Best of Summer Reads 2014

That was some list of recommended reads the Dickens' community came up with last June. 195 books!! I don't know how many books each of you managed to plow through, but in the two summer months, I think my tally was 34 novels. (Not all were from that list, because I do have to read newer books in order to try to keep up with those voracious readers)

Since we are all returning to school again, I thought it was time to identify a few of my favourites. It isn't easy, because I didn't blog about all of them, and choosing a best book is kind of like picking which one of my boys is my favourite child.

Without looking at my list, three jump out as being unforgettable.

If I wasn't already a huge fan of Deborah Wiles work, Revolution would have sent me there. It's already winning accolades and will most assuredly win awards. It is brilliant on so many levels. I've ordered a copy for the library but it hasn't arrived yet. This will work for sophisticated grade 5's and up. 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is another title that won't let me go. It isn't a book filled with action, but it resonates long after the last word on the last page is done. These are characters that won't let go of you. I'll probably put this one on the grade 7 shelf, but I suspect that sophisticated grade 6's could handle it.

Counting by 7's by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a profound novel about the power of love, family, and friendship. It's a book about redemption, and how one person can make a difference in so many other's lives. Read it out loud with your family or classroom. 

After looking at my goodreads account, I see that I gave 5 stars to a few other books this summer. 

I've become a fan of Wendelin Van Draanen's Sammy Keyes series. Sammy is one spunky kid; "part innocence, part tough as nails, and part Sherlock Holmes." She lives illegally with her grandmother in a senior's only building. The mysteries themselves are fabulous, but each novel works on many more levels. Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, deals with homelessness. This series works for sophisticated grade 3's and up. 

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee is a modern retelling of the ice queen fairytale. It's both beautifully written and heartbreakingly sad. If you enjoyed the Narnia series by CS Lewis, you will find this one to your liking. Probably best for grade 4 and up.

The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson is the story of homeless teens. It's also a gripping mystery. There is nothing romantic about why these young people live on the streets, yet what we see is a group of supportive individuals looking after one another. Sophisticated grade 6's and up. 

I can't wait to have conversation with all of you about your best summer reads!

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

Charlotte's Web is associated with two very important firsts in my life. It's the first novel I ever heard read out loud, and it's the first book a teacher ever read to a class I was in. We nine year olds were spellbound. We hated being sick and missing the next installment. I'm sure we all rushed in after lunch desperate to listen to the next chapter. I've loved Charlotte, Wilbur, Fern, and the rest of the characters, (including Templeton) ever since. 

This time, I returned to my first experience and listened to it read out loud (by the author himself.) I am, once again, awestruck by how profoundly timeless this story is. 

Charlotte's Web, is a story of growing up. Fern grows up and stops spending so much time in the barn. Charlotte grows old, dies, and Wilbur learns to grieve as he looks after her children, some of whom stay with him year after year. 

It's a story friendship and acceptance. Even though Wilbur worries that "Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming bloodthirsty - everything I don't like," eventually he comes to accept and care deeply for her. I wish I had a Dr Dorian when my boys were younger. He reassures Mrs Arable saying, "Let Fern associate with her friends in the barn if she wants to. I would say, offhand, that spiders and pigs were fully as interesting as Henry Fussy. Yet I predict that the day will come when even Henry will drop some chance remark that catches Fern's attention. It's amazing how children change from year to year."  I love Fern's mother's comments that, "Avery is always fine. Of course, he gets into poison ivy and gets stung by wasps and bees and brings frogs and snakes home and breaks everything he lays his hand on. He's fine" 

They are all fine, just as they are. 

It reminds us of the power of the labels we are given. With each word Charlotte provides for him, Wilbur strives to become: first some pig, then terrific, next radiant, and finally, humble. 

I also love how much information readers learn about spiders as they read this book. Not only do we learn that spiders have eight hairy legs, but that "each leg has seven sections - the coxa, the trochanter, the femur, the patella, the tibia, the metatarsus, and the tarsus." 

Across the years I've read Charlotte's Web a couple of times, and remain enchanted by it: by the exquisiteness of the prose, by the elegance of a tale well told, by the rich and multiple layers of meaning that I've come to find with each new reading. This telling, I was struck by this all over again, but I've come to especially appreciate White's humor and his gentle pokes at how foolish we humans are in so many ways, and especially, how easily we can be manipulated

Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They'll believe anything they see in print. 

If I can fool a bug, thought Charlotte, "I can surely fool a man. People are not as smart at bugs."

"What do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge - bugs?" asked Wilbur.
"No," said Charlotte. 'They don't catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they'd hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no - with men it's rush, rush, rush, every minute."

I used to assume that Charlotte's Web was only appropriate for younger children. Now I'm contemplating how I'm going to sell it to all of my readers. 

Can We Really Be So Far Apart?

Our relationships with businesses, small and big, are complex. We need them and they need us. Because of this interdependency, we tend to want to see their brands as in sync with our fundamental values. And the truth is, that often times we are in sync. It’s when we are not, when we discover that their values are in direct opposition, and in fact detrimental to those that we hold dear, that we become confused and angry. We lose trust in them, and trust, as you probably know, once broken, is nearly irreparable.

I believe in small businesses because I believe in community. I have friends who run their own businesses (including my partner.) I prefer to spend my money supporting small businesses in my neighborhood even if it costs me a bit more, rather than ordering online, or going to a larger center. I want to believe that we are on the same page with regards to supporting our communities and a strong public education system in British Columbia. I believe that while we may have some conflict around what that looks like, we are essentially on the same side. This is how it is for many teachers and parents like myself.

I prefer to think that we are all citizens in the way Daphne Bramham outlines in her Vancouver Sun article, We need citizens, not just taxpayers and bookkeepers. I thought we all were all citizens who believed that:

“To be a citizen means to belong, to have responsibilities, rights and shared values. It means having a stake in the future and, in democracies, a voice in determining what that future might look like.
In Canada, it means having the guarantee that laws will be applied fairly to every person and every institution (including governments), as well as the right to an education and health care.”

With the Coalition of BC Businesses asking for and receiving intervenor status in the longstanding legal battle between the BCTF and the government, I have had that belief about our common values extinguished. It appears that coalition members value corporate tax cuts over support for children, and a strong education system in British Columbia. It’s been a shock to discover that this voice for businesses in BC, not only don’t see themselves as citizens, they seem to be in direct opposition to the values many of us who see ourselves as citizens hold dear.

I hope businesses within this group will come to understand that teachers like myself are not primarily on the picket line for higher wages. We are there because we have seen support for children in the form of school libraries and teacher librarians; special education, English language, and learning assistance teachers; school counselors and speech and language therapists, diminish excessively. Did you know, for example, that as of this school year, more than 32% of the teacher librarians in the province have vanished since 2002. There are districts with none left, and schools without school libraries. There are teachers and students working and learning together in maximum sized classrooms with seven or more special needs children. Have businesses really decided that tax cuts are more important than support to all children, and especially ones with special needs? Where do these businesses expect to get their workers in the future?

As a teacher librarian, I set off to discover just who all these members of the coalition were. Along with others, I spent time this summer sending out emails to coalition members. While it was dismaying to see how many businesses I trusted on that list, what has been even more distressing is that upon contacting many of the groups and individuals, it appeared that they had no idea what the coalition was up to in their name.

A more thorough description of what this group uncovered can be read here.

It seems that the Coalition has been acting in the name of its partner groups, many of whose members have no idea what is going on. I would have presumed that before making such an important move, the Coalition might have asked its members to vote first. Yet as I mentioned earlier, many of them had no idea what was going on in their name. Imagine if you will that the BCTF executive had called for a strike without first calling for a vote. All hell would break out in the media. Yet this group has essentially done just that, but there has been barely a whisper across the airwaves.

Many teachers and parents like myself are deeply conflicted. We are faced with individual businesses that have gone out of their way to support teachers during this attack on public education. We know businesses that provide funding to support some of the most vulnerable children in the province. How can we get our heads around the fact that they are connected to a group that don't want to fund public education adequately? We are tasked with figuring out how we can possibly support, through our spending power, businesses that are part of a group that advocates for tax cuts in exchange for support for children, no matter their other actions.

Ultimately, this is what it boils down to. We want to support businesses that we know share our values, but we need to know who they are. It would be helpful if these businesses posted their letter to the Coalition showing their opposition to intervener status, and or stating that they believe public education in British Columbia should be funded to at least the Canadian average. But there are many ways to show us. The facebook post of Poco Building Supplies for example, claims that they, “do not support the position of the BC Coalition of Businesses as seeking intervener status on this dispute.” and are trying to get themselves removed from this list.

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore

There is so much to love about this book, I really don't know where to begin.
The novel is set in the 1950's in a small town in Vermont, USA.

In the Author's note at the back of the book, Blakemore puts this era into context:

"In this culture of fear, neighbours turned on neighbours. In a 1954 poll, 78 percent of Americans thought that people should report their neighbours or acquaintances to the FBI if they suspected them of Communism. In one place in 1950, a customer reported the owners of a Chinese restaurant as Communist because they were Chinese.

History does not only take place on a grand scale, at the level of nations of world leaders. It happens in big cities and small towns, in neighbourhoods and houses across the world." (P309-310)

This historical microcosm is spelled out powerfully in The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill

Hazel Kaplansky is a gifted young girl caught up in the unamerican frenzy of McCarthyism. Her overly active imagination (and penchant for Nancy Drew and other mysteries) leads her into seeing spies and mysteries all over the place, even when they are nonexistent. Her misguided enthusiasm, and habit of acting before she thinks, gets her into a trouble numerous times. In spite of, or maybe because of this, I came to adore her. Hazel represents all of us: our potential to do misguided hurtful things, and our potential to do good when we learn from them.

Luckily Hazel is guided by many smart adults along the way.

Her very perceptive principal gives her these wise words of advice, "When we have friends, we take them as they are, faults and all, because sometimes their faults are out of their control." P134

Mr Short, one of her arch enemies' father, explains that, "At times like this, the truth has a way of getting twisted." P259

Miss Lerner, the children's librarian, takes her into the back room and has an adult conversation to help Hazel understand her best friend, Samuel Butler, better.

Mr Wall, the garage owner, and Hazel have deep philosophical conversations. In reference to finding out information that changes how you perceive someone, he explains, "I guess the important thing to remember, though, is that you have to think about who they are to you, and who they might be, not who they were." P268
One fascinating component of this book was that Hazel and Samuel engage in a fascinating, complex and authentic research process to find out the truth about the past.

While I adored this book, I am not so sure about it's appeal to my students. It wants a sophisticated reader who isn't going to be dismayed by the slow start. On the other hand, like all great fiction, it leaves us with questions about what it means to be human, and like all great historical fiction, it helps us to be more mindful of the circumstances in our own time.

4/5 stars

Open Letter to Education Minister Fassbender and Premier Clark

Job action continues here in British Columbia. I am managing to continue to read a lot and will eventually get around to blogging about my favourite summer reads, but these days, I am mostly writing letters and sending them off to government. Here is my most recent attempt at persuading our leaders to do the right thing. 
Dear Mr Fassbender and Ms Clark,
I’ve been privileged to be a teacher for about 26 years now.  Over the years I’ve seen many different kinds of changes. A huge one, Mr Fassbender, is that childhood is not the same as it was when you and I were young. More importantly, in the last few years I’ve grown more and more distressed by the impacts underfunding public education have on this system.
When I was still a very green and new teacher I was lucky enough to get a full time contract after only six months as a TOC. The Vancouver School Board had money for professional development to help me learn things I needed to know and didn’t learn at university. The school board offered numerous daylong workshops for how to teach ESL learners, sessions for how to develop literacy programs, workshops on ways to support special needs learners, workshops on the best ways to teach mathematics and numerous other programs. A TOC was provided for me as I was supported in becoming a better teacher.  Sure I went to additional workshops and took courses in the summer, but what is important here, is that there was district support and funding available to help me become the best teacher I could. Over the years I’ve seen the opportunity to facilitate good teaching diminish until it dwindled away into nearly nothing. Now new, exhausted teachers are expected to go to after school workshops, if these sessions are offered at all.
 When I was still a new and very green teacher I had special needs kids in my classroom. One was so obvious we didn’t even need to have him assessed. Another had been in a car accident and had lost part of her frontal lobe. One had turrets syndrome. (Imagine if you can, trying to teach a class of kids while a little 7 year old stutters out the F word on a regular basis) I also had a grade three boy who we all suspected was a sociopath. It was dangerous to leave him unattended on the playground. 
Itinerant specialist teachers were there to support these kids and provide advice to me and my amazing special ed assistant who was there more than half time to support these learners. She was paid to spend extra time after school to work with teachers to plan programming for these kids. Still, when she wasn’t there, it wasn’t easy. In addition to these special needs kids, it was a complicated mix of children. Some came from very wealthy families and others from single parent families where poverty was present. Of my 25 grade 2 & 3 students, 20 were only children.  There were even a few ESL students. 
In those early years, our union ended up going on strike and giving up salary increases in order to get guaranteed ratios for ESL teachers and other non-enrolling staff to support our most vulnerable learners.
My students and I reaped the benefits of this. We had a full time teacher librarian amid the 10 non-enrolling teachers who supported the mixed population of learners. In the new school I moved to, my class consisted of mostly ESL learners and a mixture of kids with other special needs. My class size went down for every special needs learner and was capped at three. Teaching is meaningful challenging work, and with the support of the non-enrolling specialists, I felt like we were doing a pretty good job.
Then, Christy Clark, education minister at the time, stripped the clauses from our contract that guaranteed non-enrolling ratios. In the next few years support for special needs kids dropped considerably across the province. You have the statistics so I don’t have to give them all to you. Over time we lost more than 25% of teacher librarians. When school starts again, it will be over 30%. At my school, with slightly less students, we have more special needs kids with more complex issues, and half the support we once had. Teachers teach classes at maximum size with up to 7 or 8 designated special needs kids. Not only is there inadequate SEA support, there are no specialist teachers to supervise and provide guidance. Because of cut backs to school psychologists, there is always a wait list for kids to get tested to figure out what is going on for them. And then, even after they have a diagnosis, the support is so inadequate, they might not get what they need anyway.
Today I feel sorry for the new teachers and their students. Teachers end up living in poverty for years working as a TOC. Then when they land a contract and want to become better at their craft, they don’t have the resources that were available to me. I feel especially sorry for all the children whose education has been limited by the elimination of school libraries and other specialist teachers to support them all.  
I write you this letter to implore you to acknowledge that a huge mistake was made when class size and composition, and language guaranteeing ratios for nonenrolling teachers was stripped from the contract. It was a shortsighted decision to say the least. Please do the right thing, drop the E80 clause and accept the court's rulings so that students and teachers can get back to what we all want to do - teach and learn. 
I will be retiring in the next few years. I tell you this because unless this government changes its attitude towards public education, I will then go to work in the nearest liberal riding to work hard to defeat you. I won’t be alone. The losses for the Premier in her Vancouver Point Grey riding and for Margaret MacDiarmid in Vancouver Fairview have shown teachers like me, that if we put the work in, we can accomplish real change.
Yours Sincerely,
Cheriee Weichel
Teacher Librarian @ Charles Dickens School

Vancouver BC