Recently I came across a bunch of old basal readers used in Canadian classrooms in the 70's. Snatching them up right away, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality. I've heard so many professionals condemn such books over recent years, that I was taken aback by some of the great stories and illustrations. I decided that the problem wasn't the books at all-- they're often great anthologies-- but with the teachers who followed up every story with dry questions and seat work.
Just a couple weeks ago, Laura, a friend of mine who's moving soon, invited me over to rescue some of her book collection. I was tickled pink to find a couple of old Newfoundland basal readers that I had to read way back in junior high. Openings and Passages are the 1st and 3rd respectively, in a series put together by Eric Norman, June Warr, and Ray Goulding back in 1980. Unfortunately, Laura didn't have the 2nd book, Stages, but shockingly all three books are still available at Breakwater Books.
Once again the selections are impeccable, offering up even more variety: poems, short stories, folk songs, photos, nonfiction, even an exerpt from a play. It's a marvelous celebration of Newfoundland's rich literature, and of Newfoundland culture in general. (The editors do admit a scant Labrador selection, despite their efforts to find more.)
However, this time around teachers might not get all the blame for sucking the life out of vibrant written art. Flicking through the book I had horrible flashbacks of my own school experience... "Read the poem on p. 90 and answer questions 1 and 2 in your notebook."
Yes, after every entry, Norman, Warr and Goulding thoughtfully provide questions and activities. We get such questions and projects as, "Can you suggest why Ray Guy insists he is not 'a nature lover'?" and "Make a list of the appeals to the senses used in this poem and show how each is appropriate to the subject." Not, of course, that such questions are inherently evil, or even inherently boring, irrelevant, or unnecessary, but imagine if you had to do such work after everything you read. I'm guessing the number of books you read in a year would decrease rapidly. If these questions were merely suggested conversation starters, not required to be answered on paper every single time, and real conversations and questions were encouraged as well, I'd not have as much issue. But, these books do, unfortunately, make it incredibly easy to be taught poorly by teachers who may not know better, are tired, or uninspired themselves.
I don't want to leave on that note. As I've said, there are some absolutely wonderful works of literature in these books and I will be completing my collection as soon as I can. In the meantime, here's one of my favourites by Tom Dawe (who just published a collaborative book with painter Gerry Squires entitled Where Genesis Begins):
by Tom Dawe
We could never regard him as one of us,
that little boy who made boats all summer
even though the puddle had dried up
and our town was miles from the sea.
He seemed to like the rain
when it did come,
that sissy who would sit inside
below his mother's breasts
reading story-books all day
and asking questions about the hills
above our town.
Once he came out near the end of a shower
and got all excited about some raven
flying across a rainbow.
He never killed frogs with us
when we sharpened summer spears
from the leafy twigs,
and he never owned a fishing pole.
Sometimes our parents made us
invite him to our birthday parties
and his parents forced him to come.
When he did arrive
he spent most of his time
staring through the window.
He was no comfort to any of us,
I can tell you that