Sorry I have Been Distracted

It has been awhile since I have contributed a post. I apologize for that. I am itching to get back to my writing but, we are in the middle of a big, whole Kitchen renovation. If you have ever found yourself in the middle of such a major renovation then, you can appreciate that it is messy, noisy, disruptive to your home routine and that, quite simply, it takes time to complete.

I am very thankful to all of the skilled tradespeople who are helping to transform the heart of our home but, I will, also, be thankful when they are finished and we can put our home and our lives back together again. As for my blog, I don’t know about you but, I have a hard time writing with there is noise from construction and conversations competing with the thoughts in my head. So, I wait to write. Sorry.

As the projects stands, the new floor is in and the cabinets are all installed. But, walls still need prepping for painting (which means cutting out the drywall where the old back splash was, re-installing new drywall, mudding, taping and sanding, too) and a new back splash put in when the wall prep is done. As well, our counter top and new sink are still to arrive so, we are still a week or three from being completely finished. The one thing about the wall work is that I can do most of that myself. For if there is one thing, besides not writing, that is driving me crazy about this project, it is that I haven’t been in control of much that has happened to date. Custom cabinetry and flooring is best left to professionals. But, in doing so, we have handed over control of the timeline, too. I may appear like a nice, gentle soul but, underneath it all, I am a control freak and so, not being in control of when trades people arrive, how quickly they work and so on is driving me batty. Having said that, I doubt I could do the work as capably as they can so, they work and I sit and not write and slowly, painfully slowly, the project advances and we near its conclusion.

When all is done, I will post some “before and after” photos so you can all see the scope of the project. We are happy with the work to date but, we will be happier in a few weeks when it is all done and our lives return to normal and, my blog does, as well. Until then, you are all wished continued good health, happiness and all that is good in life.

See you all on the other side.

Home, Sweet Home!

My mother is turning 88 years old in June. Just prior to this past Christmas, she had an episode with her heart that caused her to be in hospital for three weeks. She received wonderful care from the doctors and nurses and has now returned to her home in an assisted-living residence for senior citizens. Now comes then hard part for her, finding the physical and emotional strength to remain being able to live independently.

Home, wherever that may be, is a special place. This is so for a myriad of reasons but, foremost among them is that Home equates with personal freedom. Your home, be it a condo, a starter home, a mobile home, a mansion or something else altogether, is your space. You can live the life you wish to live within the confines of your personal safe haven. Unlike living with your parents, for example, or being a renter, having your own home affords you the opportunity to explore your world as you see fit. Don’t like wearing pants?! Don’t wear them then when you are home! Want to rise with the sun every morning?! Go ahead and start your every day with the golden rays of the sun on your skin. It’s your choice because it is your home. Having personal freedom to make your own choices is one of life’s most enticing elixirs. It is something that, once tasted, is incredibly difficult to stop savouring and desiring as life unfolds.

So, as my mother lay in her hospital bed, our conversation was never just about her getting better. It was always about whether or not she would recover enough to stay in her current home. Or, more to the point, would she be able to recover sufficiently to continue living life on her terms once she left the hospital. The short answer, for now, is yes. My mother is back in her apartment in her assisted-living residence. But, the depth and scope of her choices has lessened as a result of her illness. Instead of leaving the residence to go shopping, as she was able to do in December, she now considers it an accomplishment to walk (with a walker) to the dining room and have her lunch in public. This tires her out and forces her to rest more than before. Not being able to walk very far limits her life choices to those available within her residence. Luckily, her residence…….the place she calls home…is very nice and she is surrounded by people who care for her and who are helping her as she recovers.

But Life is a cruel Master. It gives you the greater part of a lifetime to enjoy the freedom of living how you choose and then, as the end draws near, Life claws back that freedom, incremental block by incremental block. My mother and father married in the 1950s. Before I was born, they travelled to Europe, the U.S and across Canada. My mother was a Registered Nurse, working full-time during a time in the evolution of our society when women were only just starting to have careers outside of the home. After my father’s death when I was just 11 years old, my mother raised my sister and me on her own. Up until the last five years of her life, my mother always lived on her own in a house or apartment and enjoyed a life of great independence. And then, Life presented my mother with a bill that she was unable to pay. The winters grew colder and longer, the storms more intense and her gait less steady on icy walkways and roads. Suddenly, my independent mother began to become fearful when it came time to leave her home; fearful that she would fall and be unable to get up, fearful that she would break a hip, as cliched as that sounds, fearful that she would lose control of her life and the power to make her own decisions.

So, she made a decision. A decision to give up living on her own in her own home and apply for admission into the assisted-living residence where she currently resides. The independence and freedom of having the world as her oyster ceased to exist when she moved. Life collected a portion of its debt and, as a result, my mother’s world shrunk. She still has an apartment but, like all the other residents, she is not the only one with a key to her door. Staff check on her and work to make sure she is safe. If they detect anything that they feel may be unsafe, they can report it to the head supervisor and meetings will be held. For example, my mother has a kitchenette. She was always a great cook in her younger days, but now, she sometimes forgets to turn off a burner or that she has even put a teapot or some eggs on to boil. Meetings were held. My mother has now been asked to not use her oven and to stay in the kitchen if she ever wishes to boil an egg again or else they will have to remove her stove….for safety reasons. To help, we bought her an electric kettle that has an automatic shutoff. A stove is very important to my mother so, she works very hard to remember to turn everything off and to watch her pots when they are boiling but, it is hard for her to always remember. Meanwhile, Life chuckles and readies another bill.

I am not sure how it is in the rest of the world but, in Canada, there are systems in place to help people, like my mother, to transition through the various stages that occur near the end of life. For now, while my mother has been discharged from hospital, she has been provided with in-home support from a personal service worker (P.S.W.) who stops in each day to provide physical therapy, help with food preparation, etc. This is very helpful because neither my sister nor I are geographically close to our mother. This is a public service and was arranged by a social worker who works in the hospital specifically to deal with the elderly and with families who are unsure of how best to help. There are, also, private agencies that, for a fee, will provide workers to assist my mother should she need to leave her residence for an appointment, for example. All of this brings a measure of comfort to those of us far from home.

My mother, also, has her name on a list to move into a nursing home. Regardless of the state of her recovery from her heart illness, the call that a bed has opened up should come within the calendar year, or so we have been told. A nursing home is the next stage available for the elderly. In doing so, she will trade her assisted-living apartment for a room with a bed and a dresser and a chair by the window and round-the-clock care. Her world will shrink again, as will, her ability to make decisions for herself. Following a nursing home, my mother will end up like all do near the end, in a palliative care ward in the hospital. At that point, her world will have shrunk down to the confines of her own skin and bones. And then, she will die. She will. It happens to everyone eventually. Life will collect its debt in full and that debt, once paid, earns the payee the reward of eternal freedom.

My mother has never been one for spontaneous gestures so, I doubt she will opt to jump into a volcano or throw herself off of a mountain peak, all to avoid progressing through the life stages that await and which are beckoning with increasing urgency. I have watched aunts and uncles and my wife’s grandfather, all recently pass away so I am familiar with the stages of decline that occur and, to the person involved, the incremental loss of freedom that happens. For now, I am trying to put on a brave face and be very matter-of-fact about it all but, when each stage comes, my heart will crack a little more and it will be tougher than I expect, I am sure.

But, we are not at the end yet.

When I spoke with my mother yesterday on the phone, she said she was feeling more like herself. I told her that I was happy for her. She is glad to be home. I know she welcomes making her own choices again, after being in the hospital for three weeks. The intoxication of independence is not something given up without a fight. I am lucky that her mind is clear and that she is lucid, to a point. I intend to treasure every moment we all have left with her because, as many of you can attest, moms are everything. And, Moms and Home kind of go, hand-in-hand, don’t they? Just goes to show that when I speak of “going home”, I am not always just talking about Cape Breton.

A Foundation of Love

Recently, I was asked to contribute a short piece of writing to a website called Inspire Your Marriage. This is a website that offers profiles of married couples. These couples provide stories of what helped make their marriage work, what some of the ups and downs may have been and how did they resolve any difficulties they may have encountered. Here is the story of Keri and Tom.

Keri and I have a very good marriage because our marriage is built upon a foundation of Love. All good marriages are. It may seem like an obvious starting point but it bears examination. This is what I mean by Love.

When you love someone….I mean, truly love someone….the focus of your life changes. It is no longer just about you and your wants and needs. When you truly love someone, their happiness and well-being, their hopes and dreams, all become as important to you as they are to your partner. And the best part about it is that you welcome this responsibility willingly into your life. Falling in love with my wife didn’t cramp my style in the least. In fact, it elevated my life to a higher plane and brought a sense of joy and contentment that I never knew was possible. We completed each other, right from the very beginning of our relationship and are partners in the truest sense of the word.

One of the most important secrets to our success is that we love each other for who we are. Neither of us tries to change the other into someone they aren’t. We are happy with the person we each found when we met. Make no mistake, Keri and I are different people. We bring different skills and experiences and personality types to the table. But, instead of fighting against each other when our personalities clash, we have, instead, always found ways to complement each other. I will give you a quick example. I am more of an introvert while Keri is more of an extrovert. I have always recognized that having many friends is important to Keri and brings her much happiness. Therefore, even though I don’t desire to always be going out and about, I have always encouraged Keri to maintain social relationships outside of our home; with her work colleagues, university classmates, family members and so on. Keri, for her part, recognizes that I am comfortable living within the space between my ears and, as such, she never forces social engagements on me. She gets her social time. I get my quiet time. We both are happy.

A final element to the success of our marriages resides in the fact that, as partners in Life, we understand the importance of helping each other out; especially, with the day-to-day grind of running a house and raising a family. We each have our jobs; Keri washes the clothes. I iron them when they are done. Keri dusts the furniture and then, I vacuum. I cook most of the meals and Keri washes the dishes most days and so on, it goes. Because we care about each other, we derive no pleasure from watching the other person being unduly burdened by chores. Being helpful in equal measure helps lessen the burden of running a home on both of us. This, in turn, gives us more time to share together doing things we enjoy, even it is something as simple as sharing some hot tea and chatting about our day.

I consider myself to be blessed. My life, as a husband and father, has unfolded better than I could have dared to dream. My heart is full. My wife and my children have helped to make it that way. I am rich beyond measure as a result. And, all because we have built our marriage on a foundation of Love.

The Power of Success

I had an unexpectedly interesting day while using social media today. I am not usually someone who fawns over celebrities when it comes to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram but, every now and again, because of technology, a connection is made with someone that people would consider to be “famous”. In my case, while on Twitter this morning, I found myself chatting, via tweets, with Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk.

Chantal Kreviazuk has been a star in the Canadian music scene for a couple of decades now and has several number one hits. For over twenty years, she has been married to another Canadian music star, Raine Maida, lead singer of rock group, Our Lady Peace. I have long been a fan of both performers because they have always been about way more than just their music and record sales. In fact, a few years ago, I wrote a post about them. I will insert that post in now and, after it is done, I will tell you what it was that caught my attention this morning and helped reaffirm the strong level of respect I hold for both performers. Here we go……

     Success means different things to different people.  To many of us, the measure of success is purely quantitative; those who have the most are the most successful because, well, they have the most.  The Education System is groaning under the weight of using standardized testing to measure success. In Music, record sales and concert ticket sales are often the standard by which the success of a singer or band is measured.  But, is this fair? 

     In order for data-driven criteria to be the most valid indicator of success in Music, an artist or band has to play that game as well.  While record sales are always important, in so much as they generate income and help pay the bills that allow artists to produce albums and to hold concerts, for some artists, record sales are just a means to an end and are not the single most important measure of success for them.  Sometimes, an artist is in it for something grander. Sometimes, an artist aspires to use their fame and notoriety to promote a cause that they champion that, is important to them and that, in their eyes, is more more than ticket sales and album units moved.  Such a band was Our Lady Peace.

     Our Lady Peace is a fairly successful Canadian pop-rock band. Over the course of their career, they have been awarded four Juno Awards and nine Much Music Video awards (the most ever by a single band.) They’ve had numerous Top Ten radio hits such as, Is Anybody HomeStarseed, LifeInnocentSuperman’s DeadSomewhere Out There and Clumsy.   While never quite ascending to the lofty heights of stadium rock maintained by bands such as Rush or Bryan Adams in his day, Our Lady Peace still managed to be that band that would come to your hometown and sell out the local theatre or hockey rink.  They were a made-in-Canada and maintained-in-Canada success story, as far as record sales are concerned.  But, record sales do not tell the whole story.

    Lead singer, Raine Maida, has always been noted for having one of the most powerful and unique voices in Canadian rock.  He is handsome and personable, too.  In the early days of Our Lady Peace, Maida was certainly being groomed to be a “rock star”, in the mode of a Corey Hart, perhaps.  But Maida, to his credit, had a higher purpose to his life and refused to be lured into the false trappings of stardom.  Raine Maida is married to fellow singer Chantal Kreviazuk.  Lovely and talented as they both are, the potential to be a musical “power couple” was certainly there. However, both performers are Christians.  Because of their personal beliefs, both singers have dedicated much of their adult lives to helping others in need.  They perform at benefit concerts, they do mission work in third world countries and, at home, they have both dedicated sales of their hit songs to charity.  In the case of Our Lady Peace, sales of one of their biggest hits, Clumsy, have all been directed to helping support an anti-bullying venture in Canada known as Kids Help Phone, where children who feel lost or scared and alone can call and talk to a supportive adult.

     In my eyes, Our Lady Peace has to be considered a great Canadian success story. They have used their music to make a positive difference in the lives of others. At the end of the day, knowing that what you did mattered is among the most important measures of success there is.  Ask any kid who was contemplating suicide but didn’t follow through because of that voice on the phone. Ask any refugee who was given shelter and a warm meal. Ask any church whose coffers were bolstered because Our Lady Peace and Chantal Krevizuk appeared, without fanfare, at their church hall for a benefit concert…..ask any of them and they will tell you that fame, itself, is not the measure of success but, instead, it is using fame as a tool to make a difference that can make one a success.  Our Lady Peace and Chantal Kreviazuk had that figured out all along and, as a result, have enjoyed a most successful career as there has been.

I wrote that three years ago. This morning, I discovered that Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida are still using their fame, their platform, to help others. They have completed a documentary about the struggles and heartbreaks and love and successes they have encountered as a married couple. The documentary is set to air at the end of January and is called I’m Going To Break Your Heart. The link to the trailer is here. It can’t be easy to lay your soul bare for all to see but, that’s what Chantal and Raine have done. In the information I read about this documentary, they said that they have often been asked how their marriage has survived so long in the spotlight, as it were. They replied that no marriage is perfect and every relationship has its ups and downs and that it was important for people to see the human side to their world. They ended by saying that they believed love is worth believing in and fighting for. Their hope was that this documentary would inspire couples who were, perhaps, questioning the strength of their commitment, to, in fact, renew their will to fight for their own relationship instead of giving up.

So, I spent a few minutes this morning tweeting back and forth with Chantal Kreviazuk about Love, marriage and the power of success to help make a positive difference in the lives of others. Like I said off of the top, I don’t normally go on about celebrity encounters but, in this case, I am willing to make an exception. Do you have any advice for how to maintain a good marriage? Have you had any interesting celebrity encounters? If so, feel free to add your thoughts in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my words.

My Hana’s Suitcase Story


Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂

Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.

That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.

Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.

As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.

As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂

My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.

My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.

And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.

Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.

That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.

Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.

So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.

The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.

Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.

About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.

I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.

That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.

So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as such to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.

So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.

I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.

A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.

I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.

Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.

Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too

Will You Be My Neighbour: the Survey Says….

Faithful readers of this blog will know that, just prior to the “Christmas of 2018” holiday season, my daughter Sophie and I delivered 34 handmade Christmas cards to our neighbours. The hope was that, by reaching out via a Christmas greeting, that some of the walls of isolation that currently exist on our street would come crumbling down. This post will provide you with the reaction our cards received. Do I have to keep my nose firmly in my own business, gazing downward as I stroll down the street or will I be swapping stories about the weather and calling my neighbours by name as our paths cross? Let’s find out, shall we?

Of the 34 cards we sent out, the MacInnes Family received one email reply, two visits at our door and a total of ten cards left in our mailbox. That works out to be a return rate of almost one-third. Not perfect but, not bad, either. Of the replies that we did receive, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Here are a few of the replies:

“What a lovely surprise to get your card. The colouring was beautiful, as were the nice holly drawings.” from Bonnie at #2.

“Thank you for your Christmas card. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.” from Marie and Amy (her black lab) at #19.

“Thank you very much for your Christmas wishes.” from Maureen and Gerry.

“Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a year filled with happiness in 2019.” from Faith and Mike at #4.

“Thank you for your cheerful Christmas card and wonderfully hand-decorated envelop. You touched us with your Christmas spirit. Much appreciated.” from Tom, Judi, Kyle and Dex the dog.

“We were so touched to receive your lovely card and to meet one of our neighbours in such a way. Thank you. (And, we loved the beautiful artwork on the envelop!) Wishing you all a very happy holiday season, a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.” from Todd, Lea, Sophie and Luke at #8.

“Thank you for thinking of us. Merry Christmas to you all.” from Brenda and Ed at #20.

“We hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and, of course, Go, Blue Jays, Go!” from Jen, Brian, Abby and Emma. *This family are all big Toronto Blue Jay baseball fans and are known for having Blue Jay pennants and flags in the front of their house.

“Thank you for your card! I love the envelop! I hope we get to meet each other in person. Have a peaceful and safe holiday and a year filled with laughter.” from Starr. Starr’s card came in a personally-decorated envelop too, as you can see, she has some talent.

We received a card from Bernice and Eric at #16, too. While their greeting inside the card simply wished us a Merry Christmas, what was noteworthy is that Bernice actually knocked at our door and delivered, not just a card but, also, Christmas sweetbread and a tray of maple fudge that her husband had made that day. Both were delicious! You can see them in the photo at the top of this post.

So, as first steps go, this journey toward knowing my neighbours has gotten off to a good start. We reached out and many reached back. To those who have welcomed our gesture, the next step is, obviously, to reinforce the positive response we received, with a follow-up reply in kind…..even if it is simply waving to them the next time we are out at the same time and calling them by name. As walls go up, one stone at a time, walls come down, one kind act at a time, too. That is what this experiment was all about. Does kindness and friendliness still matter in today’s world? I believe it does and our Christmas cards were an attempt to prove it true. To those who reached back toward me and my family, I am very appreciative and grateful. I am not expecting to become best friends with anyone but, one never knows what the future may hold. For now, I am happy to live in a neighbourhood where we treat each other kindly, where we watch out for each other’s well-being and where we can greet each other with a smile and a wave and say hello by name.


I Hope You Can Hear the Bell

If you ask most children to tell you what Christmas is all about, the vast majority will talk about Santa Claus and elves and the North Pole and, most importantly to them, getting lots of presents. Not too many children realize that Christmas is actually a religious holiday unless they go to Church. And, not too many children go to Church these days. I would say, the total number of children who knew the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus was never more than a quarter of the class, in any given year.

Christmas is just one example of how young children view the world around them. Most kids have an very ego-centric view of life and move through their days blissfully unaware of why things are the way they are. Why is the weather the way it is? Why do we eat certain foods and avoid other types of food? Why do we put a tree in the middle our living rooms in December and stick a star or angel on top? Who knows? Who cares? May I go and play now, Teacher?

Well, one of the philosophical pillars of my teaching career was to help children make sense of their world. So, we talked about why it is cold in the Winter, even on sunny days. We talked about the vitamins and minerals found in fruits and veggies, as opposed to the empty calories found in junk food and how that affects our bodies and minds. And, at Christmas time, we talked about why we have the traditions we do because, when you stop to think about it, we do a lot of weird things during the holidays.

So, this post is going to talk a little about how I did that in the classrooms I taught in and, more specifically, some of the books that helped me explain the traditions of Christmas to children; especially those who don’t go to Church.

In my day, I had several hundred holiday-themed books in my collection. Over time, some came to become more useful to me as a teaching tool than others and some came to become favourites with the kids. Sometimes, the two merged together and the books became essential parts of every Holiday Unit I taught. The Christmas Pageant by Jacqueline Rogers is one such book.

I usually set aside three weeks to go through my Holiday Unit. This book was always one of the first books I shared with the children. The book is very simple in its structure: it tells the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus by showing a school class rehearse for their Christmas pageant. What is really good about this book is that as the rehearsal moves through the various stages of the Christmas story, the words and music to the old classic Christmas carols are presented. So, for example, when Mary and Joseph first start out on their journey, the words and music to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are given. When the angels first appear in the fields to the shepherds, the words and music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” This happens all throughout the book.

The beauty of this is several fold. If you have ever seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and can remember the scene, close to the end, when Charlie Brown throws his hands up in frustration and cries, “Does anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?” and then, Linus goes to centre stage and says, “I do, Charlie Brown” and he proceeds to tell the story and Christmas suddenly becomes about something more than the greed and the glitz of commercialism well, The Christmas Pageant did the same for me with my students.

This book introduces the classic carols to kids. All of the kids know Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. But, this book allowed me to take the carols, one per day, and write out beautiful lyrics such as,

“Angels we have heard on high,

Sweetly singing o’er the plains

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains

Glooooooooooooooria, In excelsis deo (X2)”

That is lovely language but, the story of the lyrics is told in context because of this book so, the language doesn’t end up being too lofty or intimidating, even for small children. In addition, it allowed me the chance to play these carols during craft times, as well as, Jingle Bells et al., and the songs would make sense to the kids and have a deeper meaning because they understood the story being told.

Furthermore, introducing the story of Jesus being born, along wth the carols that accompany the story helped my students in the same way that Linus helped the other Peanuts characters realize that there is more to this Christmas thing that they originally thought. Thus, because of this one book, I was able to open the door to exploring some of our Christmas traditions such as the importance of a star, of angels, of nativity scenes and so on.

I used to do this by using the Advent calendar format. Each day, we “opened” a new box or panel and revealed a new topic. For example, one day might be about candy canes and why they are shaped the way they are. The next day, might be why we bring trees inside our homes and the original German tradition of putting candles on the branches and how, for safety reasons, this has given way to electric lights. By the way, whenever I did the “lights on the trees” lesson, I always read The Nutcracker to the kids. It is the perfect story for illustrating how homes were decorated back then. It, also, introduces the concept of candy, including sugar plums. Once I have read this book to the kids, I can then read The Night Before Christmas and it will make more sense; especially the part when “the children all nestled snug in their beds, visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Getting back to the Nutcracker, for a second, reading that book, also, allowed me to go to YouTube and show the kids a clip of The Dance of The SugarPlum Fairy by The Bolshoi Ballet from Russia. *This comes up later in the list in another book, as well, called Olivia Saves Christmas.

I could talk all day about the Art and Science of teaching a Unit like the Holiday Unit to small children. But, for now, let me switch gears a little and tell you about some of our favourite books that always made an appearance during the course of the Unit. Some acted to help impart new knowledge of holiday traditions but, some others, were just fun read-alouds and some had other lessons incorporated into their storylines that appealed to the kids, as well. So, book talk time….here we go!!

James Herriot was a Veteranarian in Scotland. His stories of life as a Scottish vet became a TV series on PBS called All Creatures Great and Small. I really like this book, The Christmas Day Kitten because it allowed me to talk about two things that don’t normally get thought of at Christmas time. First of all, I got to say my piece about animals being given as gifts for Christmas and how pets aren’t gifts, like a doll or a toy truck. Pets are living creatures and for many kittens and puppies, the stimulation of Christmas can be frightening, as well as, the shock of being in new surroundings and, finally, knowing how much kids want to just go and play with all the new toys they just received, is it really the best time for them to learn to take care of a new pet? Secondly, there is a death in this story. The cat, in question, in this story dies giving birth to kittens. It is the only story that I had in my regular rotation of books that had a real death as part of the storyline. When the cat dies, the line in the book goes something like this…..the vet is talking……..”I placed my hand over her heart. Her heart beat no more.” The scene is an emotional gut punch and every single class always grew silent when I was done. With many classes, I would get asked if the cat was really dead. I would reply that it was and we would talk briefly about the Circle of Life. With other groups, the discussion would come up about pets who had died and, maybe, even family members who had passed away. When this came up, it allowed me to talk to the kids about how some people are sad at Christmas time and how we must truly think of others and show empathy. All in all, this book is important and was always handled in a sensitive manner. In the end, class after class, always thought it was special and, you know what? They were right. There are many James Herriot books and I recommend them all.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is awesome because Jan Brett is a wonderful author and illustrator. This book was always popular and helpful because, while the story of Tekka training Santa’s reindeer played out, one day at a time, there was always a separate story playing out in the border of the book that showed what was going on in the workshop as December rolled along. So, for example, on December 1st, the elves were busy making wooden blocks, Russian Stacking dolls and stuffing stuffed animals. The fact that each page was a calendar date, dove-tailed nicely with the Advent Calendar-style format I was using to introduce each day’s Christmas tradition.

The Little Drummer Mouse is written by Mercer Meyer who, if you are familiar with children’s literature, wrote the Little Critter series and is much beloved, as a result. This story is based on the carol, The Little Drummer Boy. The illustrations are gorgeous in this book and I would like it enough for that alone. But, the lessons in this book are noteworthy, as well. For example, the forest animals learn that “the Royal Family” will be passing by. They plan an elaborate feast, all the while showing little patience for the little drummer mouse who, they feel, has nothing to contribute and is in the way. Unbeknownst to the animals, as they flit about, madly preparing for royalty, quietly, in the background, a young couple silently pass by (Mary and Joseph). No one pays any attention to these poor folk. Eventually, while everyone is asleep, the mouse goes to an empty field to play his drum. Once there, he notices the bright star and feels compelled to follow it. He is in awe of what he sees in the stable and is asked to play the drums for the baby because the drumming is the only thing that calms the newborn. Suddenly, the mouse is very important. I like this story because it helps to drive home the point of how we judge others based upon their appearance and, as well, it allowed me to reinforce the notion that the smallest ones….just like my young students…..still have worth and still have value and can make a significant difference in the lives of others. It is a message than young children can never hear often enough.

Some stories are just fun reads and are super clever in their concept. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup is one such book. This book is about a boy who is making Christmas cookies with his Mom and decides he wants to turn his gingerbread men into a pirate crew, instead. Needless to say, the pirate cookies come to life during the night and end up fighting for their cookie lives as they attempt to avoid being eaten by the nasty giant all dressed in red. Lots of comedic turns throughout the story but, the best part of all is that, if you are so inclined….and why wouldn’t you be….you can read Captain Cookie’s character in a pirate voice all the way through. Every book is better when you can read it in a pirate voice! Arrrrrr, matey!

OMG!!! If there is any better character the world of Children’s literature than Olivia then, I don’t know who it is! Olivia Saves Christmas by Ian Falconer is the perfect melding of words and illustrations. There are fold out pages. There are cartoon illustrations plus, real photographs, too. Olivia, herself, is a diva. she loves fashion and art and, while having a heart of gold, always ends up exhausting her parents with her antics. Like every book in the Olivia series, there is a high degree of interactivity with this book. I highly recommend them all. If you are in a book store and see any of the Olivia books, pick it up and have a quick read. I guarantee that you will love what you see. Just as a teaser, when Christmas day is over, Olivia falls asleep. She dreams she is dancing the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy with Rudolph Nureyev in The Nutcracker; Nureyev and the stage in photograph form, Olivia is cartoon form, the perfect expression of happiness and contentment on her face.

Prolific adult author, James Patterson, wrote this book called Santa Kid. This book reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie. The illustrations are gorgeous but, the overall theme of a child saving Christmas is a message I always wanted to drive home to my kids. I never wanted them to feel helpless or as mere passengers in their own journey. I always sought ways to empower children and books like Santa Kid allowed me to give that message out. In short, this story is about a businessman who takes over Christmas and the North Pole because he claims that Santa isn’t as efficient as he should be when it comes to production and delivery and profit margins. Santa becomes too depressed to act, once things begin to go awry at the North Pole so, his daughter steps in a saves the day. I always like books that have female heroines, too and, this one does. Like I said, it reads like a movie so, kids always get caught up in the adventure of it all and they enjoy this book thoroughly. More of a book you would read to your child, as opposed to one they would read on their own but, just the same, a recommended Christmas choice.

Like Santa Kid, Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera, is a little more like a movie than most stories. It involves the spoiled Kringle children who live in a penthouse apartment in New York. They have a mysterious aunt who always goes away on “business trips” at this time of year. This is another story with a female lead. Sophie, the eldest sibling, decides to hide away in her aunt’s luggage as she prepares for her big trip. Not surprisingly, she ends up at The North Pole. Because she is small, she is mistaken for an elf and gets assigned various duties. Eventually, she goes down in the coal mines to get the list of naughty boys and girls and discovers that her brother’s name is on that list. Sophie has an epiphany and comes to realize the error of the way she and her brother have been acting and attempts to redeem her brother so that he will get gifts for Christmas, too. Eventually lessons are learned and identities revealed and secrets are shared. Over the years, the children I have shared this story with have enjoyed the detail and creativity given to the traditional Santa Claus tale that they are familiar with.

Berkley Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1987 for his comic strip, Bloom County. Much of the same high-calibre ability to combine illustrations with a strong storyline is evident in this book, A Wish For Wings That Work. This story is centred on one of his famous comic strip characters, Opus, who is a penguin who wishes to be able to fly. Obviously, as you know, penguins can’t do that in real life. Thus, Breathed tells a tale of a character who feels inadequate and defeated, “Imagine a bird whose wings sputter at those times when they should flutter”. Opus tries many different ways to fly such as ordering a Flap-o-matic from Ronco but, in the end, his dream never seems to be realized. But, as in all stories of this sort, redemption comes in the form of an emergency when his penguin swimming skills help to save Santa and, by extension, help to save Christmas. Earlier in the story, while sitting under a framed photo of Amelia Earhart, Opus had written to Santa, asking to be able to fly and, in a heart-warming way, Santa delivers the gift that Opus wanted in a way that makes Opus feel proud of himself in the process. Lots of depth and detail to the story and to the drawings in this book. One of my all-time favourite Christmas stories.

Sometimes, a book becomes a classic because of marketing and hype. But, sometimes, a book becomes a classic just because it is so good. There are two Christmas books that everyone should have and How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of them. The second book is The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

I doubt that summaries are needed for either of these book so, I will spare you that. But, let me tell you why I have found these two books to be so very special.

First of all, short of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch is, arguably, the most iconic character in Christmas literature. Dr. Seuss has done a masterful job of creating a character so repugnant and evil that you have to root against him. But, his redemption is so profound and complete that, you can’t help cheering for him in the end. The rhyming nature of Seuss’ prose makes this story a delight to read aloud or to listen to. And, just like reading a story in a pirate voice is fun, I cannot…..I mean, absolutely cannot read this story in any other voice than that of Boris Karloff, from the original cartoon movie. If I was tasked with having to read aloud one story over and over again, for all of eternity, it would be How The Grinch Stole Christmas in a Boris Karloff voice. Man, I love it so much!!! And, so do the kids.

As for The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg, this is my #1 book, and is the favourite choice, year after year, of the kids in my classrooms. The reason for this is simple….this story is all about the power of believing in something bigger and more profound than yourself. Believing in something is a powerful tonic for what ails all of our souls and what better thing to believe in with all your heart than the magic of Christmas. The way this book ends, with the ability of those who believe to hear the ringing of the bell, is as powerful a closing scene as almost any book ever written. I had the pleasure of working with children for thirty years and, believe me, the innocence of childhood hearts is as precious a gift as there is in this world; something that The Polar Express captures completely.

As I said waaaaaaay off of the top of this post, at one time, I owned hundreds and hundreds of Christmas books. The list I just gave to you is, by no means, exhaustive nor complete. There are countless other good books out there that help children understand the traditions, emotions and reasons for all that we do during the Holiday season. I hope that you enjoyed my list and that you all have a wonderful Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, etc., wherever you happen to be.

***The photo I am using as my cover photo is from a company called MagicalBells.com 

For all of your “bell” needs and more, give them a looksee.