My Summer Reading List

Every year since I started high school I’ve written myself a Summer Reading List.  For the first few years, these were almost all just pleasure reads or books I hadn’t gotten a chance to get into yet.  But after starting my English degree and making friends with a lot of English majors who are much more well read than I am, I decided to use my summer to read the books I felt I should read to be able to fully complete my English education.  I also found that a lot of my English classes were very specific (ex. ‘The Graphic Novel’ or ‘Shakespeare’) and there was a lot of amazing literature out there I’m missing out on.  Plus, the more I read, the more I can engage in the texts I read for class *whispers: which means I can sound smarter without working that hard!* But I never seem to make it through the whole list.

SO. This summer is the first summer in a long time when I won’t have to work and will have tons of free reading time! Which means no excuses, I’m reading my entire list by September! And each time I finish a book, I’ll write an informal review of what I thought about it.

Here is what I have so far (in no particular order).  I am allowing myself to add, but not take away, from the list below:

 

The Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Evelina by Frances Burney

Tales by Edgar Allen Poe

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

 

Suggestions are welcome!!

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‘I Rise/I Rise/I Rise’

Maya Angelou died today. And I thought it would be pertinent to share my experience with her work.  She’s been on my ‘To Read’ list for ages but I’ve just never got around to actually picking up one of her books; I have, however, read some of her more famous poems and loved them all.  “Still I Rise” has special meaning for me.

Flashback to 2011, a terrified 18 year old me moves into my very first dorm room in a massive city 3 hours away from everything I’ve ever known.  I remember snapping at my Mom as she tried to help me unpack a little because I knew the longer she stayed the harder it would be to say goodbye.  So I gave her and my Dad each a quick peck on the cheek and they were gone.  I headed to the floor common room for orientation and my floor Don starts by welcoming us all and declares she start the year by reading us a poem. I inwardly rolled my eyes at what I thought was going to be silly sentimentality.  This is what she read:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you? 
Why are you beset with gloom? 
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken? 
Bowed head and lowered eyes? 
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you? 
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you? 
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 

 

In the face of a really emotionally difficult and scary time for me, Maya Angelou’s words filled me with a sense of power, determination, and agency over my life. And while in no way can I relate to the discrimination, suffering, and intergenerational trauma housed behind these words, I knew that if she could face the world with such confidence, so could I.  That was the beginning of one of the best years of my life and the memory of sitting in that crowded common room feeling like I could conquer the world is one of my most precious and treasured memories.

 

Rest In Peace, Ms. Angelou. Thank you for your life.

Why Questioning Your English Teacher is a Good Thing.

‘Miss, what about….?’ ‘Miss, I think that…’ ‘Miss, are you sure…’

As a high school English student-teacher, these are questions I get almost every class.  Kids who want me to explain myself more, need extra clarification on a certain point, or just downright disagree with what I just said.  And I love it all because every question asked means there was a thought behind it (except of course, the age old ‘Can I go to the bathroom’, which generally has a pressuring bladder behind it).

When I was in high school, I thrived in English class.  I had discovered a subject where I could pore over the stories I loved to read and then write about them and people would actually care what I said.  Being the 5th child out of 8, even in the loving and inclusive family I grew up in, I often longed for my voice to stand out and be heard by itself, rather than in the context of my large family.  And English class was, and still is, a place for me to do this.

However, throughout my 4 years of high school, never in a million billion years would I ever dream of questioning my teacher.  I was blessed with fantastic English teachers all through high school but even when I would occasionally disagree over something…and would always keep quiet about it. The teacher was my school-parent, and just like I would never talk back to my parents at risk of punishment, I would never challenge a teacher.

So when I began teaching as a student teacher myself now, I was surprised more than anything when a couple students each class would question what I said or provide their own stance on the issue.  But the more I thought about it, the more I loved that they felt comfortable enough with me to do so. And at the end of the day, isn’t questioning what English is all about?  How can I stand at the front of the class and talk for half an hour then give out an assignment that basically just requires the students to repeat what I said and call that an English education?

English is about critical thinking, it’s about reading and interpreting and discussing and arguing over other people’s words, and then writing your own in response.  It’s about learning to utilize communication skills to make your voice and your opinion known through a venue we all understand. It’s about questioning and it’s about thinking. And I think it’s a heck of a lot easier for us teachers when students obediently write down what we’ve said and call it gospel.  But if there is no room for each student’s voice in your classroom then I would argue that it is not an English class.

Now I want to take a second to point out that there is a difference between questioning and confronting, and that difference is respect. A student needs to be able to show respect for their teacher’s authority in the classroom, but in turn the teacher should also show respect for the student and their right to a different opinion.  It’s a balance that can be precarious at times, but necessary to truly build an English critical thinking education in a world that loves to produce thoughtless consumers.

Here We Go…

My older sister has a fairly popular blog. A few years ago when she first started posting, my younger sister and I secretly rolled our eyes at what we thought was a kinda lame phase. But as time passed and our nephew Joseph was born (which translated to many blog posts with adorable pictures) I began actually giving Katie’s blog the time of day. For the most part she blogged about fashion and her outfits which didn’t really interest me that much, but she would also occasionally write down some thoughts about her life or life in general, experiences she had, poems or songs she wrote, etc. And I realized how narrow-minded I had been about this whole blog thing, and how cool a creative avenue it really is. I now read almost everything she posts…not just the Joe pics (though they remain my favourites).

Anyway, a few months ago a lovely friend of mine suggested that we both blog this summer as a creative writing/something to fill the time project.  She’s big into cooking and I’m big into talking about myself (haha) so I thought it could work. I took a few days to think it over seriously and pray into it and here I am.

So. Here are my thoughts about this blog.  It is starting as a summer creative outlet, but if things go well and I enjoy doing it I’ll continue into the school year in September.  I have absolutely no allusions that it will be read by anyone (I might not even tell my family about it) but it would certainly be really cool if someone did.  I plan to blog mostly about the world of literature and English education as they are two things I am very passionate about. However, I will probably also occasionally write about something that’s on my mind/happening in my life. Because I’m a rebel like that. So here we go…

 

A Note On My Blog Title, or, The Part Where Rachel Gets Sentimental and Deep and Stuff:

I am notoriously bad at coming up with cool names for stuff.  I always go either too sarcastic or too mushy/sentimental. So coming up with a name for this thing was way harder than writing any of the posts will no doubt be. And I may change it over time, who knows…if I can come up with something better.

The story behind where A Soft, Strong Heart is from comes back to my Mom (as important things often do).  Flashback to my 15 year old self travelling to Ottawa (Canada’s capital city) for a week to take part in a really cool program where teenagers all over Canada get together to learn a little about the best country in the world. My week was themed Vimy Ridge.  For those who did not traverse through the Canadian educational system, Vimy Ridge was a really important WWI battle for Canada because our soldiers were able to capture and hold the Ridge when no other Allied country could manage it.  In popular thought, it’s considered the moment Canada really became our own nation autonomous in our identity from Britain or America.

Anyway, back to my story. Part of the week involved a trip to the National Archives of Canada to handle and read the original enlistment papers for soldiers who fought at Vimy. As my group went through our soldier’s letters home, enlistment papers, etc., I noticed a reporter from the CBC (Canada’s major broadcasting corporation) filming around the room.  Then, a group member started reading a letter which provided the news of our soldier’s death to his mother.  I lost it. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m a weeper. I started crying right there in front of everyone and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I see a camera lens getting closer and closer. To cut a long story short (too late, I know) I ended up being featured in a 4 minute segment on the national evening news, much of which I spent crying.

When I got home, I remember talking to my Mom about what had happened and how embarrassed I was at being portrayed all over the country as this weepy teenager.  And my Mom said something to me that I treasure to this day. She told me that God had given me a soft  heart full of compassion and that he would use it to make a difference in the lives of suffering people. Now I can often be sarcastic and even a little judgy (see first paragraph) but I’m working on translating that into a more positive format. Ultimately, I want to use my sentimental, weepy, cries-on-national-television heart to help people.  But at the same time, I also want a strong and courageous heart, a heart that’s not afraid of struggle or pain but that pushes through for something better.  A heart with high standards, that reaches out to the lost without compromising what it stands for.  A heart like a man who died on a cross two thousand years ago to save me.

So that’s a little about me and what I want to do with this blog. If there’s anyone who’s actually read this far in, congratulations and as a favourite high school teacher of mine used to say, ‘May the moonbeams of a thousand midnights shine upon your toaster’

…don’t worry, I don’t get it either.