Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk, Special Edition: Bill Sherk

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Bill Sherk's desk

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Bill Sherk is the author of Keep Up If You Can: Confessions of a High School Teacher (Dundurn). In the book, he draws on over three decades of teaching experience to talk about how he was able to both teach and learn from his students through his creative and sometimes unorthodox classroom style.

Bill's workspace inspiration was not the usual desk or studio, but instead the classrooms in which he taught and the students who populated them. Read on for Bill's unique version of our At the Desk series.
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I taught history to high school students in Toronto for 31 years. The work space that inspired me to write this book was my classroom — and in my first year of teaching (1966-67), I taught in 14 different rooms at Northern Secondary School in Toronto.

Even more important than the classroom as a source of inspiration were my students! I developed a routine whereby I learned all their names on the first day of school, no mean feat when you consider I had six classes with a total of around 180 students. I rhymed off all their names from memory just before the end of each class, and this was almost always followed by a spontaneous outburst of applause.

My Grade 11 students studied Ancient and Medieval history with me, and I gave them until the end of September to select an ancient or medieval name for the rest of the school year. I re-arranged the seating plan on the first day of October with everyone sitting in chronological order from the window to the door. I addressed them by their historic names in class for the rest of the year and they could sign these names on tests and exams. And whenever we reached these names in the course, the students had to go to the front of the room and talk about themselves and their role in history.

They called me “Sherkules” (SHERK-yoo-leez).

These names fanned the flames of creativity in both me and my students.

In August 1984, the car radio began playing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go!” by Wham. This song inspired me to introduce a 5-minute aerobic workout in all my history classes. I jumped on top of my desk and led them through lively exercises to an up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. We all chanted in unison: “Window! Door! Ceiling! Floor!” The students loved it and coined the word “Sherkout!” for these workouts.

On Saturday, November 10, 1973, I was marking an essay on Ancient Egypt at my desk at home. The essay focused on the historical importance of the Nile Delta, and I looked up the word “delta” in the dictionary because I knew it was the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet but wondered what it had to do with a river mouth. Eureka! Both the letter and the river mouth are triangles. That discovery inspired me to start reading Webster’s Dictionary from cover to cover — one page a day. It took three years, three months and sixteen days. I finished on February 26, 1977. Each day in class, my students would ask: “Well, Mr. Sherk, what words did you find in your daily reading today?”

My daily reading of the dictionary spawned a frenzy of coining new words, and many of the new words dreamed up by my students and me were published in my three dictionaries, available in book stores all across Canada.

I considered my Number 1 task as a history teacher was to get the students excited about the subject, and I was always coming up with new ideas to spark their interest. The Grade Ten students studied Canadian history, and when we reached the 1920s, I treated them to a slide show on the Model T Ford, selected in 2000 by a panel of experts as the Car of the Century. I was unable to arrange for a Model T Ford to be brought to the school, and so we did the next best thing. I took them out to the school parking lot and asked them to stand in a circle around my car, a 1989 Mustang convertible.

I asked them to tell us the similarities and differences between my car and a Model T — and it took about half an hour in the glorious outdoors to cover both categories. Both cars were black, both had steering wheels on the left, both had dashboards and both had a wheelbase of 100 inches, which some students the converted into metric. When we finished, we returned to the classroom, revitalized and refreshed.

Thanks to the students in my classrooms, I soon came to realize that the whole world past and present was an endless source of inspiration.

— Bill Sherk

Bill Sherk is a feature writer for Old Autos and also writes a weekly syndicated "Old Car Detective" column for 30 Canadian newspapers. He enjoys tracking down old car stories from all across Canada. In 2005 Dundurn Press published his bestselling illustrated book I'll Never Forget My First Car: Stories from Behind the Wheel.

For more information about Keep Up If You Can: Confession of a High School Teacher please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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