Blog posts from English Dept.'s Blog

A List of Children's Books About Residential Schools and Their Survivors

June 08, 2021

June is National Indigenous History Month, and, in light of what the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc people finally got Canada to pay attention to and how many other unmarked graveyards there are likely to be at the sites of residential schools, I thought I would offer a (noncurated) list of children’s books about residential schools and their survivors. These are in alphabetic order by title.

Amik Loves School by Katherena Vermette, illustrated by Irene Kuziw, picture book (2015), available in English

Arctic Stories by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka, picture book (1998), available in English

As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, illustrated by Heather Holmlund, picture book (2005), available in English; sequel is Goodbye Buffalo Boy (2008)

Ends/Begins and The Pact by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, books 3 and 4 in graphic novel series 7 Generations (2010 & 2011), available in English

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, artwork by Liz Amini-Holmes, chapter book (2010), available in English; sequel is A Stranger at Home (2011)

Gaawin Gindaaswin Ndaawsii / I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis & Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland, picture book (2016), available in English or dual language English/Nishnaabemwin (Ojibwe)

Kookum's Red Shoes, by Peter Eyvindson, illustrated by Sheldon Dawson, picture book (2015), available in English

My Name is Seepeetza, by Shirley Sterling, novel (1992), available in English

No Time to Say Goodbye by Sylvia Olsen, Rita Morris, and Ann Sam, novel (2002), available in English

Phyllis's Orange Shirt by Phyllis Webstad, illustrated by Brock Nicol, picture book (2019), available in English

Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave, picture book (2005), available in English or French; sequel is Shin-Chi's Canoe (2008)

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, picture book (2017), available in English

Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, graphic story (2012), available in English

These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens by Ruby Slipperjack, novel in the Dear Canada series (2016), available in English

When We Were Alone by David Roberston, illustrated by Julie Flett, picture book (2016), available in English, French, or Cree

If you’re making a list of Indigenous writers and illustrators for young readers on topics beyond residential school trauma, a few important names to note are Katherena Vermette, David A. Robertson, and Julie Flett.

Dr. Nicky Didicher teaches children’s literature in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University.

Experiential Learning in English literature courses

By Nicky Didicher

July 18, 2016

Experiential learning is a hot topic even outside the Ed Biz nowadays, and it’s a concept long overdue for more widespread attention. A lot of us human beings learn better by doing than by watching, learn more from expressing ourselves and asking questions than from listening to a lecture. A lot of us who teach at universities and colleges have thoughtfully over the years reduced the amount of lecturing in our lectures and come up with more hands-on ways of learning that we can get our students involved in. What about this could change or evolve if we thought more about experiential learning?

And what does “experiential learning” currently denote as a term? The best-known promoter and analyser of experiential learning is David A. Kolb, whose work in the 1970s and ‘80s produced (among other monographs) 1984’s Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. There’s the Kolb Model of experiential learning, and the ECHO model based on it (for short accessible summaries see Simply Psychology and The Echo Model). Kolb also identified different learning styles, ways people interact with their learning environments: e.g. “diverging” learners are those who like to feel and watch and do well in brainstorming groups. In Kolb’s model, experiential learning means strengthening everyone’s secondary learning styles by means of undergoing a process that is not just the hands-on “doing” of activities, but also includes reflection and abstract conceptualization before applying learning to a new activity. I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s not just the experience that creates the learning, but also having the opportunity to think about why you’re doing something hands-on and to think about and speak/write about it during the process and/or afterwards.

For some, “experiential learning” means field trips or field schools, internships, or being able to count workplace experience toward an academic degree, but experiences can also happen inside a classroom. And so can reflection and communicating the results of experience.

I teach English literature, a discipline some people might think of as being a difficult one to make experiential: what would you do? take a field trip to a library? In fact, yes you can, but there are so many more possibilities. Allow me to list a few learning activities (in no particular order) and see what you think. Keep in mind that each of these benefits from a learner’s understanding of the purpose of the exercise, reflection on it, and the communication of the results of that reflection in some way.


1. creative writing: imitation, parody

  • Writing a sonnet can be an excellent way to learn the form of the sonnet, its challenges, its rewards, its possibilities.
  • Writing a parody of Dickens’s style can be an excellent way to formalize in your own mind how he creates an individual voice for his narrators.

2. editing and creating an edition

  • Peer editing of writing assignments can benefit not only the recipient of the feedback but also help the peer reviewer conceptualize effective writing strategies and implement them in her or his own writing.
  • Giving students a manuscript facsimile of a work of literature and having them go through the process of editing it and producing a scholarly edition can give them insight into how their own textbooks work and what work went into creating them.

3. research methods and databases

  • Instead of only watching a demonstration of how to use the MLA International Bibliographyor the Oxford English Dictionary, students can undertake specific research assignments to put the demonstration into immediate practice.
  • An annotated bibliography can provide not just practice in using research databases but also the opportunity to judge and compare the academic and pseudo-academic materials that students collect.

4. hearing authors read and talk about their own work    

  • Living authors are often willing to make classroom visits either in person or via skype (this one may need financial resources, but often in the hundreds not thousands of dollars).
  • Living and dead authors reading and talking about their own work are sometimes available in audio recording, on film, or in printed interviews.

5. reviewing literary work for academic and/or popular audiences

  • Students can better understand the academic book review as a genre by writing a review of one of the works on their syllabus.
  • Students can produce a blog-style popular review of one of the works on their syllabus, submit a review to Amazon, or write a Wikipedia article.

6. having a prize competition

  • Students can nominate literary works for a hypothetical prize, giving their support based on either pre-determined or student-generated criteria, and the class can vote to determine the winner.
  • Students can engage in debate in class about qualities and values of literary works. My colleague Sophie McCall is teaching a course in the Fall of 2016 which uses the Canada Reads competition as a model.

7. recreating a particular historical context to illuminate a literary text

  • A medieval literature class can have a pot luck banquet, with everyone choosing a recipe from Medieval Cookery.
  • A class reading a Jane Austen novel can receive a lesson on English country dancing and then perform the dance while trying to have a conversation with their partner.
  • [I’ve personally used both these activities, with resultant learning, merriment, and even one marriage!]

There are, as you can see, lots of possibilities for experiential learning in English literature courses, some of which happen inside the classroom and some outside it. The key to incorporating experiential learning thoughtfully into our courses is 1) thinking about why to use a particular activity, so it’s not just digging through a tool box of teaching strategies for something different to liven up a class, and 2) incorporating reflection and communication into the process. This latter can range from a formal and summative assessment (i.e. a written assignment for marks) to a simple oral follow-up of “why do you think I had you do that?” “what did it tell you about x?” and “how has your thinking or understanding changed as a result?”

For accounts of different kinds of experiential learning in other disciplines at SFU,  you can explore the Experiential Learning Casebook edited by Vivian Neal from the Teaching and Learning Centre.


Adventures in Pedagogy (Part One)

By Nicky Didicher 

November 24, 2015


The word “adventure” literally means “toward what’s coming,” and the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun form of the word as “chance of danger or loss; risk, jeopardy, peril,” like in “venture capitalism” or “venturing out into the storm.” As a professor who specializes in teaching/pedagogy rather than research, I think of myself as a risk-taker when it comes to what I teach and how I teach. I move towards the future and I make use of happy accidents (these are also meanings of “adventure”!). Rarely content to teach the same texts in the same ways for too long, I experiment with reading lists, with assessment methods, and with in-class activities. More importantly, because I try to do what’s called “learning-centered teaching,” I don’t change things just for the adrenaline rush, but with the goal of helping students learn more, learn better, and learn for their future.

Every semester I want to make at least one significantly large change in the courses I teach, and I’d like to share with you two changes I’ve made to my courses in the Fall of 2015. In Engl 103 Introduction to Drama we’re beginning each lecture class with five minutes of mindfulness, and in Engl 387 I’m offering oral marking sessions to students.

The mindfulness sessions were something I was thinking about 1) as the result of a paper I heard at the STLHE conference in Vancouver in June 2015, 2) as a supporter of the Healthy Campus Community who wanted to do more, and 3) because I teach yoga in addition to English literature. In July and August I was auditing a course in medieval French music for professional musicians, and one day during the lunch break I was reading an article about “mindfulness in the academy” (by Paula Gardner and Jill Grose of Brock University). One of my classmates asked what I was reading, and it turned out that back home in California she teaches not only music lessons but also mindfulness! A happy accident, indeed. Her name is Argenta Walther, and she was willing to share some of her course materials with me, which helped me organize my planned weekly sessions into different kinds of mindfulness practices.  

My section of Intro to Drama this term is in Surrey, meeting once a week in a nice room with tables rather than tablet desks and with about fifty students. I told the class on the first day that starting in week two I would be having five-minute mindfulness sessions at the beginning of their two-hour lecture block. Those five minutes were completely optional, and there would be no penalty for coming at 10:35 instead of 10:30 each week. I did ask, however, that people not enter the room during mindfulness. In the first session I mostly explained what mindfulness was—non-judgmental self-awareness and self-examination—and its benefits for mental health, memory, focus, physical health, and social connectedness. Then in each following week I’ve led a short session with a different theme or practice. We’ve focused on breath, on gathering and releasing tension, on compassion for those in our lives who cause us stress, on feeling grateful to our feet for all they do for us, on learning, on joy, on educational goals, and on exam anxiety. So far, they’ve been very well attended, with only one or two people coming each week at 10:35.

In week six I put an anonymous survey into Canvas (SFU’s Learning Management System) to get some feedback on how students were responding to the mindfulness sessions and whether they found them useful. As part of this survey I asked them their reasons for attending, and the top two were curiosity and to learn to de-stress, with “to get the seat I want in class” coming a distant third. Nearly 85% of the thirty-one students who filled in the survey felt they’d learned something valuable, and 90% asked for the sessions to continue. Half the respondents felt that five minutes was just the right amount of time, while 35% would prefer longer—I’ve stayed with the five minutes. The student respondents were slightly more divided when it came to believing that this will help with their learning, with only 65% agreeing. I’m planning to do another survey after our final session, to see how they feel at the end of term and if they have any suggestions for improving this as a teaching and learning tool.

I’m very pleased with how this experiment has gone: I’ve gotten strong positive responses to it from students, it doesn’t take too much class time, and I too feel calmer and more energized when we begin talking about drama! My hope is that they will remember and be able to use this kind of practice to help them get through their university careers with more calmness, more attention, and less stress, and that they will be better learners because of it.     


Adventures in Pedagogy (Part Two)

By Nicky Didicher 

November 26, 2015


In my previous post, I talked about the mindfulness sessions I was doing in my Engl 103 Introduction to Drama class this semester. Today, I’d like to share with you the other new and risky teaching-learning experiment I’m doing this term, which is offering an oral marking option in my Engl 387 Children’s Literature course. This one, like the mindfulness sessions, was also partly inspired by a talk I heard at STHLE (the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference) in Vancouver in June 2015; I had heard the idea a few years ago in another context, but this reminder pushed me toward working out an implementation that I thought could work for my own context.

Engl 387 is already a pretty radical course: students in it choose two-thirds of the reading list during the first four weeks of term, and all students design individual assessment plans, choosing what assignments they will do for me, how much of their grade each will be worth, and when they will hand them in. So I was slightly worried about overwhelming students with another choose-your-own-adventure aspect to the course, and held off on describing the oral marking until weeks two and three.

The central idea of oral marking is that students meet individually with their instructor and the instructor marks their work in front of them, all the while narrating her or his responses to the students’ work. This gives students insight into how at least one of their teachers approaches marking written assignments, which in turn should lead to the students being better able to interpret written comments on future papers and also to their being better able to judge drafts of their assignments against the kinds of criteria we outline for them. When I was in the planning stages of this experiment back in August and early September, I consulted both with Michael Lockett, who is the Educational Consultant for the Faculty of Arts and social Sciences from the SFU Teaching and Learning Centre, and with Sarah Louise Turner, who is the EC for the Faculty of Art, Communication, and Technology (she also coaches on presentation skills and leads SFU’s Teaching and Learning Players, a pedagogical acting troupe). They both gave me very useful help, and I would like to thank Sarah in particular for acting the role of a student being marked, in a dry run for the process with me.

I had a number of worries I needed to deal with before I added oral marking to my Children’s Literature course:

  • First, what was I to do if partway through a session I suspected that the student had plagiarized? I decided that I would read through the paper (or project or report) beforehand to increase the chances I would notice this before the marking session itself, and that if I missed something on my first reading and only noticed it during the oral marking I would stop the session and tell the student I needed to do some research before continuing. Also, I decided I would tell students that the mark I gave during oral marking was an estimate only, and that if afterwards on looking it back over I found something that changed my evaluation I would let them know in the official written copy.  
  • Second, how much time was this going to take? Normally when I’m marking a third-year essay an A paper takes twenty minutes, a B thirty, and a C thirty to forty. Surely having to say aloud all I was thinking would increase the time required! I think it was Michael who suggested that each student should only be allowed to take me up on this once per term, and it was up to them to decide which assignment they wanted to meet with me about.
  • Third, this was going to be a big emotional risk for the students—would they be willing to make themselves vulnerable and open to hearing direct criticism of their work in more detail than they were used to? Sarah’s excellent suggestion was that students would feel less risk and get more immediate benefit if they could choose to have me do this for a draft rather than after they handed something in. I decided that if students brought a complete draft of an assignment to me they could opt for an oral marking session with it, but that if they had an incomplete draft I would do as I normally do in my office hours: ask what one or two issues or concerns they wanted me to read for and focus only on those.
  • Fourth, I was worried that my own lack of tact, especially when I’m feeling tired or nervous, would lead me to being overly blunt or unkind during the sessions. This was the main reason I asked Sarah to work on a dry run with me, so she could both act the part of a student with a very weak paper and also observe my body language and tone of voice as I did the oral marking. I did consciously tone down my language and think a bit before speaking… I imagine nobody wants to hear “What the fuck is that?” about something in their writing, so I went more for “uh-oh.” But I tried to keep the attitude and approach genuine, and Sarah felt that I had been both considerate and frank.

After the planning and the dry run, here’s how the policy got worded online in Canvas:

  • You have the opportunity to have one submitted written assignment or a complete draft marked in your presence with my oral commentary; if it is a submitted assignment, I have option to go over it again and adjust my mark, but it will be close to my oral assessment (unless I discover plagiarism, etc.).
  • I expect this to be time-intensive, so am going to limit students to one assignment each… you can choose something early in the term to gain the advantage of the feedback; you can choose something with a lower grade weight if you would feel better that way.
  • I expect it to be low-risk for students grades-wise—no different from my marking on my own; the risk for you will be emotional—there will likely be some  awkwardness from hearing what the prof is thinking, and having your writing critiqued in detail.
  • I hope that your future/revised assignment(s) will get higher marks as a result of getting insight into what the prof is thinking, what elements count more significantly in her mind, etc.
  • I hope that the oral marking will also help you improve the process with which you write.
  • You’ll set up an appointment with me, preferably outside my office hours: I’m guessing 30 minutes for a project, lesson plan, or bibliography, and 45-60 minutes for an essay.
  • I will still be happy to look at incomplete/early stage drafts with students, asking what you’re most concerned about and concentrating on that alone.
  • I’ll be asking everyone to fill out a questionnaire about the oral marking towards end of term, anonymously and voluntarily, to let me know how it went and what I can do to improve process if I use it again, or why you chose not to take me up on it.

I also told students that they could record and/or take notes during an oral marking session.

And here’s what’s happened so far in the term (we’ve just finished week eleven of thirteen). So far, only three students out of forty-five have taken me up on the oral marking option, two with drafts and one with a finished assignment. I suspect that the student with the finished assignment is confidently an A student and felt no emotional risk, and that I may get no other takers for the official marking in the remainder of term. I hope to get a couple more students with complete drafts. All the students so far have felt the process was useful and not too stressful, and all three took good notes. I discovered that I need to explain at the beginning that I would be asking questions of their papers as I interact with them (“Is this connected to the thesis?” “Why isn’t this part earlier?” etc.) but that I’m not  asking them or expecting them to respond. I found that I can keep the time manageable by not typing as much onto their electronic files as I would normally do and by relying on them to take notes. And, I found that the oral marking process is just as likely as the regular office visit to lead to an impromptu lesson on passive verbs and how to avoid them!

I think I’ll wait for the results of the end-of-term survey before I decide whether to do this again, perhaps with a different introduction to encourage more students to take advantage of the opportunity. I’m convinced it’s a great learning experience for students, but I’ll need to change something to make it more widely viable—suggestions welcome!

[Nicky's note years later, i.e. 2022: I'm still doing the mindfulness sessions, very successful and helpful, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic; I do offer oral marking sessions in smaller upper-year courses, but, while helpful, these have not been as successful as I had hoped because the students who take up the offer are generally the best students, most confident in their work, not the ones for whom this learning would make the most learning. More successful for the academicly-at-risk students is a new policy for my courses without TAs, inspired by Sarah Walshaw: students who miss assignment deadlines can bring a draft of what they've got to a meeting with me for help/support and I will waive the late penalties.]