Reading with Mrs. P

Cozying up to a new chapter in the art of storytelling through an interactive digital storybook destination. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Reading with Mrs PKathy Kinney is the actress best known for her role as Mimi, on the Drew Carey Show. Her new role as Mrs. P couldn’t be more different. She has a voice Kathy likes to call “west of Ireland” — and with her red wig and polka dotted dress she reminds one of their favorite eccentric Aunt. Mrs. P is filmed at Kathy’s Los Feliz home; the library where she reads was once her office. But it isn’t only her house that Kathy is donating to the cause; she’s also donating her time. She does her own hair and makeup, and even acts as craft services, cooking the meals for the small crew—and she even drives the freeways of Los Angeles dressed as Mrs. P to read to kids at local schools. In this EdTech Digest interview, she tells us the story behind the scenes of her interactive digital storybook destination.

Victor: How did you come up with the idea of a reading site for kids?

Kathy: I decided to build my website around the art of storytelling (in the sense of reading classic stories to an audience) because it creates a special bond between the reader and the listener. The reader, with only words and the passion of her voice, is helping the listener create their own special version of a story, with their own specific images from their own imaginations. No two listeners will ever have the same experience hearing a story because each listener is an active participant in its creation. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game on TV and going outside and playing your own game. Unless you get beaned in the head by a line drive, odds are creating your own game will be more fun, memorable and fulfilling than just watching someone else’s creation

There are so many technology platforms out there for kids, that we (I have two other partners on this endeavor – T.V. writer Clay Graham and ex-Hollywood marketing executive, Dana Plauz) knew this was how to reach them. Our primary goal is to make reading cool, and foster a life long love of reading. We wanted there to be a real person reading to kids, that they could learn from, and feel a connection with at the same time. It was important to us for them to hear and see the words and feel like someone was there actually recreating the experience of story time. Sadly, some children never get to experience having a book read to them. My partners and I all grew up with Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo and felt there was something missing on the Internet like this for kids. We wanted to create a free site where kids could get edutainment, with free resources for teachers, parents and mentors. We were all at a point in our lives where we really wanted to give back and make a difference.

We also created a strategy to not only have our own website, but partner with others who reach the educational market. We work with not-for-profit Professor Garfield and stream our titles there for teachers who don’t use YouTube in the classroom. We also work with Tales2Go an award-winning kids’ mobile audiobook service to provide audio stories through their license with classrooms. We want to be able to provide the stories in any format a teacher, librarian or parent might want them.

Victor: Have you always been a reader?

Kathy: Even though my mother never finished high school she was a reader and she passed her love of it on to me – and I so do love to read. As a child if I loved a book I would re-read it once a year. Some of my yearly favorites were: Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr and his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. It might seem like an odd combination of books – two biographies and a fantasy tale but what they had in common was living life in a fun, creative and adventurous way. That was the kind of life I wanted as a child and it is the kind of life I created for myself and lead now that I am grown. I read everyday for entertainment, comfort and to keep my imagination toned and ever ready for my next adventure. Giving someone the gift of reading is beyond value and thanks to our libraries it’s free. You get to this point in your life where you’ve been around for a while and just want to do something that you really like and have it be a good meaningful product and hopefully make a difference in a child’s life.

On my free website, www.MrsP.com, I sit in a cozy chair by the fire and read classic stories to kids. It’s one of my favorite ways to share the gift of reading. My website features a library with dozens of tales, from the hilarious to the scary. I encourage kids to not just choose the stories that immediately strike their fancy, but to give others a try too. For some reason, those often turn out to be the stories that stick with you – and even change your life.

Victor: What resources for teachers does you website contain?

Kathy: I have a special page just for teachers. On it they can find youtube playlists and a blog for each with thought provoking questions about the stories, or activities. I also have activities for chapter books, like Alice in Wonderland. Any downloadable instructions sheets on things like, how to make your own books, how to make bookmarks etc. Additionally there is a word game, and even my own sing along with Mrs. P song. Just some handy things to help out a teacher with some ideas for their classrooms. Each story in my library comes captioned, so early readers and ESL students can match the words to Mrs. P’s voice. I am very proud that the website is free and noncommercial and it has been acknowledged by the American Library Association as one of its “Great Web Sites for Kids”. The site is also for parents, or anyone who wants to encourage a love of books in children.

Victor: What is the age group that you target with your online stories?

Kathy: The target audience for the website is kids between the ages of 3-12. All the stories that are read are acknowledged classics, a choice made because they’ve stood the test of time. There are a variety of types of stories from Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers classics, to stories from Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, O’Henry, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Allan Poe to name a few.

Victor: How do you select the stories that are read in your online library?

Kathy: I love the classics, their messages just keep on giving. There is a reason they have been passed down from generation to generation. I also have added my own special twist to the beginning of each story, providing some context and humor.

Victor: Why did you decide to create a writing contest for kids?

Kathy: One of the greatest joys of my life as a storyteller is reading aloud stories written by children. Every year I host a writing contest for kids. The winners have their stories read by me on my website for everyone to hear. It’s so much fun, such an infinitely good time for both my heart and soul, to help bring to life the world of a child’s imagination! And what makes me just as happy is what the writing contest teaches kids: how much power they hold in their words and their thoughts.

Victor: It’s been five years since the first writing contest was held, what have you learned?

Kathy: One of the best surprises we learned this year when we did a series of round up stories with past winners, is that the Mrs. P writing contest was in most cases the first one they ever entered. It gave them the encouragement and confidence to continue their passions. Several have gone on to win some major writing awards, like the Scholastic Arts and Writing Contest, the Betty Award and the PBS Kids Go Young Writers and Illustrators Contest. And many have won local library contests, not to mention being role models in the schools and states.

We also learned a lot by working with the teachers. We have Skyped with a lot of classrooms over the years and met a lot of the students. From their feedback we revamped the contest to run longer so they had more time, and also allowed them to do a collaborative writing project. Additionally we made our main contact the teacher and the school wins the prizes.

I am inviting any classroom K-4 in the U.S. to enter. The contest opens September 1st and the last day for entries is November 15, 2013. They need to write a story on the topic of “Magic”, no less than 250 words and not to exceed 1,000 words. It may be fiction or non-fiction. Just one story per classroom will be allowed! It can be a collaborative story, or they can have their class vote on which child’s story to enter. I want to foster the idea that however they enter, if they win, they all win and their school wins! They will be bringing books to their school and classroom. And then when the winning story is read during Read Across America Week in March 2014, it will be done using Google Hangout and streamed live on YouTube. We think this will be really fun for the kids. Here is the website for teachers.

Victor: How do kids benefit from winning a writing contest?

Kathy: When a child starts with an idea and sees it through to completion, it develops a very tangible skill. The contest helps a child experience deadlines and having parameters, like word counts and topics to write about. But most of all writing can be fun and it is wonderful to see a young writer get recognized for their work, just like an athlete or musician does.

Victor: This is the first year you have decided to give a writing prompt, what will it be?

Kathy: Magic is going to be the theme this year. I have my Magic Library and it seemed like we could get a lot of great stories incorporating this theme into the story.

Victor: What makes a winning story?

Kathy: Some of the things considered in our selections are; Originality, creativity, compelling narrative, humor, and the development of a theme or point of view.

We also think about which stories would be entertaining to hear Mrs. P read aloud and harder-to-define stuff, such as which stories seemed to “stick” with us. In a way, the hard-to-define stuff was the most important: technical proficiency is great, but if a story doesn’t move us, make us laugh or give us insight into another person’s life, it didn’t make it as a finalist.

Victor: You have had some great celebrity judges in past years, who will be selecting the winners this year?

Kathy: Since I just love teachers, we have 6th grade teacher Karla Duff, from Oelwein Middle School in Oelwein, Iowa. She’s been there for the last 20 years. I met her on twitter and then started Skyping with her classroom. I am very excited to have her on the team this year. We also have Melissa Peterman who is an actress and comedienne, best known for her role as Barbra Jean in the television comedy series Reba. Currently, she stars as Bonnie Wheeler in the ABC Family series Baby Daddy, and as host of ABC Family’s Dancing Fools, ABCs Bet On Your Baby, and CMT’s The Singing Bee. She’s also a mom to an 8 year old, so she knows how to spot a good story. And I also am one of the judges.

Victor: How do the schools benefit if their classroom wins the contest?

Kathy: The sponsors of the contest are all companies that love books and promote reading for kids. BuyerTopia & Powell’s books are providing gift certificates to purchase books – the winning school gets $250 in certificates, Polka Dots Publishing & Penelope the Purple Pirate is making possible 2 copies (1 for the classroom & one for their library) of the winning story made into an actual book with color illustrations by award winning illustrator Robin Robinson. myOn is proving a license for their myOnreader, and Tales2Go will provide a one-year audio subscription for up to 10 users. Since all I ever read about are budget cuts for schools, we thought these prizes would really make the whole classroom win and the school too.

Victor: You read with a lot of kids in person too, do you have any fun stories you want to share?

Kathy: One of my greatest joys is reading in a classroom in person, or via Skype or google hangout, because kids never cease to amaze me. They are so clever and fun. This past year I participated in a poetry slam with kindergarteners in Iowa at Van Meter Elementary. We did name poems together. There is also one 3rd grader who was a finalist in my writing contest last year whose mom sent me her blog to read. Yes, she has her very own blog and she was even featured in the ISTE Learning & Leading with Technology June/July 2013 issue all about writing. I was so tickled to read about my writing contest in her interview and to read that she has gone onto win other creative writing awards. Technology has really changed the way we interact with students.

Victor: Any last thoughts in this interview to impart to our readers?

Kathy: I hope all the teachers in grade K-4 will give my writing contest a look for their classroom and also any K-6 teacher to check out my web site. It was wonderful having this opportunity to share with your readers. Thank you!

Victor: Thank you, Mrs. P!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Are you an edtech leader, trendsetter, or the creator of a cool edtech tool? The 2014 EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program closes September 30, 2013. There’s still time to enter. For full details, write to: edtechdigest@gmail.com

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