On the Ground, in Nova Scotia Schools

Nova Scotia public school teachers are in a difficult position, possibly poised to strike; something nobody in the schools wants. Image result for teaching is a hard jobI really fear they’re up against the wall, and if they want change, they need to stand firm. If you’ve never spent time in a school lately, I’m pretty sure you’d be shocked at the myriad of challenges students bring with them to school each and every day. Beyond academic struggles, kids have to deal with family break-ups, socio-economic, emotional and behavioural difficulties, including pent-up anger, violence and mental illness. And then there are the kids who are simply unable to “play nice” with others, for a variety of reasons; the ones constantly seeking attention, the ones looking to be loved. The magnitude of these  complicating factors has to be overwhelming for teachers, especially given the fact there are so few educational assistants in elementary classrooms these days.

As one young teacher recently told me, (after telling me about a year spent with two students in her upper elementary class, one who came to school each day wanting to kill somebody and the other who wanted to kill himself) it’s not that there’s not enough money for education, the problem lies in the allocation of those financial resources. There are too many people in offices being paid too much money to create more paperwork for the people on the ground, in the schools. Teachers want to teach, they want to help kids succeed and be happy, and they need sufficient time, energy and assistance in the classrooms, to do their jobs. Period.

And don’t even get me started on the many school libraries that are now staffed by part-time volunteers (thank goodness for those parents), rather than dedicated librarians. How did reading get lost in the educational shuffle? In rural areas, the school library is often the only library available to kids, the only source of good books.

A couple of smiles from recent school visits. Kids always want to know how old I am – big thanks to the grade 3 student who, when I said that I’d seriously started writing toward publication when I was about 40, exclaimed: “You mean you’re older than 40 now!”  I guess when you’re 8, 40 seems super old. And a big smile to the grade 2 boy who, in writing/drawing about Nature’s treasures, wrote me this poem:

The grass is green,

the sky is blue,

Nature is beautiful,

and so are you!

Thank you to all the schools who invited me to visit through the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program over the past six weeks – it was such a pleasure spending time with your enthusiastic, eager kids. Keep up the great work!

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Kids Are Still Kids

jan-coates-2I’ve been doing some school author visits lately, and it’s always interesting walking into a classroom full of strangers, most often from grades primary to eight for me. I like kids, their honesty, energy and enthusiasm, and doing school visits really inspires my writing; it’s a great research opportunity. For the most part, students are attentive, and they can ask some pretty funny questions, often about my dog since I include Charlie in my PowerPoint, along with my other family members, the people who help me be a writer on a daily basis. Giving four presentations in a day pretty much tires me out – how do teachers do it day after day?

The thing that always strikes me is that kids are still readers and they’re still p1000574kids, despite the internet, technology, etc. that brings the world to their fingertips regularly. There are still shy kids (often those paying closest attention), bold kids looking for a laugh, in-between kids, and, sadly, left-out kids. Middle-school students are still trying to figure out their place in the group; the “cool” kids are still trying to stand out in various ways and venturing into the confusing, yet thrilling, world of relationships.

 

I always browse the bulletin boards at schools. I took these pics when visiting a school in BC during TD Book Week last year. One thing I’m careful about these days is to never gender-specify when calling p1000578on a student. There are always plenty of volunteers willing to share their writing, and it’s not always the “out-there” kids you might expect. I ask volunteers who want to present to write their own names on the board. One grade 8 student, in a classroom featuring a rainbow flag, proudly told me they’d made up the spelling of their name – Jaycob. Generally, it seems like kids today are a lot more free to express themselves, to be who they want to be than in my long-ago school days, when everybody seemed to be conservative and fairly conforming. Maybe I’m being naive, but I’m cautiously optimistic that this means the adults of the future will be more accepting and open… What do you think?

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Free Stuff That Makes Me Smile

I’ve been making a conscious effort to be thankful these days, maybe because Thanksgiving’s coming (and both kids and partners will be home!); here are some of the free things that have brightened my days lately:

*Walking through the woods, really paying attention, marvelling that the ingredients to grow such massive trees are all contained within tiny acorns, pinecones and prickly horse chestnuts.summer-2010-005

*The excited little love whimpers Charlie makes when we pick her up from the kennel.

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*Sun lace on the ground tatted by sunlight dappling through the trees.

*Surfing Kijiji, an endless 24/7 online yard sale.

*Weekly visits to the library and walking out with hours and hours of reading enjoyment in my bag.

The Wolfville Library

The Wolfville Library

*Browsing the racks/shelves at used clothing/junk stores like Guy’s Frenchy’s, Value Village (said with a French accent) and Goodwill. This is not usually free as I often find some bit of treasure to take home.

*The Canadian health care system. Okay, I realize we pay for it through our taxes, but it is nice to seek medical attention without worrying about how you’re going to pay for it.

*Hiking and biking trails, especially the parks, TransCanada Trail system and Rails to Trails here in Nova Scotia.

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*The salty smell of the sea and the shushing of the surf, beachglass, sunsets, shells and beach art, like this:

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*Google with all its blogs, YouTube videos and how-to sites – the answer is always on there somewhere if you spend enough time looking… Here’s one of creative illustrator Sydney Smith (transplanted Nova Scotian) doing an illustration for GRANT AND TILLIE GO WALKING (by Monica Kulling) – fascinating!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwpwc6NU3Ew  Again, this isn’t exactly free, but almost…

What’s been brightening your days lately? Thanks for stopping by, and Happy Turkey Day!p1010677img_3579

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Harry Chapin – Thanks for the Stories

I know all the lyrics to several Harry Chapin songs, mainly because they were an important part of my growing-up years, I suppose, that angsty trying-to-figure-yourself-out time. I got to see him in concert in Halifax shortly before he died. Most often I can’t even remember song titles, let alone lyrics – you know what I mean? But his, I remember.

Part of the reason his songs are memorable is because they tell lyrical stories; they have a beginning, middle and end, something all writers value, and he created very real characters, made us care about their lives. I sometimes wish I was musical; it must be so fulfilling to put words to music and be able to sing your stories. I read somewhere that Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry’s 1974 hit, made more fathers feel guilty than any other song – not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but like so many,  I love the song, for its tune and its message.

One of Harry’s brothers, Steve, owns a campground on Nova Scotia’s south shore, and each year for the past 30 he has hosted the Chapin Family Concert. Brother Tom (who does excellent music for kids and their adults – I know a lot of his lyrics from playing his tapes for my kids back in the day) and his now-grown daughters, The Chapin Sisters, various local musicians, and Jen Chapin, Harry’s daughter and New York jazz singer, sing, jam and entertain. I can’t remember when I’ve spent such a pleasant afternoon, singing along with a couple of hundred other people in the middle of a grassy field near the ocean in the sunshine. That’s Jen with one of Harry’s grandsons on the right – I wonder if he has, or ever will have, any idea of the far-reaching effects of his grandfather’s music? And I wonder how many more amazing songs Harry could have given us if he hadn’t died at 39…

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It seems like I’ve been here before;
I can’t remember when;
But I have this funny feeling
That we’ll all be together again.

No straight lines make up my life,
And all my roads have bends;
There’s no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.  Harry Chapin, Circle (my favorite lines of his)

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ANNE MURRAY AND ME!

Anne signing

Like a lot of girls growing up in 1960s Nova Scotia, I idolized Anne Murray and admired her effortless, pure singing voice. The idea that a young woman who grew up just down the highway from me could become an international singing sensation boggled my mind. I’ve always liked to sing and I could sing along to a lot of Anne’s songs, but I was crazy-shy and had no aspirations about following in her footsteps. But when I set out to write The Power of Harmony, about a girl who does want to be a famous singer, I had to include Anne. And I did, including setting the story in her coal-mining hometown of Springhill, NS.

After the book came out in 2013, I mailed Anne a copy, and she responded by email, thanking me. She also tweeted about the book during Canadian Children’s Book Week in 2015, reaffirming my belief in her being a down-home, thoughtful, genuine person, despite her fame.Anne July 30, 2016

Finally this weekend, I got to meet Anne, at her annual meet-and-greet at the Anne Murray Centre in Springhill. By the time Shannon and I arrived, she’d been smiling for over five straight hours, but she seemed genuinely happy that I’d stopped by, and she remembered the book (she didn’t, however, say she’d read it (yet), but that’s okay:) She’s 71 now, and she looks fantastic, as you can see! I got her to sign a copy of my novel for me – possibly it’s the only one-of-a-kind autographed item I’ll ever own.8ee011c0-6e82-4308-bbf7-ef4ee3e106af

How about you? Ever met anybody famous? Were they as nice and personable as Anne?

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THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY

I don’t often read “adult” books these days; in fact, I sometimes get impatient with adult novels and their detailed descriptions when maybe fewer words might have sufficed. (ie. tighter editing)

But I just finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin, 2014), and it’s one of those perfect books – just the right length, just the right emotional heft, it’s set in an independent bookstore, it’s full of insightful lines (the ones you stop to re-read several times) and I even love the cover. Each chapter begins with a synopsis of a favorite short story of A.J. Fikry’s, recommendations to his teenage daughter, a foundling left in Island Books one day. Now I want to read those stories, too!

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Some of my favorite lines:

“Remember that a fine education can be found in places other than the usual.” (p. 27)

“There ain’t nobody in the world like book people.” (p. 254)

“We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on.” p. 251

“I like talking about books with people who like talking about books. I like paper. I like how it feels, and I like the feel of a book in my back pocket. I like how a new book smells, too.”(p. 255)

For sure I’ll be looking for other titles by Gabrielle Zevin. Have you read anything lately that swept you away?

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Family love – and Ollie takes flight!

Generally, I get a little nervous for book launches – you never know who will be able to make it, if anybody! This time around, I had my entire family to help out, and it was wonderful! Don, Liam and Shannon cooked up a Mothers’ Day/Book Launch surprise for me, and the kids flew in from Toronto for a gloriously perfect three-day weekend. There’s no better gift – if your kids live away, you know what I mean!

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Bachman’s Beach, Lunenburg County, NS -having both Liam and Shannon show up on a surprise visit from Toronto – best Mothers’ Day gift ever! Thanks, Don!

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Dock in – check! Liam and Charlie.

And, thanks to The Box of Delights Bookshop, friends and family, SKY PIG is officially launched, and Ollie has taken flight. It’s really fun to read this book aloud, but I need to work on my piggy snorting…

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Door prize, courtesy of daughter Shannon, who was also photographer.

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Friend, neighbour, and on book launch days – craft lady and publicity manager, Karen – she’s the best!

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Piggy cookies – it got easier after I’d decorated the first few dozen – they were a hit!

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I don’t know too many people with small children these days, but I’m grateful to the keen parents who bring their kids to book launches.

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Here’s Ollie (and Jack)!

Thank you to everybody who supports me, as both a writer and a human being – after having a new book out for four consecutive years, I’m starting to feel a little guilty asking people to come out and help me celebrate – but it truly means a lot to me when you do, both in person or in spirit through sending along your good wishes. I hope you have a good friend, like Ollie’s boy, Jack, to help make ALL your dreams come true!

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