;
FOLKS!wouldn’t it be nice if they were humming:
“morning. its morning, Morning, its morning”
Inside and

Famous words: always a question-

A Dream Deferred

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.Or does it explode?

Many people around the Globe will be recognizing what is known as Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year.  Unlike December 31st, it is less a time of resolutions, more a time of recognizing, recalling past years, recalling the recent past year, and offering thanks for the simple gift of “Life”.  Traditional celebrations include dipping a piece of fruit – often an apple- into honey, attending services, hearing the blowing of the Shofar (a ram’s horn) meeting with loved ones, and sharing a meal.  It is a time defined as a Holy Day, rather than a holiday, though the holiday spirit suffuses all the activities, and this coupled with a strong sense of “tradition” connects people celebrating with a sense of purpose.  To wish each other well, to offer a blessing for the coming year, to wish one another a year filled with sweetness and light – and prosperity.  The latter wish used to surprise me; as an adult the latter is now seen as the opportunity to provide for others, some of that “sweetness and light”- so to all celebrating-         Le Shana Tova Tikatevu; wishing you a year filled with                                              Sweetness, Light & Prosperity;                                                                                                  May you be inscribed for a good year!

Singing in the shower…

Looking out my window at a beautiful sky, a current strong contrast with the heavy rain showering down a few hours ago.  Right now, calm sky, true blue, powder puff clouds, and that feeling one gets when the air is so clear one can feel bathed in possibilities.

The window is wide open, and the screen hardly visible; yet as I type I find myself marveling that there may be teachers and students who dread a unit on poetry- when poetry as an expression of feeling is what I know a poet would be able to do with my current view.  To freeze frame it for a second and third look through words which could express that combination of new day, new desires that the calm after a rain seems to unceasingly bring.

Am I writing poetic prose? Not in the mood to critique myself this morning.   Yesterday I had the opportunity we each are given at a birthday; a chance to wonder anew at life itself and the gift of another year.  I spent the early part with a large crowd of strangers brought together for a good cause; cheering or running ourselves to raise funds for a relatively new centre at a local hospital; a centre geared toward making it easier for parents to navigate a hospital health care system- and one geared especially to mental health.  Kudos to the families whose hard work and caring developed the second annual  RBC RUN FOR THE KIDS; my son ran 25 kilometers and though he didn’t hear me cheering amongst the crowd when in just under two hours he crossed the finish line (!) he, and all who ran, cheered, volunteered and/or organized the event made this a truly special birthday. For in looking back over all that we as a family accomplished this past year, I am truly amazed. Mother of two, my daughter was at her part time job, so couldn’t be with us at the event, but her diligence and work also suffused my day.  When I work with children or adults, I am so aware of how emotions affect our ability to absorb information. The RBC run is for all the children and their families who might for a period have forgotten how to sing; mental health and all its variety of issues was recently brought home with the unexpected death of famous actor Robin Williams- a man who appeared to be sharing his very soul with his audiences, yet who hid his pain until the pain took over.  His death a tragedy; and within our cities today, young people suffering as well- some who it is to be hoped may be helped by the Sunnybrook hospital Family Navigation Project- the more awareness, the better chance for healthy living.

Knowing how much I care about big picture goals as well as the details to make such goals real, and having children who are able to put into practice some of my dreams- I am not a runner-but am a believer- in the fact that opportunity allows for change, and that people working together be it running for a cause, or alerting the “world” that such causes are worthwhile, can and do, daily through little acts of kindness, create that wonderful word- GRACE – for each other. Amen.







How to choose?

Profession or calling, enterprise or extension of self- how does one really decide?
Students entering grade 12, or first and second year University, or even earlier- here in Ontario, in grade eight, being asked to project forward, to pick their own learning stream, to choose applied or academic, to “guess” which courses truly will fulfill the goal of satisfied, independent adult “one day”. And then, to their surprise, when at University, to learn how many students ( just like them) are now changing direction, “discovering” through course selection new interests, new opportunities, and their own voice. Such a beautiful discovery; recognizing when to take to heart the comments of advisors and professors, when to decide one’s own goals, when and where to focus both attention and action.
When we look at pictures of High School students from the early 60s when streaming was in effect, almost an entire class when off to University in the pursuit of similar goals- I have heard first hand stories of a class in which all but one entered sciences, followed by medicine, and that one, first obtained a degree in commerce, then entered medicine as well! Today’s more individualized timetables suggest a more personalized approach to course selecting, but is this the reality?
A VIP for a Bank told me he hadn’t been considered good at math in High School, not showing interest- then took a commerce course and loved discussing what to do with “widgets”. For the record – he deals with a tremendous amount of “math” today. There are similar stories, and of course the current jokes about how it might be more worthwhile to put one’s hope into the non academic aspect of school, and encourage a student to focus on an area where showing talent; schools for the arts, and sports oriented programs seem geared to recognizing that there is more to an individual’s “one day-someday” plan than the letter grade, however, when a student’s inklings are for academics, then let us not put down the high scoring community. Too many students still suggest to me their middle school fear of being considered nerdy (actually they often use a much stronger term) if they do achieve, and wish to achieve top grades. It is therefore not surprising to recognize the way in which highest awards are often given to the newest newcomer students- students whose families continue to focus on education, students whose families risked a great deal to make life anew in Canada, and one of their dreams was a full education for their children.
When we collectively consider “school” we may need to reassess the messages we are sending to the very students involved: are we creating an inclusive environment where students needn’t wait till post secondary or later to begin to find their voice? Are we offering within the school the safety of genuine communication, between peers, between students and teachers, between parents and teachers, between administration and the entire community? Somewhere, between “get 100” and “fail forward” we need a new slogan; a concept of opportunity shared, versus hierarchical put downs that seem so accepted within our educational settings.

Together- whole child, whole heart, whole community; holistic education. Let’s get it together !