Hide and Seek by Kate Messner

I don’t read a lot of middle grade books now that I teach high school, but there are certain authors I always read.  Kate Messner is one of those authors.  A few weeks ago I finally got a chance to read her newest novel Hide and Seek.  As usual, it did not disappoint.

The second in her series, this mystery is perfect for middle grade readers.  José, Anna, and Henry are junior members of the secret Silver Jaguar Society, sworn to protect the world’s most important artifacts. In this adventure,  they discover that the society’s treasured Jaguar Cup, which members have whispered about for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a counterfeit.  The kids and their families soon rush to the rain forests of Costa Rica in search of the real Jaguar Cup. The adults try to keep the kids out of the mess, but of course that never works.  When they are left on their own at an eco-resort, they begin their own investigation. Middle grade readers will find themselves on the edge of their seats as they race alongside José, Anna, and Henry, in search of the cup before it disappears forever!

Highly recommended for the fast-paced mystery,  the realistic middle-school characters,and the amazing setting.

But here’s the thing.  Kate is going to get me in trouble because after reading Hide and Seek I need to visit Costa Rica.  In fact, the night I finished the book I emailed Kate and asked her where she stayed on her research trip and for any other advice she might have.  That’s how good the setting is.  That’s how magical Kate’s words are- she brings the rain forest to life. Plus, she shared a bit about her research trip here, here, and here!

I’m still looking into a trip to Costa Rica and I hope it happens in the future.  If it does, I will thank Kate Messner for introducing me to the amazing eco-lodge profiled in Hide and Seek!

Slice of Life- March 2, 2013 #slice2013

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Today was the culminating activity for the science enrichment class I am teaching with my biology colleague (and my biology teacher!).  We spent 3 hours traipsing about the woods with the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and it was a great time.  We built eco-art, played games, and did some hiking.  It was cold, and even flurried for a good amount of time, but what a great day!

 

But my favorite part of the (freezing) day was on our walk back up to the parking lot.  I had been keeping an eye out for bluebirds, as I have been seeing them for the past few weeks but rarely have my camera with me.  I was thrilled to spot a group of bluebirds a few minutes later and whipped out my camera.  As I started snapping pictures, I got the attention of a few of our students.  They all froze and watched the birds as they hopped from branch to branch.

 

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Michigan, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Whoa!  I’ve never seen a real blue bird before!”, one student exclaimed with quiet glee.

 

“Me either,” a few others responded.

 

At that moment, I realized I was in my twenties the first time I saw a bluebird in New Jersey.  They were forced out of most areas by development and many conservation groups have been working hard to restore the population over the past fifty years.  Now, we are finally getting more of them in Monmouth County.

 

We watched the flock quietly for a few more moments, noting the contrast between the male and female bluebirds, and the sharp contrast between the red cardinal and the bluebirds.  It was a magical few minutes.  The bluebirds are just so bright and look like tropical birds flitting between the winter branches and few stalks of long grass.  They put a smile on anyone’s face!

 

I was so happy to be able to introduce these middle school students to the Eastern bluebird, and hopefully awaken a love of nature in them (even more than our 3 hour winter hike, maybe!).  Nature really is amazing!

 

A very blurry picture of one of the male Eastern bluebirds.  It's hard to keep the camera steady when your hands are frozen!

A very blurry picture of one of the male Eastern bluebirds. It’s hard to keep the camera steady when your hands are frozen!

Full STEAM Ahead with Jessica Khoury

Full STEAM Ahead

At BEA last May I picked up an ARC of Jessica Khoury’s Origin.  The cover caught my eye as it sat on a shelf and the blurb talked about genetic engineering, scientific ethics, and undiscovered flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest.  I was immediately intrigued and took it home.  I read it later that summer and it did not disappoint.  It’s been making the rounds in my classroom this year and has gathered together a nice little following.  So when I started planning Full STEAM Ahead I immediately reached out to Jessica to see if she would share some of her STEM experiences.  As a young writer she really impressed me with the science that she wove in her debut novel.  (If you haven’t read Origin yet, be sure to pick up a copy!)

Today, Jessica is sharing a bit about her journey to appreciation of the STEM subjects.  She sounds a lot like many of our students!

*********************************

IN WHICH I EAT CROW

Not gonna lie, science was one of my least-favorite subjects in school. In my mind, I had divided all the subjects into two basic categories: fun and not-fun. The first category included reading, writing, spelling, physical education, and art. The second included everything else, but most of all math and science—mainly because, frankly, I sucked at them. Still do. They were the subjects I “got by” in, rushing through the homework so I could get back to the fun stuff. In college, math was the only subject I had to get tutoring on—which I hated to admit to people, since I actually worked in that same tutoring lab helping people with their English and Spanish and stuff. I truly, honestly believed that all that math and science was for nothing, that I would never use it again, that it didn’t matter if I did well so long as I passed with a respectable grade. I want to be an author, I’d think. All I really need to focus on is language and literature, right?

Wrong, Jess. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I became an author, and that’s when I realized how wrong I had been. In a dizzying turn of events, I found myself writing science fiction and suddenly, all the science and math I’d failed to learn came back to haunt me. After all, you can’t very well write science fiction if you know nothing about science. Now, I knew a little bit. I did enjoy topics like forestry and astronomy, because they were cool. But when I began writing Origin, I had to go deeper than that. I had to spend hours studying genetics and eugenics, historical movements in the scientific community, ecosystems and animal experimentation. And as I moved on to other projects after Origin, my research expanded to include psychology and neuroscience and biotechnology and even string theory. And the strangest thing happened—I found I actually kinda sorta liked this research. All the formulas and theories and terms I’d once thought dull or too hard to understand became interesting. I think it was because I could finally put them into a context I enjoyed, and there was a level of creativity involved with research that I’d never experienced before. I got to tweak the information I found and reinvent it, take the technology a step further and imagine worlds in which theories were fact, and a very important change took place in the way I approached math and science—my imagination got involved. And that made all the difference.

I began watching the science channel and TED talks and documentaries and before I knew it, I had become a science geek. Soon, I began reading about science I didn’t even need to know for my writing, and from the things I read, new ideas began to grow. Now I can’t watch the science channel for more than ten minutes without getting a new idea for a book. The new technologies being developed, the untested theories and the groundbreaking discoveries of new principles—these things became my inspiration.

Guys, science is cool. I think more and more people are catching on to this. Take the Avengers, for example. These aren’t just superheroes—these are scientists saving the world with, well, science! And muscles. There are plenty of muscles, too.

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I came to realize that science and math and writing aren’t as compartmentalized as I’d thought. I had been under the impression that if you wanted to be a writer, it was okay to kind of suck at math and science and not care if you did. But really, these disciplines are inextricably linked. Think about it. Science, math—these are about finding patterns and explaining them, about translating abstract concepts and invisible processes into communicable words and formulas. It’s about making sense of the world we live in. That’s exactly what writing is! Even writing fiction is the same process, sometimes in reverse—using words to create patterns, to explain the intangible and explore universal truths in condensed, controllable environments. When I approached my research with this in mind, I found I really enjoyed the subjects I’d once written off because the part of writing which to me is really fun—the ideas and the methods and the looking at the universe in a new and exciting way—were the same things I felt when I dug into other subjects!

Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others. You can’t just dismiss a subject because it’s boring or too difficult, or all the others areas of study will suffer. Since becoming a writer, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for everything that isn’t writing. Mechanics, cooking, chemistry, string theory, psychology—writing in and of itself is empty if you don’t have something to write about. By expanding my interest to every discipline, I found a bottomless well of inspiration. I had to eat crow, as the saying goes, and finally admit that math and science and those subjects I’d always wrinkled my nose at—were pretty darn cool after all.

-Jessica Khoury

Reading Jessica’s post made me so happy!  This is exactly what I try to emphasize to my STEM kids every day.  No one is just a scientist, or just an engineer, or just a CPA these days.  You must be able to read, write, and think critically for all the careers that exist today and those that aren’t even in existence yet.  Life is not compartmentalized, so school shouldn’t be either.  We need to reach across the aisle to our colleagues in the content areas and create opportunities for students to see the connections between STEM and English!

Be sure to check in next Thursday, when another author will be sharing their experiences with STEM and how it may have influenced their writing!

If you are an author interested in contributing a post  to Full STEAM Ahead, please contact me at thereadingzone @ gmail.com

The Real Jersey Shore

We wear flip flops all winter long.  We go to Seaside after prom.  Bonfires at the beach are how we keep warm on cool summer nights.  Senior skip day means you can find us at the beach, before the tourists get there.  The beach is our life, and we love it even more in the winter than we do in the summer.

Mom knew we snuck out to the beach after a school dance because we left a trail of sand up the porch steps and smelled like salty air instead of the smoke and grease from the diner.  But we were never sorry about taking time to lay on the sand looking at the stars, listening to the waves crash around us as we pulled our jackets closer around our shoulders.  We sat shoulder to shoulder, breathing in the salty air and making memories.

We have memories of running down the boardwalk barefoot, after midnight, while crashing at a friend’s shore house.  Sing-alongs on the beach in November or July- it didn’t matter.  We know all the words to “Jersey Girl” and danced to it at prom.  Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi provided the soundtrack to our lives.  We are used to working with the sound of jetskis in the background, or the screams of kids on the waterslides at Runaway Rapids, and the smell of Mack and Manco’s Pizza in the air. The beach is where we belong, “`cause down the shore everything’s all right”.

Your tourist destination is our home.  LBI, Seaside, and Brigantine aren’t our vacations- they are our lives.  Just like Union Beach, Keyport, Middletown, Atlantic Highlands, Highlands, Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach, and so many other towns along the coast. We can walk to the beach and frequently do.  We all know the best spots to go crabbing, the best beaches at Sandy Hook, and when to go see the migrating birds resting on our shores. The beach is our serenity, our hope, and our love.  It’s home.

I never imagined that I would turn on the news to watch my neighbors, my family, my students, my friends sifting through rubble.  When we got power back last night I turned on the local news and sat in silence, my hands over my mouth, as they showed 40 minutes of video taken at the shore.  The boardwalk my parents took me to growing up is in pieces.  The bumper boats I rode as a kid are laying in people’s front yards.  The roller coaster in Seaside is in the ocean.  Houses that used to be  on the boulevard in LBI are now in the middle of an inlet that didn’t exist just a few days ago. The scope of destruction is mind-blowing.

My parents had water over their 6-foot fence during the height of the storm, and they live on the “dry” side of town.  The water line in the basement is up to my father’s shoulders and he is over six feet tall.  They spent today ripping down sheetrock to prevent mold from spreading.  My parents and my grandmother still have no power.  It’s going down to the 30’s tomorrow night and this weekend.  Gas lines are three hours long, with people fighting over food and fuel.  We can’t drive anywhere because we don’t know when the gas lines will grow shorter and we are all afraid that the gas will eventually run out. School is closed indefinitely in some towns.  It’s chaos.

I have spoken to students who lost their first floor to flooding.  Others watched their neighbors’ homes float away.  Instead of reading the news, we are the news.  The pictures coming up on Facebook and Twitter are like some post-apocalyptic version of the Jersey Shore.  That’s not my Jersey Shore.  That’s not where my friends got married, that’s not where we built sand castles, or danced in the waves.  It can’t be real.

But it is.  And the pictures blow my mind.  I can’t fathom them and I don’t know how I will react when I can actually get to the beach.  As one of my students told me today, “The beach is gone.  It’s just not there anymore.”  It’s in the middle of the road, it’s in people’s homes, but it’s not where the waves meet the sand right now.  And my heart is broken.

But in the words of Bon Jovi, words that every New Jersey resident sings at the top of their lungs when it plays,

“We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
Cause it doesn’t make a difference
If we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot
For love – well give it a shot”

Right now, it feels like many NJ residents are living on a prayer and not much else.  But we will come back.  As my students have been saying for the past year, we are #JerseyStrong.  And now we can show the world.

Voices from the Land Workshop

A few years ago I participated in the Voices from the Land project through EIRC/Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  Since then, I have been unable to participate in the training for a variety of reasons. But this year, my district sent me to the two day workshop because the project fits in with our curriculum so well.  I was ecstatic, even though it meant driving north, towards NYC, during rush hour. (For the record, a 50 mile journey took me almost 3 hrs this morning.  It took me 1 hr and 10 minutes to get home this evening. Ridiculous.)

Today I spent the day at the offices of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  First of all, their LEED-certified building is amazing!  They have a living biowall, which purifies their air and it just awesome.

 

Inspired by Andy Goldsworthy, the Voices project combines poetry, art, ecology, biology, digital photography, design, collaborative group work, and performance.  We are walking our way through the project, just like our students would.  Today we spent 3 hours in the woods, creating ephemeral art.  Here is my group’s art:

 

Then we did a gallery walk, listening to the other artists’s describe their process and work, taking notes on words and concepts that struck us.  Afterwards, we spent the remainder of the day listening to poetry and writing our own.  Tomorrow we will come together and perform our poetry.  I can’t wait!

The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen

Who can resist The Magic School Bus?  Even my “cool” 6th graders get giddy and sing along with the theme song when clips are included in their science curriculum.  I can’t wait to share the newest title, The Magic School Bus And The Climate Challenge, with our science teachers.

Like all of The Magic School Bus books, the latest title includes all of our favorite characters. The class is putting on a play about global warming but the book Ms. Frizzle brought in is really old. Of course, she immediately remedies that by taking the class on an adventure!

I love The Magic School Bus because all of the scientific information is so effortlessly included in the story. The students include a lot of facts on their looseleaf paper that is shown throughout the book. There are also comic strips, sketches, and graphs. The topics covered include global warming, climate change, alternative energy sources, and ways to go green. The information is thorough enough to explain to students but also leaves room for more research by interested students and teachers.

The Magic School Bus And The Climate Challenge continues the wonderful precedent set by the rest of series. It’s also a great example of multigenre texts, which I plan to share when we work on our own multigenre projects later this year.

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Heartbreaking News from the Monarch Bioreserves

In February 2008, I was privileged enough to travel to Michoacan, Mexico where I visited the monarch butterfly bioreserves with the Monarch Teacher Network.  (Check out my posts from the trip here.)  Right now, a group of friends and teachers is in Mexico where they should be visiting the reserves.  Instead, they are sitting in a hotel in Mexico City, trying to plan their next move.

On Friday, after extreme rainfall across central Mexico, a devastating flood struck the small mountain town of Angangueo in Michoacan. The rain lasted  for over two days and was the heaviest rainfall in over 25 years, according to authorities.
Angangueo is located directly in between two of the monarch reserves and the people there are amazing.  Due to the floods, many homes and lives have been lost.  To make matters worse, much of the mountain forests have been illegally logged, so there have been a great many mudslides in the area of El Rosario.

I can’t imagine what it is like there right now.  The government has declared Angangueo a disaster area and most of the people in the area have been evacuated to other towns. The roads into and out of the area, and up the mountain to the sanctuaries, have been damaged extensively by landslides. According to some eyewitnesses there, the road to El Rosario is impassable.  There has been very little news about the monarchs in the reserves (which pales in comparison to the human lives, of course).  But this year’s monarch population is one of the lowest in years according to scientists, at only 1.92 hectares.

This news video contains footage of Angangueo during the evacuation:
http://www.hechos.tv/estados/confirman-6-muertos-por-lluvias-en-michoacan/v/17714 (thanks to Journey North for the link)

Visiting Michoacan was a life-changing experience.  A few pictures from my trip can hardly capture the magic of the region, but it is the least I can do.  This is getting little to no media coverage in the US.  My heart is breaking for the amazing people who care for the monarch butterflies over the winter months and the losses they have suffered.  They are a resilient people, but I am keeping them in my prayers.

A hotel in Angangueo

Some children on their way to school in Angangueo


The view from the parking lot at El Rosario.  Supposedly the road is completely destroyed.

The path up the mountain at El Rosario.  A river of monarchs.

One of the restaurants run by the local people at El Rosario


A local Purepechuan women at El Rosario

The road, laid by hand by the local people, that is supposedly impassable now due to mudslides

I worry that homes like these are flooded or wiped out by mudslides

Oyamel forests like this one, at Sierra Chincua, have been illegally clearcut, resulting in the mudslides.

More information on the floods can be found here.

Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French

Julian Carter-Li’s mother is following her photography dreams in China but that means she left him behind in San Francisco for the summer. Unfortunately, she left him with his aunt and uncle, who seem to hate him.  He does love his younger cousin, Preston, but he really wishes that his mom would come home sooner rather than later. His aunt and uncle are far from kind (and reminded me a little of the Dursleys!).  When the school calls to say Julian is sick, no one will pick him up!  His aunt sends a cab to take him to his uncle’s office, where he is left to lay on the couch til later that night.  However, while his Uncle Sibley is at a meeting, Julian intercepts an email from a girl his age, Robin, who is furious that Sibley will be clear cutting a redwood forest near her home.  Julian spontaneously responds to her and he and his friend, Danny, begin exchanging emails with her.  The boys and Robin come up with a scheme that helps Julian escape the dreaded math camp  he is being sent to and lands him an exchange with the Robin’s family. On their farm, he discovers the true meaning of family of the beauty of the redwood forest.

Before he realizes it, Julian is working against his uncle’s company to save the grove of old-growth redwood trees from the clear cutting Sibley has planned.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a good companion for Carl Hiassen’s eco-novels and I imagine it will really appeal to my middle schoolers.  Julian and his friends are in middle school themselves and their reactions and plans for the protest are very realistic.  I could imagine myself making the same decisions they did as a preteen.  Plus, who has not wanted to run away and live in a treehouse at some point in their life?

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher for the Cybils. All opinions are my own and not those of the panel as a whole.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

Scat is Carl Hiaasen’s latest book for middle grade/YA readers. Nick Waters and some of his friends are pulled into an eco-avenger’s plot to save endangered Florida panthers and put a halt to illegal drilling going on in the Everglades. When Nick’s strict (and sort of crazy) biology teacher goes missing during a wildfire that breaks out on a class trip, no one is sure whether to be worried or elated. Even weirder, though, is that one of their more “infamous” classmates, Smoke, isn’t with the class when the fire breaks out. And he doesn’t show up for school. And he had threatened Mrs. Starch the day before. Did he set the fire to get rid of Mrs. Starch?!

Scat deals with a serious ecology topic (similar to Hiaasen’s other novels), but it’s also a very funny book. One of my favorite characters is a substitute teacher who follows very specific guidelines. For example, he always teaches page 263 on Fridays. No matter the subject. Without fail. Every Friday. And he wears a tuxedo and bow tie to class. As a teacher, this had me in stitches. I can only imagine how I would feel as a student reading it!

Unlike Hiaasen’s other books, this one has a bit more mystery. Readers are kept in suspense- I couldn’t put the book down. It is also very contemporary. Nick’s dad is a National Guardsman on tour in Iraq and Nick struggles with his feelings about the war. There are also passing references to Facebook and Myspace.

My favorite aspect of the book is the Florida Panther. This gorgeous animal is one of the most endangered in the world, with between 60 and 100 left in the wild. No one who reads this book can walk away without gaining a love for these majestic animals. And I think that is exactly what Hiaasen is aiming for.

This is a great book that I can’t wait to recommend to my students. I think it will appeal to boys and girls alike, and those who love mysteries and funny books. This is another slam dunk for Carl Hiaasen!

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost.

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost is a short, concise story that packs a powerful punch. I finished it yesterday afternoon and it is still on my mind.  The action of the story takes place over the span of a few short days, but don’t make the mistake of assuming nothing happens.  Willow grows and changes more in those days than most middle-schoolers do in a lifetime.  

This is a gorgeous book, despite the fact that there are no illustrations. Instead, this verse novel is told in a series of diamond-shaped poems, based on the shape of the diamond willow. Within each poem, a few words are bolded and when from top to bottom, they form a poem-within-a-poem, the heart of the story.  Every single diamond is different, and the word choice in each poem is amazing.  I sometimes stopped on a new page just to look at shapes, which almost served as illustrations.

The story is simple and middle-grade students will easily connect with Willow and her family.  Willow is a 12-year-old part-Native Alaskan who lives in a very remote town, accessible by snowmobile, plane, and boat.  She is struggling with herself, with school, and with finding happiness. She begs her parents to mush the sled (with three of their six dogs) to her Grandparents house one weekend.  While they say no at first, she is determined to prove her maturity and they finally give in.  But on the way back there’s an accident. From there, it builds and to go on would spoil the rest of the story, so I will stop there.  but I will say you should pick this up immediately!

One of my favorite parts of the story was Willow’s connection to the past.  She struggles throughout the book, all the while unaware that the animals surrounding her carry the spirits of dead ancestors and friends who care for her.   I loved this aspect of the story, so simple and serene in it’s beauty.  It was comforting, and who hasn’t caught a glimpse of nature and felt the flicker of recognition, the momentary thought that someone or something is watching out for us?  I also loved the theme of respect and love of nature.  I seek out environmental themes in my books and this one did not disappoint.  

Diamond Willow is a must-have for middle school teachers, and I expect it may even get some Newbery love next month!

Intrigued?  Read the first few chapters here!

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