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'VerveGirl' Literacy Feature

There's no denying it. In today's world where communication technology is advancing daily, reading and writing skills are becoming more important than ever. But outside of school hours and homework, how can you take on the challenge and further your abilities? Vervegirl has some insight to help you get a head start on your future.

According to World Literacy of Canada, 22 per cent of Canadians aged 16 and over have trouble understanding printed material. But don't worryˇyou're in the right place. The Canadian government's report Reading the Future: A Portrait of Literacy in Canada says that students currently in high school outperform those that have left school without a diploma. Now that doesn't mean you can sit back and relax. Just like any muscle, you've got to give your brain something to do to keep it in top shape.

So let's take a deeper look at the sitch. Raoul Juneja is a hip hop deejay on a mission. Known as Deejay Ra when he's got his headphones on and is workin' the crowd, Juneja spends his time off-stage championing causes he believes in, including encouraging more teens to read. But instead of pushing "adult approved" books, he's imploring peeps to "put down the gangsta rap CD and pick up the gangster fiction."

Last February, this 24-year-old social activist, (who names Shakespeare's Hamlet as his favourite work of literature), decided he wanted to connect with youth who weren't interested in reading. He chose to combine his passion for the written word with his passion for music. To him, it was an obvious pairing because he knew that many teens memorize the lyrics to their favourite songs. Thus, the HipHop Literacy campaign was born. But how do you use rhythm and rhyme to put books in hands? Inspiration came in the form of author Elmore Leonard, who wrote the novels that many popular movies are based on, including "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight," and "Be Cool." Movies that not only appeal to a younger audience, but that boast celebs such as JLo, Christina Milian and Andre 3000.

When Leonard came to Toronto last year to promote his new novel "Mr. Paradise," Juneja convinced the publisher, HarperCollins Publishing, to donate some books for a campus giveaway. The response from the students was remarkably positive and Juneja realized just how strongly teens related to the movies based on Leonard's books. As Juneja explains, "teens need to not only understand the story, but they need to have a connection with the characters." And with books that have had movie adaptations, there is an instant connection when teenagers can associate a character with some of their favourite celebs.

That gave Juneja another idea. "As a DJ, I thought I'd be in a good position to suggest entertainment-related books for youth," he recalls. Since there's no one more in tune with who teens are listening to than a DJ, Juneja continued his campaign by promoting titles by popular musicians such as Ashanti and Tupac Shakur. Using community radio and television shows to give away more books, he's been spreading the beat across Canada.

But how is street poetry connected to literacy? "In hip hop, the emphasis is on fans being able to rhyme along with popular tracks, or even Űfreestyle' and make up their own words, which develops incredible vocabulary skills," Juneja explains.

Let's take it further. Reading and having a good vocabulary are important factors in the definition of literacy, but according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, to be truly literate you must also be able to write, you must be articulate, and you must be well-versed in a specific area. Well, what does that mean? It means, that beyond reading about Tupac and rhyming along with him, you should also be able to write a couple of well-crafted sentences about how his music makes you feel. And you should be savvy enough to have a spirited debate with your best friend about the importance of his career in the hip hop landscape.

Your Library: The Gateway to Literacy

While logging library hours between classes, you might have noticed that your school library isn't really what it used to be. Unimpressive is the word 18-year-old Katherine Sly uses to describe the library in her school. "It closes at random intervals," she says. And Katie Slater, a 17-year-old from Aurora, Ont., echoes her sentiments, "I only use it to do work in and I never really take books out." In fact, Roch Carrier, head of the National Librarians of Canada, has been previously quoted as saying, "the state of our nation's school libraries can only be described as desperate in almost every province."

School budget cuts have forced libraries to compete with programs like music and ESL for what little money there is. As of 2002, only 18 per cent of all Ontario schools could still afford a full-time teacher-librarian, leaving some libraries closed during prime study times like lunch and after school. But even when they are open, they're still not up to par. "There's no index, so everything's difficult to find," complains Sly. The wish list she has for her school library includes more sources and better organization. But it doesn't have to remain a wish list. Gloria Hersak, the co-president of the Canadian Association for School Libraries, suggests that students ban together to fight for improvements. "Ask the student council for their support," she says, and then approach the principal with your suggestions. And in the meantime, there's at least one other option for a teen looking to improve their reading and writing skills. You can always check out your public library. Imagine this: there are almost three times more public libraries in Canada than there are McDonalds restaurants.

We're looking at 3,153 branches across our country. And if you still think that all librarians are stuffy octogenarians who try to get you to read boring old books and shush you if you should happen to giggle out of turnˇyou couldn't be more wrong. Take the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) system, for example. EPL has declared 2005 the Year of the Teen! "We have teen areas at many of the branches with comfy chairs and teen-interest magazines and novels," says Wendy Gronnestad-Damur, the Teen Services Librarian at the Stanley A. Milner branch.

You see, they even have people who work especially on your behalf! "We want teens to hang out at the library, not just to read, but to relax with their friends. We even have snack and pop machines in the teen areas."

(Who knew you were allowed to chow down while chillin' with the books?) And they're not going to force you to only read great works of literature. Elizabeth Fawcett of ABC Canada Literacy Foundation shares Juneja's view in this area. "Teens have got to have stuff that interests them," she says. Sly admits to loving fantasy and science fiction novels and Gronnestad-Damur cites comics, graphic novels and celebrity bios as the top choices by teens at her library. You can also use your public library to flex your literacy skills by volunteering. Both EPL and the Toronto Public Library have teen advisory boards that help execute teen-specific events, and who are also consulted about which books should be added to the collection.

Growing up surrounded by computers will give you guys an edge in a job market that thrives on technology, but you're still going to get stuck somewhere along the way if you don't master the same basics your grandparents learned. So why not embrace Juneja's ideas, befriend your local librarian, and maybe even lobby to improve your school library? Because nothing says cool and confident like a smart young adult who has great ideas and knows how to express them.

Courtesy of Tammy Sutherland and VerveGirl.

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