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:

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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.

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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:

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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.