Literacy Day at Queen Alexandra Elementary

Last Tuesday morning strolling down the hallways of Queen Alexandra Elementary School, I had so much fun looking at the teachers and students dressed up as characters from favourite books. I spotted several Harry Potter characters, some Princesses from various movies, and a Hungry Caterpillar, among others. I loved all the fabulous student art adorning the walls. Principal John MacCormack told me about the inner city school’s diverse student body. About 40% of the students are Indigenous, with many students from racialized backgrounds. There’s a hot meals program at the school for breakfast and lunch. I’d visited the school over ten years before to do a writing workshop for an after school program called The Writers’ Room (part of wonderful The Writers’ Exchange program), and it was great to be back.

Captain Underpants, also known as Grade 3/4 teacher, Cindy Nickel, wearing a red cape and magnificent white underpants, had arranged for me to do two separate presentations in the gym. For the primary students, I talked about how we can express grief, loss, and difficult feelings through art. I told the students how I’d lost my dad when I was 11 years old, and then how my son lost his grandma (my mom) when he was in kindergarten. Everyone’s hand went up when I asked who had experienced the loss of something or someone important to them–be it a pet, friend, or family member.

While the radiant illustrations by artist Kristi Bridgeman were projected on a screen behind me thanks to the technical assistance from his royal highness, King Keith Bryce, the imperially garbed and crowned teacher-librarian, I read from my kids’ book, The Rainbow Rocket. The story is based on my mother’s gradual cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s Disease, but I informed the students that I had fictionalized it. In real life, my son was too young and my mother’s dementia too advanced, so they didn’t have much opportunity to interact as much as we would have wished. In real life, they made a bit of music but not art together. Fiction was a great way to imagine a different reality.

(Teacher Cindy Nickel’s sister, Barbara Nickel, is an acclaimed poet and children’s writer, who has visited the school virtually and live, to encourage students to read and write poetry. Barbara helped me immensely to hone and shape the very first rough draft of The Rainbow Rocket years ago. Reading the spring haiku in the photo above, noting the delightful images of cherry blossoms as cotton candy and flamingo feathers, I wondered if it was Barbara and Cindy’s influence that kindled the imagination of these students.)

I also talked about the importance of ritual to help us to both celebrate and grieve. I mentioned how many cultures have different rituals around dying and death. In The Rainbow Rocket, the mother and son celebrate the Chinese festival of Ching Ming, where they visit the cemetery and burn incense and bring food the memorialize the dead. Others have similar or different practices. Some of the students talked about their traditions.

After recess, I did a presentation for the intermediate students. I discussed the origins of the poet laureateship role, and read a few of my poems. There were lots of questions after I read “Ode to a Crow” about Canuck the Crow who became world famous after being caught on camera stealing the evidence from the police at a crime scene. We all wondered what might have happened to Canuck. I showed a map of Vancouver’s hidden and lost streams, and read a poem inspired by one near my home which used to be located where Connaught Park is now. After talking about concrete or visual/shaped poetry, I also showed two of my poetry videos, “Utility Pole” about the massive loss of trees for human use, and “Plasticnic” about plastic pollution. At the end of my visit, I told interested intermediate students that they could send draft poems to me in the next week or two through their teachers for positive feedback before the end of term. I’m looking forward to reading their work!

The school brims with creativity, fostered by committed and enthusiastic teachers and staff. I was fascinated to hear about the recent Indigenous artist-in-residence at Queen Alexandra whose project involved students making shadow puppets and performing a play that integrated all the classes. It sounded like an memorable and amazing experience!