Monday, August 1, 2022

Exploring Science Through Fairy Tales

 A few weeks ago, Kristen Wilkinson wrote a post about Science Experiments for the Kitchen. On that same theme of discovering science in unexpected places, this week I'm reviewing Fairy Tale Science: Explore 25 Classic Tales Through Hands-On Experiments written by Sarah Albee and illustrated by Bill Robinson.

We've been talking a lot this summer about connecting books to summer fun, mostly by exploring hands-on activities like cooking, gardening, creating inventions, and visiting animal habitats and national parks, but it's also a time to rest, relax, watch movies and revisit Disney videos like Mulan and Tangled (aka: Rapunzel). These movies help kids internalize the structure of stories, but they do much more than that. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the epigraph of Neil Gaiman's book, Coraline. He paraphrased it from G.K. Chesterton. "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." 

I have this quote hanging in my house. Fairy tales teach us that although there are many things in this world to fear, we can overcome them with courage, bravery, and truth. Stories like Mulan can even give us a slice of history. The story comes from a poem from the sixth century about a girl who takes her father's place to join the Khan's army. Though no one knows for sure if Hua Mulan was a real person, it is well-documented that there were warrior women in China, Central Asia, and Greece around the time that the story takes place. 

In Fairy Tale Science, author, Sarah Albee, provides a brief summary and background information about each fairy tale and then makes a scientific connection. For Mulan, Albee discusses archery and provides a simple method to determine if it is more effective to close one eye or keep both eyes open when aiming at a target. Relax, you don't have to purchase an actual bow and arrow for this experiment. Two pencils, a paper cup, and some coins are all you need to teach your child about depth perception and stereopsis. By the way, the book is full of practical ways to learn academic vocabulary as well as science concepts and there is a fantastic glossary of terms at the back.

Can hair actually support a handsome young man's body weight? Watch Tangled or read Rapunzel and then find out how the protein chains in hair create tensile strength that is even more durable than the same amount of cast iron. Learn about parallel load-bearing and why braiding increases the strength of the strands. You won't actually be lifting a handsome prince in this experiment, just some pennies or marbles, but the concept is the same.

After watching Cinderella, you may want to experiment with whether or not a pumpkin is more aerodynamic than a zucchini or a cucumber. Then you can broaden your perspective even more by comparing the movie to one of the many versions of the story from another culture such as Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story by Tomie dePaola or The Rough-Face Girl written by Rafe Martin and illustrated by David Shannon. That final suggestion comes from my book, Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning Through the Power of Storytelling

The point is that Fairy Tales are a fun way to expand your world knowledge. Even spending a day binge-watching movies can lead to meaningful learning experiences. 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

A Visit to the Poe Museum in Words and Pictures

We've been talking a lot this summer about authentic reading experiences and linking books to summer fun. See my PDF on that topic. You may have spent the last few weeks exploring the zoo or visiting a national park or creating science experiments out of fun recipes. You've likely been taking photos of family, friends, exotic places, and kitchen creations. 

But what are you going to do with all of those photos besides posting them on social media?

Pictures tell a story, the story of our lives. So, why not spend some downtime with your kids this summer reliving those wonderful memories and creating a photo album before summer rolls into fall, this year rolls into next year, and those pictures are forgotten. 

Creating captions for photos provides a meaningful and authentic writing opportunity for kids. You can do this the old-school way by taping photos into an album with captions underneath, or you can create a photo album online through Shutterfly, Walgreens, or even Costco.  Start a file on one of those sites and add to it little by little. By the end of the year, you will have a wonderful project that can be shared with friends and family.

I will use my recent trip to the Poe Museum as an example. I recently took a trip to Richmond with my husband and daughter where I had a chance to visit the Edgar Allen Poe Museum there. 

There are many ways to create captions for photos. The most basic approach is to simply use the location and date to create a noun phrase. Next, try taking the same information and adding a preposition to create a prepositional phrase or a verb to create a gerund phrase. Then add a subject to create an independent clause/simple sentence. Add another clause to create a compound sentence. If you want to get fancy, add a dependent clause for a compound-complex sentence.

This activity provides an authentic writing experience with real-world rewards. It also creates teachable moments to talk with kids about the difference between a phrase, a clause, a sentence, and even a paragraph. See my examples below:

Noun Phrase: The Poe Museum, Richmond, VA, Summer 2022

Prepositional Phrase: At the Poe Museum in Richmond.

Gerund Phrase: Visiting the Poe Museum in Richmond. (This could also be a verb phrase based on how it is used in a sentence - "I am visiting the Poe Museum." versus "I enjoyed visiting the Poe Museum.")

Simple Sentence: Carolee visited the Poe Museum in Richmond.

Compound Sentence: Carolee visited the Poe Museum in Richmond, and she bought two books and an Edgar Allen Doll.

Compound-Complex Sentence: Carolee visited the Poe Museum in Richmond,and she bought two books and an Edgar Allen Doll when she was finished with her tour.

I could go on to write paragraphs and more about the Poe Museum, but that might be too much for the family photo album. It could make an interesting FaceBook post or blog article though.

I was intrigued by all of the memorabilia and information about Poe's life. One of the most interesting displays was about his death.  Edgar Allen Poe died under very mysterious circumstances at the age of 40. It was voting day, and he was found delirious in a gutter, wearing another man's clothes. He was taken to the hospital where he spent the next four days making incoherent references to someone named Reynolds. He died without being able to tell anyone what had happened to him. Poe may have been a victim of "cooping," where victims were beaten, dressed in disguise, and forced to vote for a certain candidate repeatedly by using different names. And some worry about voter fraud now! But that was only one of the theories. A display at the museum listed a total of 26 possible death theories including Rabies and Meningitis.

In addition to horror and poetry, Poe wrote science fiction and invented the first detective stories - The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter. He introduced ideas like the least likely suspect and false clues and inspired writers like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, as well as movie director, Alfred Hitchcock. 

There it is, a recap of my visit to the Poe Museum in words and pictures. It won't all make it into the family photo album, but it's a good example of how a visit to a museum and a few photos can inspire everything from a few words to paragraphs and even books.

Poe has definitely inspired my writing. I did a spoof on his poem, "The Raven," for my verse novel, Forget Me Not. The poem is called, "The Dead Rapper Rap" and it features Tupac as a substitute teacher. Ravens figure prominently in the book and the cover designer even made the girl's hair on the front of the book look a bit like raven wings. Did I mention that my middle name is Lenore? My mother was a big fan of "The Raven."

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Science Experiments For the Kitchen - Cook and Learn by Kristen Wilkinson

Did you start a garden this summer or visit your local farmer’s market? If so, keep the learning about plants going with Science Experiments You Can Eat, written by Vicki Cobb and illustrated by Tad Carpenter. Now that you’ve grown all those lovely vegetables in your garden, you can bring them into the kitchen for some science experiments. You can run an experiment to explore how plants take in water and how water moves up the stem of a plant. You can even investigate the chemical reactions that happen with chlorophyll and cellulose when you cook plants. 
Make a delicious lemon fizz and watch the reaction as gas is formed. Use the red cabbage indicator from an earlier experiment to determine if the lemon fizz is an acid or a base. Learn about stabilized emulsions by making your own mayonnaise. Keep your fresh baked cookies crisp by determining which type of sweetener (granulated sugar versus honey) is more hydroscopic than the other. Hydroscopic means “wet cooking” by the way. This book is great for cooks of all ages (with supervision) and adults will even learn a thing or two.
The experiments in this book are easy to follow and accompanied by helpful background information on the concept you are investigating. And, as the title promises, you can eat each experiment after you are finished learning!
I have learned through my work at the Environmental Learning Center that kids are natural scientists; they are curious and love to learn about the world around them. You can encourage this curiosity at home through science experiments like these. Maybe the next time your child has one of their unending “why” questions, you’ll be able to help them design an experiment to find the answer on their own!

Kristen Wilkinson is the Program Director for the Colorado State University Environmental Learning Center, an environmental education outreach center in Northern Colorado for children and adults.
Download the FREE PDF on Tips for Connecting Books to Summer Fun. Watch for more book titles and tips coming weekly through the summer. Sign up for the newsletter HERE to keep up with articles and you will receive the free writing template for Travel Trouble.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Authentic Reading and Writing Opportunities for Summer to Build Background Knowledge

Summer is a time to put aside the constraints of the classroom, let loose, and have some fun, but that doesn't mean kids stop learning. In fact, summer is a great time to build background knowledge by exploring kids' special interests and activities through books.


Reading Rockets has put together a wonderful, free resource called Start With a Book. It includes three parts:

1. Choose a Topic to Explore - Reading Rockets provides a list of 24 different topics including Birds and Animals, Inventions and Inventors, Cooking and Food, Geography and Travel, and Nature: Our Green World. Many of these topics are also related to my Free PDF on Tips for Connecting Books with Summer Fun.

2. Find Great Kids Books - Under each topic, Reading Rockets provides links to several children's book titles, but that's not all. They also make suggestions for writing activities like Keeping a Nature Journal, Let's Write a Recipe, Building Stories where kids design a house, and Robots and Work where kids brainstorm an invention of a robot and write about it.

3. Keep the Adventure Going - Reading Rockets provides websites, podcasts, and more connected with each topic so kids can continue to build background knowledge.


Would you prefer short non-fiction articles for older students on a greater variety of subjects? Does your child have difficulty reading on their own? If so, you may want to check out ReadWorks. It is a free resource for educators and parents that provides short reading passages along with vocabulary activities and comprehension questions, on a variety of topics including STEM, social studies, poetry, and literary fiction. They include a recording of each reading passage to support struggling readers. To sign up for ReadWorks and learn more about what they offer, go to their website at  Articles are listed by grade level and length.

Through ReadWorks, kids can learn about geysers before visiting Yellowstone, read about a farmer's market in New York City before spending a day at their local venue, or investigate an animal that stirs their interest after a trip to the local zoo. These are all ways to build authentic reading experiences and background knowledge while capitalizing on a child's natural curiosity.

So have fun with those summer activities, but make those activities even more interesting by connecting them with something fun to read!

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Sunday, June 5, 2022

My Pandemic Garden and the Wisdom of Thinking Small

Does anybody else have a pandemic garden that looks like this... empty... nothing growing in it because now we are all out traveling and having grand adventures? I got so deeply into gardening during the pandemic that we tore out all the grass that was previously growing here. I even invested in a composter. See it in the corner in the picture below? I think the same gunk is in it from a year ago. I'm a little afraid to open it, to be honest. Thank goodness my husband knows me well enough to have suggested (rather strongly) that I start my agricultural project on the side of the house that no one can see. Right now it's just empty space. In a few weeks, there will be weeds to deal with. That's what happens when you take out the grass and leave nothing but dirt and bark mulch.

Gardening is one of the topics in my summer series on Tips for Connecting Books with Summer Fun. Getting kids involved in gardening is a good way to expand their background knowledge in science. Even my grown kids got involved in this garden. My son helped me tear out the grass and my daughter watered and weeded. Now they are both off to new adventures in graduate school, which is part of the reason my garden looks so empty.

Recently, I came across Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet: Inventive Ideas for Growing Food in a Small Space by DK Publishing. Many people live in apartments or may rent a house and don't have permission to dig up the grass to plant vegetables. Even if you have a large yard, there can be good reasons for starting a garden in a small space. During the pandemic, many people in my neighborhood started planting gardens. I wasn't the only one, but now many of their gardens look like mine. I forgot about the wisdom of thinking small and starting with something not only manageable in the short term but sustainable for the long term. I wish I had come across this book then.

Grow All You Can Eat provides colorful photographs and step-by-step directions for things you would expect like container gardens and window boxes, but there are also tips on planting vegetables in a reusable shopping bag and building a fence trellis out of old bicycle wheels. There are many tips that are useful even if you have more space such as how to extend the growing season, making use of the space between plants with intercropping, and planting slow crops with fast-growing crops.

If you would rather try a community garden, check out the post earlier in May about Books on Community Gardening and Pollination.

To be honest, I will most likely spend this summer enjoying the fruits of other gardeners' labor at my local farmer's market.

Download the FREE PDF on Tips for Connecting Books to Summer Fun. Watch for more book titles and tips coming weekly through the summer. Sign up for the newsletter HERE to keep up with articles and you will receive the free writing template for Travel Trouble.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Children's Books for Better Speech and Hearing Month

Sharing books about main characters with disabilities promotes awareness and acceptance. The three books I will be discussing today also happen to have connections to my summer series on Tips for Connecting Books to Summer Fun. They are all fiction titles, but one is about gardening (albeit in dystopian Australia). One is about wild birds, and another ends with a concert in the park.

A good place to find some of the best books featuring characters with disabilities is on the American Library Association (ALA) website page for the Schneider Family Book Award. The purpose of the award is to honor an author or illustrator for a book that, "...embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." Every January, the ALA announces winners in the age categories of 0-8, 9-13, and 14-18. Some of the highlights for the recent 2022 awards are below.

The winner in the young children's category was My City Speaks. Photographer Darren Lebeuf and paper artist Ashley Barron have created a visually engaging tale of a girl with a visual impairment and her father as they travel to familiar spots in their city (including a community garden) and finally arrive at a concert stage in the park where she plays the violin.

The winner in the middle-grade category was A Bird Will Soar, by Alison Green Meyers. It is written from the perspective of Axel, a boy on the autism spectrum who loves birds but often finds family confusing. He makes sense of the people around him by comparing them to birds. The insight into Axel's inner thoughts and feelings is part of what makes this book so remarkable. When a storm destroys an eagle's nest, Axel must help a struggling eaglet to heal. The story is filled with poems and lots of interesting bird facts. 

The winner in the teen category was Words in my Hands, written and illustrated by Asphyxia and published by Annick Press. It is an illustrated novel told in a combination of text, paint, collage, and sketch about a girl who is deaf and is living in a slightly futuristic world in Australia filled with food insecurity, political upheaval, and environmental turmoil. It is dystopian but at the same time frighteningly realistic. Ultimately it is a story of resilience and hope as Piper, the main character, strives to create a sustainable garden and find her "voice." Asphyxia, the author/illustrator, is deaf and has included a "Dear Reader" note at the end of the book that shares ideas for how the hearing can be more sensitive and inclusive of people with hearing challenges.

For books about gardening for younger readers, see the books in last week's blog post about Books on Community Gardening and Pollination.

Since May is Better Speech and Hearing Month, you may want to check out the book list I created last November about Children's Books Featuring Main Characters with Speech, Language, Learning, and Hearing Challenges. Because many kids with speech and language challenges also struggle with reading, you may also want to share stories from my list of Children's Books Featuring Main Characters with Dyslexia. Don't forget the list I shared in April for Autism Awareness Month

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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Books on Community Gardening and Pollination to Inspire Young Readers by Kristen Wilkinson

Miguel’s Community Garden, written by JaNay Brown-Wood and illustrated by Samara Hardy, is a beautiful, interactive story. The author guides readers to help Miguel find his sunflowers by comparing plant characteristics, such as leaf shape and petal color, which are illustrated in plenty of detail to allow readers to investigate the garden. The diverse cast of characters shows that everyone is welcome at the community garden. The colorful, detailed illustrations will keep kids’ attention while the story guides parents to discuss the different plants they see from spinach to mushrooms. You don’t need to be a plant expert to help Miguel find his sunflowers in time for the garden party!

The Reason for a Flower: A Book About Flowers, Pollen, and Seeds, written and illustrated by Ruth Heller, explains the process of pollination in fanciful verse. Read these two books together with your 6-9 year old child to show how pollination produces many of the foods present in Miguel’s Community Garden.
Explore your own kitchen to find foods that are the result of pollination such as tomatoes, apples or rice. If you have a garden or can visit one, go looking for pollinators like bees and butterflies, and see if you can watch them at work. Make note of which flowers they visit. Then come back in a few weeks to see if a fruit is growing from the pollinated flowers.
Exploring the natural world with your child can be as simple as looking for insects outside your front door. At the Environmental Learning Center, we emphasize that any time spent outdoors is valuable. Kids don’t need a grand adventure to the wilderness; they just need to explore in their neighborhood with a caring adult.  

Kristen Wilkinson is the Program Director for the Colorado State University Environmental Learning Center, an environmental education outreach center in Northern Colorado for children and adults.
Download the FREE PDF on Tips for Connecting Books to Summer Fun. Watch for more book titles and tips coming weekly through the summer. Sign up for the newsletter HERE to keep up with articles and you will receive the free writing template for Travel Trouble.