Thursday, July 18, 2013

#bookaday 10: Reflecting on Choices and Change

For me, books are frequently tied to geography.  If it happens to be a novel where the author takes great pains to describe the setting, then there's that geography, yes.  But today I'm thinking more about where I'm reading than the places I'm reading about.  For example, I still vividly remember reading Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water while rolling through Alberta's rocky mountains in a Greyhound bus 10 years ago.  I remember taking the train from Ottawa to Kingston with Margaret Atwood's Alias, Grace.  The Lonely Polygamist kept me company through the mountains and deserts of Utah.

On the last few days of our recent trip to Germany, we spent some time in the beautiful countryside of Batten-Wurtemburg and I carried around Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence to enjoy in bits and pieces during our explorations.  An Ethic of Excellence is about as close to required reading as I'm gonna get this summer: I joined a Big Ideas committee at school and my principal bought us each a copy of this book to read over the holidays.

Normally when I read books for professional development, I have to be pretty intentional about pausing to reflect.  I pull out a notebook or a pack of sticky-notes as a reminder to slow down and think critically about what I'm reading.  However, when you're hiking through the peace and quiet of a park in the Black Forest on a Monday afternoon, there's nothing forced about it.  The internal dialogue just sort of...begins.

An Ethic of Excellence was on my mind as we pulled into the parking lot at the base of Wasserfälle Allerheiligen (All Saints Waterfalls).  Perhaps I was looking for something to distract myself from the oodles of staircases ahead.  Most likely it was a combination of that and the fact that, despite its slim size and conversational tone, An Ethic of Excellence is dense with intensity and inspiration--more tightly packed than my carry-on luggage.
Wasserfälle Allerheiligen: Stairs, stairs, and more stairs.

Berger's book is a manifesto: he urges educators to make some significant changes in how they approach, value, and think about learning tasks and assessment in the classroom.  He writes passionately about the advantages of taking an integrative, project-based approach to learning.  He calls for a shift in school culture and a transformation of teacher and student roles.  As I started the climb, I started to think about change in my profession and to consider our choices in how we respond to it.

We do have choices when it comes to responding to change.  I found them quite analogous to the choices I got to make that day.

1.  We can choose to ignore change and let others do the exploring.  We can choose to wait at the point of departure, while others embark on the journey and wait for them to bring us news of their discoveries.

2.  We can choose to forge ahead blindly.  We can put our heads down and thoughtlessly follow the trail laid out for us, putting one foot in front of the other without looking up until we reach the destination.  Granted, choosing this approach means there's no time for rest, no time to pause and check the map.  We might reach the top, but we might be so tired when we get there that we'll miss the point of the journey.

3.  We can head off the trail, impulsively blazing a path that is completely our own.  Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for trailblazing, but there's a certain amount of wilderness know-how required before this is truly a wise move.  Most likely, if we move in this way, there's a good chance we might get lost, confused, discouraged and there's also a pretty good chance we're going solo--no one is going with us, and no one is going to follow.

4. We can choose to savour the journey, pausing to rest, reflect, and take in the scenery as we pass by  We can linger and notice the details, take photographs to preserve memories of our favourite parts, check in with the map to determine our progress, listen to the sounds around us, take it all in.

We can take time to leave trail markers for those who will take this climb after us, small signs of encouragement along the way.

This was not a climb up Everest.  This was just a significantly steep climb, straight up, on a hot July afternoon.  Every opportunity for change is not a drastic one.  "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," but so does a journey of one mile.

How will you choose to travel?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

More Canadiana in Germany (#bookaday 9)

Reading makes you nicer.  In case you were looking for another great reason to savour a quality piece of fiction this summer, there it is.  You can read this Time editorial if you want to know the details.  The editorial also covers "carnal versus spiritual reading."  (And yes, typically reading a novel would fall into the latter category.)  We are becoming a society that does too much reading for information's sake and not enough reading for enjoyment's sake.  As a Primary teacher and lover of fiction, this freaks me right out.  Like the environmental citizen who drives a Prius or buys only organic just to do his/her part, I decided to up my ratio of spiritual to carnal reading this summer, just to do what I can to counteract the depletion of love for literature in our society.

I just had to figure out a way to work the carnal vs. spiritual thing into a post about Linden MacIntyre's The Bishop's Man, the latest novel to entertain my brain.  The book is about a Canadian Catholic priest who specializes in keeping the notorious "sins of the Fathers" out of the spotlight.  (Ah? You see the spiritual vs. carnal connection now?)  This novel won the 2009 Giller Prize. And yes, it's CBC's Linden MacIntyre who co-hosts the fifth estate.  So basically you're looking at a low-risk investment here if you're after a good read.  Guaranteed return on your time, folks.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about MacIntyre's writing was his ability to capture thought patterns.  He brings the reader in, out and through narrator Father McAskill's layers of memories and creates a collage of detail that allows the reader to understand McAskill's past and present as one complicated, organic whole.

The language is beautiful as well.  MacIntyre is able to call attention to words through protagonist Father MacAskill's love of of them.  The story is anchored in Canadian geography and explores themes of family, community and masked identity.

I stood in the hotel room bathroom to finish this one.  (It was late.  My husband needed sleep and I needed light to get through the last few chapters.)  It's that good.  Five out of five stars for this spiritual read.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Novel Thoughts (#bookaday 8)

When I read novels, I start a running narration in my head and suddenly life gets a lot more interesting.  The narration tends to adopt the style of whoever I happen to be reading at the moment.  Right now, it's Lisa Moore.  She has, as my husband observed, glancing over the pages as I took a moment to rest my eyes and return to reality on the airplane, a tendency towards long sentences that can themselves constitute a paragraph.

Lately, I've been feeling guilty about reading novels and trust me, it has nothing to do with their contents.  Well, not exactly.  I feel like I'm being too indulgent with my time, when there's much more I could be doing or learning.  I'm not sure where this idea came from, because it's absolute nonsense.  The world of book lovers continually shares the benefits of reading novels via social media.  I've been hoarding these bits of information in an attempt to quell my guilt.  Like a recent article about how reading novels makes us better thinkers--more accepting of ambiguity and less likely to make snap decisions.

But, back to Lisa Moore and Alligator.  I read February this past February (fitting, no?) since it was nominated for Canada Reads 2013...and I discovered another Canadian author to add to my list of True Patriot Loves.  No surprise, Moore's novel won the competition.  When I found her book Alligator amidst the hoard of novels at the Elora Book Sale, I snapped it up with excitement (and maybe a bit of reptilian instinct) and I've actually been putting off reading it until summer vacation, the way some people save a bottle of wine to open at just the right moment.

This novel explores the sometimes dull, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes beautiful agony of the "you're-all-I-have" relationships that tether us to time, place and circumstance.  In the same storytelling style as February, Moore's narration is delivered through several characters, their story threads interwoven and intersecting even if they are oblivious to it.  This novel is less about plot and more about character and will have you contemplating relationships and how it's possible both to stay and run away, to both grieve the loss of those existing right in front of you and be ever in the presence of the dead.

(Was that vague enough for you?  ;)  Long live the novel.  Let ambiguity reign.)