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Whitehorse author's books heading to American schools

Starting this spring, students in Washington State will be learning about the Klondike Gold Rush - with help from a Whitehorse author. Read Side by Side, a publishing company based out of Seattle...

Starting this spring, students in Washington State will be learning about the Klondike Gold Rush - with help from a Whitehorse author.

Read Side by Side, a publishing company based out of Seattle, has created a curriculum for Grade 4 classes based on Keith Halliday’s book Aurore of the Yukon, the first in his four-book series of historical fiction young adult novels. The book tells the story of Aurore, a young girl who moves to the Yukon with her mother and brother after her father dies.

Already 15 Washington schools have ordered the curriculum, said Sarah Collinge, author of the unit and president of Read Side by Side. And schools in 44 other states could join them.

The curriculum has been designed to meet Common Core State Standards, a voluntary set of rules adopted by states to give clear and concise requirements for English language arts and mathematics for students between kindergarten and Grade 12.

By Grade 4, students are expected to be able to use information in a piece of literature, like repeated words, to figure out what main idea the author wants to convey.

Halliday’s book, with its complex storyline, provides readers with a good opportunity to build these skills, said Collinge. It also fits into social studies requirements about the western expansion of the United States.

But just as importantly, the 33-day unit allows children to learn about how to read and understand a good story.

The curriculum is designed on what Collinge calls the C.I.A. approach to literature. It stands for Collect, Interpret and Apply. This method divides each work, regardless of genre, into four parts.

In the first part, students gather critical information about the text: details about the setting, character and problem. While they read the next two sections, they try to determine the author’s main message. They do this by looking at how the author tells the story, and examine things like key repeated phrases. Once they’ve determined the key message, they spend the final part of the book thinking about how it applies to their lives.

The book has a simple message: “The past is irreversible, but we all have the power to impact our future,” she said. It’s that spirit that developed both the Yukon and her publishing company, she said. Collinge started the business on her own, a year-and-a-half ago, after spending 11 years as a classroom teacher.

As part of the unit, students will look at the development of the transcontinental railroad and consider the possibilities different technologies create.

The unit also helps students better engage with a more classic form of technology - the printed book.

Teachers read the book out loud to the class, and students have to talk with their classmates about the story. As classes get to the end of the book, there’s scheduled time for the teacher to read straight through to the end.

The questions the unit forces the students to ask are good for any reader to practise, said Halliday.

“Think about what happened - don’t just plow through because you’re on the beach and it’s a page-turner,” he said.

He’s always meant the books to be enjoyable, he said.

“Any reader can enjoy these books on their own merit. You don’t have to be interested in Yukon history. It’s not a history lesson,” he said.

But the books are based on real-life events and his family’s history. Halliday is a fourth-generation Yukoner. Halliday’s great-grandfather and great uncle came up from British Columbia.

They didn’t find gold, but they settled in Whitehorse. They collected a lot of stories and would gather around the woodstove to reminisce about those days. “So many great stories, so many great accomplishments, and moments of leadership and inspiration,” Halliday said of the tales. But the books his children were bringing home from the bookstores didn’t always express those themes, he said.

“I thought that children in the Yukon needed more stories with strong Yukon characters, especially strong girl characters,” said Halliday.

Several years ago, he was hiking along the Chilkoot Trail with his children. During the trip, he told them stories he’d heard growing up, stories about his ancestors. When his daughter heard them, she suggested her father write them down. He did.

The books have been used in Yukon schools, and MacBride Museum runs week-long camps each summer based on the books. These camps consistently sell out, said Patricia Cunning, the museum’s executive director. And they help children connect history with their own situations.

“Most of the kids are really young, and so a lot of them don’t have any experience of the stories of the Yukon from 100 years ago,” said Cunning. “They have their own experience, so if they moved here from somewhere else, they came in a plane, or they came in a truck. So when they read this story, they learn about how someone who came here a 100 and some years ago, how they travelled here in a totally different way, and how that compares to their lives.”

Hopefully, reading will become a part of the children’s lives, said Collinge. She doesn’t have plans to create units based on Halliday’s other books, but often when students study the first book in a series in school, that motivates them to read the others, she said.

At the very least, this unit will help teach American students about Canadian history, she said. This is the first time she’s written a unit for a book that isn’t written by an American, she said. As part of the unit, they draw maps of Canada and learn different French words.

“One of the things I realized was just how exciting that was that Canadian history was coming into my scope and sequence for fourth grade. Because I just feel like it’s so important for kids in the U.S. to learn about Canada, our neighbouring country,” said Collinge.

She’s hoping to incorporate information about Mexican history into units for Grade 6 students, she said.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at