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Canada in the Ida B. Wells High School at the U.W.

Paulette Thompson stands in front of a world map.

October 31, 2012

Originally posted: October 2012

How often do you get to discuss Canadian literature and multiculturalism over breakfast with fellow educators over a weekend? Along with a group of 11 high school teachers and teacher-administrators from Washington State I had a chance to do just that while attending the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival in October 2000. The weekend was subsidized by the Canadian Consulate and organized by U.W.’s Canadian Studies Center. The main requirement along with breakfast discussions was that we attend sessions featuring Canadian authors and Canadian content.

On that Friday afternoon after a day of teaching, we headed north and braved the weekend traffic. We arrived into Vancouver, checked into the bed and breakfast, and then headed to Granville Island for our first foray – The Literary Cabaret.

The Literary Cabaret features an incredible band, Poetic License, and five to six authors. The Literary Cabaret helped me understand the concept of synergy. The musicians do not merely accompany the poets and authors; the music is an integral part of the presentation. I started imagining the projects that I could create in my classroom! The Literary Cabaret remains my favorite session to this day.

Concurrent sessions during the Writers Fest provided so many opportunities to engage. We even attended sessions on science writers, creative non-fiction writers, historians and poets as well as panel on whether writers have an obligation to be activists. We missed the sessions held earlier in the week featuring French-language authors.

That first whirlwind of a weekend got me hooked. I have attended the Writers Fest every year since. I believe paying to go to the Writers and Readers Festival from Seattle every year of great personal and professional value.

Although I haven’t received clock hours or credit since the early days, my students and colleagues benefit from my participation. I share what I hear, read and learn. Attending the festival inspires me as a writer and a teacher. I find that it really feeds my soul.

Every year at the Writers Fest I buy Canadian fiction and nonfiction, some for pleasure and others for teaching. I still try to find ways to incorporate Canadian content and authors in my classroom. It can be done.

Attending the Writers Fest helped me to adjust to my new teaching position as a Humanities teacher at the Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice at the University of Washington ( Ida B. Wells is an alternative high school that provides a diverse, multicultural curriculum and a coordinated studies approach to learning. This public school, serving about 40 students, is a joint-endeavor between U.W.’s Office of Minority Affairs, the U.W. College of Education, and the Seattle School District. At Ida B Wells, I include Canadian fiction in the World Literature section of Humanities. We read famous Canadian authors such as Nalo Hopkinson, Anne Cameron, J.B. McKinnon, Alisa Smith, Naomi Klein and David Suzuki.

At last year’s Writers Fest I heard a powerful poem by Jamaica-born Canadian poet and author Olive Senior. That poem, “Meditation on Yellow” ( demanded to be used in my curriculum last year when I taught Caribbean colonization. So I did!

In 2010 I attended a session where Canadian writers Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds were two of the panelists. Grady is primarily a science writer while Simonds is an essayist/novelist and a master gardener. The couple wrote a book together, Breakfast at the Last Exit Café , during a long road trip through the United States. As I listened to Grady and Simonds talk, I found their idea of reflective travel provocative. I bought the book and really enjoyed it. Both Simonds and Grady are Canadian-born yet in their book they write about being in situations as outsiders. Simonds lived in South America as a child while Grady found out as an adult that his father hid the family’s African American heritage. Students relate to the feeling of being outsiders. I decided that I could use it for Humanities as it works for history, government and Language Arts content. My students will be writing a one- two page response to Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds.

This year’s Writers Fest is on the horizon. I already have my tickets. And yes, I will be discussing Canadian and U.S. literature over lunch with family and the Canadian friends I’ve met at the Fest over the years. Wouldn’t it be great if my students could do the same?

Paulette Thompson is a K-12 STUDY CANADA Teacher Associate and alumna of the 32nd Annual K-12 STUDY CANADA Summer Institute, Ottawa and Montréal, 2011. “STUDY CANADA,” the Pacific Northwest National Resource Center on Canada’s annual professional development workshop, has been offered by the Center for Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University for the last 34 years serving educators from almost every state in the nation. The Institute is funded, in part, by a Title VI grant from International and Foreign Language Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education. Paulette is a Humanities and World Language Teacher in the Ida B. Wells School for Social Justice and a U.W. graduate student in Education, Curriculum and Instruction (Multicultural Education). View the K-12 STUDY CANADA website