Saturday, September 13, 2008

News story: Brazilfest

Published in National Post. [Toronto magazine: Sep. 13, 2008]

They're sambaing in the rain
Brazil defeats Chile, bad weather on same day

The early rain couldn't damper the spirit of the thousands of attendees at Brazilfest last Sunday. Performers showcased the fifth-largest country in the world's rich cultural heritage by performing samba, maracatu and axe rhythms on Brazilian Independence Day hours before the national soccer team kicked up the celebratory mood by defeating Chile 3-0 in a World Cup qualifying game.

"It's nice to bring our culture together," said Aline Morales, minutes before taking the stage to sing and play the xequere with Maracatu Nunca Antes, her Afro-Brazilian percussion group.

Although last year's event drew 8,000 people to Toronto Island, this year's festivities were marred by the constant inclement weather. An original July date on the island was cancelled due to heavy rain, and the early Sunday showers didn't help.

"We did lose because of the rain," admitted festival director Arilda De Oliveria. "But it's much harder to have this many people here today than having [a festival] in July."

In addition to music performances, the fest featured a capoeira showcase, Brazilian food vendors and a workshop showcasing Brazilian-Canadian art by artists such as Sandra Liberato.

"It's a great cultural exchange to show Canada what Brazilians do best," Liberato said. "Because, at the same time, Brazilians feel that Canada is great in that there are so many cultures that people are interested in learning about.

Although everybody agreed that the event was a success, dancer Chris Balthasar hopes there is more Brazilian culture imported to the city.

"The community needs more sponsors to get bigger stars from Brazil to play here like [they have done] in New York," he said before noting that this is starting to happen - bossa nova icon Milton Nascimento performs at Massey Hall next month. Good tickets for the Oct. 24 concert are still available.

Link to story in National Post here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

News Story: Writing Outside the Margins Literary Festival

Published in National Post. [Toronto magazine, Sep. 6, 2008]

Now featuring girls in glasses!
Queer writing festival about more than just words

The early Sunday drizzle on Aug. 24 couldn't keep hundreds of attendees off Church Street and acclaimed writer/director John Cameron Mitchell rewarded those at the Writing Outside the Margins festival with his take on the slippery nature of attraction.

"The kiss is the gateway drug," the Hedwig and the Angry Inch star told the crowd. "It usually tells you what's going to follow."

Hosted by Xtra magazine, the second annual literary fest took over Church Street from Alexander to Gloucester. Authors ranging from San Francisco-based memoirist Michelle Tea to musician/first-time author Kinnie Starr graced the two stages and answered questions from the crowd after their readings.

"It's great to see the city shut down city blocks for gay people," Starr said.

With a mandate that organizer Brandon Sawh described as "celebrating and supporting the local queer artists and the arts community," the event featured the Pink Ink Open Mic stage, which provided amateur writers 15 minutes of stage time to read their works. Da Kink In My Hair scribe trey anthony participated in a roundtable discussion that explored the challenges of being a queer writer of colour.

"When you reach a certain level of success, it's always great to give back to people who are just starting up," anthony said. "It's also great to be a part of community events because, a lot of times, you're divided from what's actually happening on the ground level."

Amy Clarke was one of those people on the ground level seizing the spotlight. Performing for the first time at last year's inaugural fest, Clarke wowed the open mic stage and won the slam poetry contest.

"There are three things that I love about this festival," Clarke said between events. "Writers, queer people and all the girls in glasses who are so cute."

Link to story in National Post here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Education Feature: Understanding Canada's School System

Published in Canadian Immigrant [September Issue]

School's in!
Starting school in Canada can be intimidating for immigrant kids and parents - here are some tips to help

It's back-to-school time, and for young Canadian students it's a time to replenish their school wardrobe and get ready to see some old friends. However, for newcomers to Canada, starting a new school year can mean much more stress than just figuring out what to wear on the first day. While a majority of newcomers say they chose to immigrate to Canada in order to give their children a better education, many don't understand exactly how Canada's public school system works.

As disctrict placement administrator for the Vancouver School District, William Wong says: "A lot of the misunderstanding that immigrant parents have about Canada's school system is based on what they've gone through themselves, but Canada's system is very different."

And there is also a lot of variety between different schools and school districts within Canada, at both the elementary and secondary levels. Some high schools, for example, may follow a two-semester system, while other schools offer their programs on a September to June basis. "Even in the middle grades of elementary school, there are many different teachers, and timetables are different everyday," says Peter Dorfman, Ontario's provincial co-ordinator of the Settlement Workers in Schools program. "A student may have been very successful and confident in school in their first country, but can become discouraged and vulnerable when coming to school in Canada because the systems are very different."

Methods of teaching also differ. While many school systems around the world place a huge emphasis on memorizing information, Canada's school system values communication and analytical skills. This is important for parents who are wondering why their child is trying to analyze symbolism in Lord of the Flies instead of memorizing multiplication tables.

As a way to ease the transition for immigrant students and parents to their new school system, many cities across the country offer the Settlement Workers in Schools program. Through this government-funded program, settlement workers from local immigrant service agencies are available onsite at the school to provide parents with information that will help them integrate quickly into the school and community and to provide emotional support to new students. "Parents need to be aware that their child is often very vulnerable because some kids thing they can take advantage of new immigrant students," Dorfman says. "By talking to their child about school, parents will have a better understanding of what's going well and it helps the kid think through what's happening at school."

For high school students, one of the biggest concerns they face is paving the road to university. Many times immigrant parents tap into their own experience and expectations, and guide their child to focus on academic subjects such as science or math. In some cases, parents also feel there is a stigma about enrolling their child in an ESL course and worry that it will prevent their child's chances from getting into a good university. As Wong explains, the opposite is actually true.

"Parents often tell me that their goal is for their son or daughter to graduate from high school and go to university, but they should take it further and say they want their child to finish university," he says. "That's when you realize the importance of ESL and good English. We've had many students who are extremely strong in maths and sciences but weak in English at high school. In university, they continue to do exceptionally well in sciences and math, but if they fail first-year English twice, the university will not let them go into third year."

Of course, ESL and English classes aren't the only places for immigrant students to improve and practise their English. While courses like art, gym, woodworking and music may not be seen as highly important to immigrant parents, Wong says that these courses build communication skills.

"The best language learning is acquired when students are having fun," he says. "Sometimes I ask ESL kids in high school how much they speak English in one day and it's common to hear, 'Two minutes a day.' But if students were to involve themselves in these more participatory classes, they would enhance their opportunity to speak English tenfold."

Link to story on Canadian Immigrant here.