this will be our year

This has nothing to do with education at all; it’s just one of my favourite songs and one of my favourite videos on YouTube. I suppose it’s an optimistic wish for 2018, too, since the last few years have been a bit rough on a lot of us for various reasons.

quick parts of speech review activity

My fundamental adult learners are having a lot of difficulty with identifying parts of speech. We are only focusing on nouns, verbs, and adjectives right now.

I have done a few review activities with them but today I’m trying a new one:


  1. Students get into pairs.
  2. Each team has a piece of paper divided into three columns, labeled “nouns,” “verbs,” and “adjectives.”
  3. Each team must walk around the school for ten minutes and write down 10 words in each column, based on things they see in the hallways, classrooms, and common areas.
  4. When they return, the instructor checks that the words are in the appropriate columns. The team with the most words correct wins.

Rainbow Mountain, Peru

This was the image on my computer’s random image screensaver today:

Rainbow Mountain Peru

Image credit: jerzykwpodrozy on Pixabay

This is Rainbow Mountain, Peru. I have never seen this before and it is gorgeous! I was so pleased to see this image today. It perked me up a little this morning. For all my annoyances with Windows and Office, I do like the random image screensaver.

my favourite books of 2017

The Embassy of CambodiaThe Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a miniature gem. By miniature I mean it is 69 pages long; I read it in the 40 minutes I was waiting in the public library for my meeting to begin. Smith’s language is precise, calm, measured; the story is completely self contained. It is just that bit more than a short story.

4 3 2 14 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sprawling, messy, inventive, compelling. I enjoyed 90% of 4 3 2 1, which I think is pretty good for a book that’s 842 pages long. The other 10% could have been trimmed; at times towards the end of the book I began to tire of the story. Still, it was a real Reading Experience and I’m glad I pushed on. For most of the book I found myself flying through Auster’s effortless prose, pulled forward breathlessly through the narrative.

I especially enjoyed reading about the 1960s through the protagonist’s eyes. It reminded me that for all the tumult of current era, we have seen similar. Whether that is hopeful or depressing I will leave up to the reader.

Finally, this is a real love letter to writing. Auster manages beautifully to describe the act of writing and convey the compulsion to create.

(As a side note: I would have loved to spend more time with Ferguson’s mother, Rose. Her section at the beginning was luminous.)

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in 2011 I read and reviewed this book and said, “This was good but the story is full of creepiness and unhappy people. I actually found myself feeling physically oppressed while reading it! But I suppose that is the sign of an effective storyteller.” Well, I have re-read it for book club and I revise the rating to 5 stars and the review to say WHAT A PAGETURNER! I remembered some of the story but had forgotten enough of it to make it an even more engrossing read this time. I don’t know if I was more in the mood for it this time (though I liked it plenty well last time), but it blew me away this time. I had to force myself to put it down. The writing is superb and the story, though it does include many cliches of the Gothic novel, is somehow so cleverly put together with such absorbing events, spooky settings, and engaging characters, that it transcends any potential cheesy annoyingness. It is also a good meditation on books, reading, writing, and storytelling. Heartily recommended if you enjoy Gothic novels, and maybe even if you don’t.

The Hidden KeysThe Hidden Keys by André Alexis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this aloud on two road trips, hence the long hiatus. It turned out to suit that purpose very well. It’s a very visual book; Alexis’ descriptions bring to life the worlds of the very rich and very poor in Toronto, each world with its own type of hustler. It’s a treasure hunt/mystery story that addresses some of the same themes as Alexis’ previous novel, Fifteen Dogs–love, fidelity, family, honour. (In fact, there is a very quick and unexpected reference to Fifteen Dogs in the middle of The Hidden Keys.) I liked the main character, Tancred the gentleman thief, very much; he is an unrepentant thief but when he makes a promise to help a woman who seems to be a poor heroin addict, he keeps his promise despite the fact that it brings him much deeper into a strange world than he intends to go. Like Tancred, Alexis has a deft, elegant touch, and I am looking forward to his next book.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMidnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. This book really held my attention. I found myself wanting to keep reading it even when it was very late and I should have been sleeping.

There are two parts to this book–the present (well, actually about 1990 or so–there are some clues via pop culture references and the notable lack of cell phones and Internet)–and the past, namely the events surrounding a 20 year old brutal murder. The cold case is well done–I was genuinely surprised by the reveal of the killer’s identity (I had thought it was someone else) and by several other revelations along the way. The protagonist’s adult life is well done too–she is walled-off but compassionate, and we see the large constellation of oddballs and misfits around her. The author is good at creating believable characters with roundness and depth, and his descriptions are so richly detailed that I felt as though I could picture all the settings: people’s houses, the murder scene, the bookstore, the town of Denver, the cabins in the Colorado mountains.

The story is well paced and quite tightly edited. The copy I read was 246 pages and the author used those limited pages wisely. It was precisely as long as it needed to be. This is the novel Bellweather Rhapsody wanted to be, but unlike that book, this one seemed to have had the benefit of a skilled editor and an author who went along with the editor’s suggestions.

The only thing that detracted slightly was some awkward writing, but it was infrequent enough that it didn’t pull me out of the story too often. It was evident to me that this was a debut novel, but I enjoyed this so much and found it so gripping and entertaining that I will eagerly pick up the author’s second novel if and when it appears.

Monkey BeachMonkey Beach by Eden Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I decided to teach this in my First Peoples English course this semester and I’m so glad I chose it. It’s not an easy book–the narrative is not chronological but jumps back and forth from present (actually more like early 1990s) to the past. Eden Robinson perfectly evokes the setting of Kitamaat and surrounding areas and draws a sharply detailed picture of the narrator and her loving, flawed extended family. I became quite invested in the characters, particularly Lisa, the narrator, and her wonderful Uncle Mick.

The book is dynamic and humorous, but underneath it all, it also deals with themes of grief and loss. Woven throughout is plain accounting of the legacy of colonialism and the power of resistance. The book combines a mundane setting with a supernatural one, and sometimes we are not sure what’s actually happening in real life as opposed to in the narrator’s head. The writing is powerful, though definitely unpolished in parts. But somehow for me, the rawness and lack of polish just added to the appeal of the novel.

I really enjoyed this book and I was glad my students enjoyed it as much as they did too.

The Witches of New YorkThe Witches of New York by Ami McKay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A long time ago, I wrote my very first university research essay about how the European witch hunts of the 1600s were a result of misogyny in the church (and society in general) and fear of women’s knowledge and power–especially those women who were older, unmarried, childless, or some combination of the three. These were the women most likely to be knowledgeable about traditional herbs and remedies: healers and medicine women.

The Witches of New York takes this idea and sets it in Gilded Age Manhattan. There, two wise women run a shop called Tea and Sympathy. One is a former medical student who brews traditional herbal remedies to cure the ailments for which women seek her help–often ailments brought on by misogynistic laws against contraception; the other is a former sex trade and sideshow worker, a cynical “seeress” who reads tarot cards to tell women “what they already know” and refuses to believe she, too, has genuine powers. (By the way, if you have read McKay’s previous novel, The Virgin Cure, you will recognize this character from that book.) Eventually, a young woman who can communicate with the dead but does not yet know about her own powers applies for a job as their assistant, and the two become a trio.

They are a lively, smart, happy trio, and it is a genuine pleasure to spend time getting to know them. We meet their clients, their friends, potential suitors…and, of course, the genuinely terrifying men who persecute them in the name of morality and religion. These parts of the book are truly frightening and dark, and we discover just how deep the patriarchal evil runs in Gilded Age Manhattan. As McKay points out in her epilogue, more than a century later there are still all kinds of forces (none of them supernatural) working to oppress women, and we cannot afford to relax our vigilance.

I loved this book and didn’t want it to end. The setting, the characters, the meticulously researched historical detail–they all enchanted and delighted me. I can only hope Ami McKay writes another book with these characters.

Anything Is PossibleAnything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each of these linked short stories is a gem. There is not a word, event, or character out of place. The depth of compassion combined with Strout’s economy of phrase is astounding. You don’t need to read My Name is Lucy Barton first, but if you’ve read it, you will definitely want to read this one, since the minor characters in MNILB are featured in their own stories here. Strout writes so well about human connection, poverty, family (dys)function and grace–with wit and intelligence. I cannot say enough good things about these stories. You should read them.

The HumansThe Humans by Matt Haig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this. Overall it was a lovely, funny, moving read. In many ways it’s a standard fish out-of-water story, but it has an aura of genuine niceness about it, as though it were written by someone firmly convinced that humans, while capable of terrible things, are essentially good and also capable of amazing things, the most amazing being our capacity for love. I suppose that could seem overly romantic and silly, but I found it quite sweet and pure. There were a few things that fell a little flat for me, mostly that the ending seemed a bit rushed, but that did not really affect my enjoyment of the book.

Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very well written. I enjoyed this one a lot. At first I thought this would be about Gil, the husband, but it is really about Ingrid, the wife. (Best read without too many spoilers.)

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this one very, very much. It popped up as an intriguing Overdrive recommendation, so I put a hold on it and it finally came in. It’s a retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale set in Manhattan in the Roaring ’20s. The 1920s setting was what did it for me; I was reading Morley Callahan’s 1920s memoir That Summer in Paris at the time and I had the itch to read more set in that time period.

Contemporary[ish] retellings of fairy tales can be a risky proposition; I didn’t like the last one I read. However, this one is done right and is a page turner from the very beginning; I read the whole thing in 24 hours and stayed up too late to finish it. It’s a very visual book–I could picture all the sisters, the family home, their tyrannical father, the speakeasies they visit…I fervently hope someone makes a movie of this book, because I want to see its glittering descriptions come to life on the screen.

The one thing that baffled me was a quirk of the writing style where every so often a paragraph or three would be set off in parentheses. I couldn’t figure out why, but I’m willing to admit I may just be missing something.

You can read all my reviews here at GoodReads.

self-reflective English final exam

This is the final exam I gave my Advanced English (English Eleven equivalent) class this semester. Previously I had used a hand me down exam that I didn’t like; it had grammar questions and questions about elements of fiction (“What is the climax of a short story?”) and questions about stories, novels and plays we had read in class. I decided I wanted something that would test students’ metacognition and assess students’ writing skills in a more authentic way at the same time.

i showed them the test in class before exam day and talked about it with them to explain what I wanted and give them a chance to really think about what they were going to write. I don’t want my exams to be a surprise or an exercise in mind reading

Here is the exam:

This is your final exam for English 045. Please answer all the questions on the lined paper provided.

-Write a clear, well-organized paragraph for each question.
-Each answer should be about one page long, double spaced.
-Write about your own learning journey, NOT a list of tips on how to be a good reader, writer, etc. What did YOU learn that you didn’t know before? What did YOU do well? What do YOU wish you had done differently?
-Your writing needs to be at an appropriate level for ENGL 045, with few (if any) sentence fragments, run-on sentences, or comma errors. You absolutely must use proper capitalization and end punctuation.

1. What did you learn in this course about reading?
2. What did you learn in this course about writing?
3. What did you learn in this course about critical thinking?
4. What did you learn in this course about doing a research project (with a presentation and an essay)?
5. Finally, write a paragraph giving advice to future English 045 students on how to be successful in this course. What work habits should students have? What kinds of things should they know? What is the most important thing for them to remember?

And here is the assessment rubric: