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Showcasing Kerry McDonald and "Historical Fiction"

While completing requirements for her reading specialist certification, Kerry McDonald discovered an article describing the positive outcomes when parents and children read historical fiction together, the children write to their parents about the book, and discuss the story. As she read the article, McDonald immediately thought of using classic novels to conduct a similar activity in her sixth grade classroom. She believed it would be the ideal avenue to encourage parents to share their favorite childhood stories with their children.

Kerry McDonald reads to her sixth graders in Peterborough, Ontario.

"At the time, I also was involved in an action research project at my school. My research was focused on the questions: How does the intended audience affect the performance level of students' writing? Does the quality of writing change when students write to the teacher, to one another, or to their parents?" McDonald told Education World. "I had already had the students write to me, and they also had completed a project in which they wrote to one another about a shared book; this seemed to be a natural progression in my research."

This is the second year McDonald's students at James Strath Public School in Peterborough, Ontario (Canada), have participated in her parent-child reading project. In the project, parents and their children read such classic tales as Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Watership Down by Richard Adams, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. They must choose a story that is totally new to the child -- no previews of movie versions allowed! The students respond to the reading through class writing and in their journals; parents reply to the students' entries.

"Some of my students tried hard to impress their parents," McDonald said of the students' writing. "The dialogue between parents and child was amazing. The parents really were able to get to the heart of the books. They challenged their children's thinking, and cleared up any misunderstandings the children might have had. Those parents gave the kids exactly what I was hoping for, some one-on-one attention to their reading comprehension."

"Me and my dad got to spend time together and we liked the book," said Dylan, one of McDonald's sixth graders. Megan N. told McDonald, "I tried hardest on my classic novel study. I did that because I wanted to make a good impression on an older person. I also like that book the best." Another student, Jesse, added, "I liked doing the classic novel because I wanted to show my mom I was a good worker."

Parents also reported that the project was very rewarding. "It was a worthwhile experience," said Nigel. "I think we both found it interesting to read each other's comments. It made me more aware of Fiona's thoughts. I really enjoyed re-reading one of my favorite stories from years ago, and it was fun to have some questions to ponder."

Carol, the mother of a student, said, "It meant so much for us to work on something that was important for Cierra. It also gave me the sense of being involved with her school. It gave us some special quality time together."

Initially, McDonald adopted a "hands-off" approach to monitoring the students' writing journals, and some of them were not pushed by parents to complete their work. She is now more active in tracking their progress. Because some students did not have caregivers who were willing and able to assist in their projects, McDonald sought other adult volunteers. Some students worked with adults via e-mail, and some parents who initially were reluctant to participate found the time to join in the activity.

"I definitely would use this type of project with students of any age," McDonald stated. "I think it was a wonderful means to get parents involved in a way that didn't involve a big time commitment. I also think that in the middle school years, parents don't always know how to help their children. This assignment gave those parents a shared project that they could be involved in with their children, without taking over the project."

Photo courtesy of Kerry McDonald.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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