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!