Top 5 Stage Theatre for School Groups, 2011

The 2011 Playbills have been announced, calendars have been released, and the debate among our English department has begun: what field trips, to which stage productions should we plan for the coming season?

Heartbreak House and The President at the Shaw Festival? Mamet and Ibsen at Soulpepper? Everything starring Peter Donaldson at Stratford? The Melville Boys at King’s Wharf?

Our debate has pointed out that the Shaw is slightly more expensive for the students, matinees at Soulpepper are rare, and Stratford’s musicals are a disgrace to our young fans of the Bard.

Still, with many wonderful options, the debate in the English office is upbeat, and the early leader-board of potential field trips resembles the following:

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Soulpepper
  2. Twelfth Night with Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch and Ben Carlson as Feste
  3. The Grapes of Wrath with Evan Buliung as Tom Joad
  4. Titus Andronicus with Donaldson’s return to Stratford’s stage (even if it is in the Tom Patterson)
  5. The Merry Wives of Windsor with Tom Rooney as Ford and Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff

We need to decide soon. Students intercept me in the halls everyday: “Mr. W! When’s the Stratford trip? I’m definitely going this year!”

Definitely.

——
Image by Bobolink

Criteria for including technology in the classroom

I regularly look for ways to integrate 21st century tools and text in the English classroom, and have found myself using the following criteria for evaluating possible tools:

1.  Free. I prefer using tools that do not cost me any extra money; therefore, WordPress, 21Classes, and Wikispaces are all great for my purposes.  I do bring my iPod to class, but I would own it anyway. I also already have a web hosting account, so I’ll use free software on that if I need to.

2.  No overlap with my personal / professional personas. I don’t use Facebook directly in the classroom because I use my Facebook identity to connect with friends and family, and I refuse to interact with students in that environment.  Same with Twitter and my blog, where I connect with other teachers.  I have considered the idea of having a separate “Mr. W” account for some of these services, but then we come to my next criteria …

3.  Monitoring by a colleague or colleagues. I think it’s wise to make sure my online classroom is monitored by an administrator and/or colleague in the school.  I like to work with tools where I can set up a guest account for these people to jump into the online environment at any point.  It tends to reinforce the academic tone of the online space and is a measure of protection for me as a teacher.

4.  Privacy. Although I bemoan many of the over-protective measures that our school board seems to adopt (and that students just get around), I still value and use private online classrooms.  I do this in part for safety considerations, but also because a private environment is more conducive to genuine conversation.

5.  Connection with curriculum expectations. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway.  There is just no point in tossing new toys into the classroom without having a clear connection to curriculum expectations and learning goals.

6.  Personal learning. I believe that I need to model learning for students, and the best way to do that is to let the class watch me learn to work with a new tool.  It can lead to some spectacular failures, but then students need to know that success isn’t always easy in learning.  So, while I’m tempted to fire up another Wikispace / 21 Classes environment for next year’s classes, chances are good that in at least a couple of courses I’ll be trying out Edmodo and/or BuddyPress.

Tech Tools for English Teachers: iPod

Technically this post is about using digital audio in almost any form in the classroom – podcasts, audio books, audio clips, music — for which I tend to use my iPod.

Why Use an iPod?

Audio files are terrific for the audio learners in the classroom.  It’s perhaps a bit obvious, but it’s important.  Audio learners can tune out to my familiar voice, but can be snapped back to attention when a different voice or music presents a concept.  It’s a simple way of engaging them.

Fortunately, the iPod has a “cool” factor that also hooks a huge segment of the classroom:  the guys.  Forgive me for this gender stereotype, but it’s useful in this case.  While we’ve all encountered “reluctant readers” of both genders, we also know that they will most often be male.  It is no mean feat to get a teenage boy to sit up and take notice in an English class, and any tool that helps me do so wins points with me. The iPod offers instant eye-candy and immediately interests many of the students in the day’s lesson.

Finally, creating audio files can provide an entry point for students who are reluctant to present or read in front of the class.  While they will at some point in the course personally present something to the class, for some of our earlier presentation assignments I provide the alternative of creating an audio presentation.  It works well.

Playing the iPod

There are innumerable ways of using the iPod in the classroom .  I’ll share with you some of my favourites, with applications for specific units of study.

  • Listening to part of a dramatic scene.  If you look at the King Lear unit of study, you’ll find that in almost every lesson we listen to some part of the play via the iPod.  I’ve found that since I’ve started doing this, students understand the play far sooner and better than if we simply read it ourselves.  Sometimes we compare an audio clip to a movie clip of the same scene, which leads to some great discussions about the choices that were made in creating them.
  • Listening to poetry. Poetry is wonderful when read aloud, and it’s terrific for students to encounter a range of reading styles when we study poetry.  Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” is an excellent example of a poem that is read in a wide range of styles, and it connects with students.  I’ve also convinced my colleagues to each read their favourite poem aloud while I recorded it; students then have fun trying to imagine which teacher selected and read which poem.  And of course, there’s the music that accompanies so much of today’s poetry.  We listen to The Tragically Hip or Leonard Cohen in class and talk about Canadian poetry today.
  • Analyzing news. In some classes, I want to help students understand news as a construction.  I’ve found that it works well to listen to a news podcast and compare it to the newspaper, or a news vodcast, of the same day. The difference in the story selection and the amount of space given to each becomes readily apparent.

Creating for the iPod

I have students create audio files for several assignments.  Here are some of my most successful:

  • Reading. Some students that I work with in literacy classes are reluctant to read aloud, even if I am the only person in the room. To get around this, I’ve been able to install them in front of a microphone and have them happily read aloud for me to listen to later.
  • Reader’s theatre. Usually with one dramatic unit in a course, often the Shakespeare unit, I offer students the option of creating an audio file of a dramatic reading of a scene, complete with sound effects.  The students  dive in and study the script to figure out what’s going on so that they can get their sound effects right, and then take care in their editing to get it just right.  The use of technology enables them to perform in a way that they wouldn’t if I asked them to do the same in front of the classroom.  For more about this type of assignment, you can read about using Audacity or my reflections on this assignment with Julius Caesar.

The iPod, or its alternative, is one of the easiest tools to seamlessly integrate into the English classroom with so many immediate benefits.
——
Image by M-j-H
Series image from ryan_franklin_az

Tech Tools for English Teachers: Moodles

21st Century Toolbox Part 5 - MoodlesThis past year I tried moodles for the first time.  I had heard about moodles from teachers who have enjoyed great success with them, and was confident that I’d emerge from the semester with a new favourite tool.

I didn’t.  I am not a fan.

To be fair, I think that in the right circumstances, a moodle might be a very powerful option for a teacher.  I just didn’t happen to find myself in those happy circumstances.

What is a Moodle?

Moodle is described as an open-source learning management system.  The list of features are impressive:  integrated student blogs, wikis, forums, chats, document uploading, and even marking.  Some institutions use moodles to deliver online courses; others use it to complement face-to-face classes.

From what I’ve heard from teachers who have used moodles successfully, a good moodle is a one-stop shop for your digital classroom needs.  Absolutely everything you may want to do online can be handled within the moodle, which means only one set of user names and passwords is required for students.  It sounds amazing, but …

The Hitch …

Person holding up a notebook with a question markA moodle needs to be self-hosted.  I found a couple of sites offering hosted moodles for free, but discovered that some of the essential features (like blogs and wikis) were then disabled.  (I have no idea why.)  Since I’m fairly comfortable with managing websites (after all, The Lamppost is a self-hosted WordPress blog), I thought I’d give the self-hosting option a whirl.

Moodle has a strong support community and self-hosting is by no means an impossible task, but it was definitely an added set of chores that I didn’t need in a busy semester.  I found the documentation difficult to navigate when compared with the WordPress documentation.  Half of the time I’d be asked to log in to see a resource, which I found purely irritating.  One other note:  if you don’t already have a site hosting plan, then you’re looking at spending an extra $80-$100 per year for the pleasure of managing your own moodle.

Other Complications

Initially I thought that the ability to have everything in one place was worth the hassle of the moodle set up.  But then I discovered that some of the features were significantly limited when compared to other free services.

The blogging platform was very weak.  When compared to the 21Classes portal, I found the moodle blogs clunky.  The debates and discussions that I had enjoyed before were missing, because… drumroll… the moodle blogs did not allow comments!

The wiki feature was also definitely sub-standard when compared to Wikispaces.  It was poorly designed and difficult for students (and me!) to use compared to other wiki platforms.

I belatedly learned that the moodle marking feature was useless to me, since I am required by my administration to use a standard software package for marking.

Finally, any time a group of students would be working on the moodle, one would all of the sudden call out, “Hey!  Why am I now working as [a classmate's name]?”  I know that this wouldn’t happen if we were working on an institutional installation of moodle, so I’m not pointing fingers at the software itself; still, it’s a problem that I don’t want to have repeated in the classroom again.

In past classes, my students have left excited about the kinds of online discussions and digital collaboration that their futures might hold at college, university, or work.  Sadly, I know that the students who experienced this moodle with me will not.  In retrospect, I should have pulled the plug after the first two weeks to salvage the semester for them.

A Moodle Might Work for You If …

  • You plan to use more than one digital tool in the semester.  If you’re only going to use it as an electronic bulletin board, then just use a blog.  (You’ll have more hair left at the end of the semester.);  and
  • Your Board and/or school administration has installed it.  That way the back-end security and administration is done by someone else, and it’s truly free.  In this instance, the disadvantages may be rather minimal compared to the time you’ll save in administering separate blogs and wikis; or
  • You really enjoy using open-source software on websites that you host yourself, and you’re ready for another learning curve.  If that’s you, go for it and please stop back here to share what you’ve learned!

_____

Image by db*Photography

Series image from ryan_franklin_az

Tech Tools for English Teachers: Wikis

Wikis:  21st Century Toolbox, Part 4

Next to a blog or blog portal, a wiki is an essential tool for me in all of my classes.  (If you’re unsure of what a wiki is, I’d recommend that you watch CommonCraft’s explanation and then check out edorigami, a wiki for 21st Century educators.)  In brief, a wiki enables a group of students to collaborate on a shared digital product.

Ways of Using Wikis in the Classroom

I’ve gravitated to using wikis for two main purposes in the classroom.  These are not mutually exclusive ways; rather, they might be seen as levels of use.

1.  Class Information Centre

In its basic form, a wiki is a simple website and can function as an information hub for a course.  I often have a page for each unit of study where I post assignments, rubrics, presentations, and other resources for students.  I find it convenient to be able to refer students who have missed a class to the wiki where they can download anything that they’ve missed.  It’s also a convenient place for me to collect electronic versions of short stories or other media that we might study throughout a course.

While this way of using a wiki does not take advantage of its full power, it may be adequate for some grade levels.

2.  Group Project Centre

For my senior students at least, I usually have one unit of study that makes use of the collaborative nature of a wiki.  Most often this is a novel-based unit, and I refer to our work on the wiki as virtual literature circles.  In this level of use, student groups use the wiki to create an electronic lit circle portfolio.  Most of their discussions about the novel are conducted face-to-face in the classroom, but they must discuss at least one aspect of the book via the wiki discussion page.

I find that student work on the wiki reflects their in-class discussions in a way that paper-based portfolios never could.  For one thing, students can’t “forget” to bring their material to class put into the portfolio binder (always a difficulty in the past). For another, it’s easier for students to monitor their progress and encourage each other to get the job done.  And finally, because the portfolio is visible to the whole classroom, and not just to me, they tend to take more pride in what they’re creating.

Steps to Starting an Educational Wiki

Begin setting up a wiki as an information centre for your classroom.  Later on, as you familiarize yourself with it, you can adapt one or more of your group assignments to include an electronic component on the wiki.

Find a wiki service that works for you.  Wikispaces is my favourite, but WetPaint does a good job as well.  PBWorks is one of the easiest services out there, but I’ve found they limit the features on their free versions far too much.  If you have a class Moodle, then you can simply add a wiki module to it.

Develop a code of conduct for your wiki and post a draft on the site. I often use this in an introductory lesson using the wiki, where as a class we can edit and save a final version of the code of conduct. (I’ve adapted the TeachersFirst Wiki Warranty to create a wiki code of conduct.)

Design an introductory lesson or two to ease students into the wiki.  I’ve made the mistake of having students use the wiki for the first time when beginning their group assignment.  The result was that students spent more time learning the technology than they did on their assignment objectives.  Now I usually give them a very simple assignment the first day, such as creating a page with their name and writing three sentences about themselves.

Finally, before students launch into a group exercise, do all that you can to create templates for their work.  I’ve found that when I ask students to create an electronic portfolio without giving them a framework on the wiki itself, the resulting work is erratic.  But when I create a scaffold for them to build around, they seem to be able to focus on the content, which is what I want.

As with blogging, I try to check in early and often as students are starting out, and give them feedback on their progress.  It doesn’t take long, however, for them to be off and running, and it’s a pleasure to see.
——
Image by Horla Varlan
Series image from ryan_franklin_az

Tech Tools for English Teachers: Blogs

21st Century Toolbox - BlogsFor me, blogs have become essential elements in almost all of my classes. I previously used in-class journals extensively, but often found myself with some questions when it came to evaluating the class-set. How often should I check them? How could I realistically provide helpful feedback? Should they stay in the classroom or go home with students? These were small issues, but they still prevented the journals from achieving all that I hoped.

Then I discovered blogs, and quickly learned that they could expand the journal in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Instead of me having to collect 20 notebooks daily or weekly, I just had to hop online. I could comment on students’ writing when I wanted, but in reality they had better people offering feedback: their peers. As a result, the quality of writing and thinking improved overall, and students were integrating other media into their work. They could more easily use their posts and discussions as the basis for essays.

Blogs provided a whole lot of learning value for a relatively simple set-up process on my part. I was hooked.

Ways of Using Blogs in Education

I’ve found that I gravitate towards three main ways of using blogs.

1. Single Classroom Blog

For Grade 9/10, I often use a single blog for the whole classroom. In this situation, the blog becomes a semi-discussion board (I post a question, and students comment on it), as well as a place to showcase student work. Some teachers choose to make this a place that parents can drop in on to learn about what’s going on in the classroom. (I prefer to have parents come to a class website first, but that’s just me.) In a single classroom blog, the security is high and the teacher can very closely moderate student writing. There are many free blog services for this type of blog: EduBlogs, WordPress, and Blogger are some of the most popular and I can vouch for them all being easy to use.

2. Blog Portal

I like senior high school students to have their own blogs where they self-publish their ideas and then leave comments on their peers’ writing. This type of blog pushes students to see themselves as both authors and critics. With these students we practice citing sources using effective hyperlinks, using creative-commons licensed images, and developing a voice in writing and blogging. I have used 21Classes with great success, but other options for supporting a blog network would be a Ning, Moodle, or Edublogs Pro account.  It’s harder to find a completely free option for these tools now, so it’s probably worth checking with your Board to see if they’ve got a similar service.  If you really enjoy this type of thing, you may want to self-host a blog, in which case BuddyPress offers some interesting options.

3.  Professional Reflective Journal

I’ve been blogging about teaching English on The Lamppost for over 2 years.  What started out as a means to self-reflect has morphed into something more valuable to me.  People comment on my ideas and refer me to other resources that might help me.  They critique what I have to say and offer fresh insight.  The blog has become my hub of a global professional network.  I’m humbled and grateful all at once.

Steps to Starting an Educational Blog

My suggestion would be to start by identifying your students’ writing level and determining what skills you’d like to see them develop in the course.  You’ll also want to consider what types of privacy levels you want in place (I tend to make mine as private as possible).  From there you can decide if you want a single classroom blog, or a blog portal, or a personal reflective blog to begin with.

Next, select a service that is going to work for you.  If you want it to be free, then you may have to put up with some advertising.  (Check, though — some services will remove ads for educational sites.)  Play with a couple of different services and select one that YOU find easy to manage.  Try posting, commenting, and moderating comments before you commit to one for your classroom.

Draft some policies to share with students.  How will inappropriate material be dealt with?  What constitutes inappropriate posting or commenting?  Post these policies on the blog.

Decide how you will invite students to the blog.  I’ve made it a personal policy to never collect student email addresses, so I often use the gmail trick to assign them classroom email addresses and passwords.

Before inviting students to your blog, do some preparatory work in talking about the tone of a school blog and the type of language that should be used.  Demonstrate hyperlinking to credit sources, and show them how to find and credit a creative commons licensed image in a post.

Post an introductory and welcome post, and launch the first warm-up blog assignment, which should probably be something as simple as “Post a paragraph introducing yourself.”   I find it’s important to provide very quick feedback to the first few posts, after which students are often relaxed enough to take the online discussion in hand.

Finally, I have found that self-evaluation is essential for students to improve their writing.

Blogging may be one of the simplest tools for teachers to implement in the classroom, and by having students learning effective, safe, online communication, perhaps it is one of the most important tools available.
——
Image by Anonymous Account
Series image from ryan_franklin_az

Tech Tools for English Teachers: Laying the Groundwork

21st Century Toolbox - Laying the Groundwork
I’ve discovered that I can make my life a whole lot easier if I take the time at the beginning of each new course to lay some groundwork.  I have three big items that I like to check off before we go very far in encountering any major texts and interacting digitally.

1:  Understanding Digital Citizenship

I find that it helps to be quite specific in the type of conduct that I expect from students when they’re interacting digitally for school purposes.  I try to focus on digital citizenship when I talk to them about online behaviour, rather than presenting a series of rules.  I hope to get them thinking about contributing positively to our online world and what that looks like.  I’ve blogged about this before, and you’re welcome to download the Digital Citizenship presentation for use in your classroom.

2:  Smart Digital Researching

Digital research is another skillset that I try to cover early on in any course.  We discuss tools to use (such as RSS readers, Twitter, and bookmarking services like Diigo) and look at evaluating the credibility of a given website for academic research.  I use the Smart Research presentation in this lesson.

3:  Critical Analysis Framework

Our students are immersed in a media-saturated world, and I find that they more quickly understand the fundamentals of critical analysis when it’s applied to familiar media.  I therefore start a course with learning to methodically critique common media texts like movies, advertisements and news, using the Centre for Media Literacy’s Five Key Questions framework.

I find that, for example, teaching students about how camera angles affect us as viewers immediately awakens them to some of the subtleties of movies and advertisements.  (I use this Camera Techniques presentation, if you’re interested.) Asking students to consider how they would represent a familiar aspect of their lives in images helps them walk through some of the decision-making that happens behind visual texts.  It’s a lot of fun watching a movie clip with them after we’ve done this lesson, because it’s often the first time that they’ve watched a film as something that has been constructed.

After this introduction, it’s much easier for students to think about a novel or a poem as something constructed, albeit using different tools than a camera and soundtrack.  We use the same framework for analyzing classic texts as we did with media, and it seems to click with students.  Starting with texts from their digital- and media-based world enables them to connect with literature in a new way, without nearly as much blood, sweat, and tears on my part.
——
Series image from ryan_franklin_az

Tech Tools for English Teachers: Series Intro

21st Century Toolbox Series Graphic

This post begins a series focusing on some technology tools that teachers can use to enrich learning.  I’ll start off by sharing why I think it’s crucial that we English teachers integrate new media and technology into our classrooms, along with some thoughts on how to do so successfully.

Using New Media and Tools Equips Digital Citizens

Our students are, to varying degrees, communicating in ways that were unheard of even ten years ago. When they leave high school, they will be expected to interact even more in the digital world.  From online courses to telecommuting, our students will need to know how to communicate and collaborate digitally.

We English teachers, by equipping students to read and create a range of texts, can help them navigate their future world.

Using New Media and Tools Extends Learning

For me, integrating technology is about extending the learning opportunities for students.  When selected carefully and used well, new tools and texts can offer students a way into the unfamiliar worlds of Shakespeare or Charlotte Brontë or Mordecai Richler.  Technological tools can create an environment where students want to take the trouble of communicating their ideas as carefully and clearly as possible.

The Writing is On the Wall

I’ll offer this final reason for us English teachers to integrate new tools and texts into our classrooms:  if we don’t, we will be obsolete.  The digital revolution is here and it is changing our culture.  Our social lives have been impacted by Facebook; our professional lives by telecommuting.  It sometimes seems that only in our classrooms is there still some question about whether or not we should use technology.

If we don’t begin to work with new texts and tools, then our classes will become irrelevant to the real world that students are facing. And with the new tools at hand, students can easily get the content that we offer elsewhere. What they need from us is not only content, but help in developing a framework that they can use to critically analyse and create any text in any medium for any audience. If we step up to this challenge, then we have a crucial role to play in students’ education; if we don’t, then we will be bypassed.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Mr. B-G thought-provoking narrative essay Technology’s Role in 21st Century Education.

Using Tools Intentionally

I’ve found that, once started, it’s very easy to get caught up in the buzz of new tools and thus try to squeeze them into places where they just do not belong.  If we can’t explain how a given tool is enriching the learning that is going on, then it’s not helping.  I find that I need to take time at the end of each class or week to consider how well a tool supported learning objectives, and to imagine if there might not be a simpler or better way of achieving the same end.  We teachers need to be intentional about any tool that we bring into the classroom, and rigorous in our reflection on the learning that is happening.

I’ve also learned that we need to give ourselves the grace to fail.  Using a new tool is intimidating, especially with 20 teenagers watching, and it can be much easier to fall back on our tried-and-true tools rather than branching out with something new. I try to get past this by pushing myself to implement at least one new technological tool per semester, sometimes with greater success than others. If a tool flops, then I do my best to learn from the experience and either leave it or adapt for next time around.

In the next post, I’ll share some of my ideas for laying the groundwork that enables successful integration of technology into any English classroom.

____

Image by ryan_franklin_az

Austen: the complete works as medicine

My wife has been ill for a few months, and it seems that the very best medicine for her is Jane Austen.  Lots and lots of Jane Austen. And, thanks to the Bruins’ disappointing playoff run, I found myself lost in Austen with her.

Since April, she and I have read aloud Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey.  So far we’ve skipped Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice, both of which we’ve read before.

We’ve also watched just about every film adaptation of all of Austen’s books, and I now consider myself somewhat of an expert on all forms of Austen. Also, I’ll admit it’s been fun to read each novel and then watch 2-3 different adaptations of it.

So, ladies, if you’re planning on encouraging an Austen marathon with your husband, here’s a little friendly advice:

Start with Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Bennett are two of the greatest characters ever, and your husband will want to climb into the pages to strangle Mrs. Bennett. Encourage him to do so. And, as I’m sure you’re already aware, the film adaptations are all quite good, especially A & E’s with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

Emma is another excellent novel and has, by far, the best film adaptation of a novel that I’ve ever seen; the 2009 BBC film with Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller will have your husband begging for more Austen! Begging. The screenplay is excellent, the casting brilliant, and the cinematography very, very good.

Persuasion continues to rank as my number one Austen novel, though I felt a little let down by the two film adaptations. Amanda Root (1995) was a fine Anne Elliot, but her Wentworth’s smile disappointed. The recent BBC TV series (2007) felt more like a music video than dramatic cinema.

If your husband can survive reading the first half of Mansfield Park, he should end up enjoying the remainder of the novel. However, I wouldn’t recommend asking him to sit through either of the film adaptations I sat through. You’d be better off re-watching Romola Garai’s Emma.

Northanger Abbey is okay with its commentary on literacy: interesting that at the beginning of the 18th Century, individuals were considered intelligent for reading histories and biographies, but simple for reading novels. J.J Field is a decent Henry Tilney.

Finally, I would avoid Sense & Sensibility altogether, or at least save it for the end. Both the book and the two movie adaptations almost ruined Austen for me. I have trouble liking any of the characters, and Col. Brandon must be an impossible character to cast.

… Now, if my wife still doesn’t feel up for the complete works of William F. Buckley Jr., perhaps I could be convinced to watch Emma again.

Reading Reflection: New Canadian Library

As with most book lovers, I’m always intrigued by new book lists, collections, and libraries — discoveries that can revolutionize my reading habits. Not surprisingly, then, I’ve always been intrigued with the New Canadian Library series published by McClelland & Stewart.

My intrigue, however, often led to some frustration over how difficult it was to collect the series, and disagreement over the titles selected for the NCL series. Well, as it turns out, my frustration was uncalled for. I had misunderstood the series, and I would like to now thank Janet B. Friskney for writing a wonderful report of this Canadian publishing icon and for setting the record straight. Friskney takes a look at the origins of the NCL series and tells about the relationship between the general editor, Malcolm Ross, and the publisher, Jack McClelland between 1952 and 1978.

Apparently the NCL had no intention of deciding on and representing the Canadian canon. Rather, the New Canadian Library series was published to deliver “a quality paperback series of literary reprints that gathered together works either written by Canadians or set in Canada … for the Canadian reading public and … to establish firmly the teaching and research of Canadian literature within post-secondary institutions across Canada.” (3) Rather than selecting only books with the greatest literary merit that have resonated most with our nation, titles were selected that “could be seen as reflecting Canadian life in the various regions of Canada during the different periods.” (14)

Also, I’ve now learned that the NCL never guaranteed that a work would be immortalized. The decision not to number the titles in the series has made it easier for the publisher to drop titles “without arousing public attention.” (6)

A superficial examination of the content of the series of the Ross-McClelland years readily disqualifies the NCL of that era as a canon in and of itself. Numerous titles had no claim to canonical status at any point in the series’ life, while a number of titles highly valued by the academic community between the 1950s and the 1970s, such as W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, were notably absent from it. When the list is analysed more deeply, it becomes evident that during the twenty years between the launch of the series and Ross’s retirement, certain titles were largely ignored, others experienced a surge and then a decline of interest, and still others established or consolidated a claim to canonical status. (154)

The appendices alone make Friskney’s work worth picking up. The lists of titles included in the NCL, as well as all the titles that were only considered, will keep me busily reading well into my forties — provided I can find copies still in print — and I hope that Friskney publishes a follow-up book informing us on the NCL since Malcolm Ross’ retirement.

I really liked that Stephen Leacock titles were used as a financial aid for the publication of the series, as well as Ross’ careful selection of appropriate writers to introduce each work. Like many Canadian readers, I dream of being selected to write an afterword for a Canadian classic. (One of my aspirations is to be the Robert Fulford of my generation.)

I also really liked the discovery that many NCL titles were being used in high schools because instructors were selecting “titles to which they themselves had been exposed as university students” (164). Isn’t that just so true?

Alright, after reading Friskney’s work, I think I have a greater respect for the New Canadian Library series. While I still wish that Robertson Davies were included in today’s collection, and I wish that published NCL titles would never be out of print, I can’t think of a better series of Canadiana than the NCL collection.