my favourite books of 2018

Trickster Drift

Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson

I loved this better than the first book in the trilogy, which I liked plenty. My one and only beef is that it ends on a cliffhanger, so if that bothers you, you should wait until the third book is out before you read this one.

I think there were several reasons why I liked Trickster Drift so much:

1) Jared is a great character who has grown and developed and has become a really likeable protagonist.
2) He is living with his awesome Aunt Mave and her assorted nephews, nieces, hangers-on, and resident ghosts. I adore this side of his family as much as I dislike his mother, who plays a much bigger role in the first book and a blessedly small one in this book.
3) As a college upgrading instructor, I loved that he was attending college in downtown Vancouver to do upgrading classes so he could get into a sonography program.
4) The book is set in my old neighbourhood in East Vancouver and I recognized so many landmarks–his aunt’s housing co-op is actually a real place that I have walked past and the characters frequent a real cafe I used to go to regularly.
5) In the last book, I felt there wasn’t enough balance between the real world and the spiritual one, but I felt the balance was just right in this one.

Now, some people may not like the slightly meandering pace, but I didn’t mind at all; the reason for the meandering is that we need to spend time getting immersed in Jared’s living situation and getting to know his lovely, maddening, hilarious relatives. The one thing that annoyed me was how Jared is perpetually in SO MUCH immediate danger from his stalker ex-stepdad, but always refuses to ask anyone for help. However, I have to admit this piece of dumbassery was totally consistent with his character and pretty realistic for a teenager.

I hope this book gets made into a movie. It’s so visually rich, and the ending is another one of those amazing wild rides like the ending to the previous book.

It’s going to be hard waiting for the final book in the trilogy.

Women Talking: A Novel

Women Talking: A Novel by Miriam Toews

In the Acknowledgements section of this beautifully written novel, Miriam Toews writes, “I wish…to acknowledge the girls and women living in patriarchal, authoritarian (Mennonite and non-Mennonite) communities across the globe. Love and solidarity.” The book is fiction, but centred around true events that happened in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia.

The plot is simple: after they discover the colony’s male elders plan to compel them to forgive the men who committed horrific sexual assaults against them and their children, three generations of Mennonite women debate at secret meetings whether to stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the community. Complicating matters is the fact that the women aren’t able to read or write and have no idea what lies beyond the colony because they’re not allowed access to technology. Because they cannot read or write, they ask the only man they can trust, the boys’ schoolteacher, to take minutes of their meetings for posterity.

If you are interested in good literature, you should read this. If you are interested in feminist literature, you should definitely read this. It is by turns heartbreaking, uplifting, funny, and sombre, and the prose is elegant in its spareness.

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

What a cleverly structured book! Editor Susan Ryeland settles down with great anticipation to read the finished pre-publication draft of the latest novel in a bestselling mystery series. As she does so, we the readers are now plunged into a completely different story: suddenly, we are reading the same mystery novel Susan is reading. As we move back and forth between the two narratives, the fictional detective Atticus Pund provides the clues Susan needs to solve a real-life murder mystery that is complex and enjoyable.

Special praise for the audiobook narrators: their voice acting is superb.

The Immortalists

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Beautifully written, mesmerizing, and heartbreaking. There are many terribly wrenching scenes in this book, and it was not always easy to keep reading. Or maybe I’m just a sensitive soul. But I did finish it and I’m glad.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What a beautiful book. I am so glad I read it. I like to read dystopian fiction and this is definitely a worthy addition to the genre. The prose is lovely, the characters fascinating, and the world building very solidly done. But really, of course, this novel is more about existential questions than surviving an apocalypse–though it is about that too. (In fact, the pandemic is such a plausible scenario that it is a bit discomfiting to read; I read the section “The Terminal” while in an airport and then on a plane, which, let me tell you, added a very odd sensation to the reading experience.)

Although life post pandemic is pretty grim and brutish, the novel doesn’t come off that way, I suspect because a large part of Station Eleven is about the role of the arts in making life not only bearable but joyous, even in times of great catastrophe. As the Symphony has painted on its caravan, we need music, stories and art in our lives “Because survival is insufficient.”

I liked the multiple points of view, the non-linear storyline, and the slow reveal of everyone’s back story and how the stories eventually converge. There is some clever plotting that is not completely obvious at first (though it does quickly become clear what’s going on) but very satisfying at the end.

Overall I liked it at least as much if not better than other dystopian lit I’ve read lately, namely Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, or Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy. Station Eleven is melancholy and wistful but not overly depressing, and in fact has a beautiful, hopeful ending.

Highly recommended even for people who don’t necessarily like dystopian lit.

Sourdough

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

I loved this! It had a perfect plot with a lot of humour and a little mystery and wonder. The narrator had a great voice, the secondary characters were charming and delightful, and it was exactly the right length. So great. It’s odd, I really didn’t care too much for Mr. Penumbra to the point where I didn’t finish it, but I thought this book was fabulous. Maybe I should revisit Mr. P.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

What a great way to start my 2018 reading. I didn’t know it would be this moving when I started it, but this book really touched me. Eleanor is a difficult character to like at first, but boy does she grow on you. And so do the ancillary characters–Raymond and his mother, Sammy and his family, even Eleanor’s coworkers. This is a book about overcoming unthinkable adversity and about how small moments of kindness can change someone’s life. I really loved this one. It was original, funny, sad, and real. And importantly–hopeful. Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine, but she will be.

You can view all my reviews here on Goodreads.

Reflections on the Fall 2018 semester

This post on the Pedagogy and American Literature blog (a great teaching blog, by the way, with lots of food for thought on teaching literature and composition in general) reminded me that now would be a good time to reflect on this semester. It’s all over but the marking, and it’s time to look back on what went well, what didn’t, and what I’d do differently the next time.

FIRST PEOPLES ENGLISH

This is a pre-university preparatory course that is both an intro to literature and an intro to composition, with a focus on indigenous authors and context. I developed this course four years ago and I’m the one who usually teaches it. I love it and am constantly trying to improve it.

Every time I have taught this, I’ve found that the students tend to bond very strongly and form close relationships with each other, and there is a great deal of candid conversation and deep discussion. I think some of this is self selection–most students who choose to take it are interested in indigenous literature and issues. But I also think some of it is because I am very conscious about spending a lot of time at the beginning of the course facilitating students getting to know each other and reflecting on their own beliefs and prior knowledge.

This semester, I tried out a new research project–I got the idea for it at the Congress of the Humanities in May; the theme was Reconciliation, and I attended a session by someone from the Centre for Truth and Reconciliation about how to incorporate the 94 Calls to Action in the classroom. I decided to change the final research project for this course so it would be centred around one of the 94 Calls to Action (that the students would choose). They would then do research to become an expert in the topic, and it would form the basis of their oral presentation and their written essay. It worked really, really well. The students got very invested in their topics and did a fabulous job of researching them.

Other things that went well: I asked my colleague who teaches Aboriginal Studies and is an elder himself to speak to my class about the Indian Act at the beginning rather than the end of the semester. It worked much better this way–the Indian Act is so important when trying to put indigenous issues in context in Canada, and it was more effective to have my colleague speak to the students right away, rather than have them read about it and watch some documentaries about it first, like I did the previous semester. He speaks about his personal experience as a residential school survivor and son of a residential school survivor, which I think makes it more immediate to them.

We also had an end of semester potluck and one student brought her mom, an elder who had been to residential school and was willing to share some of her experiences. She had brought bannock and another student had brought salmon. One of my Filipino students brought a traditional Filipino dessert. We had a great time sharing food and conversation and it was a wonderful way to end the semester.

INTRODUCTION TO WOMEN’S STUDIES

I hadn’t taught this for a while, so I was excited at the prospect. However, I was not so excited to be teaching it via videoconferencing. This meant I had 32 students in Prince George with me in the classroom, and 3 students in Quesnel, and we could all see each other via video broadcast. This was challenging for a few reasons: It was difficult to be spontaneous, because I can’t give anything to the students in Prince George without making sure the Quesnel students also have the same materials. I am supposed to give a week’s notice for the admin assistants in Quesnel to print and distribute the materials for the students. So that means I can’t have a burst of inspiration 30 minutes before class and make a handout–I need to have my inspiration a few days ahead of time. Everything has to be online in a Moodle shell. That was fine but I’ve never taught a class depending on Moodle that much, so it was a steep learning curve for me. (I’m not even going to get into the fact that Moodle actually deleted two students’ essays–the tech guy and I could actually see that they’d been submitted and then…disappeared). Also, I had to be very, very conscious never to forget about the Quesnel students. I always tried to address them, make them feel included, and help them feel like they were part of the class. It took a lot of energy and I wasn’t always sure it was working, but I had feedback from the Quesnel students that reassured me that my efforts were noticed and appreciated. I still personally feel like I wasn’t as effective as an instructor as I could have been for the videoconference students, but at least I know more for next time, if there is a next time.

Over half the class was international students, most from one particular cultural group. In some ways this was fantastic, because we could talk about the situation of women in other countries with some students offering up examples from their home communities. However, what was not fantastic was that a good half of these students actually had real difficulties reading, speaking, understanding, and writing in English. Many of them needed English as a second language classes, but instead, here they were in my first year class. Students are expected to already know how to read and write at a first year level and are expected to know how to do research and write an essay. Let me tell you, they do not. And it was not just the second language learners who struggled with these skills! I did spend some time going over research and writing skills, but not a lot, because we simply do not have the time to do this and still cover all the material we have to cover. Ideally, students would have a prerequisite or corequisite of an intro to composition course if they take this course, but at the moment, it’s not a requirement.

Because of the videoconference challenge, the language issues, and the large class size, I had a real struggle getting the students to coalesce as a group. I felt that they were not very integrated and it was hard to have group discussions. The students tended to break into groups with the same people every time. I tried to avoid this by occasionally counting them off and making them get into different groups. It worked okay but I could tell their heart wasn’t in it. Maybe this is the nature of large classes, but it didn’t seem quite this difficult last time I taught a large class. However, I fully admit this could be a rosy view of the past and perhaps it was just this hard before and I just don’t remember because it’s been so long.

However, before I make it all sound negative, there were some things that worked very well with this group of students:

They absolutely loved it when I put together a number of music videos to demonstrate sexist and misogynist lyrics from the 1950s to the present. Many of them said it was the first time they had really thought about the lyrics in the songs they listen to.

They also liked watching videos about the topics we were talking about, especially the ones featuring people talking about their own experiences: the first indigenous surgeon in Canada who also happens to be a woman and happens to live in Prince George; indigenous women who spoke about having been sterilized against their wishes; a professor who had done research on beauty culture with her students; author Chimimanda Adichie Ngozi speaking about her experiences as a woman in Nigeria and how she came to identify herself as a feminist; a woman who wears a hijab talking about how she is perceived by other people.

Another lecture that went over really well was when I showed a number of movie trailers and spoke about representation and identity (I showed the trailer and clips from Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians).

They really seemed to like it when I talked about my own experiences and perspectives as a woman, a person of colour, and a feminist. I often opened class by talking about something that had come up in the news–for example, when Bernardo Bertolucci died, I spoke about his role directing the film Last Tango in Paris, and how Maria Schneider was sexually assaulted by Marlon Brando (with Bertolucci’s knowledge) while filming a scene in order to “get an authentic performance” from her. When Jair Bolsonaro was elected to be the next president of Brazil, I read some of his most choice quotes out loud and we talked about the global zeitgeist that is driving people to vote for people like him and Donald Trump.

Another very successful aspect of the class was the Gender Analysis assignment I had them do, where they had to choose a store/type of item from a list and then analyze how the products were gendered. For example, because it was October, they could examine how Halloween costumes are gendered or promote racial stereotypes. Or they could go to the drugstore and compare men’s and women’s personal grooming products. Or they could compare greeting cards targeted at either men or women. A lot of them talked about how much they had learned from doing this assignment.

On the final exam, their last question was “What you have learned in this class and how do you see this course in the context of the wider world? Have your views have changed, and if so, how?  Were you surprised by anything you read/watched/discussed in class? How you have applied what you have learned to your own experiences and to interpreting the world around you?” I received some amazing responses, some of which were very touching, about how they were using their new knowledge, and how the course had opened their eyes to things they had not really thought about before.

I won’t be teaching either course next semester, but I hope it isn’t too long before I teach them again. And I do plan to apply what I learned to the classes I am teaching–a different prep English course and a first year Indigenous Literature course.

Joan Deebank: BC’s oldest ever high school graduate at 92

Born in England in the mid 1920s, Joan Deebank grew up during the Great Depression. When her father told her to drop out of school at thirteen to get a job, she worked as a maid until two years later during the Second World War. She then quit her job and lied about her age to join the army, where she worked on the front lines serving the soldiers. She eventually suffered hearing loss from the noise of the guns.

Deebank later married a soldier and had four children. The family immigrated to Ontario and then BC.

Between motherhood and two jobs, Deebank never found the time to go back to school. She kept her mind sharp reading magazines on science, archeology, biology and art. The late Stephen Hawking was — and still is — a favourite.

Sometimes, as she got older, she would sit with the material and cry. “She would have tears rolling down, mourning the loss of her education,” her daughter said.

Last November, Lightfoot reached out to Island ConnectEd, a distributed learning school on Vancouver Island. Deebank enrolled in B.C.’s “Adult Dogwood” program, which is tailored to older students who want to earn their high school diploma.

Island ConnectEd teachers designed her curriculum and gave assignments to Lightfoot, who broke them down into manageable chunks. They’d work on projects together until Deebank was tired, then pick it up again another day. They kept at it until Deebank finished this spring.

The 92-year-old walked the stage with her class on Tuesday, collecting her diploma to a standing ovation. (CBC British Columbia)

Canada Revenue Agency’s ethnography of homeless citizens’ access to tax filing

Excellent post by Suzanne Smythe about the Canada Revenue Agency’s ethnography on homeless citizens’ access to tax filing.

Adult Basic Education is a Basic Right

Yes, you read that right. The CRA has carried out an ethnographic study to better understand barriers to income tax filing among those who experience homelessness and insecure housing. Thanks to Christine Pinsent-Johnson for drawing my attention to this fascinating research!

The CRA study began with the premise that homeless citizens may be foregoing crucial access to income and benefits due to barriers they experience filing their taxes. Researchers interviewed 50 people in shelters and social service agencies about their tax filing experiences. The honesty and insight in this study refreshing. Among the barriers that people described (and that many frontline service workers and homeless citizens will recognize):

  1. Government communication cultures can be intimidating. (see section 5.33, para. 1)

“CRA communication, whether online, over the phone, or by mail, can pose a barrier to some homeless and housing-insecure individuals who may struggle to understand the CRA’s technical communication style, or…

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how to teach STEM so students will learn

This article from Nautilus about STEM teaching is called The Case Against Lectures, but it’s worth a read even if you read the title and think, “Well, obviously.”

Project-based learning, or designed thinking, doesn’t just help students “get” the material in time for a good grade on the test; it also helps deepen their appreciation for what they learn. “There is an enormous amount of work that has demonstrated that these (student-centered) strategies improve students’ learning and attitudes toward science,” said Marilyne Stains, the lead author of the Science study and an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska. “It’s not just that they understand it better, but they also appreciate science more. They’re not as scared of it, and they engage more easily with it. When you see that kind of effect, it makes you say, ‘Why are we still doing it the other way?’