Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Painted Girls

The Painted GirlsThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Painted Girls is a well-researched piece of historical fiction which asks: What happened to the girl who posed for Edgar Degas’s famous statue, “Little Dancer Aged 14”? There are scant details about Marie van Goethem’s life and those of her two sisters Antoinette and Charlotte. What we do know is that Marie was fired from the Opera’s ballet company for lates and absences and Antoinette was jailed for stealing 700 francs. Then they disappear into history. Their sister Charlotte, we know, became an accomplished ballerina.

Buchanan weaves these scant facts with further research on Paris of the Belle Epoque, and imagination. The narration alternates between the voices of Marie and Antoinette. By divvying up the narration, Buchanan shows how few choices lower class women had in late 19th century Paris. After awhile, I wondered, what the story would have been like without the clockwork alternation between the two sisters.

During this period of time, scientists tried to prove that character could literally be read on the faces of people, with studies showing that certain facial characteristics demonstrated “innate criminality”(304). In the end, I questioned how Degas really felt about Marie. In the novel, he was only interested in her at the point between being a girl and becoming a woman. In reality, he stopped painting her, but we don’t know why. Reviews of her statuette comment on her ugliness and how the artwork “imprints her face with detestable promise of every vice” (316). Both Marie and Antoinette are certainly at the mercy of unscrupulous men. There are very few good men in the book, in fact.

The ending of the novel, however, demonstrates the love and tenderness the author feels for her subjects. In truth, I wonder, how often such an ending happened for real people. Perhaps.

The Painted Girls is an illuminating read about this certain time and place and I enjoyed learning more about that era. I also liked reading Cathy Marie Buchanan’s website and comparing Degas’s work to her fictional characters. A great cross-pollination of media.

Other reviews:

Essays on historical fiction:

View all my reviews

Image credit:
AgnosticPreachersKid. Degas. 25 Feb. 2011. Wikimedia Commons. 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Power of "I Don't Know"

What if a student asked a question and  a teacher simply replied, "I don't know"? This answer gives students incredible power.

Last week, I was working with grade 9 & 10 students on how to create a bibliography. I flipped the lesson by allowing the students to read the Smore lesson (link above) and then taking it up as a group. By letting them explore the lesson on their own, the class had plenty to talk about during the review.

After that, I gave them the "Perfect Score" task to do with minimal help from me.

There were certainly a lot of questions. I referred them back to a place in the Smore lesson. I let them struggle. When they didn't understand what was being asked of them, I told them about my Art & Inquiry MOOC experience this summer. We, the students, came up with a consensus of interpreting the instructions. In a class of over 17,000 students, no teacher would be able to answer all of the questions. We discussed how MOOCs may become the learning of the future. Even if it doesn't, I can't follow them to college or university and help them do their homework. (Yes, after this comment, I get many invitations.)

And then I witnessed something amazing: I saw the students who "got it" emerge as natural teachers and lead the other students through the task. This dynamic can be seen in Sugata Mitra's Ted Talk:  "The Child-Driven Education".

When students still had questions, I replied with "What do you think?" Then I asked them to support their reasoning. If they resisted answering, I asked them to guess and tell me why they had made that hypothesis.

Yes, this process took longer than if I had lectured them about creating citations. But the learning wouldn't have stuck.

Kinda reminds me of this Google Search Story:

Image credits:
Spread Of Knowledge, Conceptual Artwork.Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 4 Oct 2013.

SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 8 Oct 2013.

The Knowledge Totem Pole. Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 4 Oct 2013.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Secret of the Blue Trunk

The Secret of the Blue TrunkThe Secret of the Blue Trunk by Lise Dion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine your parent leaving you the key to a blue trunk that was always kept locked. What life did your parent have before you were born? What secrets does the blue trunk hold?

Emotional and riveting. A daughter learns more about who her mother really was and what she had to endure.

Some violence and sexual allusions, but suitable for teens.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother

Projection: Encounters with My Runaway MotherProjection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother by Priscila Uppal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While I was reading Projection, I thought about a course I took long ago. Some of the texts dealt with “mother-want”. At the time, we read these books as feminist texts where a woman who grows up without a mother has a better chance of becoming an independent, successful artist because without a mother there is no one there to teach her how to conform to a woman’s role.

Priscila Uppal has indeed grown up into a strong, independent artist after being abandoned by her mother when Priscila was eight years old. Despite the promises of feminist analysis, Uppal shows that “Motherlessness in my situation was far too closely equated with lovelessness.”

Projection made me think about the books I had read twenty years ago in a new light:

• “When mothers fail us, can we be ourselves?” -Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
• “Oh mama, why’d you put this hole in me?” -Heroine by Gail Scott

Priscila Uppal’s book is an angry look at the mother who betrayed her. She cannot discover what would have happened if her mother had stayed—you cannot go back and change the past. Instead, Uppal asks: “What does it mean to have a mother? Is it the necessary condition of humanity?”

The pain is carefully crafted by pairing each chapter with a movie that illuminates the conflict between this mother and daughter. Ultimately, Projection is an unapologetic personal examination of art, belonging, memory and home.

Interview with Priscila Uppal on 49th Shelf:

View all my reviews

Friday, 1 November 2013


When we arrived at school this morning, there was no power. The emergency lighting was deceiving. Students asked me why the computers weren't working.

-Do we keep the school open? Teachers scrambled to redo their lessons. I advised a supply teacher to read aloud to students or ask them to invent stories.

Then I panicked about not being able to make a second morning cup of coffee.

We are dependent on power. Are we permanently so?

Image credit:
Power Lines. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 1 Nov 2013.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Decoding Assignments for ESL Students

Every semester we hold a Project Complete program to allow students to catch up on their work before midterm report. I am asked to help ESL students who have fallen behind on their schoolwork. Why have they fallen behind? They don't understand what to do.

In split-level classes, it is difficult for teachers to address the needs of all learners. Students new to Canada and the English language need more one-on-one instruction and modified assignments.

Here's an example of how I helped an ESL A student complete a grade 9 geography task to create a brochure for a Canadian national park.

1. Chunk the assignment. The research was in three parts. I only asked the student to look at one part at a time.

2. Highlight key words. Reduce the text.

3. Use Google Translate and Google Images to decode vocabulary.

4. Next, we went on to the Parks Canada website. I had to guide the student on how to use the features and navigation tools. Make the student read short pieces of text. Don't let them depend on you to do all the work. The one who does the work does the learning. Let them struggle with something they can handle.

5. Use "speak" functions for longer texts.

6. Print PDF fact sheets. Show which paragraph each answer is found in, otherwise the amount of text is overwhelming.

7. Still too much English? Ask student to highlight the words they DO know. For example, to complete the landform section, ask the student to highlight familiar vocabulary in the geography paragraph. Next, the teacher underlines two or three new and important words in pencil. Have the student look up the meaning of the words by using Google Images. Once he or she understands the word, the student can highlight it.

8. When the chart is complete, start transferring info to a brochure template on Publisher. Using Publisher or other computer programs will probably require further instruction. For example, you should show the student how the layout of a brochure works. Page 1 is on the same side as pages 5 and 6.

9. Print off a draft of his or her brochure.

10. Check against expectations. It is important that the student is involved in this process.

11. Edit with the student. Talk about why changes need to be made.

12. Student makes corrections and goes home happy once he or she has completed the task.

Note: This assignment took two days to complete. The next day, the student's teacher reported that the student wanted to try to complete tasks on his own even when she offered to help. He learned that he CAN do it!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Human Bubble

After teaching two uncooperative grade nine classes about using databases, my colleague made an interesting observation: Is this generation a bubble in human development? These kids have grown up with the internet without parental guidance and supervision because the internet didn't exist when the parents were young; parents didn't understand what the internet was all about.

Did the same bubble happen with the printing press? Television?

Image credit:
Giant Bubble. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 26 Oct 2013.

Googlers, Databasers & Bookies

"I'm so sick of students using Google!" a teacher said to me.

"How about letting them discover if it's the best way to find information for an assignment?" I replied.

In this instance, it was an English class of 30 that came in. I divided them up into three groups: Googlers, Databasers and Bookies. Each group had to find the three best essays in their allotted medium on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". It is important to note, there was no assignment attached to this task. They were to spend two hours simply searching for great essays.

The class also given a Best Resources chart to fill out to record their progress, as well as three sticky notes. After they had filled out the chart, they were to reflect and record their observations on their resources on a sticky note and put their observations on a "+" "-" and "!" chart. What were the advantages of their resource? What were the disadvantages? What did they learn?

Some of the groups needed mini-lessons:
  • The Bookies on how to use the library catalogue and the Dewey Decimal system to locate a book.
  • The Databasers needed help accessing the databases and narrowing their focus.
  • The Googlers felt that they didn't need any help at all.
Which group finished first? Whenever I've done this task, it has alternated between the Databasers and the Bookies. It was interesting to observe that the Bookies always worked collaboratively and that each class concluded that the databases were the best place to look for information on this topic. Surprisingly (or not), the Googlers had the hardest time finding good resources. They were always the last group to finish because they did not know how to use the advanced search options in Google. The group got stuck retrieving commercial sites selling essays or university-level work from Google Scholar. I've suggested to students that they may enjoy learning how to become a Google Power Searcher... for free.

Students discovering which resources are the best by themselves...priceless.

(It is important to note that the point of this exercise is NOT to show that Google is bad. It is simply to find out which resource is the best place to find information on a given assignment. For example, I have had other results for students doing a science project.)

Image credits:

DR. SEUSS' THE CAT IN THE HAT (2003) - MYERS, MIKE; BRESLIN, SPENCER; FANNING, DAKOTA.Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 8 Oct 2013.

Google Logo. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 8 Oct 2013.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

"Your Teacher Loves Wikipedia"

OK, this lesson isn't what you think.

Anthropology students had to look for information on a social scientist, e.g., Richard Lee, Sigmund Freud, in order to write a CV for them.

I told them to use Google and Wikipedia to get their information. Both the students and the teacher were shocked.

Here's my justification:

Your Teacher Loves Wikipedia (Click on the heading for slideshow & notes)

But the assignment didn't stop there. The students then had to network in the role of the social scientist they had researched. Ultimately, they had to find which other social scientists they could work with.

At first, I thought this task was a lot of busy work for content that could be delivered more simply: That is, give them a few chapters to read and then categorize the scientists. Instead, their teachers thought this exercise would make the task more interesting for the students.

But here's where the surprise came in: Content isn't what the students are learning. Where the students struggled was picking out what was relevant for the CV. It became a reading and critical thinking exercise. These skills were what they were learning.

Students also learned - in one boy's words-: "The internet sucks." He found six different sources: three stated that his social scientist was kicked out of school; three said he left school because the school was shut down. Learning is more effective if students figure out this unreliability problem on their own.

The teacher saved the day by asking the student, "Do you need to include his elementary school years on his resume anyway?"

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #9)How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Louise Penny's best. A newcomer should read some of her previous Gamache novels in order to understand the backstory. I started with Bury Your Dead and managed. I love how both Bury Your Dead and How the Light Gets In celebrate Quebec winter. Louise Penny amazingly incorporates Quebec past and present into the plot of two intertwining, tension-filled crimes.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Alice Munro Country

Travels through Munro Country: Bayfield, Wingham, Port Albert and Goderich. Inspired by "Where Alice Munro found her Stories".

Ceiling ornament

Shipwreck Chart of the Great Lakes

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Looking for Clues

"Think of yourself as Sherlock Holmes and you need to search for clues and you have a feeling whodunit." -Alison Head providing the metaphor for research

Works Cited:

Head, Alison. "What Is It Like to be a College Student in the Digital Age?." OLA SuperConference. Ontario Library Association. Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Toronto. 31 Jan. 2013. Address.
Jones, David. "Sherlock Holmes". N.d. Photograph. Haiku Deck. Flickr. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Employing the Easter Egg

The other day I was thinking about gamification -specifically, how to apply game elements to education - and I remembered how I "tricked" my nephew into reading. He was at the cusp of reading a few sentences independently, but he was stubborn. He did not want to try to sound out words on his own.

I devised an Easter egg hunt with a difference. Instead of simply hiding chocolate eggs around the house, I bought some hollow plastic eggs that opened. Inside, I put a clue to the location of the next egg. With each egg, I included a small dollar store trinket.

I thought my nephew would have been more interested in the prizes, but instead he demonstrated that he was motivated by something intrinsic instead. After he had found all of the eggs, he wanted to do the hunt all over again, with the clues only. There was something about finding the next piece to the puzzle that propelled him to keep on reading. He did not resist sounding out the words; in fact, he wanted to figure it out for himself.

This game continued for many years. Eventually, the clues turned into riddles to get him to predict and think more critically. Now a teen, he wouldn't say no if I offered to do an Easter egg hunt again.

Image credits:
Coloured Easter Eggs. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 4 Oct 2013.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Childhood fears, memories, and the belief in another hidden world. A backwards glance at one's past. The power of story. A good antidote to my last futuristic read, Neuromancer, where the spiritual side of humanity is lost.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 29 September 2013


Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The globalization of technology, therefore, as Gibson dramatizes, will increasingly deprive humanity of its spiritual dimension..."

"In 'Gibson's world, human beings have nothing left but thrill' (191). The characters in the novel get thrilled through the nonphysical embodiment of cyberspace or intense sensual experience, but although thrill may replace reflection, Case and others find that it liberates them from the oppression of everyday concerns."

How do you envision the future? Does technology create a dystopian existence

or utopian world?


For further exploration of this dichotomy, consider taking this MOOC:

William Gibson's imaginary future is not a sunny, happy place, but one in which humans continue to live and struggle. (To think more deeply about Neuromancer, I've been reading essays about it. Great to model this kind of reading for students, btw. Literary essays are supposed to help you discover more about a work of literature, not just help you finish your homework.)

Neuromancer is a book of ideas. The detachment of the characters from their own humanity may also place readers of the novel at arm's length. Many other reviews on Goodreads call for a re-reading of the book in order to get a fuller appreciation of what it is trying to say. The reason that I give this book five stars is that I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Neuromancer is an excellent resource to use with students to talk about how their world is changing: Do we shape technology, or does technology shape us? That is the question. Think Raymond Williams vs Marshall McLuhan. More recent texts include the graphic novel The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone, Stratosphere by Michael Fullan (the use of technology in education) and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

Quotes from:
Haney, William S., II. "William Gibson's Neuromancer: cyberpunk and the end of humanity/William Gibson'in Neuromancer Adli Eseri: siberpunk ve insanligin sonu." Interactions 18.1 (2009): 73+. Canada In Context. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 12 September 2013

BYOD & Appy Hour

"I hate reading, making presentations, etc."

During the first week, we've been exploring what it means to be a BYOD school. One class told me where they struggle with their learning. My response each time was: "There's an app for that."

For example, I had a group of girls who were afraid of making presentations. Together, they learned how to use:
instead of making stand-up-in-front-of-the-class presentations. Other possible tools include:

For additional ideas, check out: "Six Visual Learning Tools".

There was a gaggle of boys who said that they hated reading. I asked them: "Do you like being read to?" They said: "YES!" They learned that if they changed their iPad/iPod/iPhone's accessibility settings, they could get their device to read to them:

First, go to "Settings" and select "General". Click on "Accessibility".

Next, go to "Speak Selection".

Turn on "Speak Selection". You can choose a dialects (accent) and adjust the speaking rate (speed).

Appy Hour

Students were given a chance to explore and experiment with these (and other) apps, features, and online tools. We were amazed at how focused they were on the task. We were equally impressed with their mini-presentations afterwards: They shared what they had discovered with their classmates. In fact, each student became the "expert" for other students to go to to learn about his or her particular tool.


Image credits:

Class Presentation. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 8 Sep 2013.

Two Apple IPad 2 Tablet Computers Desktop And App Store On Their Displays. Photo. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 8 Sep 2013.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Flipping the Library

Finding a Book

Since the library was booked by another department this week, I was able to show students how to find a book in the library without being in the library.


It's my J-O-B!

My J-O-B

First week back: I used this Flocabulary video to introduce my role in the school:

Original post:

Monday, 26 August 2013

Back to School

These three quotes have me thinking about my teaching practice. You?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Links of the Week: Eliminate Sense Verbs from Your Writing & Books from the Libraries

Here are two articles I enjoyed reading this week. Occasionally, a small change is all you need; at other times, a revolution is required.

Straightforward Techniques to Make Your Writing More Immediate

          Love this blog entry about eliminating the sense verbs to give your writing zing!


The Future of Libraries
          Is it time to get rid of books in libraries? Shock! Horror! Take a look:

Image credits:

David Wilson Library. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 24 Aug 2013.

Writing Desk. Fine Art. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 24 Aug 2013.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Marvel 1602

Marvel 1602Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bloody brilliant.

Placing Marvel characters such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Daredevil at the time of Elizabeth I demonstrates how universal and enduring comic themes are.

The graphic novel could be purchased by schools for pleasure reading, but also to look at character archetypes, dramatic narrative, historical research, and how to visualize a story.

"So what are these fundamental principles...?"

"Stories. And they give me hope.

"We are a boatful of monsters and miracles, hoping that, somehow, we can survive a world in which all hands are against us. A world which, by all evidence, will end extremely soon.

"Yet I posit we are in a universe which favours stories.

"A universe in which no story can ever truly end; in which there can be only continuances."

For more see:

View all my reviews

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Importance of Visual Literacy

While watching Discovery Channel's pre-Shark Week show, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, I thought, 'This can't be true'. Yet, others watching with me were taken for a ride. It didn't help that the mockumentary claimed that it was showing real footage from Discovery Channel teams working on the project.

For me, the Instagram quality of the colour didn't seem like it was legit. The interviews seemed scripted and designed to set up the characters as heroic. The editing was that of a fictional film: build up, tension, action. As well, the timeline moved way too quickly for real life. You mean, they were able to build that lure humpback whale in just a few days? Also, the reaction of the characters when they were firing the chum over the side of the boat - jokes and laughter - highlight the creation of fictional, carefree heroes. This hooting and a-hollering would not be appropriate in real life: neither to the purported victims of megalodon, nor to the dangerous situation the characters were supposedly in.

Here are a couple of other reactions that were published after the program showed:

But it is possible to create such a movie and have others believe that it is true? It has happened before. Remember The Blair Witch Project? At least in both cases, we quickly learned that these were fictional creations. But could we be fooled again by someone who is unwilling to reveal the truth? The powers of propaganda can bite.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Death in Breslau

Death in Breslau: An Eberhard Mock InvestigationDeath in Breslau: An Eberhard Mock Investigation by Marek Krajewski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Independent described this book “as noir as they get”. I also love some of the other reviews. They give you a sense of the muscle in the book:

“A dark and compelling novel, full of perverse sex and violence as the world begins to spin off its axis.”
-The Mail on Sunday

“The city of Breslau is as much a character in this thriller as the parade of gothic loons that inhabit it...This addictive soup has an air of burlesque about it.”
-The Daily Telegraph

“Krajewski relishes the period detail as takes us from bloody interrogation cells to Madam LeGoef’s sweaty bordello...What’s haunting about Krajewski’s book, however, is the worst was yet to come.”
-Independent on Sunday

There’s something about a corrupt police department still trying to uphold the law and do what’s right. They need devious means to cut through the criminality of others. It’s a power struggle between bad, evil and ultimate evil.

Set mostly in interwar Germany, bordering on Poland, in a city which would become Polish again after WWII, the Machiavellian protagonist, Eberhard Monk, tries to solve the chilling murders of a young girl, her nanny and a railway worker.

What I love about the book is that Mock, for all his dastardly methods, is still the good guy. After all, the ends do justify the means when you’re dealing with the Nazis. Ironically, he still longs to be a “[m]an pure, by crime untouched.”

Breslau is the perfect setting, with its own layers of multiple identities.

There are many dead cluttering the stage by the end of the book. Indeed, for all the blood and gore, it feels as if there are only two people surviving by the conclusion.

The writer sets out clever clues for the reader. We get to understand what is going on just before the characters do. Just, just.

I would have liked the translation to have been a little less melodramatic. It may be echoing the original book, but I haven’t seen the Polish edition.

View all my reviews

Groupwork? Meh.

"I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork...for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and commanding" (Cain 71). -Albert Einstein

"Work alone" (Cain 73). -Steve Wozniak

"Society is itself an education in the extrovert values, and rarely has there been a society that has preached them so hard. No man is an island, but how John Donne would writhe to hear how often and for what reason, the thought is so tiresomely repeated" (Cain 34). - William Whyte

"[I]nsight occurs when we balance direct engagement in a task with a kind of detached insouciance...[T]he left hemisphere of the brain tries to seek answers in the obvious places...,but sooner than later tires of the problem if it is at all difficult. When one gets away from direct immersion in a problem, the right hemisphere can still be, so to speak, working on the problem in subconscious ways. At some point, and in ways that are not easily traceable, the 'answer' seems to come out of the blue and in surprisingly complete form" (Fullan 26).

Quotes from
Cain, Susan. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.

Fullan, Michael. Stratosphere: integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Don Mills, Ont.: Pearson, 2013. Print.

Image credits
A Woman Reads In Solitude On A Quiet Beach Next To Turquoise Water.. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 1 Aug 2013.

Brain. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 12 Sep 2013.

The Thinker. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Image Quest. Web. 1 Aug 2013.