Stereotypes: No longer in literacy or hockey players

I love things that defy convention or stereotypes.

Captain Oiler or Captain Environment?

When he’s not playing hockey, Andrew Ference is an environmental activist. He created the NHL’s carbon neutral program, bicycles to practices, and is involved in various activities promoting green living.



A Rocket Scientist Playing in the NHL?

There are several former hockey players who, during their playing years, were involved in activities or professions that one wouldn’t normally link to an athlete.

Joe Juneau graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering before starting his NHL career with the Boston Bruins. In short, he was a rocket scientist playing professional hockey. Since his retirement, Juneau runs a hockey program in Northern Quebec for Inuit youth, with a major focus on academics.



Hockey, Politics, and Literacy

The NHL has produced a former player and a former coach who have served as federal politicians: Ken Dryden was the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of York from 2005 to 2011; and Jacques Demers has been a Senator since 2008. Both have notable ties to literacy.

Ken Dryden is better known as the goalie for the Montreal Canadien’s Stanley Cup teams of the 1970s. During his playing years, Dryden finished his law degree.

At the height of his career, Dryden published his first book, Face-off at the Summit, his memoirs on the 1972 Canada-Russia series. After retirement he published five more non-fiction books covering the topics of hockey, education and politics. His most famous, The Game, was adapted into a 6-part documentary by the CBC.

A more direct link to literacy is the story of Jacque Demers. Demers had a twenty year coaching career in the NHL, highlighted with a Stanley Cup win with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. Throughout his career, Demers had a dark secret – he could not read or write.

Demers was a product of an abusive home and dropped out of school in the 8th grade. He masked his secret and the shame of his low literacy skills with a gregarious personality and a passion for the game.

During his coaching career, Demers employed tricks to compensate for his limited writing and reading skills. He would tell his players that he wasn’t a big “Xs and Os” type, and would position the players on the ice rather than write their names on a hockey diagram. When ordering food on the road, Demers would insist on eating at the same restaurants, where he memorized the menu items by their numbers.

Near the end of his hockey career, Demers was the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The GM position involved negotiating and reviewing player contracts. Demers’ personality allowed him to negotiate contracts with ease. When it actually came to draw up the contract on paper, he would defer the task to his assistants.

By 1984, at the beginning of his second marriage, Demers revealed his dark secret to his new wife and his adult kids. Everyone was stunned and amazed that he was able to craft a successful hockey career with this limitation. Demers decided it was time to address his limited reading skills and enrolled in a literacy program.

By 2005, Demers revealed publically his struggles with literacy, and how he overcame them with the support of his family. Now retired from hockey, he began a second career as a literacy advocate. In 2008, having raised the profile of literacy in Quebec, Demers was appointed to the Senate and is still a Senator today.

From a literacy and life perspective, Demers is a Senator whose story is uplifting and inspirational.

Our Library is Waiting to be Discovered

Tucked away in a corner of a light industrial business park in west Edmonton is a gem of a library for beginning adult readers and their tutors. This small, specialized library (3,522 items) is cosily housed at the Centre for Family Literacy (CFL). In it you will find a section of workbooks, specifically written for adult learners, that explain and offer practice in phonics, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, composition, comprehension and fluency – all of the skills that must be mastered in order for one to learn to read fluently. These particular workbooks are not found in the Edmonton Public Library.

Especially good is The Active Reader, a series of workbooks from Foundations to Level 5 focussed on reading and writing, written by Linda Kita-Bradley and published by Grass Roots Press in Edmonton. Each book contains articles, with photographs, on five broad subjects – people, relationships, health and safety, the environment and significant Canadian historic events and people. They are up to date, relevant and engaging.

Across the aisle from the workbooks is the fiction section. We have over 1,330 novels on our shelves. The reading levels of the books range from F1 to F9 (approximately equivalent to grade levels). Most of the novels have been specially written with the adult literacy learner in mind. Vocabulary is basic, sentences are short and the page count is lower than mainstream fiction. Good Reads and Rapid Reads books are well-written, engrossing mysteries for the middle level reader. Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Louise Penny, Deborah Ellis (Good Reads) and Gail Bowen, Richard Wagamese, and Medora Sale (Rapid Reads) are just a few of the writers in these series.

I love what Neil Gaiman says about fiction and why he thinks it is important:

“Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end . . . that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.”

The second thing that happens when we read fiction, according to Gaiman, is that it builds empathy. When we read fiction, we see through others’ eyes; we experience events that are worlds away, far from our own experience, our own time, place, and gender. Reading fiction changes us, he says. Read the whole article:

There are also sections on mathematics, science, the trades, life skills, and resources for tutors. One shelf is devoted to workbooks written for English Language Learners. Workbooks and audio tapes geared to the GED, IELTS, and TOEFL exams are popular. The non-fiction section contains a little of everything.

You will even find a small Aboriginal section. Books on the Métis people are currently highlighted, as this is Métis Week (November 11-16). For more information about the Métis in Alberta, link to:

How the Library Works

Tutors and learners are given library cards. Both get a tour of the library when they come to the CFL for their initial interviews. As well, during the tutor training sessions, tutors learn how to access the library on the computers at the Centre.

When a new tutor and learner have been matched, they meet in the library at the CFL. The tutor has a sheet with information about the learner and some suggestions about what workbooks might be appropriate. But these are only suggestions. Over time as the tutor and learner come to know each other, as conversations become easy and trust develops, learners explain their reasons for wanting to learn and their goals. Sometimes the goals are specific; a learner may want to be able to read the Alberta Driver’s Handbook in order to get a driver’s license. Others may want to upgrade and work toward their GED. Perhaps the goal is to speak and write English clearly.

Together learner and tutor take the beginning steps towards the goal. And there, right next to them is the library, filled with hundreds of adventure stories and mysteries just waiting to be read. Workbooks that build the skills underlying fluent reading, or explain the basics of mathematics, are within reach. They are all doorways to knowledge, to expanded horizons, and to the sheer pleasure and escape of getting lost in a book – of being someone else, of being transported to other worlds and other times.

The library, the whole world, is waiting to be discovered.

Go Ahead and Let Your Kids Play in the Mud!

There is so much information lately about sensory play and the benefits of letting our kids get dirty. Being a mom who loves to dive right in and get my own hands dirty, I hopped on the sensory play bandwagon immediately! A mommy friend and I excitedly planned our first sensory play date. After the items were picked and the space was prepared, the kids were ready and it was time to begin!

Since our little ones still put everything in their mouths we needed to use things that were edible. Cornmeal was the first texture for the girls to explore. We started modestly with a small container and a few scooping toys. This was very similar to playing in the sand although it would not be as bad if they decided to give it a taste.

Things got messy in a hurry. The girls really enjoyed feeling the cornmeal in their hands and between their fingers. It was dry and slid off the skin easily. It gave us the opportunity to use new words such as gritty, coarse, and mild when talking about how the cornmeal felt or smelled, and the girls tried to repeat the new words back to us. The new vocabulary and fun we were having made it well worth the mess!

We were pleasantly surprised that it took longer than we had expected for the kids to taste-test this new texture. Although they made yucky faces, they persisted in trying it again and again. They even used the spoons to feed it to each other.

We were so happy that they were sharing and using the spoons successfully that we waited a few scoopfuls before adding more new vocabulary. Share, feed, lick and taste were just a few of the words we found ourselves using.

We were also learning about how to keep the floor clean while still having fun! In came the water/sand box from outside as our new, larger exploration space. We decided if we were going to do this sensory play thing we were going to go all the way!

My daughter loved how it felt having the cornmeal showered onto her face, neck and head. This gave us the opportunity to talk about those body parts and location words like in and out. Then we let them go in and out of the sandbox as they pleased, so they were in control of what they were, or were not, showered in. And why stop at playing with food? The containers were just as much fun; a bowl could also be a hat or a drum!

Next we added some dry rice, and then some oatmeal. Once again we found ourselves using more new vocabulary. Flat, round, hard, soft, light and dry were just some of the words we used.

Our next step was to slowly add some water. The girls were very comfortable diving in and exploring these new textures, as things got messier and messier, with little or no direction from mommy!

After a quick spaghetti and tomato sauce lunch to refuel, we were ready for round two! The leftover spaghetti was a perfect addition to the sensory play space. Although it was a texture and taste the girls were familiar with, it was new to get to squish it between their fingers and toes.

The girls continued to try tasting every new item we added and neither of them showed any sign of wanting to stop. This made us feel awesome!

The last food we introduced was tapioca pearls (the kind used in bubble tea). The pearls came in an array of colours and sizes. Eventually the gritty cornmeal stuck to the sticky tapioca exterior. Because we did not add sugar to the pearls, as the recipe suggested, the girls attempted to eat them, spat them out, then tried other ones. They probably did this fifteen times each!

The girls loved to stand up and sit back down, transfer textures back and forth between containers, and taste-test items over and over again. With music playing in the background, covered in goo, they even stood up and danced!

It was time to clean up and take our sticky kids to a new sensory play space – the bathtub! Our play date was ending, but we continued talking about all the new words, textures, tastes and smells we had experienced that morning.

Voting Voice

The concept that our vote is our voice is a popular and compelling way of getting people out to vote.  The legitimacy and authority of our government lies in the confidence that it is elected by a majority of the people who live in the community. If there is low voter turnout, it could be argued that the government that is elected does not accurately represent the community it is serving.

In the 2010 civic election in Edmonton only 33.4% of the eligible voters cast a ballot. How do we increase this number?

I believe one way is to increase the literacy levels of adults in our community.  In Alberta, 4 in 10 adults do not have the literacy skills to fully participate in our society.  During elections, we read campaign pamphlets, articles in newspapers, and information online and attend forums to help us form our opinions on the issues. For 40% of Albertans who have low literacy levels, acquiring the information to make informed decisions can be a challenge.

I believe that every citizen has the right and the responsibility to participate in the democratic process.  If everyone has the skills to understand the issues and the confidence to participate in the process, we will have a more engaged electorate.

At the Centre we believe that literacy develops in families first.  Parents who are informed on social and political issues and discuss these with their children are demonstrating the importance of having your voice heard. My daughter and I have gone through all the websites of candidates running in our ward and she has helped me decide who I am going to vote for!

There is one action that I think we can all do to support the community – go vote on October 21, 2013.

Sharing Books Creates Memories

Do you have a favourite memory of sharing a book with a child?


I have a favourite memory of my son’s love for these two books in particular. When he was nearly three years old we read them every day, often two or three times a day. It was never boring or dull to read the same stories over and over with him! His face would light up as if it was the first time every time. The stories he loved were easy to animate with their words that rhymed and great illustrations. What I didn’t realize was that he absorbed every word – memorized each phrase for each page. Then one day I needed to be away at his bedtime and his father did the bedtime story routine. After he read the first book with our son he called me to ask “when did he start to read?” I didn’t understand and said “he can’t read yet! What are you talking about?” Apparently my son knew exactly word for word the book my husband had shared with him – with such accuracy my husband thought he could actually read!

I was proud my little guy was able to fool his dad. I was also encouraged to continue to read with him every day, no matter what story he chose, no matter how many times he chose it. He began to “read” his stories to me as well, and even years later we would take turns and read chapter books to each other. We still enjoyed our story time together.

Everyday Scavenger Hunts

I’m sure there are many sticklers who would argue that what I’m suggesting here is not a real scavenger hunt, but let’s skip past the dictionary definitions and focus on how you can incorporate the fun of a scavenger hunt into everyday activities.

You can search for anything

You could make a list of specific things to find, or try to see how many things you can find that fit a certain category. Personally, I’m a fan of categories and descriptions because they are great for developing vocabulary and they require a lot less preparation. Here are a few examples:

  • colours
  • sounds
  • shapes
  • words or letters (or things that start with a letter or sound)
  • movements (things that roll, fly, bounce, walk, slide, never move…)
  • sizes (what things are huge? what can you find with a magnifying glass?)
  • textures
  • groups of things (things found in pairs, 3s, 4s, 5s…)
  • things that fit a theme (tools, animals, plants, wet things, things that rhyme…)


You can search anywhere

Really, anywhere:

  • outside (what do you notice: walking down the street, on the bus, in the park, around a pond, at the zoo…)
  • at home (in a particular room or searching the whole house)
  • in other buildings (the garage, the grocery store, a greenhouse, the library, the post office…)
  • in books, magazines, and newspapers (newspapers are great for finding words and letters, and you might be amazed how many things they can remember seeing in the books you have shared together)
  • in your imagination (very handy when you run out of things to spot on long car rides)
  • in the garbage (maybe you’re learning about recycling or composting?)


You don’t need a “list”

While traditionally you start by handing out copies of a written list, a lot of young children will not find that very helpful. More often you will be reading the list to them. You can also use pictures with or instead of words, but that takes time, so you are probably only going to do that for special occasions or with things you use all the time (like turning your grocery list into a scavenger hunt).

Some people like checking things off in a list, but I never understood the appeal myself. Instead, if you want to keep track of what you find in your search, you could draw together, take pictures, use the voice recorder on your phone, collect the items themselves in a bag/box/backpack/basket (half the fun is remembering where the things you collected came from), or scribe for them (they will love seeing their words in print).

Or, you can skip the list altogether. Just pick a category or theme and go exploring together to see what you can find, or take turns deciding what you’re going to look for next.


Consider your audience

It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you think that a scavenger hunt needs to play out like the script to a blockbuster movie or an episode of a reality TV show. I’m not saying that wouldn’t add to the appeal, but young children are natural explorers. They will notice all kinds of things that you never thought to look for, and they bring a level of excitement to “let’s go find things that are red” that you rarely get from us older folk and our teenage friends.


Why are we doing this again?

  • It’s fun!
  • You can encourage them to be more observant and methodical. Often children forget to look everywhere or take a running approach to everything. By looking for things together, you can teach them some helpful strategies, like how to slow down or form a plan before you start looking.
  • We are building vocabulary! If your little one is starting to read, then circling all the words they recognize by sight on a newspaper page is great practice.
  • As exciting as it can be, this can also be really relaxing. How often do you take the time to look for shapes in the clouds? Or really listen to all the sounds in your neighbourhood?
  • There are all kinds of categories, themes, and ideas that you explore with these kinds of activities, so you’re helping them develop a broader, deeper, and more coherent worldview.
  • If you are missing a few things (your keys for example) this can be a sneaky way to recruit some help. I’m kidding, but not really. If you approach everyday tasks in a playful manner, you can keep the kids engaged, help them learn, still get everything you need done, and have fun doing it.

What Brings Your Family Together?

Our Tree Named Steve is a story about a family who comes together and grows together around a tree in their yard. The parents build the family’s house and leave the tree standing for their family to enjoy. The youngest child isn’t able to pronounce the word “tree” initially, so instead she calls the tree “Steve.” The name sticks and the tree is referred to as Steve for the remainder of the story.

Steve is a constant figure for the family as the children grow up. Through happy times and through tough times, Steve is there.

As I was reading Our Tree Named Steve, I was reminded of the various objects and events in my childhood that brought my family closer together. I lived in five different towns growing up, which always meant changes in houses, schools, friends, etc. However, no matter where we went we had our family dog. This family dog lived for 16 years and was a constant companion for us — no matter where we were living.

My parents also tried to make sure we sat down and had supper together as much as possible. As much as I grumbled about eating together with my family (as I would have rather sat in front of the television), I am thankful for our mealtimes together. It was a consistent event every week that helped us to know what was going on in each other’s lives and get to know one another better. In fact, some of the biggest laughs I had with my parents and my brother growing up were at the supper table!

What brings your family together? Is it a weekly family games night? Do you take a regular family trip to the grocery store? Is it a swing set or a sandbox in the backyard where you can play? Do you have a favourite book that you like to share before bedtime?

Whatever it is, enjoy the things and events in your family that bring you closer together!

Our Tree Named Steve is written by Alan Zweibel and illustrated by David Catrow.

Summer Cooking: Chocolate and Marshmallows Are All That You Need!

Although that title may not be entirely true, especially if you like fresh vegetables and fruit and want to avoid those pesky things like scurvy or other vitamin deficiencies, they are definitely a staple for campfire treats over the summer!

Each year, my family looks for new summer recipes to try while we’re camping, barbecuing, or just cooking together. My kids are excited to discover something they can help with and add to our summer cookbooks. We experiment and have a great time finding different ingredients, measuring, and, of course, eating our final product.

Capturing the recipes can be just as fun as trying them out. A scrapbook of favourites might go camping with you. You could make a family cookbook by getting everyone in the family to send you their best summer recipes. Adding a picture of each relative would give it a personal touch.

Recipes and food, in general, lend themselves to stories — they tend to stir up memories and are a great way to get people talking about “days of yore.” Written in one of our family cookbooks, my grandmother’s fried chicken recipe starts out with “Go out to the hen house, choose a nice fat bird…”  (I’ll let you finish that). It was a fun (and funny) way to hear about her life and your recipes might just do the same — have fun with it!

Here are some of the recipes we will be adding to our book this year!


Chicken and Peach Skewers

You need:

Chicken (cut into cubes)

Bacon (cut in half)

Peaches (cut in 8 wedges)

BBQ sauce

Skewers (soak wooden ones)


What to do:

  1. Wrap bacon around chicken pieces and put on skewers. Alternate pieces of meat with peaches.
  2. Brush all with BBQ sauce and cook on the BBQ until chicken is not pink.


Banana Boats

You need:

Bananas (sliced lengthwise with peel on, not cut all the way through)


Chocolate chips



What to do:

  1. Put chocolate chips in the banana.
  2. Push marshmallows in over top of the chocolate chips.
  3. Wrap in tinfoil.
  4. Place on hot coals of a campfire until warm and melted.

Frozen Chocolate Bananas

You need:

Popsicle sticks

Bananas (peeled and cut in half)

Chocolate melting wafers

Toppings like peanuts or sprinkles


What to do:

  1. Put the Popsicle sticks in the bananas.
  2. Completely freeze bananas.
  3. Melt the chocolate and dip the bananas in.
  4. Roll in the topping of your choice.
  5. Put back in freezer.


Roasted Beet and Carrot Salad

You need:

Greens (your choice)

Feta cheese (or goat cheese)


Beets (sliced thinly)

Carrots (sliced thinly)

Balsamic vinegar

Olive oil


What to do:

  1. Toss the beets and carrots in olive oil and roast in oven (or BBQ) until soft.
  2. Place beets, carrots, feta, pecans, and dressing on greens.

Got Cards?

Sometimes moments of boredom in our lives are expected, as when waiting at the dentist’s office. Other times they come as a surprise (although an unexciting surprise), as when you show up late to the dentist’s office and end up waiting anyways. Adults might be used to this kind of waiting, but children can rarely stand it quietly. They’re going to need something to do, and it will probably fall on the parent to provide it. There aren’t many things you can keep on you at all times just to please your child, but cards — cheap, compact, and endless in their opportunities for fun — work excellently. All you need is a flat surface to play a quick game with your children or let them entertain themselves. To that end, here are some fun ideas for curing boredom with cards:

  • Go Fish is one of the simplest card games out there. All it requires is a basic grasp of numbers and the names of cards. If there are two players, they both draw seven cards from the deck. If there are more than two players, everyone draws five cards. The first player can ask anyone else for a specific card: a six, for example. If the asked person has any sixes, they must be given to the asker and the asker gets another turn. If the asked person does not have a six, the asker is told to “go fish,” and must draw another card from the deck. If this card is a six, the asker can go again, but if not, the game moves on to the next player. The goal is to complete sets of four cards — in this case, four sixes. That set can then be put aside. At the end of the game, the person with the most completed sets wins.
  • Crazy Eights is a small step up from Go Fish, but you will find it very closely resembles Uno. Every player gets eight cards to start. The remaining cards are placed in a deck face down, except for a single card that will be placed face up beside the deck. The first player must play a card that matches either the suit or number of that card (or both). Then the game continues to the next person, who must do the same thing, and so on. If at any time someone cannot play a card, they must draw a card from the deck. If that card can be played, it may be played immediately. Otherwise, the game moves on to the next person. Some cards have special rules attached, however. Twos require the next person to pick up two cards from the deck. Eights allow the player to declare that the next card must be a specific suit of his or her choosing, regardless of the suit of the eight card. The game has been around for a long time, so there are many variations on these rules you can explore on your own. The goal is to be the first person with no more cards.
  • Matching is a much easier card-based task than both of the above. Simply lay all of the cards face down. A player picks up a card, and then another one. If they match, that player gets to keep the cards. If not, the cards must be returned. The key is to remember where previous cards were and pick them up again when you find their matches.
  • Building is another fun thing kids can do with cards. Trying to create a card house that doesn’t fall over will let kids stretch their creativity and problem-solving skills.

And a quick Google search will reveal even more options than that! So, will you finally be able to fend off your child’s boredom? The answer is in the cards. (They say yes.)

Keeping Kids Occupied in the Car

Are we there yet?” “She’s touching me!” “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do!”

Vacation time often means time spent in the car going from here to there. Whether it’s a quick drive to Grandma’s house or a grueling two-day road trip, keeping your passengers occupied while keeping your sanity can seem like a feat in itself!

Who remembers playing the License Plate Game as a child – or even as an adult? Why not try these simple variations or another one of these other games while on the road? All you need is a clipboard, some markers, stickers, a book of stamps, a hairbrush, and a little imagination and pre-planning, and you are on your way!

  1. The Name Game Watch for the letters in everyone’s names. They could come from license plates, billboards, roadside signs, or ads on the trucks whizzing by. First one to find all the letters in their names gets to choose a treat from the Goodie Bag they helped you pack before you headed out on your adventure (this is where the pre-planning comes in!).
  2. Boggle® Auto Style Using the letters from license plates, see how many three-letter (or four- or five-letter depending on their spelling ability) words they can come up with. Give them either a distance or time limit. Now go!
  3. Age Game How about the numbers? Perhaps they can try to write down the ages of all the occupants in the car. For mom and dad they may have to do some adding up of numbers.
  4. I Got it Game Randomly call out numbers and the first person to find it on a license plate gets a point. First to 15 gets to hit the Goodie Bag.
  5. Backseat Bingo Using pre-printed Bingo cards (there’s that pre-planning again) and stickers, be the first one to cover all the numbers on your sheet and shout BINGO! Or change it up and use some road signs they see along the way (construction, speed limit, animals on the road, etc).
  6. Post Office When you stop for gas or a snack along the way, let them pick out a post card. Help them address the card and write a message and then find the nearest post office and mail them (pre-planning, you already have the stamps). When they return home from holidays, they will have pictures of where they have been to add to their Summer Fun Photo Journal.
  7. Radio Roundup Sometimes radio reception isn’t all that great along the way. Or perhaps you just need a break from the scratchy all-talk radio or the blaring pop station. Why not try singing some rhymes or other little ditties and take turns interviewing (here’s where the hairbrush comes in) the Itsy Bitsy Spider or ask The Driver on the Bus why the babies were crying. Imagine the tales they have to tell!

Games can make the time spent in the car seem to go more quickly and everybody has some fun. Just don’t tell them that they have been learning at the same time!