Earth Day and Interdisciplinary Projects #scichat #engchat

 

On Earth Day my students were lucky enough to Skype with Dr. David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.  Over the course of the school year the students have adopted their own mandalas, a square meter of forest space, and made monthly observations.  I work with my biology colleague and the students have been learning how to communicate scientific knowledge to a general audience through informational writing, narrative writing, and poetry.  It’s been a magical experience and one I can’t wait to continue next year.

How did this all come together?

In October 2012 my former colleague Jon Olsen and I read an article in The New York Times Science Times about Dr. Haskell with our freshmen.  The article struck a chord and we reached out to Dr. Haskell on Twitter.  He spoke with the students and eventually we set up a brief Skype session so he could talk about the overlap between the humanities and science.  The Skype session went so well that we decided to use his book as a touchstone text between English and biology this year.  We placed an order for 80 copies of the book and started planning.  We knew we wanted a field study and writing component to go alongside the book and we worked on ideas for the next few months.

In September we introduced the book to our students.  They were a little unsure at first because we were telling them that biology and English would work together during the year, combining our classes at least once each month.  Thankfully, my school embraces interdisciplinary work so they “saw the light” very quickly.

Over the course of the year our current freshmen have read a variety of essays in Dr. Haskell’s book.  In September we broke them into 2 groups of 40 and within the groups broke them into triads.  Those triads worked together all year, finding mandalas close to each other and relying on the buddy system during our field studies.  They observed organisms, practiced using specialized vocabulary, wrote poems, and sat outside during the polar vortex.  We’ve been rained on, sleeted on, snowed on, and now it’s finally starting to warm up.  We’ve seen the circle of life, complete with a dead deer carcass in one mandala and a fierce cardinal defending its turf in another.

Before each class we settled on a seasonally appropriate focus and the students read at least one of Dr. Haskell’s essays.  You can see our schedule below:

  • Sept – perception / selecting & mapping mandalas (preface, April 14th & Sept 23rd): Mike and I chose the same readings and challenged the students to figure out why an English and Bio teacher chose the same ones (without planning it that way).
  • Oct – respect  / identifying a resident organism (March 13th & April 22nd), writing a descriptive paragraph modeled after Dr. Haskell’s.
  • Nov – ecological succession / change / spectrophotometry & color / wavelengths (Nov 5th), writing a poem modeled after a few nature poems we studied in class.
  • Dec – adaptations (structural & behavioral) / breathing / your response to cold (Jan 21st & Dec 3rd,) writing a description of the way the cold infiltrates the human body.
  • Jan – patterns / Kepler’s snowflakes (Jan 17th), studying snowflakes and writing haikus.
  • Feb – habitat / food + cover + water (Nov 15th), creating a photo slideshow and brief description of their mandalas
  • March – equinox / seasonal change, preparing for Dr. Haskell’s visit.

 

You can see a sample of the instruction sheet here.  Each month it changes based on the focus.

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This is one of the best projects I have ever been involved in.  The biology and English combination is pure magic and I love having the opportunity to teach a bit of science communication.

Dr. Haskell took an hour out of his day earlier this week to read some of the students’ writing, look at their Flickr group, and share his expertise.  It was fabulous and I couldn’t ask for anything better as an English teacher!  Thank you to Dr. Haskell!

Interdisciplinary work is the best.  The world isn’t divided into neat little subject boxes like the constructs we model in schools.  Life is messy, subjects mingle together.  But communication, reading and writing, is vital regardless of the field students may choose to pursue. Appreciating the environment that surrounds them is also vital to our wellbeing as a species.

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Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Endangered won’t be released until October 1st, but I am publishing this early so that you can place your pre-orders now.  Endangered was hands-down the best book I read this summer.  I read it straight through, in the middle of the night, because I could not put it down.  The book made it’s way to the top of my TBR pile after I tweeted a request for realistic YA with a focus on science.  When a few Twitter pals recommended Eliot Schrefer’s upcoming book I remembered seeing a few mentions of the book at BEA back in May.  The ARC quickly climbed to the top of my TBR pile and I am very glad it did.  Like I said, it was my favorite book of the summer!

For those of you who don’t know me in real life, I am a science girl.  I went to a pre-engineering and science high school and spent my first year of college struggling to decide between English and biology as a major.  I was a part of Project SUPER during my freshman year in college, which “is an enrichment program for undergraduate women interested in pursuing the sciences, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.”  We visited labs all over campus, met with mentors, and participated in research.  In the end, I became an education major with a double major in English.  However, I am still a science girl at heart.  All you have to do is look at my involvement with the Monarch Teacher Network to know that!

Back on the subject of Endangered.  Books about animals, with a focus on biology or conservation, are my bread and butter.  For some reason, there is a severe lack of these books in YA.  (Other than dystopian, science fiction books).  But Endangered is the book to beat all books in the genre!  It’s real, it’s gritty, and it will break your heart.  But the best part is the science is all real and the desperate need for conservation is all too real in a part of the world that often can’t feed it’s people, let along focus on the innocent creatures surrounding them.

Endangered is the truly exceptional story of Sophie, a teenage girl whose mother runs a bonobo sanctuary in Congo.  Bonobos are our closest relatives (we share 98% of our DNA, more than chimps) and they are surprisingly human-like.  However, they live in the war-torn Congo and are in danger of becoming the first great apes to become extinct under our watch.  Sophie’s mother works alongside the government to raise orphaned bonobos in order to release them into the wild later in life.  But when Sophie personally rescues Otto, an orphaned bonobo, she becomes attached to him.

But Sophie and Otto’s lives are in danger when a coup threatens the stability of the country.  Sophie and Otto are forced to flee into the jungle in order to survive and they must make their way to safety.  Together, alongside some of the surviving bonobos from the sanctuary, they must fight to stay alive amidst revolution and chaos.

I can not recommend this book enough.  However, be aware that it is a war story, and thus I would recommend it for high school readers and not those in middle school.  It’s also full of facts that are woven seamlessly into the narrative.  I’d love to have my students read this as we study imperialism in Africa.  It’s a natural ladder to (and even from) Achebe and Adichi’s works.  Endangered is a tale of survival amid violence and Schrefer doesn’t shy away from the gory details at times.  And because those details sometimes involve mistreated animals, I found it hard to read at times.  However, I also could not stop reading.  And that’s the magic of Endangered.

I finished the book a few weeks ago and it’s still on my mind.  I immediately passed it on to my co-worker who teaches biology.  I plan to place it on my list of recommended summer reads next year.  And I can’t wait to booktalk to my students.  It’s the perfect mix of humanity, history, biology, conservation, compassion, the human condition, and current events.  I find myself still researching bonobos as I type this!

Highly, highly recommended.  And I fully expect to hear this title brought up in many awards conversations.

(Eliot Schrefer will be presenting at NCTE in November.  I know I can’t wait to be a part of that audience!)

 

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner

It’s appropriate that I am publishing this review today, as I watch severe weather warnings scroll across the bottom of my TV.  Kate Messner’s Eye of the Storm is a science novel (a term coined by Betsy Bird) about a dark future where storms have taken over the weather pattern and have pushed people out of their homes and into planned communities.

I loved this novel.  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a weak spot for the post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre.  But I am also a huge science geek.  I struggled to choose a major in college, because I loved biology and English.  I went to a pre-engineering academy for high school.  And even today, I still raise monarch butterflies and subscribe to too many science blogs to list.  I was excited when I read that Kate was writing a book heavily based on meteorological science and I begged an ARC off the publicist at NCTE.

Jaden’s dad is a meteorological engineer and he invites her to the middle of storm country to attend a camp for gifted and talented middle schoolers.  She is happy to spend time with her father and his family and as a science geek, she looks forward to camp.  But when she gets to Oklahoma, she realizes that everything is not as it seems.  Her father’s planned, engineered stormsafe community seems to be going above and beyond in order to keep the residents safe from harm. But by avoiding the storms, they may be putting those outside the community in danger.  Once Jaden starts camp, she befriends some of the farm kids from outside the community and they all begin to dig a bit deeper into the storms.

Eye of the Storm  is recommended for middle graders, but I think it will appeal to high school readers, too.  Jaden is a great heroine who is smart, geeky, and fun.  The science in the book is top-notch and Messner keeps you on the edge of your seat.  The teens/tweens read as real kids and as a teacher of gifted students, I recognized a lot of my own students in her characters.  One warning: Be sure to have some meteorology books on hand because when kids finish this one they are going to want to read a lot about storm systems!

Highly recommended for middle school and high school libraries.  A great read for upper elementary students, too!

*ARC courtesy of the publisher at NCTE

Poetry and Science- Perfect Together?

Last Friday a colleague and I took some time for professional development at a high school in northern NJ that has a program similar to ours.  I was very excited to meet Erin Colfax, co-author of the upcoming Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response. (We have already ordered a copy and I can’t wait to take a look at it!).

Erin was an absolute inspiration. The woman literally does everything.  She designs research projects all over the world and travels to collect the necessary data so that she can bring it back to her students.   On top of this, she is one of the leaders of the Science Academy program at Morristown HS and co-teaches in English and History.  She and her co-teachers work together to integrate science and research into the content areas and the results are amazing.  Erin told us how she studied with an embalmer in town during the Civil War unit and then they set up a mock embalming in the classroom, where the embalmer used Civil War era tools.  How awesome is that?!  And that is only one example of the amazing things she is doing.

Personally, I was thrilled to talk to Erin about English.  I am a science geek and for a long time considered a career in science before I decided to be an English teacher.  As my bio colleague (and my former bio teacher!) always reminds me, I am still pretty involved in science thanks to the Monarch Teacher Network.  But Erin helped write  Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response and I was dying to pick her brain before I got my hands on the book.  Let me tell you- Erin and Nancy are both amazing!  The way Erin described her Science and Poetry summer camp, it was like my dream come true.  And the way they integrate science and poetry is inspirational.  Erin believes that the act of writing poetry, designing similes, metaphors, and other figurative language, helps students really learn tough science concepts.  You know what?  I agree!

I am looking forward to talking more with Erin in the future and sharing ideas with her.  I also highly recommend Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response.  While it is only available for preorder now, it should ship at the end of this month.  (And it will only cost about $30, NOT the crazy price listed on the Amazon preorder page!).  I was lucky enough to see a lot of her materials last week and I know it will be well worth it.

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (Scientists in the Field Series) by Loree Griffin Burns

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe (Scientists in the Field Series) by Loree Griffin Burns is a fantastic in-depth look at honeybees and the recent incidences of CCD (colony collapse disorder).  As fellow pollinators to my monarch butterflys, I was fascinated by this look at the gentle and amazing insect that is the honeybee.

The latest in the Scientists in the Field series begins with a look at beekeeping.  As a student teacher, the school I was placed in had the “Bee Man” come in and present and I was just as fascinated as the kids.  Beekeeping is awesome and very few students are aware that it is even a viable career today.  This study of beekeeping leads to a deeper look at colony collapse disorder and the ripple effects of it.  The reader is introduced to four scientists and researchers who focus on CCD and what could cause it. While they are still not certain of the exact cause of CCD, the book explores a few possibilities that include mites, virus, and a parasite.

While this is a thin book it packs a powerful punch and a lot of information into a small package.  The photographs are also amazing- including some up-close-and-personal looks at beehives.  This is a great nonfiction book for any library and especially for a science classroom.  Highly recommended.

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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

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