Title: From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way
Author: Jesse Thistle
Date Read: May 19, 2020
Some of the best stories are the ones lived and not made up. From the Ashes was heart-wrenching and traumatic– but also honest, poetic and hopeful.
Jesse Thistle’s memoir was a short list contender for this year’s (pandemic post-poned) Canada Reads competition. This year sought the one book all Canada should read. I think they found it.
I try to select titles from the annual Canada Reads short-list. I have reviewed a few in the last two years: Marrow Thieves (short-listed in 2018 as a book to open your eyes); Brother and The Woo Woo (both on the 2019 short list as a book to move you); and We Have Always Been Here (short listed this year alongside From the Ashes).
Why should you read this book? Because Thistle’s lived experience reveals the consequence of trauma. Children who experience disconnect in childhood, inevitably seek to numb in adulthood. Thistle and his brothers experienced severe physical and emotional neglect from their father, a drug addict, who was frequently incarcerated or on the run. As much as relatives did step in to look after the boys, much of the enduring damage was done.
His memoir is divided in to four sections: Lost and Alone; Falling Apart; The Stolen Streets; and Reconciliation. His dedication speaks to the damage done not only to himself and his family, but to so many Indigenous families. He writes: “The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually cast upon the streets, in jail, or wandering with no place to be.”
The Homeless Hub, (part of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness) suggests that many of the personal issues (including familial dysfunction, substance use, addictions, health issues, community violence) faced by Indigenous Peoples and that act as contributors to homelessness can be directly linked to various types of historical trauma. Research has also shown that Indigenous Peoples experience lower levels of education, poorer health, higher rates of unemployment and lower income levels compared to non-Indigenous people. You can research this and more about the trauma and injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, but if you need one book that Canada needs to read, to really understand— it should be Thistle’s story.
There is power in story. We live our stories everyday– we show up and face our truth. Our stories make us who we are; the torment that breaks us and the mettle that builds us up. And, in sharing our stories we give voice and power to our ways of seeing the world and living in it.
As Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Let Thistle’s catharsis be your invation to see Canada in a whole new way. From the Ashes is my (unofficial) choice for the book Canadians should read.
This. This is the history book, that’s not a history book– but a narrative about race interspersed with the history of why black people have been oppressed in the United States; needed by every child of this generation who might have a chance to change it.
You have heard my rally cry about why Jason Reynolds is the best Young Adult writer writing for teenagers right now. And if you haven’t, read here, here and here. This partnership with Ibram X. Kendi is no exception.
Award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote Stamped from the Beginning, in it, he argues that racist ideas in America have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. As Kendi provocatively illustrated, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. This is a remix of Kendi’s book. A book written especially for young people.
In the first chapter, Reynolds invites his readers in (in his usual, laid-back, ultra hip way) by explaining: “Before we begin, let’s get something straight. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitiution (that too), a court case or two, and of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!) This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. A book about the here and now. A book that hopefully will help us better understand why we are where we are as Americans, specifically as our identity pertains to race.” (Reynolds & Kendi, p.1-2). Reynolds has a way of engaging young readers, and that’s exactly why he was chosen to remix Kendi’s book.
Reynolds delivers on his promises. Stamped presents the history of America’s racial inequities spanning the period from 1415 to the present. In his unique style, Reynolds offers historical facts alongside the narratives of the people, the politics, and the popular culture that shaped the racist beliefs that have endured. He also recounts the courageous battles fought by those who eschewed simply ‘fitting in’ and assimilating in favour of an antiracist future that would embrace Black people as fully human and equals in their country. He does it, all the while speaking directly to his readers: “But whenever people rise up against bad things, bad things tend to get worse. You know the old saying, When the going gets tough, the tough get… racist. Or something like that.” (p. 24); “People like Benjamin Rush, a physician from Philadelphia who wrote a pamphlet saying that Black people weren’t born savages but instead were made savages by slavery. Record scratch. Pause.” (p.45-6); “And the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, feared that beig treated decently overseas would embolden Black soldiers. Make them too big for their britches. Make them expect fair treatment at home, the home for which they’d just risked their lives. Let that sink in.” (p. 142). Reynolds never forgets his audience.
If you think we don’t need another book that explores what it is like to be the target of racism in America, then you are not paying attention. As I put this book down, a black man was shot in Georgia by two white men– while he was out jogging. A Georgia prosecutor said a grand jury should review the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February after being chased by two armed men who told police he looked like a burglary suspect. They have since been charged.
Parker Rhodes writes to give voice to the young black men who have suffered violence at the hands of racists. Jerome Rogers is 12 years old, and shot dead by a Chicago Police officer in an abandoned lot. He believed he had a gun. It was a toy, a plastic gun.
Parker Rhodes moves the narrative back and forth through sections labelled Dead and Alive. She tells stories of Jerome, his family; his middle school bullies; and his friendship with Carlos while alive. Then reverts to the present, Dead, as he watches his own trial unravel; has heart-to-heart talks with his shooter’s daughter, and learns the history of his fellow Ghost Boy, Emmett Till.
The prose is simple and straight-forward– it is written for young readers (12-15) to consume and understand. It explores the current police violence and discrimination against African Americans in an age-appropriate fashion, but it also explores past historical events that connect to the present.
This is an excellent narrative to explore with young students (or struggling mature readers) to help them make sense of the racist attitudes and present context of racist violence in which they live. It would make an excellent springboard for discussion.
Title: Kids These Days: A Game Plan for (Re)Connecting with Those We Teach, Lead & Love
Author: Jodi Carrington PhD
Date Read: April 1, 2020
This was a staff book club pick– and a real winner! When we came together (on Zoom) to discuss it — it had our unanimous praise.
If you have not heard of Dr. Jodi Carrington, you are in for a treat. Carrington hails from Alberta, bringing a classic Canadian-girl charm and warm kindness to her philosophy and approach to child psychology. A mom to her own three “babes”, Carrington proposes that the most integral step in helping kids who experience grief and trauma is to assist the people who hold them– their parents, educators, and counsellors.
She speaks with a humbling reverence for teachers and the challenging work they do in assisting all of the kids in their care. Above and beyond all else, she posits that it is connection that we all crave– and that many of the kids we serve are terribly disconnected. There was a time when families lived close to and with extended family. They weren’t so distracted and busy– there was connection. In fact, she writes: “… every time you hear yourself say, that kid is attention seeking or lying,” try to replace that phrase with, that kid is “connection seeking,” and see what happens” (p.63).
In teaching, in parenting, in coaching– in any capacity in which we look to help kids learn and become better at something; our job, first and foremost, must be to develop a relationship with the person we want to teach. Kids do not learn from people they think don’t like them. I have taught for over 20 years, and I know nothing to be more true. Teaching is about relationships. I think that is why online teaching during a pandemic is so difficult; we miss out on the face-to-face interactions that help us to form strong relationships. In fact, Carrington outlines five keys to (re)connecting with people in our life; and one of those keys is eye contact. She writes, “I talk to educators about doing this every day so they can connect with their students: Meet your students in the morning and greet them with their name and notice if they give you their eyes. The ones who do make contact easily concern me far less than the ones who don’t” (p.122). What I wouldn’t do to be in the hallway to check in with my students right now!
Another key to reconnection is to “get down on their level.” She says that meeting someone face to face is where the magic lies. I know this all too well from parenting. (Have you ever seen a mom kneeling in front of a toddler in the candy aisle? Turns out she knows her stuff. Been there. Done that.) She writes: “Being on the same level as the other person allows for easier access to their eyes. It slows you down too because you’re consciously thinking about creating an optimal environment.” She notes that fear based techniques certainly have their proponents and do garner some success in times of significant distress; you can threaten or inflict pain and likely get a response– but where do these approaches leave the relationship? Without a relationship, you cannot teach. And I love this, “When compliance from people we love or teach is predicated on what they stand to lose, they will never be motivated by respect. They will be motivated by fear. And fear is very different from respect” (28). You don’t learn to get better or to self-regulate when you are fearful of the person holding you.
When kids are dysregulated (or have “flipped their lids”) they are in a primitive state of fight, flight or freeze— and they need us, the adult, to offer them soothing connection. Carrington explains the Circle of Security, and our job as regualtor is: “Always be bigger, stronger, kinder and wiser. Whenever possible follow a need. Whenever necessary, take charge” (p.48). Which means, she says, “when your kid is losing their freaking mind, you need to dig deep into the core of yourself and figure it out with them” (p. 49).
Carrington describes so many of the kids we meet in our work: regular lid-flippers; Caillou kids; Flat Stanley kids; attention-seeking; manipulative liars (you need to read her book to get her great descriptions of each of them)… but, as she says, “these babes all have the exact same needs. How they pull for us to meet those needs makes all the difference” (p.71). Carrington is on the mark throughout this book. She spoke to me as a teacher, as a parent, and as a leader in my school. Carrington’s experience as a child psychologist allows her to build narratives around each of these kids, suggesting strategies to repair and rebuild relationships. You will see many of the kids you have taught, or coached, or cared for– and you will understand them better. And, hopefully, after reading her book, be in a better place to help them in the future.
She even seemed to narrow in on my own marriage. She explains that “[We] often tell people what to do, rather than showing them. We say to kids, “That’s not a good choice” or “Just calm down!” Here’s the thing: Never in the history of telling someone to “calm down” has “calm down” ever worked. Telling someone how to behave is never, ever, as powerful and transformative as showing them what you want from them. Think about the last time your partner told you to “Just calm down!” How effective was that? What was your response? The hope, when we yell or hiss “Calm down!” at someone we love is they will, indeed, calm down. The hope is they might even look at us and say, “Oh you’re right babe, I didn’t realize that I was losing my mind. You always know just how to get me to calm down. I’m just so glad that I married you” (p.29). If, like Carrington, you can agree that never in the history of my spouse telling me to “calm down” (or “relax!”) has “calm down” ever worked, then why do we keep trying to make it so, with everyone, including kids, all the time?
Really, Jodi says it best: “The kids are the least of our worries. Seriously. If that sounds blasphemous in a book for concerned parents and educators (and anyone, really, who worries about “kids these days”), then I am so glad you’re here. If you own a kid, work with a kid, or love a kid, you will find something inspiring in these pages” (XIX). She is not wrong. If you care about the kids these days… read Jodi Carrington’s book!
You can also find Jodi on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram. She does great Facebook Live chats (usually over a glass of wine…) dropping the occasional f-bomb(which I also kind of love) as she wades through the weeds of raising, loving and connecting with kids.
If you are one of my students, then you have already heard how much I love Jason Reynolds. Right after reading and loving his novel co-authored with Brendan Kiely, All American Boys, I was lucky to attend the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Atlanta.
All American Boys is a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and recipient of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. In it, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension. This novel went on to be a class novel I studied with a group, and a title that is always on loan to students.
Following that read, I was quick to pick up The Boy in the Black Suit, for which Reynolds won yet another Coretta Scott King Award. Matt wears a black suit. First, beacuse his mother has died. Second, because he got a job at the funeral home to help pay the bills. Life is rough, and then he meets Lovey– someone who understands his loneliness and tries to to ease its burden as well. Then I read the story of Ali and his friends, Noodles and Needles in When I Was The Greatest. I loved the story of these boys and how they end up exactly where they shouldn’t be and how they manage it somehow just the same.
Reynolds captivated me in Long Way Down, which I reviewed here; and in his letter to teens everywhere in For Everyone, which I talk about here.
Simply, I love everything he writes.
He writes young middle grade novels too (which I haven’t yet read or reviewed, but plan to get at…) titles include, Ghost, Patina, Sunny and Lu.
I even taught a lesson on writing a bio, using Reynolds’ bio as a mentor text for my writers, because he is irreverent, honest and funny. Check it out here.
Currently, Reynolds is also hosting the Write. Right. Rite. Series a GRAB THE MIC: Tell Your Story video series. Throughout the series, he shares his passion for storytelling while discussing topics like creativity, connection, and imagination. At the end of each video, Reynolds will share a prompt that encourages young people to work toward a specific idea. The activities are fun-filled and some are more challenging than others, but Reynolds always makes sure to include brainstorming “get-you-going” questions.
If you have teenagers in your life, get them reading Jason Reynolds! Or, writing with Jason Reynolds!
I wasn’t expecting much from this one. The central idea of the novel clings to the pretense of a dinner in which you could select five guests, living or dead, to attend your birthday dinner. The main character invites her former college professer, Conrad; her estranged best friend, Jessica; the father who abandoned she and her mother, Robert; her long-time boyfriend and fiance, Tobias; and … Audrey Hepburn.
I guess I could swallow the use of a plotline in which a character would want to meet with the four people with whom she had unanswered questions and a desire to settle the score with, but I got hung up on the addition of Audrey Hepburn. Serle surprised me however, and handled all of the guests in a way that made it seem remotely plausible and moderately likable as a hook.
I was most interested in the revelations about her relationship with Tobias– which does land the novel solidly in the chicklit category– but still made for entertaining reading: complete with an unexpected twist.
If you find this one on your To Be Read pile during a pandemic– give it a read!
In sentence study, I share sentences with students that stand out while reading. After we notice and note what’s going on, they are invited to try and imitate the techniques. Take a look at this one:
“My ankle sang a terrible song like my tooth ache had sunk to my foot. Rot and damp and hopelessness and hunger and fear and anger twisted up in a clamp around my ribcage.” (The Marrow Thieves, p.13)
Dimaline uses personification of the ankle singing in pain, and then adds the simile of tooth ache pain- she makes clear the terrible pain, giving readers a relatable pain to connect with. The second sentence bumps along with and, and, and, and, and… adding on all of the things piling up on the chracter. This technique is easy for students to imitate!
I feel lost. My identity is very much wrapped up in my teaching. I love what I do.
I miss my students and colleagues, I miss the excitement of interacting with people everyday and exploring their curiosity and ideas. I miss being able to commiserate with my friends. Moving online with my team and students is not the same as being together in our school. People are anxious and overwhelmed and not sure how to best move forward.
It could be any day of the week, as we have lost all of the markers that delineate one day from another. It’s like living in the movie GroundHog Day. I believe today is Tuesday, because Mommy School was up and running, the emails from school have not stopped and I think Isaac might have an online piano lesson this afternoon.
There are many lessons that will come with this time, I hope we will be better able to see them as we try to move forward through this quagmire. I will try to write through the successes as we continue through.
I did want to link this article from Edutopia, as it has lots more great YA Book Recommendations, that might be just what you (or someone you’re spending your days with) needs right now.
“22 Young Adult Novels to Help Students Process the Pandemic (or Forget It for a Bit)” Check it out here. Order online from your local book store!
from Shoe Dog: A Memoir By The Creator of Nike by Phil Knight.
“Perhaps nothing ever revealed my mother’s true nature like the frequent drills she put me through. As a young girl she’d witnessed a house in her neighborhood burn to the ground; one of the people inside had been killed. So she often tied a rope to the post of my bed and made me use it to rappel out of my second-floor window. While she timed me. What must the neighbors have thought? What must I have thought? Probably this: Life is dangerous. And this: We must always be prepared.
And this: My mother loves me.”
I loved this passage. As a writer, I like how he poses several questions after he shares such a vivid image of he and his mother practising escaping a burning building. In recounting the story, he wonders what it must have looked like to others– but more importantly, he answers what it made him think of… and in the stragest of circumstances, he sees that his mother’s odd behaviour was really her love for him.
This was a great passage for students to note and imitate craft. Share a vignette, pose the questions. End with possibilities: Probably this:… And this… And this…
This blog started because I read a lot because I want to be able to recommend titles to my students. I also look for wonderful passages and beautiful sentences– those too are for my students. I want them to take notice of what they read: what it means to them; what it makes them think about; what they question; what it looks like on the page; how it is crafted to get our attention.
The Snapshots Page includes posts that snapshot moments and thoughts about my teaching of reading and writing.