Category Archives: Novel

David Bowie’s Top Songs? According to…?

With the surprising passing of David Bowie just a few days ago, I have come across a number of tweets from websites and publications proclaiming “The 24 Best David Bowie Songs” or something similar.

While I understand that these lists are the opinion of the publication or of a David Bowie fan, I find that this ‘these are his best songs’ reaction resonates for me as a high school English teacher because of the nature of ‘English class’ in high school.

Allow me to back track a little: how could there ever be a list of ‘David Bowie’s best songs’ — or any other artist, for that matter — when music is so very personal? For me, as a teen in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by David Bowie’s music, and while I liked some of his songs to a certain degree, it never really spoke to me in my gut (or soul or heart or whatever that place is when a song explodes inside you.) At that time, the music that made my cells thrum was Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead, and Santana to name a few.

The amazing group of friends I had in high school were a group for reasons other than our music tastes, which included my 60’s / Deadhead list, while others listened to death metal, ska, punk, new wave and indie rock. I can remember wishing that David Bowie spoke to me in my gut / soul because I sensed that he was an ‘important musician’, but for whatever reason, whatever my mixture of genes, background knowledge, upbringing, emotional sensibility, teen headspace, etc., David just never found a place in my heart. And that is okay.

And so, when I read about ‘David Bowie’s 24 Best Songs’ today, I remember that wishing his music spoke to me and then remember that it’s okay for not everyone to love his music.

How does this connect to high school English? I wonder what effect limiting students to reading only what have been deemed ‘the best or important novels’ will have on them? Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, explores the idea that we, as teachers, should remember that while these core texts in English may be important, creating lifelong readers is more important.  Neither Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell nor other promoters of reading would suggest that we ignore these important texts, but Gallagher fears that force-feeding ‘classic’ texts that only speak to some (if not only a few) students will undermine or even kill a students’ desire to read for the rest of their lives. Woah.

If I, as an English teacher, am worried about students being exposed to proper syntax and grammar, as well as building their vocabulary, Stephen Krashen’s seminal meta-study, The Power of Reading, submits that free-voluntary reading is the most efficient and powerful way to build those elements of language arts. After having read these amazing works by respected authors and thinkers, I confess it has given me much to think about.

(To go one step further, Jim Trelease and Dr. Stephen Layne also write about how reading aloud to students at all levels (including PhD students) is also a very powerful tool for exposing students to the beautiful intricacies of the English language. But that is perhaps for another post…)

Penny Kittle  echoes Gallagher’s idea and worries that if students are only exposed to academic reading in a boot-camp setting, they will turn off reading, and that is a much
greater problem than whether or not they were exposed to the ‘right’ or classic texts.

David Bowie’s music never took up a place inside my soul. That is okay — even though he is ‘one of the most important musicians of all time’. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had been forced to listen to his music, to dissect it, to analyze it, to discuss it, for weeks at a time, over multiple years?

Is it more important that I be able to critically analyze any piece of music or just David Bowie’s?

Kittle goes on to wonder whether we can balance students’ interests and needs with our responsibilities and goals.

 

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I love comics – but is this one safe for class?

I love graphic novels and comics. 

While I admit to being a lifelong fan of comic book heroes and their adventures, I am always on the lookout for comics and GNs that tell non-superhero stories –particularly ones aimed at young adults. I do this because I want to find new reading material for my high school students — but am also looking to change the minds of teacher colleagues who may think that comics and GNs are only about Batman, Superman or The Hulk – not that those are bad! 

I digress.

Two excellent examples of recent non-superhero graphic novels that I have read (and tweeted about as @mistercooke on Twitter) include: 

  • The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings: after being sent to jail for murder, a young First Nations man strives for redemption through an exploration of his own culture.
  • A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo, Kris, and Vincent Bailly:  a Jewish family living in Paris must make the heart-breaking decision to send their children away as the Nazis rise to power.

   

I would love to get both of these books into the hands of students and teachers to show that powerful, disturbing, beautiful, humane, transcendent stories can also be told through the medium of comics. Or as comics guru Scott McCloud says “sequential art”.

I have discovered, in my own practice, GNs can be light reading, entry point reading, a gateway to other reading or a challenging reach book, depending on the reader, as there is a literacy unique to comics that some are more familiar with than others. 

Indeed, I love comics and graphic novels because the visual nature of comics adds both an immediacy and a new layer of complexity that both invites me in and challenges me as a reader.

But could this immediacy be dangerous?

I discovered a longer comic today that presented a difficult conundrum for me as a teacher: can this visual nature of comics and GNs be too immediate? Should some subject matter be left to the reader’s imagination? 

What is that comic, the content of which vexed me so? It shall appear in my next post, posted post-haste.

Exploring The Orenda — Part 2

From amazon.caExploring The Orenda — continued…

How can I activate and provide background knowledge for myself? What questions do I have before reading?

  1. What is the book about? What is the basic story?
  2. Why is it so “award-winning“?
  3. Have I attempted challenging reads before? Have I overcome any?
  4. What predictions are bubbling to the surface before I attack the text 6start reading?
  5. Re: Predictions: Being that this is not a Middle Grades book or a Young Adult book, what challenging narrative devices can I predict that author will employ?

What are professional reviewers saying about this book?

gam-squareI found this review from the Globe and Mail from September, 2013 by Charles Foran:

Joseph Boyden mines Canada’s bloody past for surprising spirituality

From this Globe and Mail review, I can expect:

  • alternating narratives: more than one story intertwined
  • the multiple stories focus upon characters named Bird, Snow Falls and Crow
  • these characters each narrate different events and, therefore, offer differing versions of those events
  • the story involving the Huron and the Iroquois
  • the reviewer likens the story to the real-life martyrdom of Jean de File:Brébuef-jesuits04jesuuoft.jpgBrebeuf
  • the reviewer calls this story “epic” and “worthy of Herodotus”
  • The title, The Orenda, means “native life”
  • the setting of this story is out in the bush

I also read a review from The National Post:

The reviewer, Donna Bailey Nurse, explored ideas such as:

  • The Orenda explores what forces led to the decimation of Canada’s First Nations cultures.
  • A question that arises from the book: are First Nations peoples, by allowing missionaries into their villages, partly to blame for the devastation of their own culture?

“Much more controversial is the idea that First Nations, by allowing the missionaries into their villages, are partly to blame for the devastation of their culture.”

  • The Jesuit priest character embodies this threat:

“…it is his faith that poses a deeper threat to the clan’s survival, the way he uses their own language to attack their beliefs.”

  • this book is violent and graphic:

“This is a very violent work, full of the most grotesque descriptions of ritualized torture that I’ve ever encountered… I’ve never read anything like it and, to be honest, some of it I could not get through.”

And so, with this framing of the text in mind, I endeavor to read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda…