by: Kerry Riley
Canadian literature offers many striking opportunities to integrate literacy into senior grade subject areas. One of the great advantages of literature is its ability to broaden personal understanding of an issue far beyond one’s years or actual life experience — definitely an advantage for young people asked to respond to complex issues in their assignments. Literature can be used as a focus for, or complement to, an independent study unit. For example, Rudy Wiebe’s wonderful Sweeter Than All The World, might function as general background for a study of the religious upheavals of medieval Europe, or point to the history of Mennonite pacifism as a focus for further research.
A few tips gleaned from experience:
Students can choose a book from a list of good candidates, or the entire class can read the same book (providing you can solve access issues). A good working relationship with your school librarian is highly beneficial. Providing consistent and structured class time for reading (for example, fifteen minutes per class) will vastly improve compliance rates and thus the transfer of a new sophistication in understanding to the finished project.
There are an infinite number of creative ways to include literature in the curriculum, and I would encourage teachers everywhere to develop their own approaches. However, being a teacher myself, I know that there is always more to do than there is time in which to do it, and that a few suggestions for appropriate books, might, therefore, be helpful. The list below is woefully incomplete and based on my own reading and reviewing experience. I hope to add to it as time allows, but it does provide a good starting point. Links to Kerry On Can Lit reviews are provided where available, to help you familiarize yourself quickly with the recommended books.
- Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (early Ontario history)
- Baltimore’s Mansion by Wayne Johnston (Newfoundland and Confederation)
- The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston (Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood and Confederation)
- River Thieves by Michael Crummey (late 1700’s Newfoundland; European (British) colonization and the Beothuks)
- Consolation by Michael Redhill (early Ontario history, specifically Toronto, and photography)
- Requiem by Frances Itani (WWII; Japanese internment camps in Canada)
- Incidents In the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards
(I would recommend almost any of David Adams Richards’s books for their close scrutiny of social dynamics and the complexity of truth, but this one in particular focuses on the social pressures that warp the “truth,” and the true anatomy of an “incident.” Highly recommended.)
- The Spinster and the Prophet by A. B. McKillop (the famous case in which amateur historian Florence Deeks, of Toronto, Ontario, charged H.G. Wells with committing plagiarism and “literary piracy” against her own work.)
- The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor (extremely timely examination of celebrity culture, wired existence, and individual artistic expression)
- Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor (fictionalized version of the Tom Thomson mystery)
- Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill (references American artist Joseph Cornell)
- Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (WWII and the jazz music scene)
- The Song Beneath the Ice by Joe Fiorito (the artistic/creative struggle; Glenn Gould allusions)
Almost any of the books reviewed on Kerry On Can Lit, recommend themselves as Canadian content in the English curriculum. The (again, very incomplete) list below selects out those which will, in particlar, reward serious analysis and thus are particularly well suited to study in English and in-depth independent study assignments.
- Galore by Michael Crummey
- Don’t Be Afraid by Stephen Hayward
- Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
- No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards
- Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy
- Pastoral by André Alexis: in particular for Canlit studies as it explores a number of particular Canlit ideas and issues.