Book Prizes and Education

By Jean Baird | May 18, 2011

In the United Kingdom, the Man-Booker Prize is administered by The National Book Trust. This organization appears to be networked with anything and everything connected to books across the country. Its motto is “inspiring a love of books”, and I take note that its mandate is all about books, and not so much about writers.

As well as the Booker, the Trust administers a wide variety of other book prizes that includes  BBC Short Story, Early Years Awards (for books for pre-school children), Teenage Prize, John Llewellyn (writer under 35), Orange Prize (women), Power of Reading, Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Sunday Times Short Story Prize, Kim Scott Walwyn (for women in publishing), Nestle Children’s Book Prize, New Writing Ventures. Again, I note that not once is the Trust’s name attached to any of these prizes. The National Book Trust also runs numerous reading campaigns, including Children’s Book Week, Children’s Laureate position, Diversity in Publishing and Get London Reading. The organization also develops and produces an astonishing array of resources for British schools.

Here in Canada, the closest equivalent to The National Book Trust is The Writers’ Trust of Canada. It also administers a stable of prizes, including lifetime achievement, non-fiction, fiction, children’s writing and several others. In the Writers’ Trust’s literature it says the organization was founded to “encourage a flourishing writing community in this country.” While that is accurate enough, the impetus to start the organization was to publish and disseminate a series of teachers’ guides about Canadian literature that had been produced in the early 1970s by a combination of teachers and writers for The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC). Once the project was complete, TWUC felt it would be in a conflict situation to promote and distribute the guides so The Writers’ Development Trust was created to take over that job. Teachers who used the guides still remember them as an extremely useful teaching resource. Unfortunately, the guides were not updated, nor has anything replaced that service to educators in the years since.

Over the years The Writers’ Trust (“Development” was dropped along the way) has administered other projects involved in education. For a time, Writers in Electronic Residence found its home with the Trust. There was also at one time a fund to supply funding for writers in schools. Canada Book Day, which developed into Canada Book Week, was also administered by the Trust until it was cancelled by the Trust, (not by its funders) in 2003. [Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Jean has pointed out that for a time she was the Director of that program.]

In addition to the prizes, the Trust administers the Woodcock Fund, which was created by George Woodcock during his lifetime to provide grants to writers “facing unforeseen financial need.” After Woodcock’s death and that of his wife Inge, a large portion of their estate was left to this fund. As of May 2011, Don Oravec reports that the Woodcock Fund has provided financial support to 171 writers to the tune of  $824,773.  Oravec anticipates that the fund’s output will reach the million-dollar mark in another 1 ½ years. The fund’s capital base is solid, and has held up well even after the 2008 financial meltdown, continuing to earn about 4.5% annually, with no risk.

For many years the Trust has also supported emerging writers through the Humber scholarship and it has also funded the Margaret Laurence lectures, given annually at the Writer’s Union AGM. The Margaret Laurence lecture is designed to provide a small honorarium to a senior writer and the lecture is meant to inspire younger writers.

Like most non-profit organizations that support the arts, The Writers’ Trust has had its share of ups and downs. These days executive director Don Oravec is trying hard to stabilize sponsorship for its prizes (you can imagine the challenge of fundraising in the recent economic environment) and to develop new projects and programs. Since his tenure began, the Trust has taken over ownership and running of the Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, and has launched a cross-country workshop program organized in conjunction with local libraries. Currently, the Trust has no programs or projects involving education or promoting the use of Canadian literature in schools.

During my time at the Trust, the Canada Council (CC) approached the organization about its role in education. There was considerable concern at the CC that the amount of Canadian literature being taught in secondary schools was in decline. Might it, asked the CC, be time to dust off those teachers’ guides and rewrite them? Since I had published a national art and literature magazine for high school students and worked with schools across the country on that project as well as Canada Book Week, I was called into the conversation. It was argued that too much had changed in both education and publishing to start producing secondary materials when we didn’t know what primary materials were being used, or why, so I developed and proposed an extensive research project to answer those questions. The executive summary can be found here.

My final report included a series of recommendations about what could be done to improve the situation, which turned out to be even worse than the CC or I had imagined. The Writers’ Trust board at the time was very excited about the report and its potential, but nothing further has since been done to implement it, although subsequent reports, notably one looking at school library collections, confirmed the veracity of the research. After George Bowering and I moved to BC it continued to bother me that no action had been taken. One problem is that since education is a provincial jurisdiction it is difficult to initiate effective changes at a national level. Thus I developed a project for British Columbia called BC Bookworks, and under the umbrella of ArtStarts we applied for and received funding from CC and Heritage. The aim was to initiate ways to get more Canadian Literature into BC high schools. We had meetings with all the stakeholders, educators and librarians. In the middle of the project the English Language Arts Curriculum for grades 8 to 12 came up for review, the first time in many years. Because we already had the communication networks in place, we decided to respond to the curriculum review, and  request that Canadian Literature be mandated.

We considered pushing for a distinct Canadian Literature course but were concerned that it would be made an elective, as the grade 11 course is in Ontario. There, without sufficient enrollment, the course is often cancelled. Here’s an excerpt from my final report:

Mandated curriculum

English 12 First Peoples

Research suggests that in the environment of a Canadian literature course students learn context and cultural literacy. Considering the support for a distinct Canadian literature course (as indicated from the teachers’ survey) we carefully reviewed a new ELA course in B.C. that was in development and pilot during this project; English 12 First Peoples (ENG 12 FP) provides a template for the development of a Canadian literature course, or a series of classroom assessment models for various grades.

An education steering committee (educators, administration, Ministry, elders, writers, approximately 40 members) worked with six ELA teachers to create a vision for the course. The teachers worked as a unit to develop classroom assessment models (CAMs) and exams based on the new ELA curriculum, then wrote teachers’ guides and exams.

At the time of the writing of this report the pilot for this course has been completed but the final curriculum and CAMs are not available until September 2008. Jean Baird was able to review the ENG12 FP CAMs but the document is not available for distribution.

Response to curriculum draft

The ELA 8 to 12 curriculum in B.C. had not been reviewed or revised since 1995. A draft revision was scheduled to be posted in the spring 2007, was delayed several times and eventually was posted for feedback in the fall 2007. A thorough review of the draft revealed no mandate for Canadian literature. In the Achievement Indicators there were examples of Canadian literature but there was no clear prescribed mandate.

We consulted with our now established education network and developed a response. The draft curriculum provided a timely opportunity to address the number one priority for educators and stakeholders. Those who had worked on the curriculum, administrators and executive of BC Teachers of English Language Arts (BCTELA) all concurred that mandating the inclusion of Canadian literature at all grade levels would have greater long-term impact and by necessity, involve every ELA secondary teacher; we decided on this approach rather than a distinct course that would have been difficult to place in an already very full course selection.[i]

We drafted and revised dozens of letters until all the educators being consulted agreed on approach and wording. We then reviewed our databases, specifically the stakeholders’ network, and drafted a request for support. That request was also vetted through the stakeholders. Finally we circulated the request. We hoped for a list of responses of between 50 and 100 individuals and organizations to indicate a broad base of interest and support. It also seemed the best course for ArtStarts to collect those names and compile one response to make it easier for people to support the initiative.

Response far exceeded our target. The final list of individuals and organizations ran more than 50 pages and represented hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals. We were not prepared for the level of passion about the issue. We only asked for people to indicate they supported the initiative and to give name, contact information and position (i.e. Jane Doe, Vancouver, teacher). Many people took the further step of writing detailed and passionate letters.

At the end of December packages were sent to the Minister of Education Shirley Bond, Premier of British Columbia Gordon Campbell and the person in the Ministry responsible for ELA curriculum, Gail Hughes-Adams.

We worked closely with executives of BCTELA, and in the end, the formal response from BCTELA also included support for mandated Canadian literature on the new curriculum. We know that the English department at UBC made a formal response as did various Boards of Education across the province and many individuals. In February at the BCTELA professional development day, Gail Hughes-Adams told the educators in attendance that she received about 200 responses to the draft curriculum. The number one concern was to mandate Canadian literature into the final curriculum document. Insiders at the Ministry believe the response is directly attributable to the ArtStarts initiative.

The final curriculum will not be completed until the end of May, so at the time of this report we do not know the language that might be used for the inclusion of Canadian literature. We have received a letter from Joel Palmer, Director Learning Initiatives Branch responding on behalf of Shirley Bond and Gordon Campbell, indicating the Ministry “will be changing some of the Prescribed Learning Outcomes for ELA 8-12 to include specific reference to Canadian literature.” The PLOs are essential to real impact and change since that is the part of the document that becomes law in B.C.

Rallying the troops on the response to curriculum allowed the project to:

  • Illustrate the effectiveness of the new networks;
  • Expand those networks (a database of curriculum supporters creates a broader network that now includes more educators but also parents, grandparents, prior students, etc);
  • Create a model of advocacy that can be duplicated in other provinces;
  • Increase awareness around the issue of Canadian literature in schools;
  • Illustrate the broad level of concern for this issue.

Here is what we reported and requested to the Ministry in the letter mentioned above:

…Both the teachers and the stakeholders noted that a key to achieving a higher presence for Canadian literature in the classroom is clear direction from the provincial curriculum. Currently only Saskatchewan has a mandated Canadian literature course, a unit in the grade 12 course. According to the research, elsewhere in the country it is possible, and more likely probable, that a student can graduate having never studied a Canadian novel during high school. The exception to this trend is private schools where Canadian literature is taught on a regular basis.

Please accept this letter and the material in the accompanying package as a formal response to the BC Ministry of Education’s draft of the new English Language Arts Curriculum for grades 8 to 12. We are suggesting that in each year from grade 8 to 12 each student should “read, both collaboratively and independently, to comprehend a variety of literary texts, including one or more significant works of Canadian literature.” The proposed amendment allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics.

You will note that the IRP developers have already included many Canadian literature examples in their Achievement Indicators, so this addition merely affirms the study of a selection of Canadian literature texts as a requirement at each grade level. Since Achievement Indicators are suggestions only, we believe the curriculum needs the force of prescription.

Included with this letter is a list of organizations and individuals—writers, publishers, parents, educators and educational administrators at all levels, provincial and national writing, publishing and literary organizations—that are in support of this proposed change to the curriculum. We are also including a selection from the many detailed and passionate letters received. A copy of this package has also been sent to Premier Campbell and the Honorable Shirley Bond.

The development of the English 12 First Peoples course indicates that the province of BC recognizes the importance of cultural literacy in the classroom. The organizations and individuals listed believe that cultural literacy must include Canadian books and Canadian literature for all students.

The proposed amendment to the curriculum would position BC as an education leader. Canadian literature in BC classrooms would also support the ambition to make BC the most literature jurisdiction in North American, for surely we cannot make such a claim when we are not teaching our own literature in all our classrooms.

When the final curriculum was released, our suggestions were implemented. Supporters cheered, said “Good for you, Jean. What a wonderful precedent this sets for the rest of the country.” I said, Baloney. Nothing will happen without passionate and organized advocacy across the country.

So I’ve continued to push. Here, another excerpt from my final report:

Canadian Literature Education Coordinator

BookWorks BC has made great strides in making Canadian literature a stronger presence in the classrooms of B.C. secondary schools. It has worked to unify communities—publishing/education—and create a unified approach. In order for the momentum to continue there needs to be a focused coordinated approach. It is recommended that the position of Canadian Literature Educator Coordinator be created. Jean Baird has had discussions with Don Oravec at The Writers’ Trust and Susan Swann at The Writers’ Union about a joint initiative of these two organizations to create this position.

A Canadian Literature Education Coordinator could also work to create other partnerships. Poetry Out Loud is a joint initiative of The Poetry Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts, This program democratizes poetry excellence in a classy, enduring way, accessible to young people regardless of background. It contributes to cultural heritage, to oral heritage and showcases the variety and wealth of aesthetics and activities in poetry. In order to participate, teachers and young people need to read poems and think carefully about them. It could work beautifully in Canada and would have a much richer impact than a spelling bee (referred to by many educators as The Geekfest). An Education Coordinator could work with the Union, the Trust and the League of Canadian Poets to see whether Poetry Out Loud could be expanded into Canada.

Susan Swan in Toronto was very excited about the possibility but couldn’t get any action at The Writers’ Union. The board at The Writers’ Trust wasn’t convinced that the organization should be involved in education—even though its roots are in education and it has been involved in various education programs over the years. It has, in reality, strayed from those roots and the current board has no interest in going back. The Canada Council and the federal Dept of Heritage had expressed interest in funding such a position. Again, to my knowledge, no action has been taken.

I do know that a group of publishers in Ontario did get as far as meeting with the deputy Minister of Education in Ontario. He got it. Immediately. He understood, as does the Department of Canadian Heritage, the huge impact it would have for the Canadian publishing industry (most of which is in Ontario) if Canadian educational dollars could be repatriated. But after the suggestion floated around the response came back—it would be perceived as “protectionism” to mandate Canadian Literature in ON schools. Huh? Is teaching Canadian history or geography protectionist?

I wrote to Ian Wilson, then head of Library and Archives Canada about the following section from my final report:

Better resources/working with other organizations:

Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Literature Educators’ Database

Educators believe that a user-friendly and constantly updated online directory of Canadian books, writers, and related curriculum materials is the most important resource that could be developed.[ii] Teachers would like easy one-stop access to resources, ideally a database of Canadian Literature titles recommended/reviewed by teachers that is sortable by grade level, and themes. Such a database could also indicate whether other support material is available, such as films, interviews with the author, lesson plans. In short, a website designed specifically with teachers for the needs of Canadian ELA teachers.

It is important that such an initiative be housed with an organization that has the administrative structure and expertise to take on a project of such large scale. The host organization must also have an understanding of the education system as well as a thorough knowledge of the complexities of the publishing industry—concerns of writers and publishers. The ideal organization would have an established record of success working with schools. And, it would need easy access to Canadian books.

Library and Archives Canada fits all these requirements. Library and Archives Canada has an established reputation with educational/cultural projects. The holdings of the Library, the depth of the Archives and the expertise of its staff and librarians make the institution uniquely positioned to host such a project.

A letter of inquiry was sent to Ian Wilson at LAC. Mr. Wilson responded with interest, asking for a brief, detailed proposal which was completed and sent March 2008.

Teachers and students from coast to coast would use a Canadian Literature Educators’ Database. Educators around the globe would quickly use it. Such a website would:

  • Create links among writers, artists, publishers and students, educators;
  • Work to create better links between literary/language arts and fine arts, social studies, and history studies;
  • Increase writer visibility and title viability in schools;
  • Supplement school resources;
  • Respond to curriculum needs;
  • Provide a reviewing tool about Canadian literature that is distinct to schools.

A Canadian Literature Educators’ Database would benefit schools, libraries, readers, and researchers both nationally and internationally. The database would make LAC’s vast archives accessible to Canadian schools in a format that is pertinent and user-friendly.

I received no response to the requested detailed proposal and to my knowledge nothing has happened.

Can you see why I’m a little frustrated?

By odd coincidence, on the very day I was working on this piece, George Bowering forwarded the following request he’d received:

Hello, Mr. Bowering. The Globe and Mail is doing a spread this Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and I have been asked to solicit quick comments from prominent writers about what the book meant or means to them. Do you have any thoughts? I am looking for no more than 100 words, an email or a quick phone call.

Thx  for your attention.

George replied as follows If To Kill a Mockingbird were a suggestion rather than a book title, I would be all for it. For a long time this book has been a staple on the reading lists for Canadian high schools. I am thoroughly tired of it. When teachers are asked why it is there, they say because the stockroom is full of copies from last year, and because it is pretty cheap, compared to Canadian books. Then when asked, they can’t think of any Canadian books. Do we wonder why?

I wrote to the Globe reporter, explaining about BC Bookworks. I told him that during the project a teacher had suggested we call the campaign “Kill the Mockingbird” and pointed out that Harper Lee must have made several fortunes from royalties from Canadian education dollars. He thought that was funny, then confessed he’d never read the novel. How, I asked him, did you avoid that? Turns out he attended a private school. At private schools they do teach Canadian literature—administration and parents expect it–and there is adequate library funding for book acquisitions.

This is a problem that has been researched for years, yet no organization will take responsibility or action. BC Bookworks indicates that the public does care, and that it want to see changes—which both surprised and pleased me. As for decision makers, anecdotal experience or parental prejudice should not trump extensive and thorough research.

There is a glimmer of hope with the National Reading Campaign. Its first summit happened in the fall 2010 with two more scheduled. So, more talk and more research. Let’s hope this time some action also occurs.

[i] In B.C. at the grade 12 level there is ENG 12 (a graduation requirement), ENG 12 FP (the new course, currently an elective for schools to offer and possibly an alternative graduation requirement), LIT 12 (a survey course, Chaucer through to the C20th). In B.C. creative writing can be offered at any grade 8 to 12, so to have a specific Canadian Literature course would mean it would be competing with at least two other courses at each grade level. Plus, it would always be an elective both for schools to offer, and if offered, for students to take.

[ii] In the survey, educators identified a number of sites that they use on a regular basis for ELA classes. All are American. Sometimes Margaret Atwood will be included, or occasionally other Canadian writers, and often British writers, but these sites are predominantly about American writers. The Vancouver School Board subscribes (for $4000 a year) to one of these sites: There are no equivalent Canadian sites.

[1] In B.C. at the grade 12 level there is ENG 12 (a graduation requirement), ENG 12 FP (the new course, currently an elective for schools to offer and possibly an alternative graduation requirement), LIT 12 (a survey course, Chaucer through to the C20th). In B.C. creative writing can be offered at any grade 8 to 12, so to have a specific Canadian Literature course would mean it would be competing with at least two other courses at each grade level. Plus, it would always be an elective both for schools to offer, and if offered, for students to take.

[1] In the survey, educators identified a number of sites that they use on a regular basis for ELA classes. All are American. Sometimes Margaret Atwood will be included, or occasionally other Canadian writers, and often British writers, but these sites are predominantly about American writers. The Vancouver School Board subscribes (for $4000 a year) to one of these sites: There are no equivalent Canadian sites.

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  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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