Monday, January 27, 2014

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I'd like a spring forecast

This polar vortex phenomenon is getting a little old. The week ahead here in Knoxville includes below-freezing temperatures and some six-sided precipitation. However, we're in luck, possibly: February 2nd is approaching, the day when the world (or at least the US) eagerly awaits the long-term forecast by that cute meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil. He even has his own website now, complete with some teacher resources (not much in the way of science, though). Having graduated from the University of Dallas where Groundhog Day is fanatically celebrated by students and alumni across the country, I can hardly wait to make a toast to Phil and cheer for the weather forecast he'll provide at 7:25 am on Sunday, especially if he does not see his shadow.

If you are looking for some resources to prepare for Groundhog Day, here are some ideas. A narrative non-fiction resource is Gail Gibbon's 2007 book Groundhog Day! In addition to the historical background about Groundhog Day, Gibbons' book also includes information about the physical attributes and burrow formations of groundhogs. The final page of this primary level book is entitled "Digging up groundhog facts"and contains additional interesting information. Cartoonish drawings of humans are coupled with some more realistic depictions of groundhogs, though still with an impressionistic aspect. You can download a teacher resource book for Gail Gibbons' books here.

Another choice for sharing the fun and science of groundhogs and weather predictions is Groundhog Weather School by Joan Holub. You might recognize her name from our blog post about cloud books - she is one of the authors of The Man Who Named the Clouds. If you have an older version of this book, the cover will be different - it was reprinted in 2013.  This book has a mix of story elements and factual information, making it both entertaining and informative. I am not usually an advocate of books with talking animals, but in this case, there are enough non-fiction aspects to make it worth including in a science/literacy lesson. A checklist of characteristics (such as mammal, live in burrow, rodent, herbivore) determines who gets into Groundhog Weather School, and other organisms which exhibit weather-related behavior such as honey bees and cows are described. Brief depictions of famous scientists associated with weather (such as Luke Howard  and Snowflake Bentley) are profiled. Due to the cartoon-style bubbles of text from the characters, this may be better as an independent read as opposed to a read-aloud, though you could certainly channel your inner Hollywood star to read in different voices. The final page includes historical information about Groundhog Day and a labeled drawing of a groundhog.

For science activities related to measuring shadows, you can find ideas from Scholastic  and Exploratorium. For a long-term project, consider having students measure their shadows once a week in the same spot around the same time from now until the end of the school year. They can graph the data to infer what causes the differences in the weekly measurements.

Whether you spend February 2nd watching Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, watching the Super Bowl or Puppy Bowl, or celebrating Groundhog Day with friends, we hope you enjoy this weather-based holiday!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What a Winter!

Clearly, the end of 2013 was a busy one for Kristin and me, and this blog took a back seat to the other 3,427 things we had to get done. But we're well into 2014, and we're ready to get back to our regular entries!

So far, most of the country has experienced quite a winter. Meteorological terms like "polar vortex" have been the topic of conversation (Go, Al Roker!), and another big snowstorm is hitting the East Coast. Temperatures have been dropping here in Knoxville all day, and earlier in the day I got stuck in a downpour consisting of what appeared to be tiny snowballs (no flakes!) that stuck to everything (including hair) and took their own sweet time to melt. With that experience fresh on my mind, I headed to my bookshelf to pull out some "snow" books--to see how those crystals might have formed (I think they might have been classified as "lump graupel" according to Magono & Lee's snow crystal classification system). And while I was at it, I grabbed a few others that might be appropriate for the coming chilly week.

The first is appropriately titled, The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter's Wonder, by Mark Cassino. It has multiple layers of text, diagrams, and photographs, making it engaging for a wide range of readers and grade levels. The scientific vocabulary included isn't overwhelming because the explanations are straightforward, and the diagrams help to provide context--especially in terms of "book" vs. "real life" size comparisons (see below).  Directions for catching your own snowflakes are included, as well. This 2010 Outstanding Science Trade Book Award winner should be a staple in elementary classrooms.

"Snowflake" Bentley and his camera.
The perfect book to accompany The Story of Snow, is the oldie but goodie, Snowflake Bentley, by Jaqueline Briggs. This 15-year-old is now almost a "classic," and is Bentley's story is just as intriguing now as it was in 1998. Teachers now also have access to a great Wilson Bentley website run by the Jericho, VT (his hometown) Historical Society. They have resources that include his biography, photos, articles, book reviews, and even some FAQs. The website makes a nice companion to the book, and Scholastic (or Amazon) now offers some of Bentley's books: Snowflakes in Photographs and Snow Crystals.

Finally,  I was really excited when I ran across this book cross-listed on Amazon, since it seems to be written for a similar elementary crowd by a current "Snowflake Bentley" type! The Secret Life of a Snowflake: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes, is full of photos and explanations at just the right level for elementary students. It is written by Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist and professor at CalTech. (He grew up in North Dakota, so he knows his snow!), who has his own website full of great teaching resources. This book will be most appreciated by upper elementary (and middle school) students, but the photos (like the one below, comparing snowflake sizes to a penny) look engaging for all ages! This is one I'm going to order so that in the future, it sits side-by-side with the others on my shelf!