Thoughts on culture, education, and having been a Canadian in the US
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Posts from — July 2006

The text in the machine: Writing, publishing, and the blogosphere

Here’s much of the content from my presentation today for the National Writing Project in Vermont’s Summer Institute. I’ve had a great month of July watching teachers from all over the state give great demos of lessons or projects they use in the classroom. I head back to classes this fall full of ideas as to how I might integrate more writing into my literature courses. Thanks everyone!

As I am not positive that the computer lab we’re in today has a projector where I can hook up my laptop, I decided simply to put all the links and resources we’ll be looking at up on my own blog. We’ve required everyone of the fellows from our Summer Institute to print out a packet of materials for each of their demos. As I’m going to mention today my thoughts on using blogs to help avoid using a lot of unnecessary paper in the classroom (handouts with the syllabus, essay topics, bibliographies etc.), it would be hypocritical of me to print out all that follows.

So, fellow fellows (and other interested parties), here’s your handout. Feel free to add to it by commenting on this post. I’d love to get your feedback online rather than on paper. You can also bookmark this page via its “permalink” so that you can come back to these resources whenever you like.

the text in the machine

One of the reasons I wanted to do my teacher demo on blogging in the classroom is that I’ve been using the Internet as a teaching tool since the first time I began teaching in 1993. At first, I used e-mail and listservs, but in 1994 I was the first instructor at the U of Alberta (that I know of) to create webpages for all of my courses and use the web as a crucial component of my teaching. Back then, I had to bring all of my students into a lab, arrange for them all to get an official U of A e-mail address (I don’t even recall any of that first bunch of students having one yet), and showing them on their computers the World Wide Web for the first time (“You may have heard reports on the news over the past little while about this thing called the World Wide Web. Here it is!”). It’s hard to believe how much things have changed in twelve years.

One of the things I don’t know that I would have predicted twelve years ago is the degree to which interacting text (and texts) is a fundamental part of lives today. Thanks in great part to e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, and the extraordinary and sometimes suspect wealth of information available to us online, we are always transforming our ideas into the written word and finding ourselves having to interpret and act on the written words of others. More than we’ve ever been perhaps, we’re still a text-based culture. Students today at all levels are writing, texting, and chatting online ALL the time. Yet, they often don’t connect this with the work they’re doing in the classroom. What I think blogging has the power to do, is to connect these two parts of their lives, these two types of writing they are doing. Blogging can help them to think more critically about all the content they are producing and turns each student into a publisher, with an audience that might well exceed the walls of their classroom and school.

so what is blogging anyway? Or, “whose bright idea was it to put the Canadian in charge today?”

Coined in 1997 by Jorn Barger, the term weblog, popularly shortened as “blog” is now immortalized in the Oxford English Dictionary and can be used as both a noun and a verb. There are lots of helpful definitions of the term “blog” online, but one of the best attempts to define it that I have seen is by Sébastien Paquet of the Université de Montréal (there go those Canadians again…). He argues that five defining characteristics of a blog are:

  • Personal editorship
  • Hyperlinked post structure
  • Frequent updates, displayed in reverse chronological order
  • Free, public access to the content
  • Archival

This definition from the quite good Encyclopedia of Educational Technology is also very helpful.

Let’s get blogging!

There are lots of different ways to create your own blog, some of which (typepad, for instance) cost a bit of money, and others, like, that don’t. A great resource for teachers of every level is, which offers free blogs to teachers. To keep matters simple, though, today we’re going to try to create a blog via Blogger.

So, head over to and follow the instructions at blogger on how to create an account and start your first blog!

Once you get your blog up and running, I’d like you to take ten minutes to write your first post. In it, I’d like you to reflect a bit on what you think some of the applications for blogging might be in your classroom.

Once your post is up, give your blog address to two of your classmates and ask them to post a comment on your blog.

Best practices

We’re going to take a bit of time now to visit some other blogs that I think will give you some great ideas as to the potential for using blogs in the k-12 classroom.

Will Richardon’s Weblogg-ed blog is a great place to start your exploration of the world of education blogs. He has a great list of reasons to use blogs as a teaching and learning tool, as well as a short but significant set of links to best practices from a variety of levels and areas of study.

Let’s take some time to go through some of those great examples of K-12 blogging identified by Richardson:

Blogwrite: a class weblog from J.H. House Elementary School in Conyers, GA. If you look around, you’ll see that there’s lots of blogging going on all over the school, including in the principal’s office. Take a special look at the entries from August 2005 as teacher Hilary Meeler gets her class rolling with the blog. Clearly, at the end of the year, the fifth grade students were really taken by blogging. Look at what Derek had to say about having to leave his blog and his school behind upon leaving for Middle School. The school worked closely with Anne Davis at Georgia State University to get this project going. Davis’ blog EduBlog Insights also makes good reading for anyone interested in this field.

Here’s a site that features kindergarteners PODCASTING (!) and a good seventh grade (or Grade 7 as we call it in Canada) Math blog

I’ve long thought that this website from Mabry Middle School is a great example of how schools might use blogs and podcasts. The Principal, Dr. Tyson, is leading the way here at his school and also around the country, I’d imagine. There’s lots to learn from spending a bit of time at their school site.

One of the principal’s blog posts to the parents offers a great explanation of how blogs can be used effectively school-wide, and also gives a great explanation of something else I want to touch on today: RSS feeds.

Overview Information About Our New Website

MabryOnline is our new web presence. The site is really a collection of nearly 100 blogs designed with a front end that appears to be a web page. We have done this in the hope that our staff will more easily be able to keep information on the site current. Posting to a blog is substantially easier than having a web master who knows a lot about html, xhtml, css, asp, js, and blah, blah, blah. We don’t. And even if we did, then the webmaster has to track everyone down to get their information to post it.

So, what is a blog? The term is an abbreviation for weblog and can be most easily understood as an online journal. Teachers post journal entries (or posts) to their site (or blog). The teacher assigns each post to a category that s/he has already created. When the post is published on the site, it is automatically linked to the category (listed in the sidebar on the right), to the date it was posted (via a little calendar in the sidebar on the right), and also is placed in a monthly archive (which, you guessed it, is also listed by month in the sidebar on the right).

Finding information in a teachers site could not be any easier. To read everything that has been posted to this blog about the Film Festival, simply click on the name of that category in the sidebar on the right. To read everything related to the Beginning of the Year, click…you have the idea. You could also go to the archive links for July and August to read things that were posted in those months which might relate to the beginning of the year.

Aside from having a powerful organizational structure for content management, a blog also has a very powerful search feature. Each teacher’s site (or blog) has a “Search this site:” area in the sidebar on the right side. Simply type in the string for which you wish to search, and the script will bring up everything in the teacher’s site that matches your search parameter–powerful, fast access to content.

Every time the site is updated, the blogging system is programed to update the syndication files. You can setup an RSS/Atom feed reader to automatically notify you when new content has been posted to the site. Most feed readers provide you with a quick summary of the new information, which, if you find relevant to your need, can serve as a link to the entire post of new information.

We will find that RSS/Atom feed readers are going to have a huge impact on learning and research. Rather than going out to find current, relevant information, you can set up a RSS/Atom feed reader to have the most current information about a research topic come to you. Software is now coming available that will even automatically annotate in a bibliography the source from the major online libraries . This is cutting edge and very powerful! The digital divide between those who know information literacy skills and those who do not is going to grow exponentially in the next few years. And who thinks students do not need laptops?!


There is, of course, tons more that I could say on this topic. I hope you’ve had a chance to see some of the ways in which students and teachers might benefit from using blogs. We’ve talked a lot over the last two weeks about the students writing for others and publishing their work. Imagining an audience beyond their classmates makes a huge difference in their writing. Promoting blogging also might help to get some students writing outside of class. They will wind up connecting writing to their lives in a new way. Blogging makes them active producers instead of moderately passive consumers of culture (I think kids are the least passive of all consumers)

July 25, 2006   1 Comment

‘Just who is this Magna Carta fellow?’

George Saunders always cracks me up….

Even Atwood makes an appearance in this great piece from yesterday’s Guardian about Saunders’ first trip to England:

After Hay, it was off to Salisbury, for the Salisbury Book Festival. As part of my study, I decided to embark on this trip after staying up drinking until 4am for two consecutive nights. I wanted to see how the famous “English countryside” would appear to an American author endeavouring not to be sick in front of one of his idols, the famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood and her charming, brilliant husband Graeme Gibson. Turns out I was unable to observe much of the countryside, because instead of gazing out of the window, I was gazing down at my feet muttering, “Why, you idiot, why, how old are you anyway, you freaking moron?” This portion of the study was further complicated by the fact that our driver was a sadistic former race car driver who, upon learning of my condition, attempted to come to my aid by telling me lengthy anecdotes about all the places he had historically thrown up in while drunk, and enumerating all the exotic, grotesque foods he had eaten just prior to throwing up, and taking corners faster than necessary, sometimes even going up on two wheels while glancing playfully over to see if I’d thrown up yet.

Guardian Unlimited Books | ‘Just who is this Magna Carta fellow?’

July 23, 2006   2 Comments

The NEH Digital Humanities Initiative

Wow, this is really cool. I can think of a pile of uses for this kind of money. I think I foresee another grant application in the works…. Once I finish the books I’m working on right now, that is. My hockey article is coming along, too, thanks to my kind writing group at the NWP Summer Institute. They’re coming in each day with great poetry and narrative essays and I walk in with “guess what? Here’s another page or two from my hockey opus!”

NEH has launched a new digital humanities initiative aimed at supporting projects that utilize or study the impact of digital technology. Digital technologies offer humanists new methods of conducting research, conceptualizing relationships, and presenting scholarship. NEH is interested in fostering the growth of digital humanities and lending support to a wide variety of projects, including those that deploy digital technologies and methods to enhance our understanding of a topic or issue; those that study the impact of digital technology on the humanities–exploring the ways in which it changes how we read, write, think, and learn; and those that digitize important materials thereby increasing the public’s ability to search and access humanities information.

Digital Humanities Initiative

July 23, 2006   No Comments

If you liked the link from the last post…

You’ll LOVE this one….

July 19, 2006   No Comments

Yes, I’m still alive. Barely…..

I guess a few people have been wondering where I’ve been lately. Readers?! You mean people read this? Cool.

I’ve been super busy of late helping to lead the National Writing Project in Vermont’s annual Summer Institute. I’ve had a great time with these folks and am learning a ton, much of which I hope to bring into my own classroom in the fall. It really amazes me sometimes how little we actually talk about pedagogy in higher ed. It’s been a revelation to me.

Here’s a picture of the group taken the other day.

NWP Summer Institute

The only downside (and it’s also an upside) to the whole gig is that it runs from about 8:30 to 3:30 four days a week, for the entire month. On top of all that, there’s my new job directing the Canadian Studies program (and we’re in the midst of huge changes that have to happen in the next few weeks for budget reasons) and there’s also my day job to consider…. I’m beat! I’ve not worked this hard in a long time. Needless to say, there have been days of late where I’ve been wondering about changing my line of work so I can actually get work done. I wonder if there’s an opening where this guy works….

More from me very soon….

July 19, 2006   No Comments

Looks like being Canadian in Vermont just got a whole lot easier….

This just in from the Green Mountain Curling Club. Looks like I may have another extra-curricular activity for the students in my Introduction to Canadian Culture class. Speaking of which, can you believe they let me teach a course like that? How cool is that, eh? More on that course as we get closer to September. Congrats to Rich and the rest of the GMCC on making this dream a reality. They just might make a curler out of me yet….

July 3, 2006   No Comments

What is “Essentially Canadian”


The Toronto Star had a great feature over the holiday weekend. They came up with top-ten lists of Canadian books and films, but also things like architecture and children’s entertainment.

I’m not usually a huge fans of lists like these and the choices they made definitely fall on the safe side. Still, it’s a great starting point. I’ve printed these off to give out to my students this fall in my Intro to Canadian Culture class. It’s important they know who Mr. Dressup was, if you ask me.

Here’s their list of ten essential Canadian books:

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), by Stephen Leacock

The Tin Flute/Bonheur d’occasion (1945), by Gabrielle Roy

Poésies complètes (1952), Émile Nelligan

The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), Hugh MacLennan

Beautiful Losers (1966), Leonard Cohen

The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Margaret Atwood

Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Alice Munro

Obasan (1981), Joy Kogawa

In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Michael Ondaatje

Green Grass, Running Water (1993), Thomas King

July 3, 2006   No Comments

A Canada Day editorial from the latest Northwest Passages newsletter


Canada and the ImagiNation

Burlington, Vermont
July 1, 2006

I began Canada Day in my new office at the University of Vermont. It’s my first official day as Director of Canadian Studies and, it being Canada Day and all, I thought the Canadian Studies office was as good a place to be as any. It’s been a few years since the Canadian flag flew outside our building, as the last time we put it up our secretary was confronted by a troubled man who apparently has psychological issues about seeing any non-American flag flown in his country. After a mediation session with our staff, the man’s therapist, and campus police (I kid you not), it was decided that perhaps we’d best keep the flag inside for a while.

Given that this all happened a few years ago, I decided as I pulled into the office at about 7 this morning that it was time to dig out the flag once more. My first act as Director, then, was to open up a brand new Canadian and American flag and to put them both outside the front of our building, with the US flag positioned appropriately on the left (apparently we didn’t follow proper flag etiquette the last time around). It’s not often you see people hoisting flags on Main Street here at 7 AM, but there were only a few stares from passing motorists. It’s not really that unusual to see Canadian flags in Vermont, much to the chagrin of that fellow who stopped by to yell at, I mean, visit us one day. While Canada might not get much attention from the US — a survey this past week showed that only 4% of Americans polled correctly identified Canada as its largest supplier of oil — it’s not all that far from the minds of Vermonters. Furthermore, there are many Canadians who live here.

As most of us know, one of the things that makes Canada unique is that we’re a nation whose creation does not stem from violence via war or revolution. Canada was created, rather, out of ideas, out of conversation and imagination. If you think about it more, in fact, Canada today is not that much different. Canada is still a creation of the mind, as much, if not more so, as a physical and tangible space that we know through experience. As Canadians, most of us think that we know Canada, and yet 90% of us live within 100 miles of our southernmost border. How many of us have actually seen in person more than a minute fraction of our country?

We might well be a northern nation, but within the context of Canada’s borders it’s safe to say that there’s nothing very northern about Toronto, Calgary, or Halifax. For as much as we talk about Canada being the “true north strong and free,” few of us have actually seen the true north. For that matter, how many British Columbians have ever been to New Brunswick? How many Ontarians or Quebeckers have spent spring break in Victoria or the Rockies compared with those who head south to Florida? What holds us together as Canadians today, then, is still primarily a set of ideas, an ongoing act of the ImagiNation.

The other thing that’s been intriguing me of late is how technology is making the boundaries between nations more porous, the notion of citizenship more complex. The Internet, cell phones and cheap long-distance calls, the ease and inexpensiveness of air travel, and the influence of multinational corporations on the global economy make it easier than it’s ever been to feel more connected to a country or community outside of the one in which we physically reside. As we all understand, it takes far more than residency to make a citizen; we all know people who’ve lived somewhere their entire lives but who choose not to vote, not to read the newspaper, not to connect with anything more than their immediate circle of family, friends, and co-workers. In earlier times, though, it was virtually impossible to be a citizen, and certainly to feel as if one was contributing as a citizen, without being physically present in that community.

In my case, while I may not reside in Canada right now, I can still participate. I vote, watch the national news every day (which even if I didn’t get CBC and CTV here in Vermont I could still do over the Internet), listen to CBC (mostly Radio 3 these days) and I read my hometown paper (The Edmonton Journal). I even help to run a business in Canada, selling and promoting the literature of my country. And yet, the Canada that I occupy, is not one that I connect to on a physical level on a daily basis, though frankly I feel comforted by the fact that the border is only about 40 minutes from my house. My “Canada” is an intangible, and ultimately imaginary one, that I connect to daily through ideas, words, sounds, and images – more “nationspace” than nation state. Undoubtedly, for me, “Canada is a fiction,” as I recently heard Noah Richler say in an interview about his upcoming book This is My Country, What’s Yours?. It has to be a fiction for me. But it is for everyone else as well, even for Canadians living in Canada day in and day out.

So, where does literature fit in with all this? One of the things that has been fascinating for me teaching Canadian literature to American students is to watch what kinds of Canadas they create for themselves as they read everything from Susanna Moodie and E.J. Pratt to Eden Robinson, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Lynn Coady. I expected in coming here that I’d find the students’ visions of Canada to be reductive, simplistic, and not as rich as those of my students back home; that just hasn’t proven to be the case. Last week, I read, too, about a talk given at a recent conference on LM Montgomery that dealt with the huge following her books have had with young female readers in Finland. For those girls, their Prince Edward Island is no less real or strongly imagined than that envisioned by any Canadian who has ever read the Anne of Green Gables but never been there. There are many, many people around the world who regularly occupy “Canada,” without ever having been there. You only need to travel outside of Canada and meet one of the many people who are avid readers of writers like Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, or Margaret Atwood, to realize that Canada belongs to readers in a different but almost equally powerful way than it does to its own citizens.

From my Canada to yours, happy Canada Day.

Paul Martin

July 2, 2006   1 Comment