education

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Halifax Public Libraries logoDuring BookCamp Halifax 2011, I learned that many people (and, to be honest, I must include myself in this group) don’t take enough advantage of their local public library. Libraries, in general, are not only places where community members can borrow and read print and e-books for free, but they are also a community within themselves that focuses on promoting literacy and education, and creating a social dialogue. The mission of Halifax Public Libraries, in particular, places emphasis on “[c]onnecting people, enriching communities, inspiring discovery.”

Unlike publishers who have the commercial agenda of finding readers for their books, libraries focus on finding books for their readers. Halifax Public Libraries, for example, offers services in addition to book borrowing such as Novelist Book Ideas or “Ask a Librarian” e-branch service. Novelist is a resource database of reading suggestions that can be searched according to your criteria so that you can choose a book that appeals to you. “Ask a Librarian” e-branch service allows you ask for book suggestions and to get help finding resources from home without having to step into the library or see a librarian directly, which is especially helpful for the elderly or disabled, or those who don’t have a branch in their area. Moreover, Halifax Public Libraries offers Home Delivery to those unable to visit a branch due to disability or caregiver responsibility, Books by Mail to those residents of the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) whose area is not served by a library branch, and Interlibrary Loans for those who would like to borrow a book that is unavailable in the Halifax Public Libraries catalogue but is available at a library elsewhere in Nova Scotia or Canada.

Since Halifax Public Libraries services the entire HRM community, as part of that community a reader can become actively involved in building a better library by suggesting books that Halifax Public Libraries can purchase. If there is a book you would like to read that is not currently in the library’s catalogue, or that you think the library should own, you can suggest it to the Halifax Public Libraries’ Readers’ Advisors here. Halifax Public Libraries is always looking for ways in which it can improve its catalogue and readership, and community suggestions are an essential part of that.

Halifax Public Libraries Blog: TheReader.caAlthough reading seems like a solitary activity at first glance, reading is also very much a social activity. Halifax Public Libraries makes a point to foster the social aspects of reading through its blog, The Reader, in which the writers discuss books, book issues, book launches and events, and authors, etc. Halifax Public Libraries also advertises public book clubs within the local community, as well as those within the reading and publishing community at large, and book club resources in order to help its readers find like-mined communities and form dialogues surrounding books and the issues that arise from them.

Not only does Halifax Public Libraries bring readers together, but it also brings writers together by hosting various workshops; however, its focus on self-development and education doesn’t stop there. Halifax Public Libraries also offers Adult Literacy and Upgrading and English Language Learning (Ell) tutoring programs, a Children’s Reading Support mentorship program, and its librarians offer online Homework Help and chat to students with questions.

In addition to creating a strong community among its readers, Halifax Public Libraries also works to connect readers with authors by hosting book launches as well as author readings. Book launches in a library setting have a different and more relaxed atmosphere than bookstore launches because they are separated from the commercial experience of book buying where people may feel obligated to purchase. Authors are still given the option to sell books in the library during their book launch, but the launch experience in a library — having been removed from a primarily commercial setting — better reflects the relationship between the writer and the reader as a community of thought and intellectual exchange rather than one built on buying and selling. Halifax Public Libraries has also recently started filming some of its book launches and author readings. These videos are posted online so that those who were unable to attend can still watch and be a part of the author/reader experience. You can watch some of the book launches and author readings held at Halifax Public Libraries here.

For writers who are interested in holding a book launch or a talk at a library in the HRM, please contact David Hansen at hansenda@halifax.ca or Kristina Parlee at parleek@halifax.ca. Halifax Public Libraries will often partner with publishers and authors, and consequently offer the venue for free, but please note that the library needs 2-3 months advance notice for bookings.

For more information about what Halifax Public Libraries offers the HRM, please visit its website, http://www.halifaxpubliclibraries.ca/. You can also follow Halifax Public Libraries on Twitter (@hfxpublib).

If you have anything to add that I’ve missed please leave a comment. Or if you have a story about how libraries have enriched your life, I would love to hear it.

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Teachers do not get enough credit. Plain and simple. Not only do they educate, but they can inspire and shape the lives of the children they teach. Now, to be honest, I’ve had some pretty bad teachers in my life. There was the kindergarten teacher who slapped my desk and yelled at me when I showed her that I could spell my name in all capital letters (which my mother had shown me how to do the night before). There was the junior high Gym teacher who berated me because I couldn’t run laps as fast as the other students. I also had a Social Studies teacher in grade 10 that often wore shorts without underwear and had a habit of putting his leg up on chairs, giving us an unwanted view. There was also the junior high Math teacher who spent more time flirting with the good-looking male students than teaching us Math. And I can’t forget the teacher who brought a flask to work every day. There was also the high school Math teacher who read the paper while I struggled with my Math problems and cried out of frustration. Oh, and another high school Math teacher who got fired (come to think of it — I haven’t had much luck with Math teachers. I skipped high school Math a lot for that reason). Today, however, I would like to dedicate this post to the great teachers who set me on the difficult path of loving literature and the English language because they had a hand in shaping who I am today. I say difficult path because loving literature and language has its downsides, but I’ll get to that later.

Most literature enthusiasts I have talked to learned to love reading at an early age. Their parents often read to them and the fond memories that accompany bed-time stories instilled in them a love of reading. I actually have very few memories of being read to as a child because bed-time stories for me stopped around kindergarten or grade one. I didn’t actually start reading on a regular basis until about grade five when my reading level improved from Hooked on Phonics and I was introduced to Scholastic book fairs. One day I decided to order a book from the Goosebumps Series, and that is how I discovered the immense pleasure that comes from curling up on the couch and finishing an entire book in a single day. I also loved the Little House on the Prairie Series, which I read over and over again (for the longest time I liked to think that I was Laura Ingalls in a previous life). But eventually Goosebumps and Laura Ingalls weren’t enough for me. I moved on to reading books by Dean Koontz and John Saul and Stephen King — books that I secretly grabbed from my parents’ bookshelf and stayed up until 4 a.m. reading; books far too mature for someone in grade seven. I soon tired of horror and moved on to other kinds of fiction as my maturity level and curiosity grew.

The person who encouraged my love of reading and introduced me to writing was my Junior High English teacher, Terry Neville (see right), who taught at Dollard-des-Ormeaux, an English-language Kindergarten to Secondary IV (grade 11) school on a military base in Courcelette, Québec. Terry (teachers are called by their first name in Québec) was the most engaging English teacher I ever had. From Terry I learned to love reading for more than just escapism, and some of his assignments inspired me to start writing short stories and poetry. I do not think I would have explored the art of writing without him. Nor do I think I would have continued reading to the extent that I do. I certainly would not have done an English degree without keeping him in the back of my mind. I wanted to be like Terry when I grew up in that I wanted to be an English teacher who inspired a love of literature and writing in my students. For various reasons I decided to pursue literature rather than become a teacher, but I don’t look on any of my past elementary or high school teachers with as much fondness as I do him.

As for my love of grammar? Well, for that I have to talk about Mr. Douglas Payne, my grade 10 English teacher at Wainwright High School in Wainwright, Alberta. Mr. Payne had an appropriate name: his classes were painful. Everyone hated his English classes, including myself. The reason I have to give Mr. Payne credit is because he introduced me to his infamous Grammar Bible. The Grammar Bible was a booklet that Mr. Payne created to introduce his students to independent clauses, dependent clauses, commas, semi-colons, colons, conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, etcetera, and how to properly use them. It is filled with grammar example after grammar example, and we were regularly tested on our grammar skills in his class. Learning grammar can be boring, and Mr. Payne’s class certainly was, but I still have his Grammar Bible to this day. It is well used, full of notations, eraser marks, curled corners, and the occasional rip, but it’s still handy to have around. I have copied it and passed it on to students I’ve tutored, I have used examples from it while teaching undergraduate tutorials, and I still refer to it if I can’t remember all of the conjunctive adverbs off the top of my head. And, as much as I despised Mr. Payne’s English class, today I can’t thank him enough for teaching me where to put a comma and how to properly construct a complex compound  sentence.

Although both Terry and Mr. Payne nurtured my love of literature and the English language, respectively, my time as an undergraduate student at Mount Saint Vincent University is where this love really began to flourish. For that I must give thanks to some wonderful professors: Reina Green, Anna Smol, Steven Bruhm, Karen MacFarlane, and Clare Goulet.

Now, as to the reason why I claim my English teachers set me on a difficult (albeit loved) path. . . well, loving English has its problems. I must analyze everything — books, movies, and anything anyone ever says to me (which can be highly problematic in both platonic and romantic relationships). I sometimes have difficulty refraining from correcting my friends’ grammar (which is a sure way to lose friends). I am sometimes pretentious (yes, I am fully aware of this). I question too many things (I’d be a much happier person if I didn’t). And I am too cynical and pragmatic (a writer/reader must be in order to see beyond the surface of things and find truth).  And yet, I’m okay with this because English has opened up new worlds to me, and given me more of an education in life, society, and humanity than any high school or university course ever has.

So I thank you Terry Neville (who I still keep in touch with) and Mr. Payne (wherever you are now) for giving me the curiosity and the skills needed to continue my studies in English so that I can navigate this world on my own terms. Both of you have helped inspire and shape the person I am today. My world view certainly isn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What about you, my reader? Who are the teachers (good or bad) that inspired and shaped you?

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I read an article yesterday from Publisher’s Weekly by Claire Kirch called “Speak Out Against Censorship, Industry Urged.” Kirch discusses the continuous rise of book banning in U.S. schools and how it is tantamount to fear mongering. Although the article focuses on book banning in schools in the United States (even some dictionaries are being banned in the U.S. due to content), Kirch’s discussion regarding the censorship of books is also relevant with regards to schools here in Canada.

I had a heated debate with someone a few years ago who was taking her Bachelor of Education degree at Mount Saint Vincent University. We started talking about banned books, and before I knew it we were arguing about Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird. She believed it should be banned from all schools. I, on the other hand, argued that it was a necessary piece of literature all children should read. Her argument was that the book uses the “n” word and teaches children to be racist; mine was not that it teaches children to be racist, but that it teaches children about racism and humanity. Despite my arguments about the book’s merits as an educational tool to prevent racism, she could not look past its use of racist language. Although I am sensitive to the fact that derogatory words hold power, I think that proper education surrounding the history and meaning of those words is how they lose their power. By censoring a book like To Kill a Mockingbird from children, we are complicit in giving power to derogatory words like the “n” word.

Banning books is a form of fear mongering because, rather than teaching children, we are telling them to fear words, to fear sex, to fear their bodies, to fear the world. I understand the desire for parents to want to protect and shelter their children from all the harm and the hurt in the world but, by removing important literature from the curriculum, parents are doing their children a disservice. Let’s not lead our kids out into the world blind, but teach them what to expect from the world and what we expect from them in order to make the world a better place.

Rather than fear monger, parents need to be more involved in their children’s education. Don’t just hand a child a book to read and then walk away. Instead, a dialogue needs to open up between the teacher, the parent, and the child. If you’re a parent, ask your child questions about the book s/he is reading. If you haven’t read the book, then read it or get your child to explain the story to you. Ask your child if s/he understands the concept, the controversy, and the language. Explain to your child why certain words are wrong due to their history and derogatory nature. Explain human anatomy and sex so that your child understands her/his body and isn’t afraid of it. Explain safe sex, and pregnancy, and death, and social problems, and complex issues or concepts, and controversial topics, etcetera. Rather than ignore the problem (the book uses the “n” word or has pre-marital sex) by banning the book and censoring the world from your child, confront the problem and, by doing so, educate. By removing and attempting to erase the source of controversy, we are teaching our youth to fear the world and to be complicit in ignoring social problems and/or important issues; however, by giving them a book and starting a dialogue, we are teaching our youth to think critically about the world around them and to question established social constructs.

Take a look at Canada’s Challenged Books and Magazines List for 2010. Keep in mind that this list is described as “selective.” Do you think there are books on this list that shouldn’t be banned? Why not? Are there any books absent from this list that you think should be banned? If so, why?

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During the question period of Jan Zwicky’s poetry reading at Mount Saint Vincent University on March 8th, she explained that reading is supposed to be an act in conversation. But for it to be a true conversation, she said, the reader needs to bring something to it. In other words, as I understand it, the reader needs to engage in critical thinking in order to converse with a text. Conversing with a text has become normal to me, like eating, but only because I’ve been trained to do it. I read prolifically as a child, but only for entertainment and escapism. It wasn’t until I began university (more specifically once I started to major in English literature) that I realized reading went beyond mere entertainment and escapism. Reading should not only be about entertainment, but it should also be about asking questions, learning about the world in which you live, and learning about yourself. Through conversing with a text (either written, visual, or aural), we become more aware of our surroundings and learn to question the traditional narratives that our societies, our cultures, our laws, our religions, and our governments place upon us.

In the wake of the Canadian federal election, I’m seeing that more and more people do not engage in the kind of conversation that takes place from reading / viewing / listening critically. This worries me. I was recently working as a teaching assistant for an introductory English course at Dalhousie University, and I asked the students in my tutorial: “Why are we studying this book? Why is this important?” Silence. My students didn’t understand why it was important to study English, to analyze literature. Papers were rife with plot summaries. “Don’t tell me what happens,” I said. “Tell me why it is significant. Question it. Look past the plot. What is the author trying to say or make you aware of?” More silence. What have we been teaching our children in elementary and high school? We certainly aren’t teaching them how to think for themselves, how to question, or how to analyze rhetoric; therefore the inability to think critically moves beyond our youth and permeates our workforce, our organizations, our policy-makers, and our governments. And because of this we are a country of people who can’t think for themselves; we are told what to think by various media and, like sheep, we follow blindly.

 

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