________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 4 . . . . October 10, 2008


Teaching with Dear Canada: Building Important Social Studies and Language Skills with Historical Fiction. Vol. 4.

Amy von Heyking.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2008.
48 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-545-99414-9.

Subject Headings:
English language-Study and teaching (Elementary).
Children’s stories (English)-Study and teaching (Elementary).
Canada-History-Study and teaching (Elementary).
Canadian diaries (English)-Study and teaching (Elementary).


Review by Betty Klassen.

** /4

Teaching with Dear Canada, Volume 4, provides teachers with some ideas for using the following historical fiction novels to integrate Social Studies and Language Arts:

The Death of My Country: The Plains of Abraham Diary of Genevieve Aubuchon
(Quebec, New France, 1759)
by Maxine Trottier, 2005. The diary is written by Genevieve, a young Abenaki girl who has been taken in by a French woman during the siege of Quebec.

A Rebel's Daughter: The 1837 Diary of Arabella Stevenson (Toronto, Upper Canada, 1837) by Janet Lunn, 2006. Arabella takes responsibility for her family after her father is imprisoned for participating in the rebellion of against the government of Upper Canada. She must deal with the drastic change of losing a life of privilege to working as a scullery maid.

No Safe Harbour: The Halifax Explosion Diary of Charlotte Blackburn (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917) by Julie Lawson, 2005. Charlotte writes of the devastation of the December 6th harbor explosion along with the worries she has about her brother who is fighting the war in France.

Turned Away: The World War II Diary of Devorah Bernstein (Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1941) by Carol Matas, 2005. As she hears more and more disturbing news about the treatment of the Jews in Europe, Devorah agonizes over how she can help her cousin Sarah in France.
Teaching with Dear Canada opens with a table of contents followed by a three page timeline of Canadian history. Each of the above four books is located in the timeline, along with some key historical events, ending with the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

For each of the novels von Heyking follows the same format:

§  a brief summary of the novel;

§  what was going on in the world at the time of each novel, five to seven points of interest, some relate to the novel, such as "Gabriel Dumont, a leader of the Metis, is born at Red River, now Winnipeg" (p. 17); others may be of interest to the teacher, but irrelevant to the lives of most grade 5 or 6 students, such as "French philosopher Voltaire writes the novel Candide." (p. 6)

§  The prior knowledge section contains a few paragraphs to provide some background knowledge for the historical setting and events taking place in the novel. Included is a suggestion to read the historical note at the end of the Dear Canada diary as each novel always includes information that is important to gain a deeper understanding of the events portrayed in the novel. This section concludes with ideas for topics that either the teacher or the students could research and present to their students/classmates prior to reading the novel. For Turned Away, the suggestions are to research topics such as: "the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied territories; the work of the Canadian Jewish Congress; Canadian troops in the Pacific; and life on the home front during World War II" (p. 38). For the first novel , The Death of My Country, von Heyking suggests using a jigsaw format for students to research and share their new knowledge. For the other three novels, research topics are suggested, but it is left up to the students or the teacher to decide on a method of sharing the information.

§  Discussion questions include three or four prediction questions, followed by numerous other questions that vary from vocabulary, knowledge recall to inferencing questions. Most questions include the page numbers in the novel where the answer can be found. Some questions ask students to draw scenes, rooms or people in the novel. Many of the questions ask why, who,
what,  or how, referring to events or motives, only one question refers to the literacy technique of "foreshadowing". 

The number of questions for each novel varies greatly, with 74 for the first book, The Death of My Country, 53 and 57 respectively for the next two novels, A Rebel's Daughter and No Safe Harbour and 37 for Turned Away.

The novels are always written from a girl's point of view, and while this is important to our understanding of history, this makes it difficult to use the books as a classroom novel. Some questions in this resource could be worded differently; for example, "In what ways do you think the lives of girls were different in the 1830s?" (p. 18), could easily say "lives of girls and boys."

A few of the discussion questions could appropriately be moved to the Extended Activities section as they require considerable research before they could be "discussed" by the students.

One example of this relates to Turned Away:

"Find out more about the work of Canadian pilots in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Is Adam's adventure in France realistic? In what ways has Carol Matas integrated real historical facts into his adventure? What do you think she made up?" (pp. 76-80, Turned Away).

While most questions are written individually, some are grouped together because they are related to the topic or character. One unusual grouping is:

"Why doesn't Genevieve know her real age (pp. 5-7 Death of my Country)? What is a voyageur? What is a surgeon apothecary? What kinds of things do you imagine Chegual found difficult about living with Mme Claire and M. Jacques? About attending the seminary?" (p. 8)

§  Extended Activities

This section includes ideas for research projects that students could conduct during or after the reading of each novel. Ideas include creating a newspaper, using a Venn diagram or T-chart to compare and contrast accounts of events, designing a family crest, researching key historical
characters, writing a letter, creating a timeline, drawing key scenes, writing a limerick or poem, or creating a poster.

There are two reproducible pages for two of the suggestions for each novel. Some examples are: a T-chart for the Cruelty of War versus the Civility of War; a web of how the Rebellion of 1837 affected four main characters; suggestions for how to plan to act out a scene, and a plan for
creating a newspaper. These are useful beginning ideas for a project. The teacher would need to add details to the assignment to establish criteria and expectations so students in grade 5 or 6 would know what was expected. There are also no suggestions as to how these projects might be assessed or shared with the class.

More attempts could be made to connect the characters and the issues of the novels to students' current lives. The following excerpt is a suggestion for Turned Away: "Is Devorah a good citizen? What is she doing that demonstrates her good citizenship? What attitudes or beliefs does she have that reflect good citizenship? Pretend you are nominating Devorah for a good citizenship award and use evidence (specific quotes) from the diary to support your nomination." (p. 41)

"Active democratic citizenship" is a core concept in social studies, and so, if students are asked to evaluate Devorah's citizenship efforts, the final step would hopefully be for them to evaluate their own beliefs and actions and plan for how they could act as citizens in their school, community,
and country. 

§  Bibliography page.

Von Heyking includes a Bibliography of suggested resources to use along with each of the novels. Each bibliography page includes 4-6 nonfiction resources for student use to provide background information; 3-5 additional novels on the same topic; 4-8 books to provide background information for teachers; 2-6 related websites; and 1-3 TV documentaries or videos related to the novel topic.

To make this information more useful to teachers, in addition to providing the scope of the website information, it would be helpful von Heyking had included a brief description of the topic of each of the books so that one would know which book would provide the most information on certain related topics.

Most of the suggested documentaries are from Canada: A People's History, which were developed for adult audiences and are often too complex for children in grades 5 and 6. They are better used in high school. The suggested Historica Minutes might prove more valuable as discussion starters.

It would be particularly helpful to expand this Bibliography page to include a description of the suggested novels and to include suggestions of more novels that also have male protagonists, since most classrooms in Canada are not exclusively girls, and we also need to provide our students with varied points of view.

Teaching with Dear Canada provides a good start for a teacher who wishes to use these
novels to integrate ELA and SS. There is still a lot of planning left for the teacher to do to develop ready to use plans.

Recommended with reservations.

Betty Klassen teaches in the Faculty of Education’s Middle Year Stream at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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