Monday, November 11, 2013

Engineering Feats, Above and Below NYC Streets

New York City is famous for many landmarks and events, and this time of year brings one particular event to mind: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when no one even talked about Santa Claus until after the fourth Thursday in November, when he made his triumphant ride down the streets of Manhattan to usher in the official start of the holiday season at the close of the parade. 

Melissa Sweet's 2011 award-winning book Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade provides an insightful history about the larger-than-life helium balloons for which the parade is so famous. Artist-turned-engineer Tony Sarg worked for Macy's department store as a window designer, and helped created puppets for the first Macy's parade in 1924. Realizing that only people up close could see the puppets, he went through various designs until finally imagining a way to let everyone see the displays - by using large balloons filled with helium. The process by which Tony invented these festive balloons is cleverly depicted with cartoon art, cut-paper fonts, and actual photos. Sweet includes an author's note and information about her art at the end, along with a bibliography and sources.  Check out her educator page associated with this book here

Below the streets of Manhattan, around that same time, another engineering marvel was taking place: the building of the New York City subway system. Martin Sandler chronicles the building of this transportation landmark in his 2009 book entitled Secret Subway: The Fascinating Tale of an Amazing Feat of Engineering. Written at an upper elementary/middle school level, this 96-page book encompasses the history, science, and politics associated with the development of an ambitious underground construction project of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The visions of engineers Alfred Beach and William Parsons ultimately resulted in the reduction of congestion and pollution on the streets of Manhattan. Black and white illustrations, photos, and artwork supplement the text. I'll admit that the graphics were a little less than I'd expect from a National Geographic publication, but that aspect aside, the story of such a famous and integral part of New York City is well documented and interesting to read. 

So whether you are watching the parade on TV or traveling there by subway, you can thank engineers for making this annual Thanksgiving event so spectacular! 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Carve out time to learn about pumpkins

We’ve been highlighting books on spiders and skeletons, so this post will continue the autumn theme by highlighting a few books about pumpkins. After all, what's a Halloween display without a glowing pumpkin to greet trick-or-treaters? Sure, there's sticky goo that has to be scooped out before etching triangle eyes and a toothy grin, but it beats trying to find an extension cord to plug in a synthetic jack-o-lantern. 

Gail Gibbons provides a classic book for this topic with The pumpkin book. Recognized by the International Reading Association as one of its Teachers' Choices for 2000, this book continues to be a great resource for both scientific and cultural information about pumpkins. The life cycle of the pumpkin is depicted through text as well as cartoon-style (but labeled) drawings. Connections with Halloween and Thanksgiving are included in the narrative, including a drawing of that quintessential carved pumpkin. The final page has short excerpts about historical, scientific, and cultural aspects of pumpkins, as well as directions for drying pumpkin seeds.

Speaking of seeds, a good read-aloud story about pumpkin seeds is Margaret McNamara’s How many seeds in a pumpkin? This 2007 fictional book, also recognized as a Teachers' Choices selection, tells the story of students in a first grade classroom who are predicting the number of seeds in small, medium, and large pumpkins. The students scoop out the seeds and count them by grouping in twos, fives, and tens, which makes this book a resource for easily integrating math with science. After all the seeds have been counted, the teacher explains some clues that his students can use for predicting the number of seeds, such as the color, species, and number of lines, indicating that it’s not just the size  of the pumpkin alone. Spoiler alert: The smallest pumpkin winds up having the most seeds. “Charlie’s Pumpkin Facts” at the end includes some facts about pumpkins, such as the time needed to progress from seed to fruit.

Finally, Pick, pull, snap! Where once a flower bloomed by Lola M. Shaeffer (2003) is a lift-a-flap book that overtly makes the connection between flowers and fruit. The writing style of this book is vivid and succinct, resulting in its recognition by the National Council of Teachers of English as a Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts. Each page spread has three to five richly descriptive sentences about one type of flower (“On a sandy hill, yellow blossoms open on knee-high plants, spilling soft pollen between petals”). The subsequent fruit is shown under the flap, like a mystery unveiled, and the text for each identified fruit ends with “… where a flower once bloomed.” Up-close paintings accurately portray the seeds and flowers, and children are depicted picking each resulting fruit: pea pods, raspberries, corn, peaches, peanuts, and pumpkins. The end pages include additional information about each fruit shown in the book as well as factual information about plant pollination and fertilization. A glossary includes words that are in the text of the book, such as “pollen,” and words that are in the end pages about plant fertilization, such as “anther” and “stamen.”

These are just some of the resources available for finding out about the life cycle of the pumpkin. Knowing about their life cycles may help you appreciate those slimy seeds and strings when you are carving! I'll have one carved with triangle eyes, but if you are the Martha Stewart type and want something more creative, you can check out her templates here.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

'Tis the Season for Skeletons

At my daughter's request, this was the weekend of getting the pumpkins, spiders, ghosts, and skeletons out of the plastic crates where they reside and scattering them around the house Her favorite is always the peel-and-stick glow-in-the-dark skeleton that typically spends the  month of October in the middle of our powder room mirror. (Yes--it takes maneuvering to actually use the mirror, but all three kids say, "We have to put the skeleton there...It's tradition!") The combination of the skeleton staring me in the face every time I wash my hands and the release of Cut to the Bone, the newest book written by UT's renowned forensic anthropologist, Dr. Bill Bass, and his writing partner, Jon Jefferson (I got my signed copy Saturday!) made me decide skeletons & bones would be the topic of choice for this week's blog. 

One of our favorite skeleton books is, You Can't See Your Bones with Binoculars, by Harriet Ziefert. Each page (or 2-page spread) is headed by a slightly-adapted line from the African American spiritual Dry Bones ("The foot bones are connected to the toe bones..." and the playful illustrations integrate actual x-rays as a means of showing the bones in their proper place and form. The text contains information about key bones, including their general ("shoulder") and more technical ("clavicle" and "scapula") terms, in addition to a description of their purpose ("...the main task of the backbone is to protect your spinal cord.") or how they function ("The 'ball' at the top of another bone called the humerus rotates so that you can move your arm in all directions!). Most two page spreads also contain an interesting fact or two related to the bone being discussed--like people who wear knee pads since kneecaps don't have much padding. The book draws to a close with a solid page of information about broken bones and a drawing of a skeleton with all the previously mentioned bones clearly labeled. This book makes a perfect read-aloud for 2nd grade and up, but 4th and 5th graders will also enjoy reading this non-fiction text independently.

Bob Barner has another skeleton book, straightforwardly called Dem Bones. It, too, includes a line from the traditional song on each page, supported by a short, 3-4 sentence paragraph with details about the identified bone. For example, on the "leg bone" page, Barner delineates that the leg bone is actually two bones and the location of each, along with a note that it is the tibia that hurts if you get kicked in the shin! These big bold illustrations are actually of whimsical skeletons and not as clearly marked as those in Zeifert's book. However, this one too, closes with a labeled skeleton, and the more compact nature of the text makes it  more appropriate for a K-1 read aloud, and the less technical language makes it a more independent read for those in 2nd grade and up. (And, there is a YouTube video reading of this book done by some college students that could be used in a listening center!)

October is the perfect time to use easy access to skeletons of all sorts to your students' learning advantage! If you really want to help them learn the bone-associated vocabulary, make it interactive. Buy a cardboard skeleton, and use adhesive Velcro dots to attach labels. The kids should be able to pull all the labels off and then show what they know!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Conquering Arachnophobia

Spiders, members of the arachnid class, can evoke both awe and fear. There is a reason that movies such as Arachnophobia are created – people relate to that fear of spiders. Had the producer tried to pitch Lepidoptera phobia (fear of butterflies and moths), I doubt it would have gone very far. The closest I can think of is Mothra, the low-budget sci-fi movie from 1961featuring a giant moth. 

For the past week, an industrious spider has maintained an elaborate orb web right outside our front door. My son first noticed it one morning as the web seemed to be floating in midair, easily visible with droplets of dew. As expected, he had a mixed reaction to seeing the spider - he did not want to get to close to it, but watched in amazement as it gingerly walked up and down the web. Seeing it outside was certainly preferable to finding one in the bathtub, which has also occurred recently.  Some studies suggest that you are never more than ten feet away from one, so whether you want to see spiders or want to avoid them, they are always nearby! Maybe that reminds you of some of your neighbors. 

 If you want to know more about spiders to demystify them, here are two suggestions. For intermediate students, Sandra Markle’s Sneaky, spinning baby spiders (2008) vividly depicts many aspects of these incredible arthropods. This book has been recognized as an NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book and has earned other awards as well. Segments entitled “Starting life in an egg” and “Mom on guard” describe the life cycle of spiders, supported by large, up-close photos of various species. The end pages include a habitat map for each spider species depicted in the text, a “Be nice to spiders” segment that provides an overview of their importance in the ecosystem, and a combined glossary/index. Markle also includes a brief endnote about her inspiration for writing the book.

For younger students, it’s certainly easy to find books about the butterfly’s life cycle. Perhaps that’s because of its interesting stages and beautiful adult species. While many of us are familiar with Charlotte’s egg sack gallantly protected by Wilbur in E.B. White's Charlotte's web, there are limited options for informational texts about arachnid life cycles. One choice is Up, up, and away by Ginger Wadsworth (2009).  Also recognized by NSTA/CBC as an Outstanding Science Trade Book, this book depicts a spider’s life cycle with simple text appropriate for primary students. The life cycle of a spider is described through the four seasons, beginning with a spider forming an egg sack in the fall. Predatory/prey relationships are incorporated as the spiders encounter lizards, snakes, and birds. The illustrations are more accurate than cartoon depictions, but are not quite technical reproductions. An endnote entitled "The spin on garden spiders" describes the species from the book (Argiope aurantia) in greater detail. 

As a final note, you can participate in a citizen scientist documentation of wildlife in your area, including spiders, through Project Noah. Supported by National Geographic, this site contains photographs of local organisms taken by students and others who are interested in documenting plants and animals in their environment.  Strategies to help teachers incorporate science investigations in schoolyards and backyards can be found under the Education link. 

The more students know about spiders, the more likely they will be to recognize their importance in the ecosystem. As stated so beautifully by Marie Curie: "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less."  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Chickens and Eggs

Last week (or a little longer), one of our readers asked for any books that might accompany the installation of a school chicken coop, so we've been doing a little digging. We haven't found a whole lot of what we would call high-quality picture books for kids that relate specifically to raising chickens, but chickens and eggs in general...well, we do have some suggestions for addressing those topics.

In the "Oldies but Goodies" category, we want to highlight two books in particular: Ruth Heller's Chickens Aren't the Only Ones and Chicken an Egg, by Christine Back & Jens Olesen. I'm going to date myself a bit by saying that I used both of these in my own 2nd grade classroom each spring when we studied oviparous animals ...and hatched chickens with the support of our local agricultural  extension (who provided the incubators and eggs!).

My favorite for showing the development of a chicken was Chicken and Egg, with its full-color photographs and two layers of text. It appears to be out of print, but  is available in paperback through a number of venues (including Amazon, linked above). Chicks & Chickens, by Gail Gibbons and From Egg to Chicken, by Anita Ganeri are newer (2005 & 2006, respectively) and also offer insights on chicken development. These two  include a great deal of extra information on chickens in general. Chicks & Chickens addresses their physical characteristics and behavior in addition to their life cycle and egg development. In this book, Gibbons follows her typical style of including a lot of information supported by detailed illustrations in bold colors that tend to extend the text though the use of diagrams. From Egg to Chicken is a more traditional non-narrative informational text, including a table of contents, bolded key words, a glossary, suggested resources, and even an index. It would engage kids through the vivid photographs of chickens and the accompanying captions. Both Chicken and Egg and Egg to Chicken could be used with younger students, and while the book by Gibbons could be read aloud to just about anyone, the text is probably most appropriate for 3rd graders. 


Chickens Aren't the Only Ones appears to remain a popular despite its age. It, however, goes beyond chickens to mention all sorts of animals that lay eggs. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish...snails, spiders, and all sorts of insects are addressed, though not in any detail, making it a great introduction to the concept of oviparous animals. Another great addition to a lesson on egg-layers is a 2007 NSTA Oustanding Science Trade Book winner, Guess What is Growing Inside this Egg, by Mia Posada. This book is illustrated so that the reader gets clues (in verse) about the kind of animal growing in the egg, and when the page is turned, the full illustration reveals the animal, accompanied by a detailed description (not in verse) about the newly hatched animal. An Egg is Quiet, by Dianna Aston would be a great companion book to use with Guess What's Growing Inside this Egg, though Aston's book focuses just on the eggs themselves. The only tricky part of An Egg is Quiet is that its primary layer of text is written in cursive, making it tough for kids to read independently. However, the illustrations are all labeled in more typical printed text, and so a lot of information can be gleaned without paying attention to the lines written in script. Aston compares the shape, size, colors, texture, and markings of eggs, and takes a page or two to highlight the in-egg development of chickens, salmon, and grasshoppers. Sylvia Long's stunning illustrations make this book a work of art as well as a means of obtaining both textual and visual information.

Finally, I couldn't let the chicken and egg topic go without mentioning One Hen: How one Small Loan Made a Big Difference, by Katie Smith Milway. This book is geared a little more toward social studies in general and economics in particular. But, it tells the story of Kojo, a youngster living in the Ashanti region of Ghana, in Africa, and how he uses a few coins to buy a hen...and then sells the extra eggs at market...and then buys more hens...and then a farm (after he goes to school of course!)...and eventually chages the lives of his family, community, and town. Best of all, it's based on the true story of Kwabena Darko; check out this related video on YouTube!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Start of School - Nothing to Sneeze At

Even though it's not yet Labor Day - the signature date for the end of summer in many areas - teachers are two weeks into the school year here in Knoxville. It's back to basking in the glow of fluorescent lights after soaking up extensive amounts of Vitamin D while reading a novel on your back porch or watching grass grow from the bleachers of the T-ball field this summer. The start of school brings visions of classrooms stocked with pencils, glue sticks, new crayons, and hopefully a case of tissues. Yes, it's that time of year when you have to rebuild your germ immunity that may have lapsed over the summer.

Fighting off those ever-present germs in a classroom is nothing to sneeze at (for a brief history of that phrase, check out this explanation). If you want to learn more about sneezing, here is an excellent resource:  Sneeze, by Alexandra Siy and Dennis Kunkel (2007).  Alexandra is an outstanding science trade book author, and I guarantee that kids will love this book! It has the "wow" factor from the full page scanning electron microscope images of items that cause you to sneeze (mites, house dust, goose down, influenza virus) as well as the parts of you involved in sneezing (bronchial tube, skeletal muscle). The images are paired with simple text and pictures of kids sneezing and engaging in activities leading to sneezing (looking for their cat under the couch). So clever! A glossary and information about the book images completes this resource.

As long as we're on the topic of body invaders, I'll include a second one that has perhaps a little more of the ick-factor as far as my kids were concerned: What's eating you? Parasites - The inside story by Nicola Davies (2007). The cartoon-style illustrations do include talking tapeworms and bike-riding fleas, but the text is scientifically accurate (as well as extremely interesting). You may not encounter fleas or tapeworms at your school, but you are most likely already a host for harmless hair mites, and many schools have head lice checks --- it's just science in your everyday life! This book presents information about both harmful and harmless parasitic organisms in a non-threatening (and not overly grotesque) manner, and along the way, contextualizes terms such as habitat, ectoparasite, and endoparasite.

Best wishes for a healthy school year!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Snails, Slugs, and Spirals

Our front sidewalk has long been a highway for slugs on humid summer nights, but my barefoot kids (and husband) often forget this when they take the dog out after dark. Usually, their reaction involves words like, "Gross!" "Ugh!" or (on the rare occasion that it is the last straw at the end of a long day) "Salt!" Usually, in true mom fashion, I take that opportunity to remind them about cool slug and snail those contained in these books. (Well, in two of the books, anyway!)

We highlighted one of Sarah Campbell's books in our very first blog entry, but I want to point out another one here. Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator, is an informational text told in a clear, simple
fashion that even young elementary students can understand, despite including some complex vocabulary. The large photographs bring the reader eye to eye with this carnivorous snail, and Sarah includes additional wolfsnail facts and a glossary at the back of the book, which is great for teachers who want to be able to answer students' questions about this fascinating snail. And, if you explore Sarah's website a little more, you can find the backstory about how this book came to be (think real life research project sparked by a 3 year old's discovery), a video of a wolfsnail eating, and teaching materials designed for use with the book. All three of my kids (ages 9-17) loved both the video and book!

A nice partner book for this is Joyce Sidman's more poetic Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature. This book combines simple text like, "A spiral is a growing shape. It starts small and gets bigger..." with bold, labeled illustrations of a variety of spirals. Sidman characterizes spirals using words like
"strong," "clever," and "bold," in the primary text, and then, in the last two pages of the book, includes both a definition of a spiral and expanded details about the labeled pictures found throughout. (It also mentions the Fibonacci series, which would go hand-in-hand with Sarah's other book, Growing Patterns!)

Finally, the language arts teacher in me has to mention one of my favorite books from the team of Pamela Duncan Edwards and Henry Cole, Some Smug Slug. The only scientific value I can truly attribute to this book has to do with the circle of life, but the vocabulary is fabulous...particularly in relation to words that start with "s"! This book starts, "One summer Sunday while strolling on soil, with its antennae signaling, a slug sensed a slope." Animals (whose names each start with s) try to warn the slug of the impending doom, but the slug continues sauntering and swaggering and slithering up the slope. I won't ruin the surprise, but suffice it to say that it is no ordinary slope.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Insects Part II

Sounds of summer include the songs from ice cream truck, splashing in pools, and as Amy noted in the last post, the buzzing of insects all around. So continuing with that theme, the first book is one that she did not need, as she was surrounded by insects without even trying.

  Insect detective by Steve Voake is a  2010 Junior Library Guild selection which offers primary and early elementary students information about not only insects and their life cycles but also where to look for them. I also like that the text distinguishes between insects and non-insects that kids might find when they are detectives - such as spiders, centipedes and slugs -  by indicating the number of legs for an insect (6). Dual-layer text provides additional information for kids who want to go beyond the main narrative. The watercolor and ink illustrations are just cartoony enough to be engaging without leading to misconceptions. The book ends with a spread entitled "Be an insect detective" with suggestions for capturing insects, such as a beetle trap design.

A familiar sound of summer is the chirping of crickets. A suggestion for a book about these fascinating creatures is from the "Let's Read and Find Out" series. Unlike insects we sometimes consider to be pesky (yet are still such an integral part of the ecosystem), crickets are symbols of good luck in some cultures and are one of the few insects purposefully kept as pets. Let's just not dwell here on the fact that they are also utilized to keep some pets alive, such as retiles and frogs.  Chirping crickets by Melvin Berget is an older book (1998) but still a great resource. As you can see from the cover, the illustrations are more like technical drawings, with some containing labels for specific body parts such as the back and front wings. The cricket's life cycle is depicted with both text and pictures, including how they molt during their nymph stage. This makes for a great comparison with insects such as butterflies for a compare/contrast opportunity. The final page spread includes suggestions for keeping a pet cricket (just for a day) and ways to use cricket chirps to find the approximate temperature. A "Find out more" describes how to make a model of a cricket and a "Do you know?" game about cricket and insect facts.

Finally, although I am not a huge fan of books with anthropomorphic depictions, I'll end here with A cricket in Times Square by George Seldon. This book won a Newbery Award way back in 1961, and yes, the animals do talk, but there is still a bit of contextual vocabulary and accurate information about insects. For example, Chester Cricket is a male who chirps (which is correct -- females do not) and even the word "entomologist" is used in context. There are so many ways to use this book in a cross-curricular fashion! The cultural significance of crickets is described when Mario looks for a cricket cage in Chinatown; additionally, the contrast between the environments of New York City and Connecticut, from where Chester arrived, easily links with geography and habitats. Tie-ins with music are also easy to make with the names of some of the pieces Chester plays. And taking a minute to step back from always having to learn from text, it's just a good book to read for enjoyment! The sounds of summer will be fading soon, and while I won't miss that buzz of mosquitoes, I will definitely miss the music of the crickets.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Insect Poetry

While Kristin has been getting root canals and buying plants to keep her house looking like something out of J.K. Rowling's magical world, I have been teaching two courses a day for the past three weeks. That means I spend a lot of time in my office, quietly reading and grading reflections, discussion board posts, and proposals, and any number of other things. Or, if I'm lucky, I am quietly sitting at home in a comfy chair reading and grading reflections, discussion board posts, and proposals, and any number of other things. At this point in the summer, though, it seems that no matter where I find myself sitting, the noise of insects--particularly the fuzzy rhythmic singing of the cicadas--fills the air. It seems to permeate even the brick and cinder block walls that surround my cozy office, somehow seeping in through the windows like they weren't even there. And for some reason, I find the sound comforting rather than irritating--the wordless poetry of insects. (Probably because I remember when--sometime around 1987-- the creepy red-eyed 13 year periodic ones, pictured above, all came crawling out of the ground surrounding the house I grew up in in Illinois.  Ah...the memories.)

Thankfully, there are some really amazing writers who have written their own poetry capturing the essence of these and other insects in verse. Poets are often so precise in their use of language that their work can be rich in vocabulary and less intimidating that other types of informational text, while remaining scientifically accurate.  Joyful Noise, by Paul Fleischman, is a Newbery Award winning book of poems for two voices that successfully navigates those three characteristics. The title actually comes from the Cicadas poem (read a snippet with this link), which is filled with powerful verbs that mimic the insects' song in a lyrical interplay between the two voices. Honeybees, my all time favorite from this small book, is wonderfully told from two perspectives, a worker and a queen, whose views of life in the hive are vastly different. You do have to watch out for one of the worker's lines, "...slaving away in this hell..." but even kids as young as 2nd grade can quickly pick up on the format for reading these poems (though admittedly the vocabulary would be tough for a 2nd grader to tackle independently!). However, the two voices format also works well for writing about two related, but different, subjects. (Think carnivores and herbivores, plants and animals, stars and planets, tornadoes and hurricanes, etc.)

Insectlopedia, by Douglas Florian, is another insect focused poetry book. Cicadas don't make an appearance here, but other noisy insects like hornets, mosquitoes, locusts and crickets do...alongside their quieter comrades like ticks, mayflies, and army ants. These poems employ a variety of rhyming
patterns and, like Joyful Noise, contain science related vocabulary (parasitic, primeval, swarm, pupa) that somehow seem easier to understand when captured in Florian's simple verse. (For the record, he is a prolific poet and has a number of animal related poetry books...and even one about space!)

Joyce Sidman's Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems rounds out this trio of insect poetry (though Joyce's work includes other pond-habitat related animals, as well!). This 2006 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book (and Caldecott Honor) award winner combines the precise language of poetry with additional informational text, presented in the wide margin. (If you click on the book's title, it will take you to Amazon's site for this book where you can "Look Inside" and see an example!) This extra feature really classifies this book in the "dual purpose" genre since you can read the poems, like "Diving Beetle's Food Sharing Rules," and then, if you want to, follow up by reading the short informational paragraph about the predaceous diving beetle (which is really a cool little insect!).

Friday, July 19, 2013

Flower Hunting

When we first moved to our home, our girls said it reminded them of Luna Lovegood's house. Not that we live in a giant rock-shaped castle, but more along the line that we had primarily monochromatic shrubs surrounding the perimeter, including a large one with particularly knobby branches that bend and twist in a style that reminds one of gnarled hands. Even the unidentified tree on the side of the driveway propagates with airy tufts of brown fuzz that stick (unfortunately) in our neighbor's fence. So we started to plant flowers - familiar ones, at that - to brighten the yard. Purchasing flowers reminded me of how little I know about botany, unlike the early settlers who relied so heavily on that practical knowledge for survival.

An outstanding resource for demonstrating the importance of botanical knowledge in colonial times is Deborah Kogan Ray's 2004 book entitled The Flower Hunter: William Bartram, American's First Naturalist.  Recognized by NSTA/CBC as an Outstanding Science Trade Book, this book eloquently presents the life of William Bartram through diary-style entries, beginning with one from his Pennsylvania farm on his 8th birthday in 1747. Bartram's father was a botanist for the king of England, sending seeds back to England from trees in their area, and taught young William to make careful observations of plants. They travelled as far south as Florida and as far west as the Mississippi River, identifying and drawings species. Accounts of William's travels and discoveries (and the French and Indian War), written as if he were authoring the journal entries, are supported with full-page watercolor illustrations. My favorite is an original full-page engraving of a plant he named in honor of his hero, Benjamin Franklin: Franklinia alatamaha. Brief biographies of William and his father are included at the end, along with a full page of the plants they identified and named. In the author's note, Ray includes information about the spellings of places that differed from Bartram's original writings.

An accompanying book that engages children with the flowers in their world is one I happened to find recently at the Knox County library. Ellen B. Senisi's Berry Smudges and Leaf Prints: Finding and Making Colors from Nature describes how to use plants and fruits to make unique art as well as the science behind that art. So many interesting aspects of color are included in this book: historical (the value of purple dye), feelings ('the blues'), and of course scientific (green as camouflage). Each profiled color is described with about three short paragraphs of these aspects, followed by nature-based projects  (leaf prints and spinach ink for green, for example, or pressed flower bookmarks from violets). Making dyes by heating, soaking or from "straight" (as is) plant materials are included. The book ends with full-page spreads of the history of color and additional science facts in a question/answer form ("Why is the sky blue?").

Considering again how reliant people were on their natural surroundings just a few generations ago, both of these books can be used to inform students about both the aesthetic and utilitarian value of plants.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Maybe it was from having a childhood dentist named Dr. Hammer (really) who took the "less is more" approach to novocain, or maybe it's just because I'm a complete wimp about pain, but at any rate, the phrase "root canal" is one I was hoping I'd never have to hear from my dentist. The good news was that I didn't need one. The bad news was that I needed two. So having just endured the first of the set, I thought I'd focus on books about teeth this week.

The presentation of information in Teeth by Sneed B. Collard III (2008) is uniquely formatted. Each page spread has a short sentence or sentence fragment in large font, and a specific animal is used to illustrate the statement. For example, one spread begins with "Over time, teeth wear away" and continues with a paragraph profiling the Tuatara, a New Zealand reptile with one set of teeth. The opposite page states, "Some get replaced." On this page, the Cuban crocodile is depicted with an inset showing how a new tooth is ready to replace an exposed tooth. The text explains how the new teeth move into the crocodile's mouth. Other pages describe how teeth help animals eat and where they are located (sometimes on tongues and throats!). Watercolor illustrations fill most of each page, showing some animals in action as they approach their prey and others alone in their habitats. The back page lists resources (books and websites) and also has a glossary, and you can visit Sneed's website to learn more about his background research for books.

Continuing with teeth, let's move on to a toothy animal that is portrayed in most movies as a deadly beast striking fear in the heart of all swimmers and surfers: the shark. Are they really that deadly to humans? According to National Geographic, data from 1996 indicates that people were nearly 3000 times more likely to be injured by a toilet than a shark. I guess you have to just use your imagination about how those injuries occurred because there are no additional details. Clearly, however, sharks get a bad rap because of those high-profile cases in which they actually do injure someone.

 National Geographic's Face to Face series of books includes Sharks by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes (2009). As with any production associated with NG, the photographs in this book are amazing. Written in first person by Jennifer, the text reads like a narrative of sea adventures and embeds scientific information about this fascinating species. The brief chapters of this 32-page book include "Meet the Shark" and "Conservation." On some pages, additional sidebar information extends the text with bulleted facts. At the end of the book, several pages are devoted to fast facts, suggested resources, suggested activities to become involved in shark conservation, a glossary, and additional resources. There is also a brief column about how the photographs were taken, which would be of interested to any budding photojournalist.

Consider using these and other books in conjunction with the American Dental Association's free dental health resources. In the meantime, brush and floss, and be grateful for modern dentistry!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Roebling and Grandin: Extraordinary Engineers

You may have never heard either of those two engineers, but I bet you are familiar with the work of at least one of them. John Augustus Roebling was the mastermind behind the design of the Brooklyn Bridge. Arriving at age 25 from Germany, John began drafting the bridge design and proposal in 1867 as a way to connect Manhattan to Brooklyn. His son, Washington, took the lead after John tragically died right after construction started. The bridge opened with enormous fanfare in 1883.

As told by Lynn Curlee in Brooklyn Bridge (2001), the engineering challenges posed during this nearly 25 year project were unprecedented. Full page paintings depict the inner workings of the structural design, such as the caissons used for allowing the workers to dig under the river (initially by hand, mostly by Irish immigrants). This is definitely an upper elementary book with some technical information interspersed during the human drama of the construction, but it is very readable and engaging. At only 35 pages long with full page illustrations, it's an informative narrative about a fascinating project.

End pages include a full spread labeled drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge, and during/after depictions of the suspension component of the bridge. A page is devoted to the specification for those who love numbers, and a timeline is also included.

And now for the second engineer for this blog, Temple Grandin. Sy Montgomery's 2012 book about her life is nothing short of amazing. How had I never heard of this person??!! Pick up Temple Grandin: How the Girl who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World. I guarantee you will be inspired!

As the title indicates, Temple was diagnosed with autism as an young girl. The first chapter of 13 provides background on Temple's early years during which she struggled with sensory overload. As the title "Senses on fire" suggests, sounds and sights that would not be noticed by most kids were overwhelming to her. After struggling for years in school, her mother sought a high school that allowed her to flourish, and she went on to pursue a master's degree and eventually a Ph.D. in animal science. She looked at problems differently from others -- from the perspective of the livestock -- and revolutionized the designs of cattle chutes, dip vats, and slaughterhouses.  This, from a girl whom many considered unable to be educated!

Photos and design schematics complement the text, and the schematics show the marvels of engineering. An appendix entitled "Temple's advice for kids on the spectrum" contains her seven suggestions for kids with autism. Suggested books, articles and websites are also included. So whether you are seeking an upper intermediate or middle school book to depict engineering applications, promote understanding and tolerance, or provide a glimpse into the life of someone with autism, the story of Temple will not disappoint you.