Rising to meet the Eminent Speech

Eminent Speech Evaluation

Almost without fail, the Eminent Person Speech reigns supreme as the element of the annual project that produces – in the estimation of teachers, peers, and self-assessment – the highest quality work. While there are inevitably remarkable pieces of work contributed to various aspects of the study, whether in Night of the Notables learning centers, interview coups, or blogged representations of learning, and in grade nine or ten, the Eminent Speech rises above.

This year, when polled on the During which assignment do you feel you created your best work?aspect of the study during which they produced their best work, a full 60% of respondents (at the time of this writing, constituting about 85% of the two classes) highlighted their efforts to craft their speech.

Added to this insight, a follow up question asks the TALONS to “describe the process that led to the success highlighted in the previous question,” allowing the process leading to this highly successful aspect of the study to come more clearly into light.

A surprise finding? The best work is the result of tireless effort.


Prepare, prepare, prepare

A grade ten describes their preparations:

I made sure to write my speech early on so that I had plenty of time to practice it. I practiced it until I knew it inside and out, so that I could recite it no matter what was going on. And having done that, when it was finally my turn to present, I wasn’t nervous at all.

Another thing that really helped was that a lot of the other tens took time to read my speech and help me edit it in the early stages. They guided me to what lines were a little awkward and how to fix my body motions.

Another ten offers the following:

First of all, this year I wrote my speech draft much earlier than the due date compared to last year. Due to this fact, I was able to receive a lot of great feedback from my peers during the writing process, which then allowed me to improve my speech even further. Once my draft was written, I was lucky that I had a lot of time to rehearse my speech. One step that led my speech to success during this stage was that I didn’t just rehearse the words, I also rehearsed body language and movement, and the use of the stage.

A grade nine dissects their drafting process further:

When I was writing, I didn’t limit my thoughts, writing down everything I wanted to include in the speech. By doing this, my speech originally was actually fifteen minutes long. I then took the time, with the help of my mom, to cut down the speech, take out details that weren’t needed, and rephrase events. I think that by writing down every single thought and event that occurred within the period of time the speech was focusing on, I was able to make the speech more thorough and interesting.

As does this one:

I believe it was the drafting process that led me to success on my eminent speech. I did a drafting process where I started writing, then got a better idea of what I wanted to say, and then I would start over. I did this until I didn’t quite start over, but edited previous parts until I was satisfied by the whole thing.

While this grade nine shares the evolution at the heart of his character’s metamorphosis:

During the process of writing the speech, I made a list of points that I wanted to include. After the first draft, I was struck with the idea of the extended metaphor of the caterpillar. I then wrote the second draft, taking the components of the first and smoothing it out. Finally, I edited and revised my speech to create more fluidity.


Overcoming Fear

For many TALONS, the prospect of delivering an eminent address, whether in the classroom as the grade nines are asked, or on stage with the grade tens on Night of the Notables, is a daunting challenge. As Jerry Seinfeld humourously notes, for many of us public speaking is more popularly feared than death, meaning that “to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

A grade nine offers this reflection on overcoming a longstanding fear:

I believe my speech was my best work because it was the one I exceeded my own expectations the most in. I used to be quite an abhorrent public speaker, always getting overly nervous, shaking, mumbling, and having a monotone; but in this speech I was able to overcome my nervousness and actually deliver it satisfactorily.

The key to overcoming this anxiety? Revision, feedback, and support:

“I think my speech content was pretty good, considering that it went through six drafts and many, many people gave me feedback.”


In another question, the same TALONS learner reflects on the contributions of a patient parent:

“My dad, along with giving me feedback on many of speech drafts, put up with me reciting my speech over and over in the days leading up to November 24th. Without his patience with me, giving me feedback and listening intently during the many, many times I recited my speech to him, I wouldn’t have had nearly as good a speech as I did. He gave me important pointers, such as where I started rushing, and he gave me confidence. With that confidence, I was able to deliver my speech well.”

A grade ten reflects on the input of a sibling:

“My brother contributed with helping me write my speech. Before I had written a draft that I was happy with I had written about five different speeches. But I hated them all because I didn’t think I was getting my main message across to the audience, namely that we shouldn’t stop because something is hard to do, that we should keep going until it becomes easy to do.

“One day I went to talk with my brother about my speech and how I wanted the audience to feel, and he suggested that I go for something powerful and try to address what [my eminent person] goes through as daily obstacles. This advice really helped me take a second look at how I was writing my speech and which side of [them] I wanted to show. Without my brother I wouldn’t have been able to re-think my speech and really focus on what was imported.”


Another deals with overcoming a primal fear:

“Probably everyone out there knows that I do not like speeches, so even the fact that I did mine made me extremely happy.

“The writing process was extremely difficult. After changing perspectives three times and either going way over or way under the time limit, I was close to admitting defeat. Finally, I was happy with a fifth draft of my third perspective change. I was very happy with my written speech, but then came the delivery.

“Presenting my speech was probably the most nerve wracking five minutes of my life, but with the help of my friends, I managed to get through it. Before my speech started, I gave myself some goals and guidelines to follow. I reminded myself that, having not done many speeches in my life, this was not going to turn out perfect, so instead of worrying about that, I would focus on eye contact and pacing.

“My biggest goal was to come off as confident and though I’m sure more people knew how nervous I was, I believe that I was able to reach this goal (well, at least to some extent). While I’m still not ready to perform speeches without any hesitation, I’m glad I got this opportunity to face my fears.”

In responding to another question, a grade ten offers a similar account of working through the fear of performing at Night of the Notables:

What will you (or do you want to) remember about this project? 

“I want to, and will remember the fact that I was able to manage my anxiety regarding the presentation of my speech on the Night of the Notables. I have never liked drama and performing arts, which is somewhat contradictory when you take my commitment and love of [competitive] piping into account. I can will myself to march calmly towards thousands of spectators, flashing cameras and judges at the world championships. Yet, when I have to deliver a two-minute speech to a hundred supportive and encouraging people I’m a wreck. When I perform with my band, I have a safety net; I have never needed it but I know it’s there. When I speak or play by myself, even if it’s exponentially easier than what I do with my band I doubt myself.

“I don’t give speeches in front of large audiences often, but I compete in solo piping competitions often and I have come to recognize the progression and stages of my anxiety. I have been working on becoming more comfortable in these situations for over a year and I think the Eminent Address was an important milestone for me. I was extremely nervous a few days before the night, but I was able to tell myself, ‘You always feel this way before something like this,’ and ‘Imagine how you will feel on December 4th’ and I was able to control my anxiety and give a speech I was happy with.”

Together, we are strong

Perhaps the theme running beneath all of this wild success though is the support and community that is taking shape in the TALONS room by late November, where each member of the class is learning that they are here to test themselves, and hold one another up above their prior expectations. Parents who get to see what the program is ‘all about’ for the first time at Night of the Notables often remark at how exceptional the grade ten addresses are – “I feel totally inadequate now,” the parent of an alumni told me this year – and wonder how it is their children and their peers have been so transformed.


What they don’t know, or what cannot be seen, is what is often taking place behind the curtain, in those moments before the show, when greatness waits out on the stage under the lights to be seized.

Reflecting on this moment, a grade ten shares a glimpse of what community looks like:

“There was one moment when we were behind the stage, floating around and whispering encouragement to our peers. The atmosphere had become quiet and focused, as it was a couple of minutes until showtime. I was learning against a wall, breathing deeply.

“Our first speaker looked a bit nervous and was sitting against the wall next to the curtains. Someone, I can’t remember who, whispered something about the Superman pose, and how it was supposed to increase confidence and make you less stressed. So the majority of our class assumed this pose, and stood there in silence for about a minute. I remember looking at us and thinking that we were superheroes. Not just our first speaker, who looked relieved to have something to take his mind off the upcoming stress, but everyone standing there.

“We shared that moment behind the stage, trusting one another to make the night wonderful, and feeling that trust back in the tight, long-held hugs and the same emotions on everyone’s face. It was a really special experience.”

TALONS Hunger Games

Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

Imagine a life where possibilities are opening at a speed that veers unpredictably between exhilarating and terrifying. The familiar, precisely because it’s familiar and safe, still tugs at you, but even so, you want out because your old life constricts as much as it comforts. Besides, your social milieu, which often feels like an endless struggle to achieve, or resist being slotted into some arbitrary niche—pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, athlete, klutz—is changing fast. You feel driven—by inner need and outside pressure—to make choices. Meanwhile, the manipulative, often harsh, powers that be, who created the larger world they’re busy shoving you into, have clearly not done a bang-up job of it, either in their personal lives or as part of society. And they want you to get out there and fix their mistakes—just at a moment when worry over the imminent demise of their entire socio-economic structure is never far from the surface. It can be cruel and scary out there. Dystopian, even. Chances are, anyone not imagining this life, but actually living it, is a teenager.


In some ways, I guess it is natural that the TALONS class would incorporate into its evolving storytelling and myth-making the influences of dystopian literature, fan fiction, and the classic zombie film. In the background of the class’ study of novels, history, and current events, math and science, the approaching Adventure Trip (constituting the class’ Leadership 11 Final Exam), the class blog has become the setting for unfolding video, and literary riffs on the classroom setting, as well as TALONS characters enacting both a five part series of zombie films and an epic, multi-authored fan fiction bringing the Hunger Games to the afternoon corhort.

There is no avoiding the violent nature of the Hunger Games, and each post begins with a variation of the following caveat:

(Warning: The following post depicts scenes of violence, using fictionalized examples of real people. Please do not read if you might find any of this offensive  / disturbing. This narrative is for educational purposes only. Any references and ideas taken from the Hunger Games trilogy are the strict property of the brilliant Suzanne Collins).

But what I find remarkable about the TALONS versions of each story – and perhaps what constitute each genre’s appeal with today’s young people – is an awareness and an articulation of the human qualities that perpetuate our survival in desperate times, whether in real life, a zombie movie, or young adult fan-fiction. Each are excellent examples of using an existing structure of genre or plot-line to tell a story that is uniquely personal.

Check them out (and don’t miss the informative ‘Legend‘ to help see into the intricacies of the class dynamic at work in the story):

Welcome to the First Annual TALONS Hunger Games!” Part I

The platforms stilled, each tribute squinting in the sudden light, trying to adjust to their surroundings. They were standing in the middle of a field of grass, an enormous ancient stone city before them, practically crumbling before their eyes. Behind them was a forest, thick with every kind of tree, green and lush with life. The tributes looked around, dazed by the beauty of their surroundings. For a moment, all thoughts of death and murder disappeared out of their heads, but seconds later, the gong sounded and each tribute shot off their platform, scattering in all directions.

There are no friends in the Hunger Games.” Part II

Morning came and Bronwyn wasn’t prepared. She had hardly slept that night after yet another cannon had roared, causing her to wonder who had died this time. She exhaled softly and packed up quickly, sliding down the tree ready for day 2. The moment she hit the ground, she heard the sound of feet running. She ran and leapt behind a bush, peering through and seeing, to her surprise, Leanne. She was standing in the middle of a clearing, holding a badminton racquet. Bronwyn frowned. A badminton racquet? What kind of a cruel trick was that? But suddenly, the small hole Bronwyn had been staring through darkened as someone stood in front of it.

What was that?” Part III

Chelsea climbed up the tree, searching for a place to stay. Sean climbed close behind, trying not to look down. He didn’t know why he had saved Chelsea, but he had. Shaking his head, Sean called up to Chelsea that he had found a branch. Swinging sideways, Sean landed on the branch and pressed himself against the trunk, closing his eyes and listening for any noises. Instead, the anthem played and Sean blinked and looked up at the darkened sky.

I got her with a tree branch. Hell-o, irony.” Part IV

About half an hour later, Alisha was happily roasting several chunks of meat over a spit. She leaned forward and studied them carefully, inspecting them and making sure they were cooked thoroughly. Then, with quick and precise hands, she whipped out a handful of Japanese Yew berries and stuffed them into the meat.

Humming to herself, Zoe loaded up Jonny’s crossbow, and crouched down, lying on her belly and began to aim. Alisha had been right. Only one could win.

Arthur C. Clarke Blackout Poetry

Though it’s not a newspaper (as the original #Ds106 assignment prescribes), I had the idea this afternoon while my teaching parnter was teaching the Arthur C. Clarke short story, “I forget thee, Earth” to give the front page of our handout the blackout poetry treatment.

The text of the new work, Art Clark’s “I forget Earth…” is below, should anyone want to give the piece a Tom Woodward “snowball” and turn the text into something else: song, dialogue, a rock opera…

Ten years old, his father
took up Administration and
Power, the uppermost and
swiftly growing Farmlands.

Great, slender plants
creeping towards the sun,
Down the domes to meet
the smell of life.
inexpressive in his heart

no longer.

Breathing dry cool air,
residential levels, purged
of smells but ozone.

Here, little father, onwards.

Reach to the observatory.
Never visit, but sense rising

One goal: life, outside, surface wide,
and pressurized. Servicing scout car[‘s]
circular door.
Tense expectancy, settled down in
cramped cabin.

Tell this story.

Morning Class Retreat

Talons talking erratically

In brainstorming a way to synthesize the myriad tangents and threads being pursued in our recent study of rebellion and revolution in Egypt, as well as 1860s Manitoba, I wound up writing what began as a challenge to myself, and the Talons, to boil down the human affinity for stories of power, rebellion and freedom, and became much more something of a spoken-word take on history, storytelling, and the very purpose of life itself.

Sometimes, it can feel as though the objective of a lesson – so often a shared synthesis of ideas that comes from everyone pulling in the same direction, as we say in Talons – is elusive to even the instructor, or facilitator, whose job it is to bring about and make meaning – data – for the concerned parties (learner, teacher, parent), until each group’s unique questions can be asked, and looking ahead at the next few days and a wrapping up of the unit on Canadian rebellion, I struggled to answer a few of the ‘regular’ questions:

  • What to make of the course material (in this case history)?
  • How to connect it to our modern experience?
  • How might this unit / project connect to the group’s collective and individual self?

In this case, I was trying to make the study of history connect with the class’ consistent call to actualize ourselves in the learning environment, and personal lives as students and citizens, and in some small way perhaps echoing Jim Groom’s call to:

...make open education in praxis fun, accessible, and basically rock!! DS106 is the beginning of this movement, and it isn’t about me, just look around ds106. I mean people all over the world are doing Colleen‘s Playlist Poetry assignment, she is shaping this class not only by her willingness to create and participate, but by our ability to connect that urge with many, many others who share her desire. That is the beginning of a new dynamic that is not simply transactional. The idea of creative teaching hopefully re-imagines that locus—and I need to spend some more time framing this out more because I know it’s right. I feel it deeply in my heart of heart’s, and as Gardner notes in the discussion above, it is time to reinvest our hearts in the process of teaching and learning—I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment and I want to make it so.

I wanted the Talons to take their reading and evolving understanding of our national, and current, history, and give it voice in whatever way they might see. But it can be difficult to generate this type of inspiration without a concrete goal, or set of instructions. My vision, though complex and potentially multi-faceted as the personalities and perspectives in the class, and across the world, was simple at its heart: I wanted the class to tell the story of Louis Riel, and the Red River Rebellion, and in doing so tell the story of our class, each of us, in encountering our history, and one another, at this moment in our shared development.

What else is there in life, really?

I was inspired and enthralled in this idea, as well, by my recent drive-time listening to the Radiolab podcast episode, “Who am I?” delving into engrossing scientific radio journalism in support its episode’s thesis: “The self is a story the brain tells itself.”

RadioLab.org – “The Story of Me”


p style=”text-align: justify;”> And somewhere in there, in reflecting on the recent action research of the class’ blogging community, and the developing narrative of the class’ collective, and individual successes and struggles, I thought that the best outline I could offer the lesson and upcoming group project was the simple challenge of the brief essay I had written the night before. It is – to date – the strangest introductory material I have given to a history class.

Louis Riel by Bryanjack

Tell this story.

Rebellion, oppression, the will of humans to be free. We are taught the nature of history, and government, communication storytelling in the name of a pursuit of knowledge, of ourselves, and the breadth of our nature to be capable of making something, and living the best life we can. If each person who was given the opportunity to express their perspective in life did so, with the tools at their disposal to record and publish their thinking across distance and time we might know some fraction of the truth in a world inhabited by a people whose singular defining characteristic is to staunchly resist the very changes which contribute to our progress. But these struggles each represent a powerful theme in and of themselves about the truth of humanity’s story: that an indominable human will inevitably overcome a beaurocratic means of suprressing it; that new ideologies can shatter the expectations and realities of the old; and that an age committed fervently to its ideals is rife with the opportunity to be exposed by people few and brave. And we well these people’s stories, and attempt to in some way understand them and the moment they ineherited, and chose to stand up, and not submit to the expectations and realities of their day, so that we might recognize, in our own selves, and our own times, those things for which we need to stand up. Throughout history, we read of continuous examples of peoples who have through violence and ignorance have had their rights supressed by regimes both tyranical and democratic. When people have acted in haste or fits of passion, incorrectly, this has resulted in many deaths. Our present moment asks that we stand and be counted as lives lived to the best of our honest knowledge about what our actions mean. We study the lives and times of men like Louis Riel to know what others have been willing to stand for, when doing so has not been easy. Because it never it easy, and surely will not be when it is our turn, whether we are standing for our lives, our minds,or own opinion in a world where everyone’s from New Orleans’ orphans to the Kings of Spain, is exactly equal.

Did the author of the Golden Spruce comment on two TALONS' Posts?

BCIT Woodlot

BCIT Woodlot

Sometime Thursday evening, my phone buzzed with an email from Jonathan telling me that I should check Veronica’s blog, as “it look[ed] like John Vaillant commented on her chapter three post.”

Veronica’s interpretation of Grant Hadwin’s close friend (and backwoods competitor) Paul Bernier outlined him as the by-now-traditional character of a sidekick:

All classic heroes have sidekicks, so naturally, Grant Hadwin should have one too – in the form of Paul Bernier. Bernier strikes me as kind of an underdog to Grant Hadwin. Maybe it’s just how the story is told in The Golden Spruce, but the author makes Bernier seem inferior to Hadwin. I think that this is maybe to more thoroughly develop the character of Grant Hadwin. Anyways, from the quote “We’d run in the bush; we’d race each other. He didn’t like to lose.”, I assume that Bernier probably lost most of the time, so most the glory was taken by Grant.

And at present it indeed appears that Mr. Vaillant has somehow discovered and commented on the post:

Hi Veronica; I think your interpretation is a good one, based on the limited info you’ve got to work with. when I interviewed Bernier, I got the same impression you reflect above, and I think he’d probably agree. But, in the long run, Bernier may have been the stronger, more together person, able to manage the conflicts that the logging industry can present to a person. Very best regards, John V.

By the time I arrived at school the following morning, our newest commenting benefactor had apparently visited Meghan’s post about Loggers and Depression:

Loggers are talked about as replaceable and expendable. “Accidents were so common in the early days that if a man was killed on the job his body would simply be laid to the side and work would continue until quitting time, when a boat, plane or runner might be sent to notify the police.” Imagine seeing the man you shared breakfast with stabbed through the stomach by a massive branch, and then just having to move him to the side only to late have to drag him back to camp like a sack of flour.

Vaillant offers his agreement of Meghan’s appraisal, and an interesting possible extension of research:

BCIT Woodlot

BCIT Woodlot

Hi Meghan; thank you for posting this thoughtful (and well-supported) opinion. Personally, I think you are right on the money, but as you can imagine, not a lot of loggers go into therapy and it’s not a job, or a culture, that lends itself to introspection! Though there are some notable exceptions. It would be interesting to see what doctors and clergy in logging communities would have to say about this. Best regards, John V.

Doubtlessly a busy man with a new book out, it would be great to be able to verify if the comments were indeed the work of our author.

And if it is, Veronica has already jumped at the next question.

Talons debate the "Good" Books

My Favorite Book Shop .........As the TALONS Novel Study has progressed, I have waited for the discussion of six diverse novels – listed here – to begin to overlap into a meaningful discourse of the nature and the value of literature. Yesterday in class I asked a question posed by Clare and, to some extent, Kiko, on their blogs recently, hoping that across generations of literature there might be a common thread or reasoning behind our study of the Great Books. Clare asks:

So if Catcher in the Rye is no longer making us re-think society as it did in the 1950s, does that make it less important?

Similarly, Kiko wonders about the nature of treading the trampled ground of books like Catcher or Lord of the Flies:

How many people had done that before me? Is the size of that number a good thing, or a bad thing? Why does this matter to me at all? I have a slightly different perspective on everything than everyone else in the world.

Being that each of these questions meets an answer in a subjective truth (excellently supported and given context in a comment by Michael Kaisaris), I reposed them to the entire class the following afternoon, creating a stir that boiled over into a debate that not only continued in the classroom long after the 3 o’clock bell, but in a Facebook thread that appears to have consumed many members of the class throughout the evening.

Here are the highlights of what was discussed: Book Worm

The question I want to put out there is “What makes art great?” Great art is something that makes a person feel. If a person is making connections, predictions, having intuitions, thinking, or especially feeling emotion, the art is important. If a reader feels stronger about Twilight than Romeo & Juliet, I think that may also be the greater art. At least, to that select individual.


I agree that fan fiction has significant relevance to our society and that, in a hundred years, it could be very useful to understand the values and what not of society today. However, I do not offer it the same “importance” (although maybe we should find a less subjective word) than, say, a Douglas Coupland book. While I suppose one could argue that each would provide an equal understanding of today’s culture to future generations, one can’t argue that they would be of equal value to a person’s philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. By reading fan fiction, I doubt anyone would learn more (that isn’t to say that there is nothing one would learn) about themselves or gain much insight into our fundamental raison d’être than by reading a Douglas Coupland book or other piece of “good literature.” There is a reason it is called that and fan fiction is not. “Good literature” challenges our ideas and society’s rules more so than fan fiction ever could. It is because of this that it is more important.


Were both forms of writing made equal though? Both were created by a person who wanted to express themselves and they way they saw something. Shallow or not, both fan fiction and literature were written by a person who was passionate enough about something to write it down and take the risk or putting it out where the world can access it.


Importance, in my opinion, is related to how much a work influences society, not how much it reflects the society of the moment. Take Catcher in the Rye, for example. It was revolutionary at the time it was written and changed the way people thought about teenagers. Even today teenagers who read the book can identify with Holden Caulfield. He certainly influenced my perspective on my own teenage angst. Has Twilight influenced society other than to increase the sale of vampire t-shirts and create great fodder for jokes? I don’t think so. Katie brings up the point about people who love Twilight getting more out of it than literature. Maybe they get more enjoyment out of reading Stephanie Meyer, but they aren’t getting more understanding of the world or getting any new opinions to consider.


I think almost all literature is about their philosophical concept of the world and their position within it. When people write, their morals, beliefs, ideals, ideas, opinions, personality and themselves are written in. You can’t write anything without that, whether it is shallow or not. Even jobro fanfic represents that. What the writer thinks about the world and their place in it as a jobro fan.


There are certain ways you can look at things like fan fiction and see what it says about society, but on the other hand, there are works of art that I believe are more important to society and literature as a whole, things that will ‘stand the test of time’. I think it all boils down to one thing: If we were to keep, say, ten pieces of art, from any time period, which would they be?My Favorite Book Shop ......... The ones that changed society the most, the ones that made people stop and think and realize what is really happening, either in their time, or in the past. I think what really makes art great is that it can say something that people will look at and feel something about, whether it’s a personal connection or a greater understanding of people and/or society.


It would all come down to who was picking. Everyone would chose 10 different pieces and then this argument would go world wide. We would no longer be the only ones debating over “fluff” versus “literature.” Yes, you would pick the ones that have contributed to society the most but even if you instantly ruled out fan fiction, Twilight, etc. How would you finalize your top ten picks of art? Why is one classic book more important than another? “…we can rate it’s importance in terms of the impact on society. ” Won’t each individual have their own thoughts and feelings on how each piece of art has impacted society? It still boils down to perspective. You could argue this until the end of time. Everyone sees things differently gets something different out of everything they read.


In the end, it is the affect a book has on all of society or the majority of society that determines where it stands and whether it will be remembered as a book of great importance. Reiterating some of what Kiko wrote, it the ones that made society as a whole stop and think, the ones that changed society’s perspectives (in the present or the past) that will last. Fan fiction or other fluff, though it may somehow be very important to an individual, does not make the cut.


I don’t think anyone writes a book thinking that it’s going to change society. I agree with Louise that they write it to say something for themselves and if it ends up being important enough to change a reader, then that’s great. And if it resonates with a lot of people, then I guess it might change society a little, but I don’t think many books have changed society; people don’t read books and instantaneously change.


Reading Is Fundamental “There are two books that I’ve read in my life that disturbed me in such a way that I felt they literally shook my faith in humanity. ‘Blindness’ was the first and ‘Oryx and Crake’ by Margaret Atwood was the second.” Dave Truss left this comment on my blog post about Blindness, and I definitely agree with him. Books do change people. They change how one views society, how one perceives life, how people think… the list goes on. Maybe all books don’t, maybe no book you’ve ever read has changed you, but some people are heavily influences by books.


These books didn’t change society by themselves. However, they definately contributed to that change in a big way. Look at Kiko’s post above. Let’s take banned books for example. Why have books been banned throughout history? Because they deal with issues that governments or schools don’t want people to consider. If books had no profound impact on the opinions of the nation, there would be no point in outlawing them. I don’t think anybody would ever consider banning Twilight because it doesn’t challenge anybody’s faith or bring up any revolutionary ideas (not to say that all books need to be banned to be considered “great”).


As for Twilight…
  • putting others before ourselves
  • love is unconditional (however cheesy it might be)
  • being perfect isn’t as great as it might sound
  • people are not always what they seem
  • perfection on the outside does not always mean perfection on the inside
  • with great power comes great responsibility
  • It’s okay to lean on people for support
  • stereotypes/ don’t believe everything you read (about vampires for instance)
How this would fundamentally change someone…
  • changed way some people saw themselves. Before, they might have considered themselves “average” but now they are more confident in their right to talk to someone they’ve previously admired or even been intimidated by.
  • effected how people viewed their problems (angst), ability to speak to others about them
  • made people realize they could be accepted even if they deviate from the norm.


If you look deep enough you can find themes, even meaningful themes, in any novel from fan fiction to Twilight. And maybe these themes have an affect on people. However, I disagree with the word fundamental. While the great works (such as those mentioned earlier) take on new ideas or new perspectives that shifted the way people saw things, the themes you listed in Twilight are not new. They appear over and over in almost every novel you read. There is no fundamentally different or thought-altering idea in Twilight and that is one of the many things that separates it from other literature.


But ideas are used over and over again and maybe the 500th time it is used it makes a difference. Yes the ideas in Twilight aren’t new but they were also read by many many people who have in some way been affected by those ideas.


A classic work should say something of value and draw attention to fundamental human problems. It should support or condemn a point of view. That means saying something more significant than: “Vanilla ice cream is indescribably amazing,” even if that statement is true and will maybe cause ten people who have never tried vanilla ice cream to visit the grocery store. The message doesn’t have to be new, but it should at least take a new angle or provide new evidence.


It’s about whether some books are greater, or more important to society, than others. Also, I think we need to get away from some random person in some obscure place. For a book to be considered “great,” it needs to effect a substantial portion of the population. One person doesn’t make it or break it.


It’s not about a book being great? Then what is great literature? I don’t think that anything has to impact society. It’s the importance we’re talking about, not the impact. We’re all random people in random obscure places.


Louise, that blew my mind. I am sitting here at my computer, feeling like such a random person in a random obscure place.


For many people Twilight was one of the first books that they actually enjoyed reading; that was the case with many people I knew in middle school and for them Twilight was a good book because they hated reading as then they found a book they could actually enjoy so they probably got a lot more out of the book than you or I did.


As Andrea mentioned with Twilight and I can say with Harry Potter, those books are the reason that a lot of people came to enjoy reading – I would consider that a huge impact and thus, “important.”


Stalin once said that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic.” Well, I say “If a book is bought and read by a million people, it’s a best seller, whoop-dee-do. If I read a book and enjoy it, it’s a divine miracle.” The ability of a book to affect many people (society) doesn’t make it a good book in an individual’s opinion. Millions of people bought The Da Vinci Code but I recommend reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Why? Because my in MY opinion it’s better. This may be different for different people, and they may say my book which ain’t a best seller sucks because it wasn’t economically successful. This brings me back to the fan fiction/fluff vs. classics/non-fluff. If people can connect with the writing, then the literature has done it’s job. If teenage girls can connect with Jonas bros, then that’s them, and the fan fiction didn’t fail in communicating a message and representing that segment of society. It seems to me that these days (modern times) with the internet, TV, face book, and all that what could have been great pieces of art are melted and conformed to something that would sell well, and thus receive marketing and cast a wide net for audience. Small things and exquisite literature that probably won’t sell well are discarded for conformists. This is quite disturbing in that the conformist stuff are what our era will be remembered for.


Depending on who you are you will get different things out of different literature. Overall, society might deem some books as having more to offer, but it is still up to the individual to decide and/or discover what they value the most. In school, it is beneficial to study some of the same novels that humans have labeled as ‘important.’ However, every person is unique therefore no one has the right to judge what importance they find in the art they see.


Novel Study Blog Post Topics

Prayers for the Dead - Dennis VannattaAs the TALONS class sets out on a novel study that will see them reading a range of five different novels in small groups, much of their “work” in flushing out the themes, symbols and technical aspects of the stories will be happening on their blogs, a process I am not alone in harbouring excitement to begin. In a class of voracious readers, with several leaders in not only the study and criticism of literature, but also the appreciation, and honouring of it, I mentioned on Twitter yesterday that I felt a little like Santa Clause yesterday handing out copies of the novels the class had chosen from the predetermined short list. And today, on a sunny afternoon, late into the first week of local Olympic hysteria, as we sat down to begin an hour of Sustained Silent Reading – or Writing, but more on that in a minute – the group quickly fell into rapt meditation over their selected books; a few put finishing touches on blog posts introducing their stories, but for the most part, all was quiet, as the enjoyment of literature is meant to be.

To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by. Yann Martel What is Stephen Harper Reading?

stillnessDuring class for the next few weeks, we will be using our study of literature in the form of novels to cultivate this stillness so difficult to attain in our modern surroundings. As someone who spent my most illuminating college years locked in dorm, apartment or rented rooms with books, blank pages and music, but who has since succumbed to becoming the doting father of both a laptop and iPhone which are all but constant appendages in my working life, I know that at least some of my job as an instructor and mentor of English literature and writing – indeed, the reflection upon the very aspects of life which demand stillness to be appreciated – depends on creating opportunities for my modern students to enjoy silence, stillness, and the sounds and creations of their imaginations.

To this end, the class will set aside ample time – an hour and ten minutes this afternoon – wherein the class will be silent, still. As a means of progressing in their novel studies, students are asked to work quietly, and individually, toward a better understanding of their selected novel, whether in silent reading or writing as reflection or creative product. A novel is a personal experience, and with the following reflective writing prompts, I hope to share in my students’ struggle and enjoyment of reading over the next few weeks.The home office

I am asking that students blog regularly, trying to bear in mind Wesley Fryer’s recent advice (as well as this superb resource composed of Steve Dembo’s 30 Days to Become a Better Blogger posts), and help to foster depth and discussion of their peers’ novels through avid commenting and discussion online, and during classes set aside for oral dissections and Book Talks with their peers (though stillness is one of my aims, I hope to not sacrifice the fervor and glee that accompanies the traditional TALONS literary arguments and informal debates). To this end I have proposed the following possible prompts for blog posts:

  • My Choice is… – Which novel have you chosen? Why? How do you hope for its reading to affect your study of English? See Andrea, Katie, Julie, or Donya’s examples.  
  • Passage Reflection – Take a passage from the text and supply as block quotation at the top of a post. Outline and explain the significance of the quote in terms of its relation to elements of the novel’s character, plot or theme development, as well as your personal connection to the piece. Clare asks a great question in hers (and shares a wonderful passage from another book here), and I particularly appreciate this lengthy passage very clearly articulated by Andrew.
  • Theme Synopsis – In developing your personal response to the novel’s theme, formulating ‘guesses’ at the author’s intended themes, symbols and underlying messages is an effective way to construct your own interpretation. Beginning this process early in your reading can be an effective means of noticing, and interpreting subtle details throughout the novel. Outline and support one (or many) theme statement(s) with your own personal reasoning supported by details and contextual evidence from the story. Nick, Andrew, and Katie have great theme posts already.
  • Character, Setting, Plot, Conflict or Point of View Analysis – Reflect upon one (or more) of these technical aspects of the author’s craft by utilizing the terminology applied to each of these major elements to summarize the unique choices and presentation used by the author. Check out Justin’s look at Atticus Finch, Louise’s description of Ishmael, or Jenna’s description of Little Brother’s Marcus.
  • Reflection on the Author’s Style Prose Language – There are as many ways to write as there are people using a given language, and as we delve into the works of traditional and contemporary masters of the written voice, I will be curious to hear your reactions and responses to the use and manipulation of language employed by your author. Veronica starts things off with a look at some of the NewSpeak in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.
  • Connection to Other Readers, Bloggers – Within and beyond our class are many various opinions, reviews and interpretations of the books we are reading, reading in general, or the craft of the novel and technical aspects of each story’s composition. Use this post as an opportunity to write a response, critique, or continuation of someone else’s thinking, and be sure to link back to their work!

A New Year (…and my love of teaching grammar)

Facing Foward

With a handful of our grade tens offering thoughtful reflective posts on the turning of a new year, I have been thinking the last few days about the dawn of 2010. It seems as though I have been headed here in my mind for some time.

I can remember standing on the pool deck at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in Damascus, Arkansas, where I first heard that we had been awarded this year’s Winter Olympics, which have increasingly become a vortex around which the city of Vancouver has rotated slowly since. In many ways it seems like the year 2010 has been here for years already, in even more than the posters and commemorative sportswear that has become ever more ubiquitous around town.

I am teaching my third consecutive year in a program I have been fortunate to help shape into its current form (in its current incarnation, the current T.A.L.O.N.S. Program is only four years old) 1, and am beginning to feel at home in the curriculum and means of teaching in the unique environment that a team taught, blended, interdisciplinary gifted program demands. This year I feel more capable than ever of becoming the teacher I wish to be, rather than one who is barely scraping through each day’s work load and unrelenting pace.

I survived a brush with death last year, and all of my various kings’ horses and men won’t have me put back together until sometime this summer. My lower jaw is already composed of synthetic material, and will see the installation of some five or six titanium posts that will eventually serve as roots to my new permanent teeth. At 28, I have been blessed to see my life as a fragile course that I realize – and continue to realize – myself to be lucky to still be enjoying. With some distance between the trauma of explosions, helicopter evacuations, and seemingly constant oral surgeries, I look ahead at 2010 as one of possibility, hope and appreciation for what I (still) have.

Over the course of the past many months, I have had to sit idle in recuperation as my body has healed and the world – especially at school – has blazed by around me while my world has consisted of Tylenol, soft foods and appointments with all manner of Vancouver’s dental professionals. Throughout this time I have been warmed by the presence of so many of my friends, family, colleagues and students, who have each made these difficult months easier, and are each deserving of a gratitude I will never be able to express properly.

With the passing of the winter break (and my (temporary) new teeth!), I am looking forward to a spring and summer that I plan to spend living up to the measure of care, kindness and sincerity that has surrounded me at home and at work (both in my personal learning network, and at school itself).  With a strength that returns more each day, the new year, and the approaching new semester at the end of the month, offers a chance for renewal unlike many my life has yet known.

The new year brings with it a new decade, and with it a chance to look back at ten years which have taken me from adolescence to adulthood, and shown me much in the world and myself.

In 1999 I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock studying Biology. I was on the track team and spent my first months away from home traversing the south in team vans and buses en route to cross country races and my teammates’ family homes in Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri and Louisiana. I was living in my school’s dorms, had recently discovered MSN Messenger, and I often wonder what I would tell that younger me if given the chance.

But then again perhaps I wouldn’t say anything. It might change the fact that I have wound up exactly where I wanted: surrounded by so many inspiring people, doing work that excites me and which will continue to lead me toward my best self so long as I am engaged with it.

The me of ten years ago had yet to discover his passion, (though running, at the time, showed me everything I needed to know about pursuing one). I had merely a passing interest in literature, music or the arts, democracy or history, and was driven by motivations extraneous to myself. And yet today I went to work with a guitar strung over my back, and a book on sentence diagramming under my arm, buoyed in the knowledge that my life has become an honest extension of a drive to continually discover myself, and the world, and share the experience with others hoping for the same (even if, as teenagers, they may not realize this sensation as hope just yet).

Literature has played no small part in finding my way here, and before we started in on a small unit on grammar that will include sentence diagramming, parts of speech, and (likely) much frustration, I alluded to this personal truth.

I told my class that in conversation with some friends over the weekend – two geologists and a visual artist – we collectively determined that a random sampling of each of our bookcases (and this with only one English degree – and a creative writing emphasis at that! – between us) would reveal a heavy slant toward the classics of the Western Canon: Shakespeare, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner, Hemingway

Across each of our disciplines, reading, writing and the tradition of literature has wrought the distinguished result of helping to form our lives into visions of our unique selves. And I doubt we are unique in this regard.

My point in mentioning this was to express my gratitude to be the ambassador for a subject that is most-often an easy “sell, ” and whose purpose is to celebrate something which has not only meant a great deal to me, but the human race since it began. Selling the study of English isn’t always necessary, as our class seldom tires of critical debate, creative writing, and the elements of performance that are covered in the course of English. But today we began grammar, which induced groans usually reserved for organic chemistry and the square-dancing unit in PE.

The pessimism didn’t last long, however, and I don’t doubt that soon the prospect of getting their fingers in the dough of language will quickly become a source of exuberance and energy in the coming weeks. My students may not think so yet, but I wouldn’t have either when I was their age, or even when I was a freshman in Arkansas. It was still a few years before I wound up in Dr. Pat Moore’s class and realized that grammar  (as well as mathematics, science, history, and the rest of the balance of academic study) was merely another means of quenching human curiosity and creating knowledge, and were as deserving of the same celebration as Jack Kerouac, or Bob Dylan. In an age that will be no doubt fraught with technological advancements that cannot help but continue to shape literature and education, I hope to begin this year with a renewed emphasis on the tradition, as well as the future of English.

We start with grammar, and I propose that the next year, and the next ten, are spent celebrating the learning and discovery that comes with exploring these passions to the utmost with one another.   The community and meaning, and personalized means to this discovery literature  and communication afford us – in blogs and tweets and books and plays and speeches and discussions – is the basis of English education. And if the eighteen year old me of 1999 figured out anything that brought him to this place I am endlessly fortunate to enjoy, it is that everything else is a distraction from this singularly important task.

  1. Though the roots of the program in our district go back some twenty years, and involve some eight teachers in two different schools.

Keeping up with the TALONS

Algonquin Park HDR

And these paintings are not landscape paintings. Because there aren’t any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. Instead there’s a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees; they are currents of energy, charged with violent colour.

Death by Landscape Margaret Atwood

During this past week’s study of short stories, our class has delved into more than one class-that-runs-past-the-bell in dissection of Canadian works, Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape,” and Alistair MacLeod’s “To Every Thing There is a Season.” Beginning with the discussion of the each story’s basic literary pieces – its characters, conflict, plot, setting and point of view – the class has ranged in conversation of the Canadian identity, the nature of growing up, the importance of stories, and literature’s ability to illuminate who we are as individuals, citizens and members of the human race. Beginning today though our class began to merge this conversation with the online – technology supplementing face to face instruction, dialogue and interaction – and moved to the students’ blogs, with each student posting a defense of their theme statement for MacLeod’s Cape Breton Christmas novella “To Everything There is a Season.”

But this is only one way our class is engaged in social networking and online dialogue. The means of this digital conversation: