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!