Archive for February, 2014

The Need to Read

When I was a child, I desperately wanted to be a librarian. Libraries were a huge part of my childhood existence. My father and I would often go to public libraries around Halifax, and in each one I would be overwhelmed at the excitement of what books I could choose. I would leave with no less than 10 novels at a time. While other children (my sister included) were out building forts, running around, exploring the woods, I would be happily sitting under a tree with my nose in a book.

When I went to University, I assumed that I was going to tackle my adolescent dream of becoming Prime Minister by taking Political Science. As It turns out, my childhood ambitions took over, and while I didn’t become a librarian, I became an English teacher instead. During the whole time I was trying to establish myself as teacher, I worked in a bookstore, which, I would say easily has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I miss it dearly. My job aside from selling, was to help people find books to read.

Um, what?

My JOB was to help people to READ. Willingly.

“Can you help me find a book to read?”

“A book? How about a million books that will all change your life.”

While I really loved helping people find books to read, I was especially happy when I could finally get a reluctant reader to finally find a book they were somewhat interested in reading. Particularly children. Sometimes, I’d look over at the kids section, a family in tow, discussing how the child HAD to find a book to read, much to the child’s dismay.

“I hate reading”, the child would say.

This was my cue to saunter over causally, ‘tidying’ up books and asking if I could be of assistance.

Parents always looked at me with a huge HELP sign on their face, relieved they weren’t alone to find a book their child would refuse.

“What kind of things do you like?” would be my first question, directed at said child.

And we’d go from there. 9 times out of 10, I could get a kid to leave with a book that they and their parents would be somewhat happy with. The greatest feeling would be when that child would come back saying that they liked the book and if you could recommend anything else. Dream job.

Through this job, I met the most amazing teacher. He came in, I’m not exaggerating when I say, every second day. He’d come in, scour the new books, pick them up and buy them. It wasn’t until months later that I finally approached him about all the books he was buying. He had a classroom policy that if his kids wanted a certain book, he’d go and buy it, no questions asked. I heard this story and was amazed at the generosity of this teacher. To which he replied, “I try and read what they’re reading, our goal is to get every kid to read 40 books in a school year”. 40 books. And to top it all off, they actually did it.

Do you feel inspired? I certainly was.

When you work in a book store, you have access to almost any book you can imagine, and they want you to read books, so it was an oasis for bookworms like myself. I learned about books, I shared stories about books, I read my heart out.

Then, I became a full-time teacher in my very own classroom, where I get to talk to my students about books. It’s really easy for teachers to romanticize teaching moments. Especially me, I sometimes have a very airy fairy dream about how things will look, and I’m not going to lie to you, the reality can be crushing.

At my school there’s a reading program where students have to read a minimum of 15 books in one academic year. In comparison to Mr. 40 Books a Year, I thought it would be a walk in the park.

Turns out, I was real wrong.

Kids fought me tooth and nail. They would ‘pretend’ to read, ‘forget’ their books, not commit to a book, and complain to high heavens. These kids hated reading. Collectively, they were a huge non-reading posse who were dedicated to insisting to me they didn’t need to read, and there was nothing I could say to change their minds. To make matters worse, they were all picking out these 40 page little readers that were boring and that they hated. But it was an easy read, and if they “had” to read, they were going to pick the easiest, shortest way to get there.

So I did what I used to do, I sold books. Not literally of course, but during our library lesson once a week, I would take books I was familiar with and loved, and try and make a strong case as to why they should read it. Some just looked at the cover and said “Nope”. Some looked at the size of the book and asked me if I was crazy. Some took a chance on me and took the book out of my hand, either because they were interested or because they wanted me the hell out of their face. It didn’t matter, they had the book. Sometimes, I’d find these books left behind on the floor, sometimes on tables, sometimes put hastily back on the edge of a shelf, but SOMETIMES, I’d see that kid actually sign out that book. My heart would quietly soar.

It occurred to me one day when I watched kids trying to find books in the library that they didn’t know how to find a book.

“Guys”, I said to my class “you can’t just walk into a place full of books, pick out the first book you see and get out of there. It doesn’t work like that. If I picked out the first books I saw in a bookstore and tried to read it, I’d probably hate it.”

Then all the hands started shooting up.

“Do you finish every book you read? one student asked.

“Oh God, no”.

“Who’s your favourite author?” another asked

“Ooh that’s a tough one”

“What’s a Genre?” said a third student.

“How many people have never been to a library or bookstore outside of this school?” I asked my class.

90% of my class raised their hands. My eyes widened with absolute shock. Wowza.

“Okay, I’ll ask this question. If I was in a store or library, and I wanted to read a book, what could I do?”

We went from there. We talked about how you find books you want to read. How you talk to your friends and look for recommendations, how you look for things you’re interested in, how you stick with an authour or series because it’s tried and true. Things were buzzing in my classroom.

Slowly but surely my kids are reading real novels. That they finish, front to back. And to top it all off, they actually LIKE some of the books.

One afternoon, my class was absolutely silent during reading time. When it was over, I asked my class what the change was, what happened, why was it so quiet? To which one of my students replied,

“Well Miss, I like my book so much that I don’t really want to talk to anyone, I want to find out what happens”

“How many people actually like their book?”

All but two raised their hands, and then they begged me to let them keep reading, I almost died of pure happiness.

Another afternoon when we were in the school library, one of my students was picking out a tiny book based only on its’ size and nothing else, I said to him,

“Come on, let’s really find a book you want to read”.

“You don’t get it Miss, you read like 500 books a day.”

I don’t think I need to clarify here that I don’t read 500 books a day, because I don’t. However, his comment really hit me hard because…

I haven’t read ONE book since I arrived on this continent.

Not. One. Book.

The hypocrisy of this is overwhelmingly apparent. I, an English teacher, lover and chronic pusher of literature, haven’t read one book since I was on the airplane on my way over here. I had lots of valid excuses as to why I hadn’t been reading. It’s my first year full-time teaching, I work a minimum of 60 hours a week with over a hundred students, I’m so brain-dead when I finally get home that I can barely string together a sentence, let alone absorb a page from a novel.

But these excuses didn’t sit right with me. So, two weeks ago, I decided to come clean to my classes. I told them the truth. Some of them gave me a hard time about it, but surprisingly, they were all pretty forgiving. So I made a deal with them. I asked them to ask me if I was reading my book.

“Class, everyday I want you to ask me if I’ve been reading my book, can you make that deal with me?”

They all eagerly nodded their heads. You see, when a student looks at you and asks you a question, you want to be able to tell them the truth. I knew it would hold me accountable, I wasn’t going to lie to my students. I had to tell them that “Yes, I read my book”, or “No, I didn’t read my book”. I knew which answer I wanted to give them.

The first time a student asked me the daily question my answer was:

“Well…I had it open, but I fell asleep with it on my chest”

To which that darling child said

“Well, at least you tried Miss.”

My heart almost broke at how lovely that comment was. It’s been motivating to say the least. I’m still only reading a pittance, but at least I’m reading again. It’s helped me to remember how involved reading is, how much it grabs you, but also how present you have to make yourself. So now, when I’m pushing some of my straggling reluctant readers to get on the literacy train, I stop and think to myself, “monkey see, monkey do”.

And then I remind myself, “Did you read last night Lill?”



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A Show of Talent

“Curb Your Enthusiasm”, and “The Office” are among some of my favourite television shows of all time. From time to time I will engage in conversation with some people who can’t watch these shows. I use the word “can’t” very purposefully here, some people are unable to watch these shows because of the awkwardness of human interaction demonstrated. It makes certain viewers too uncomfortable to be able watch it. While I don’t agree with their rationale towards the shows, I do understand feeling this same uncomfortable feeling when watching the awkwardness associated with Talent Shows.

I hate Talent Shows.

There, I said it.

As a person that works with young people a lot, talent shows are a big part of social entertainment organised for them. I understand the premise, I really do. People are talented in ways that might surprise you, it’s good to discover these talents in an organised fashion where people really get to show their stuff. Here’s where the problem lies, some people don’t have stuff to show. I’m sure some of you are thinking about how bad of a person I am, but before you judge, can I describe a scenario for you? A shy, nervous, young person gets their folded, faded, piece of paper out, with a poem, they wrote, or worse, a song. Not only does this person share their lyrics, it’s goes even further. They sing. Even describing this scenario to you is making me feel sick to my stomach right now. That shy person, alone, standing up there in front of their peers, shakily holding that piece of paper, and singing their little heart out, and it sounds awful.

Is there beauty in this moment? Sure. Is there character building potential here? Absolutely. Is it cringe-worthy if it doesn’t go well? Without a doubt.

It’s that moment when the song is a little too intense, the singing a little too off-key, the person a little too vulnerable. As a person who basically just wants to scoop people up in my arms and prevent them from any kind of judgement, it’s all too much for me. I want to bury my face in my hands, and try not to throw up. The slightest whispering of people, I snap my head around, trying to suss out the potential meaness. To the human race’s credit, most people are unfailingly kind and supportive, which really is amazing. Sometimes though, because I have a tendency to make some amazingly good eye-contact, I’ll beam out a smile and clap so loudly that their eyes are on me, and then suddenly, they might think, “man, I’m incredible! I should think about doing this forever!”

This is the tricky line between general human support and being dishonest about someone’s actual talent. Again, it’s a notion that makes me feel endlessly conflicted.

Now you might think to yourself, what’s the harm? They’re only seven, or twelve, let ’em live.

Sure, but let me introduce you to the Talent Shows of Adulthood, i.e. Open Mike Night, and Karaoke.

Let’s get something straight. There are genuinely talented or personable people that grace the microphones at these events, I know a few of these people. They’re a joy to listen to, they’re really fun to watch and they can really get a crowd going. Once in a while though, you’ll get this one person that’s announced as a ‘newbie”. This person waiting off stage, giving themselves a mini pep-talk. They walk up slowly to the mike, and…

Yes, sometimes you get Susan Boyle. Sometimes (most-times) you get the person who’s been singing in the bathroom mirror for weeks on end and they finally decide to take the plunge. People are oh-so polite, but sometimes that’s even worse, because the air gets to be a little too quiet and they’re overly focused. Have you ever been in a room where you can’t make eye contact with anyone else at the risk of chortling out a laugh, because doing so means you’re acknowledging how bad, terrible or funny it really is? That makes for the longest four minutes of your life. Particularly if they’re wearing a cute, pre-planned outfit, they have dance moves, or they have another song lined up. Again, it makes me feel so uncomfortable, I just want to pull a scarf over my face.

On rare occasions, you’ll just get a person that’s not particularly good, but is pretty endearing. On others, you’ll get a person that doesn’t give a damn about their performance, but just wants to be up in front of people. This makes me think of a past camper, let’s call her Emily. On the Talent Show Board at camp where you sign up to put your talents she put “Cartwheels and Goose Calls” Emily was about eight years old. I was confused, was this code for something?

On the night of the talent show, when her name was called up, she walked up and took her stance. What do you think she did? She did a cartwheel, followed by a loud goose call. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life, and I was joined by every other person in that audience. To this day, I don’t know if she ever intended for anyone to actually laugh, it might have actually been a serious routine. I really think those were the two biggest talents she had to offer, so she put them together. Everyone laughed, she seemed unfazed, and she cartwheeled and goose called away.

I didn’t even have time to worry because of how entertained I was by her, how we all were.

So…I take some of it back. Maybe there is something to Talent Shows after all.

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