August 02, 2019
RMHC Toronto School principal turns love of books into a PhD to help seriously ill children
As far back as Katie Doering can remember, she has always loved books. First picture books, then short stories, then novels. As a child, she even took reading material to Blue Jays’ games.
So it’s no surprise that when the principal of the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Toronto School decided to pursue a PhD eight years ago, she chose to focus on children’s books.
“Literature has been the foundation of my life,” says Katie. “Books have taught me important life lessons and exposed me to different perspectives, enriching my experiences.”
In her 15 years teaching children with seriously illnesses and their siblings at RMHC Toronto, Katie has often been frustrated by a lack of quality books to help her students understand their uniquely challenging circumstances.
She wanted her research to help fill that gap.
Her research approach
As part of her research, Katie analyzed 20 picture books about young people facing cancer and interviewed five Grade 4 to 6 students with the illness, asking them to give feedback on the top three rated books.
Katie’s interviews and her other reading convinced her that a quality book for and about children with cancer must include a compelling storyline with well-developed characters that accurately represents what it is like to live with cancer.
“Children undergoing treatment told me they wanted to see books that showed them not just inside their hospital room, but also out and about in the hospital and in home settings visiting with friends and family and participating in activities.
“We see this every day at RMHC Toronto. Children don’t just define themselves by their illnesses. They have other roles – student, sibling, athlete, artist. They are active. They make choices, even while in treatment.”
Katie’s research also showed the value of prioritizing children’s voices in story books and in childhood cancer research in general.
Katie says she has seen an improvement in the quality of books for and about children with cancer over the last decade, but there is still much room for improvement.
She’d like to see research that incorporates the perspectives of parents and siblings and more research focusing on the personal experiences of children with cancer and other illnesses. Katie also thinks an international study should be undertaken, for comparison purposes. She suspects other countries may address illness more honestly and therefore accurately.
Personally, she is motivated to write her own book about children with cancer to address some of the weaknesses she discovered in her research.
“In my book, I would aim to inform children about having cancer, but also entertain them. I would also ensure my book is reflective of the diversity of our society,” she says.
Katie completed her dissertation in June and will formally graduate with her PhD in Teaching, Curriculum and Learning from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education of the University of Toronto in November.
She is grateful for the flexibility which allowed her to complete her studies while working full-time and raising three children.
“RMHC Toronto shares my enthusiasm for building on this limited field of research.”
She adds: “I am so fortunate to have the unique role I do. My biggest hope from all my work is that people will see children with cancer as we see them at RMHC Toronto on a daily basis: As children with hopes, dreams and much to give, not simply as children coping with an illness.”