Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hey! Writers! Leave those teachers alone!

I just got invited to support an initiative to legislate an increase in CanCon in public school English classes. This lobby is spearheaded by Jean Baird, who happens to be the spouse of George Bowering, one of our foremost literary nationalists (in spite of the fact that his influences are almost all American). Baird has received funding from the Canada Council to research the state of Canadian literature in our classrooms. Here, in full, is her appeal:


Reply requested by December 21, 2007

Over the past few years several national research studies have documented the lack of attention paid to Canadian literature in Canadian schools. Currently our classrooms are dominated by some British but predominately American novels.

A report for The Writers’ Trust of Canada that was commissioned by the Canada Council made a series of recommendations about what could be done to improve the situation.[1] Through ArtStarts for Schools, a project is being developed and a group of stakeholders has been identified and has met to address these recommendations.

Part of the work has included a survey to BC teachers of English Language Arts. In that survey completed at the end of October 2007, 97.8% of responding teachers indicated that they think it is important to teach Canadian literature in secondary schools. 88.9% indicated that they think more Canadian literature needs to be taught.

Both the teachers and the stakeholders noted that a key to achieving a higher presence for CanLit in the classroom is clear direction from the provincial curriculum. Currently only Saskatchewan has a mandated CanLit course, the grade 12 course. Elsewhere in the country it is possible, and often probable, that a student can graduate having never studied a Canadian novel during high school.

The BC Ministry of Education has posted a draft of the new English Language Arts Curriculum for grades 8 to 12. We will be taking the opportunity to respond to the new curriculum and have suggested that in each year from grade 8 to 12 each student should “read, both collaboratively and independently, to comprehend a variety of literary texts, including one or more significant works of Canadian literature.” The proposed amendment allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics.

We believe the Ministry needs to know that the publishing and writing community, parents, and educators are concerned about the decline of Canadian literature in our schools. This is your chance to voice that opinion by replying with your support.

Please respond indicating your support by providing the information below.

Contact information:
Position (i.e., writer, publisher, educator, parent):

Please send in an email message to Jean Baird, jeanbaird@SHAW.CA

A formal response to the draft with the above recommendation will be send to the Ministry of Education and also to Premier Campbell and Shirley Bond, Minister of Education.

Jean Baird
Consultant, ArtStarts in Schools
CanLit in BC Schools Project

Hmmmm, if the teachers think it's important and that more of it should be taught, then why aren't they teaching it? Maybe they'd rather be teaching something else, but when surveyed by someone who clearly thinks it's important, they said what they thought they should say. Are they being blocked from teaching Canadian books? Apparently not. One thing's for sure, if they're forced to teach Canadian books, they'll have less freedom to form their own curricula. And it's interesting to note that Ms. Baird does not provide stats on the answer to question 19 on the survey, concerning support for a provincial policy requiring a set percentage of Canadian content. I wonder if maybe these numbers don't support her cause so well...

Teaching's like any other human activity, I figure. The more you like what you're doing, the better you're going to do it. Forcing disinclined teachers to assign books they're not passionate about can do nothing good for the teaching of literature. What matters most in English classes is not what content is taught, but how it's conveyed. Our education system is plagued with bureaucratic imperatives to standardize. What is needed isn't more standards, but the encouragement of teachers with ability to follow their own eccentric courses.

I took two Ontario Academic Credit (grade 13) level English classes in high school. The highlights of those classes were Shakespeare, Coleridge, Mishima, Dostoevsky, DH Lawrence (poetry, not fiction) and Conrad (I read Heart of Darkness so many times that if you quoted me a passage from it, I could tell you what page of the Norton Critical Edition it was on). We did some Canadian books (a couple by Laurence and Marie-Claire Blais' Mad Shadows in translation) and I enjoyed that, especially Blais, but had my fantastic--and more than a little crazy--teacher been forced to teach a majority or any other set percentage of Canadian content, I can't see how my experience wouldn't have been impoverished.

Prior to that, in grade 11, we got a steady diet of Greek and Latin classics: Homer, Lucius Apuleius' Golden Ass (which probably wouldn't get taught in most schools because of how outraged idiotic parents would get about their kids reading a book that has bestiality in it), Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus. For a kid one year removed from the PEI public school system (I can't remember a single book I read for school in grade 9), this was a cornucopia.

John Oliver, the founder of the facebook group formed to aid this campaign, has started a thread for people to share their school experiences of Canlit. Here's his contribution:

I went to high school in the 1970s when CanLit was first introduced in the education system in a big way. I can't imagine what my life would be like without that early discovery that introduced me to the ways of the entire country through essays, poetry, plays, novels, and philosophy, and brought sense to my national, regional, and local identity....
Boy, that sure is inspiring, ain't it? "The ways of the entire country"? "Brought sense to my ... identity"? How about brilliant thought, exceptional language, memorable characters? He's talking about literature as tho it were an extension of "social studies," but people don't voluntarily read books of fiction or verse or drama to learn lessons or to see their own point of view and experience reflected back at them. People read books to be moved by strong feelings and new thoughts, to delight in language that lifts off the page, to laugh and cry, to be entertained. Note that Oliver says nothing about what books he actually read--probably because he doesn't remember. If he can't imagine what his life would be like without "that early discovery," it's probably because he doesn't much understand what his life is like now, at least not to judge by the staggering number of cliches in such a short paragraph. Perhaps he should read a bit of Rilke or Nietzsche...

Increasingly, there is no such thing as a Canadian identity. Increasingly, the students in our schools are from other places. Hey, maybe the books we teach should reflect that. And no, this doesn't mean assigning M.G. Vassanji, who would no doubt be a big feature of a compulsory Cancon curriculum. Because, you know, his themes are important. Yawn.

I'm not against teaching Canadian books in school. I'm against making it mandatory. I read mostly non-Canadian books in school, went on to read a lot more non-Canadian books in university, and look at me now. Not only have I published a highly regional book about a part of the country most chest-thumping patriots have never even fucking seen, but I write extensively about Canadian poetry and have a book of essays on same in the works. Let teachers teach, let kids find their own way.

LATE-BREAKING NEWSFLASH: John Oliver has just posted a link to a news story that establishes irrefutably the necessity of mandating the teaching of Canadian literature in high schools. Had I realized that not doing this would lead to the Death of Canadian Literature, I'd've never voiced opposition. How could I have been so blind?

UPDATE ON LATE-BREAKING NEWSFLASH: Apparently, I was indeed blind. I checked the date on that story and it's five and a half years old. And yet, there's still a very active writing and publishing sector in Canada. How about that?

UPDATE: For those of you who don't have access to the Facebook group, BC teacher Terry Taylor has posted a very well-considered argument--and moreover, an argument based on her experience as a teacher in the public school system--for not adopting a mandatory Canlit policy. Here it is in full:

It is an interesting debate we have going on here, lads... and what appears clear is that we all are on the same team - valuing Canadian writers and wanting to see their work also valued by the next generations of young people. Where we differ is in how we envision getting there. I believe that teachers do play a vital role in ensuring that Canadian writers are read. Of course, I support Canadian literature in BC schools! The question then, is how is this goal best realized?

My perspective is that prescribing an amount of Canadian content in the new BC ELA curriculum, though honourably intended, in practice may not meet the desired goal.

In addition, I question a number of the statements made in the article. I am not convinced that there is a “decline of Canadian literature in our schools”. What was the baseline for this statement and what schools or classrooms were measured to come up with this conclusion? A decline since when? Likewise, who says that there’s a “lack of attention paid to Canadian literature in Canadian schools [and that] currently our classrooms are dominated by some British but predominantly American novels?” Again, where was this data gathered? Are we talking about K-12 classrooms or secondary classrooms or both? Both these statements contradict my own lived experience, as well as that of my teaching colleagues. And -- I am assuming that the survey data alluded to was completed by respondents who are members of the secondary English Language Arts PSA. While many teachers of secondary school English are members of this group and apparently some completed the survey, many other teachers are not. And – so what? If all those folks believe that Canadian lit is so important, then perhaps they are all teaching it in their classrooms… Kind of a fallacious non-sequitur, though. Finally, the article makes the point that only Saskatchewan has entrenched Canadian Literature into its schools by having a CanLit course. Hmmm… I am not certain whether this serves Canadian Literature best, to be in a separate elective course, not a part of all children’s educational experiences… And, of note, BC now boasts an excellent new English 12 First Peoples course, which focuses on aboriginal literature and story. First Peoples 12 can either be taken as an elective course or count as an English Language Arts course for graduation. By far, most of its content is Canadian – as in - the first Canadians!

Perhaps I have misunderstood the essence of the proposed amendment but as I read that it, "allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics." I read this as a list of Canadian literature that could be studied, but also as a list of what ought to be covered each year in each classroom. Not to do so, then would mean that a teacher was not doing their job and not completing the learning outcomes of the curriculum. The concept is not a bad one, but is it always one that can be followed in every BC classroom and by every BC secondary teacher? And can it be done with passion?

It is my experience over the past quarter century of teaching secondary English, that every group of children is different. Each classroom has a range of learners with unique and idiosyncratic needs and interests. Already it is incumbent upon teachers to ensure that the literary experiences we offer students span a spectrum of diversity -- that we represent diverse voice by including aboriginal writers, that we ensure gender balance, be thoughtful about multicultural and global perspectives, and of course, that the literature we choose, represents the best of new and proven Canadian and world literature.

These are a lot of factors to consider: Who are the kids in this class? What are their needs/reading levels/interests/passions?
How do we ensure that the literature we choose demonstrates a diverse range of writing voice and experiences? In addition to teaching literature, how do we make sure that we also teach students skills in reading and responding to informational text, that their oral language experiences are rich and evocative, that they learn to write and respond in a wide range of genres and for a wide variety of purposes? That they learn to present information and represent their learning in a broad range of ways?

Personally, I believe it is preferable to allow teachers the freedom to choose literature that works best for their context and with their students.

It bores me to tears to teach the same novel over and over again, or to use the same poems or plays the same way. I am kept alive by reading and reading more inspiring text, with an eye always, to what may captivate my students. And, it is crucial to have the flexibility to tailor the literary experiences to who the learners are in my classroom, and to my school and community context.

Sometimes the amount of Canadian content in my English class is 90% of what we read, listen to and see. Sometimes, it is 10 or 20%. I love the podcasts and found them a terrific vehicle to hear Canadian writers, both amateur and professional, as we studied the art of writing the personal essay this fall. The podcasts allowed my students with special needs to have both an audio and written version of the text. And all my students benefited from seeing so many Canadian examples, a large range of how to write short personal essays, and succinct models of how to take a stand or espouse a passion or belief. We counterpointed the CBC podcasts with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" address. But next year, my learners will be different and I will have to consider their unique attributes and intelligences and alter my teaching and the literary models accordingly.

This year, with the group of students in my senior English class, it is the perfect year to teach Anosh Ironi’s Song of Kahushna as one of the novel choices in my online Literature Circle. They all loved The Kiterunner, by Khaled Hosseini this fall, and now we are really digging into global issues and developing a consciousness for the world outside our small community and country. Yet, last year, the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime by Mark Haddon, was magical - a way to examine humour, a novel structured in a unique form, and to consider the impact of point of view. We were engaged in thinking about tolerating difference and learned more about Aspergers’ Syndrome and autism as we connected the novel to friends, family and community members who struggled with being misunderstood. This year, I have a group who will be stimulated and engaged in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, while last year, a group in my class was spellbound by Obasan by Joy Kogawa. This year, I am certain that a number of my students will be thrilled to read Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden; last year The Sweet Hereafter was a way to get an American novel, but a Canadian film into the classroom. Last year, we were blessed to host two Cannes award-winning filmmakers from the NFB and watch with them some of the best animation from Canada and from around the world; this year, our entire school – from K-12 - is engaging in a week of writers in residence. All of them Canadian, by the way…

I believe with all my heart that good teaching is good teaching. If the goal is to get more Canadian literature in the hands of BC teachers and students, then, I posit that a more powerful vehicle to make this happen is to create opportunities to showcase promising educational practices with great Canadian books.

Rather than legislating that at least one piece of Canadian lit be studied per year, why not work to create powerful and inspirational Literature Circle book lists filled with amazing and relevant Canadian titles? Why not work in concert with passionate BC educators who know kids and classrooms and then get these exciting resources in the hands of teachers? If the goal is to make Canadian literature more visible, then why not seize upon the growing practice of literature circles in BC schools as a tremendous opportunity for Canadian publishers and writers, since each classroom needs 6 copies or so of a wider range of novels than ever before, and then work with teacher librarians and the ELA PSA to integrate great Canadian books in these literary discussions. If the goal is to celebrate Canadian poets and get their work studied, then why not have poets work more closely with teachers in classrooms in using the BC Performance Standards in Writing Poems or Narratives as self and classroom assessments as students study poetry and write poetry and fiction? If the goal is to get more writers into BC schools, then why not approach school districts to spend some of their Literacy Innovation grant funding (the deadline for this year’s is January 11, 2008) working with Canadian authors and hosting school or district writers festivals or writers in residency programs?

In sum, Canadian literature will have a hold in BC classrooms when BC teachers are passionate about what books will make a difference for their students and when those teachers have models of how to find good books and how to use them. Merely amending the curriculum to include Canadian lit won’t cut it.


John Oliver said...

Well Zach: you sure are disrespectful. For those who have not read his blog, Zach has devoted a lot of space to attacking me. I have never met Zach and so am left scratching my head. Zach, you have no idea what I've read, make attributions about my character that you could not possibly justify, and instruct me to list what I have read on my brief admittedly feel-good post. You have not read carefully the text of the initiative which proposes making it mandatory to include ONE Canadian piece of writing per year in every grade from grades 8 through 12. VERY SCARY. HOW THREATENING! We will destroy and limit the imaginations of our young! Come on, Zach. Get real!

Zachariah Wells said...

John, I devoted a few sarcastic sentences to a few lines of very dull, vague, hackneyed bureaubabble prose. You can construe that as an attack if you like, but I call it a criticism. As you say, I don't know you, so why on earth would I attack you?

I said absolutely nothing about a one-canuck-book rule "destroying and limiting the imaginations of our young," John. The education system already does that without this rule. My point is that we have a very bad education system and proposing more standardised requirements is very far from a solution, and that writers and others, however noble their goals, are not helping matters by focusing on a non-problem.

How about lobbying for smaller class-sizes? How about lobbying for more books total being taught, and banking on some of those being Canadian? How about more emphasis on actually producing writing? High school graduates are arriving on university campuses every fall not only incapable of writing a basic 5-paragraph essay, but many have very dubious basic literacy. There are very real problems in the education system, John, and insufficient coverage of Canadian books is not one of them.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Zach, you do take a couple of cheap shots at John Oliver. And your pronouncement on why people read literature is a bit rich. People read for a million and one reasons including, to see their own personal experiences reflected back at them, and also to escape their dreary lives, and to put their minds at ease, and to have something to talk about with friends, and to be entertained, and to discover something, and not to discover anything at all and on and on. And thankfully literature can accomodate all the reasons whatever they may be.

Zachariah Wells said...

Cheap shots he left himself wide open for. Do you think that his little ode to his Canadian education doesn't ring hollow? It's the sort of thing one expects to hear from someone preaching to the converted, pat and lacklustre. I'm sure he didn't expect anyone to visit the Facebook page who doesn't agree with his position already. 'Cause shucks, who wouldn't want to support Canadian writers. Not Canadian writing, mind, but Canadian writers...

We're talking about books taught in school here, Glen, not general reading. The majority of lives in literature are probably more dreary--more drastic, anyway--than most people's actual lives. Besides, I think "to be entertained" umbrellas most of what you're saying. As for having one's own experience reflected back, the fact is that the majority of classrooms in Canada today are far too prismatic for a Canadian book to reflect their identities. My wife recently taught in a classroom that had kids from Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, to name only the -an countries. It's a mug's game trying to pick a book from the corpus of CanLit that will adequately represent their experience--and still be good literature. As Terry Taylor points out in her contribution to the Facebook group: "I rue the day that a closed list determines what text I may teach the variable range of learners that present themselves in my classroom."

I'm not clear on what you're arguing for here.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Yes, I agree with Terry. And you, mostly. And I wasn't defending John's position. My point is simple (and complex, what else is new?) The teaching of literature should strive to achieve three things (really two things):

1. A love of reading and learning.
2. A love of life (which means the same as a love of reading/learning.)
3. The skill of reading/thinking.

It's the teacher's only job to figure out how to accomplish these three things via literature. Inculcating a sense of identity doesn't factor in. Leave that to the history and geography teachers. This having been said, I don't see any reason why a Canadian teacher should be unable to find CanLit to draw from. I loved reading Richler's "Duddy" in high-school and Klein's "Autobiographical." I also read "Catcher in the Rye" and and "Richard Cory". I loved them all, but have no illusions about the fact that the Richler and Klein spoke to me in a special way, as a Montreal Jew, and this drew me into further reading, thus achieving, to some extent allof the above.

Zachariah Wells said...

This having been said, I don't see any reason why a Canadian teacher should be unable to find CanLit to draw from.

Agreed. Mostly. But keep in mind also that not all of our teachers are from here either. And what we're talking about--what Jean Baird and John Oliver are promoting--isn't the encouragement of teachers to teach Canadian books. It's legislating them to do so. Personally, I'm of the opinion that nothing should be codified in law that doesn't absolutely have to be; it's a lot easier to put a law on the books than it is to take it off, and once a law like this is in effect, a good teacher who opts not to teach a Canadian book is subject to discipline, while a shitty pedant who follows the rules is okay. There are so many reasons why this campaign is bone-headed and provincial, I can't even count them.