My Science Story

Earlier this week Jon (my co-teacher) and I published a guest post on Scientific American’s Budding Scientists blog. As a citizen scientist, this pretty much made my year. Then it got picked up by Yahoo. Then Scientific American tweeted this:

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I’m thrilled because storytelling has fascinated me for years and I think we can do so much more with it, especially in schools.  The effect stories have on the human brain has been well-documented and it can help all students learn more, dig deeper, and retain more.  It’s not about dumbing down the curriculum or attracting people to jobs they aren’t meant to do.  It’s about making learning interesting and meaningful and it’s about keeping students engaged.

I’m a science geek.  Always have been.  In middle school  I went to science camp during the summer.  Yes, I am a big geek.  In 8th grade, I made the decision to apply for entrance to the local STEM magnet school.  I was lucky enough to get in and was thrilled.  In high school I was blessed to have an amazing biology teacher, and today I am lucky enough to call him my colleague.  He taught me freshman biology and I was hooked.  Then I had an amazing AP Bio teacher my senior year and my love affair continued.  Both of my biology teachers presented the narrative of science, sharing more than “just the facts”.   I designed research experiments, analyzed data, created my own content.  I loved biology and envi sci and scored high on both AP exams. I headed off to college with 8 science credits.

But after high school, I hit a wall. See, I did really, really well on my SATs.   My verbal score was perfect. My math score was not perfect, but still pretty darn good.  I went off to college and was part of the women’s science initiative there.  I spent the summer before my freshman year as part Project SUPER at Douglass College, visiting pharmaceutical companies and touring labs all over campus.  I took a science class or two my first year, but I couldn’t decide on a major. I love English.  I love literature, writing, speaking, and everything involved in the humanities.  And I love biology.  I love observing, making connections, studying genetics.  Like many of the girls cited in the study, I ended up choosing a non-STEM career.

But I’m still a scientist.  Maybe I didn’t major in science and I don’t have a PhD, but I participate in science on an almost-daily basis.  Why? Because of the narrative that was given to me in high school and through college.

And the narrative that has kept me in science is that of the monarch butterfly.

In 2003, I was paired with my mentor teacher for my first student teaching practicum.  We worked together for a year and she made me the teacher I am today.  One of the first activities I did with her?  Cleaning frass (otherwise known as caterpillar poop) from the cages housing her monarch butterfly caterpillars.  Over the course of the first month of school I helped find eggs, clean frass, spray chrysalids, and release monarch butterflies.  I fell in love with them as our third grade class oohed and ahhed, watching the pupa dance or the emergence of a butterfly.  Sue told me that she was a member of the Monarch Teacher Network, which “network of teachers and other people who use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills, including our growing connection with other nations and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment.”.  I promised her I would take the workshop before starting my first teaching job.

In 2005, I finally signed up for a (semi)local workshop.  I drove 1.5 hours each way for 3 days in August and it’s the best professional development I have ever participated in.  Over those three days I realized the power that storytelling has on the human imagination and humanity as a whole.  I had watched my third graders study the monarchs and as a result learn more about math, language arts, and geography.  But the workshop showed me how to do the same with middle schoolers and high schoolers.  It even showed me how adults could get wrapped up in the story of the monarch butterfly.

The monarch butterfly migrates thousands of miles each autumn, from the eastern US and Canada to a small mountain range in central Mexico.  These small insects then survive the winter on these mountaintops, which their great-great-great-great-grandparents left the year before, before heading north again in the spring.  They lay eggs on milkweed plants in the southern US and then die before the eggs hatch and their offspring continue the journey north.

This story, which unites the people of Canada, the US, and Mexico, has had me hooked since the first time I watched a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis.  And it hooks students just as much.  Using the monarch, I have taught students about biology, migration, populations, genetics, symmetry, the Fibonacci sequence, citizen science, measurement, weather,  Mesoamerican cultures and traditions, physics, chemistry, poetry, critical reading, grammar, writing, and so much more.  The story is the anchor.  Using it, we can cast a wide net and bring students to a variety of subjects and topics in an authentic way.  I have former students who still raise monarch butterflies with their families!  A student who left me 6 years ago emailed me last year and mentioned they plant milkweed every year and tell their family about the importance of pollinators.  Six years later!  That’s a whole lot better than memorizing a list of facts and figures just to forget them when it’s time to study for the next test.

Today I am an English teacher who participates in citizen science projects.  I track the monarch butterfly migration and milkweed growth each season.  I teach a science enrichment class at a local university, geared towards getting middle schoolers interested in science.  Without amazing teachers who used stories to hook me, or a workshop that continued using stories, I don’t know if I would be the citizen scientist I am today.

Story matters.  It matters in language arts, in history, in math, and in science.  It matters in life.  Humans communicate through stories and we have since the dawn of civilization.  Stories activate our brains and help us make deeper connections.  And I’ve watched those stories keep students interested in every subject.  The world is cut out into little sections, this part for science and this part for math, this part for history and this part for art.  The world is real, it’s messy, and it requires us to be engaged.  Story can help us get our students ready for that.

 

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!

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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

Why Can’t We Be Friends? The Common Core, Informational Text, and Literature

summer reading

summer reading (Photo credit: ruminatrix)

This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curriculum“, an article that went viral this weekend.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think that it was alarmist and extreme.  For those who haven’t read it, the article claims that “Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger‘s Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of ‘informational texts’.”  It goes on to say that classrooms will no longer read literature and instead students will be required to read “insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.”.

 

I wish that some of these reporters who write about the Common Core would actually talk to teachers who are implementing the standards.  Standards are not curriculum, despite headlines that like to insinuate that those words are interchangeable.  Standards tell me, the teacher, where my students should end up.  I decide what our journey will look like.  I decide how far we will meander down one fork before choosing a different direction.  I decide when we sit and spend a while enjoying the scenery.  And my path may not look like the path the teacher down the hall, across the street, or in another state takes.  But as long as the destination is the same, we have the freedom to make our own choices.

 

I’m not afraid of the Common Core State Standards. I admit I was skeptical at first.  I definitely don’t support the testing that will be developed to assess the implementation of the standards.  But I do support the standards.  Are they perfect?  Not at all.  But they are a great place to start.  As teachers, we need to lead from the floor and take charge.  We need to take ownership of the standards and their implementation.

 

The misinformation out there about Common Core scares me and the attempt by some districts (and publishers) to use it as an excuse to implement a scripted curriculum worries me. Nowhere in the document adopted by 46 states is a prescribed list of books assigned.  Nowhere in the standards is there a script teachers must follow.  The most-maligned aspect of the standards is the call for students to read 70% nonfiction/informational text by 12th grade.  But what many administrators neglect is that that footnote (which should be in huge, bold letters) reminds teachers that the percentage is for all in-school reading and not just the reading done in English classes.  By senior year, most of our students are reading informational text the majority of the school day. A typical student spends 45 minutes in English class every day.  Over the course of the day they sit in an average of seven 45 minute classes.  That means that students in high school are spending about 14% of their school day in a class where fiction is read.  Sadly, many content area teachers, especially at the secondary level, don’t include fiction in their classes.  “That’s for the English teacher to do!  I have to cover my own curriculum!” is the typical explanation. So at this moment, many students are reading fiction less than 30% of their day!

 

14% of their school day.  That’s it. So I’m thrilled that the Common Core asks that 30% of what students read is fiction!  As for the 70% informational text?  It’s about time!

 

Have you looked at a textbook recently?  Most of them are dreadful.  I can’t tell you how dry and dull they are, not to mention riddled with errors.  Our students should be reading real-life informational text in their content area classes.  I want to see my students reading field guides in biology!  I want them to analyze journal articles and primary documents in history!  Why shouldn’t they read biographies of mathematicians in geometry or instruction manuals in CAD class?  There is no textbook in life, so they should be reading and interacting with these texts beginning in school.

 

And there is a place for literary nonfiction in the English classroom, too.  Does it need to push fiction out of the picture? Absolutely not.  But it should be offered as a choice.  Many of my students actually prefer nonfiction and rarely have a chance to see it in school.  But as English teachers we have the opportunity to reach across the aisle and facilitate interdisciplinary work with our colleagues in the content areas, to the benefit of our students.  As I am constantly telling my students, no one can claim that they are “just an engineer” who will never read and write as a professional.  Look at the job ads in any newspaper or online- almost all of them, regardless of occupation, require strong communication skills.  The world is not put into neat little boxes like our subject areas are.  The real world  is interdisciplinary!  A student just told me that she is working with a college engineering professor this semester and her first job?  Working alongside him reading and writing reports.  As an engineer!

 

Our students need to be prepared to the real world, for jobs that don’t even exist yet.  That means we need to bring the real world to them as often as possible.  The real world is not in a textbook.  The world is in Katherine Boo‘s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and David McCullough‘s The Johnstown Flood.  It’s in Dave Eggers‘ Zeitoun or Sue Halpern’s Four Wings and  a Prayer.  If the Common Core can help some districts move away from textbooks and into newspapers and literary nonfiction then I am all for it!

 

But for me, in my classroom? I’ve embraced the standards. My students are reading and writing more than ever before and I actually have the opportunity to add more literature to my curriculum. How? By working with my colleagues across disciplines to implement the reading and writing standards my students receive more instruction in informational text and I have more time in English! And I’m bringing the real world applications of the Common Core to my students as often as possible.  Most recently, I have begun interviewing authors about their experiences with STEM in the arts.  Full STEaM Ahead will allow me to bring these authors and their experiences to my students, who will see that being an author and being a scientist aren’t mutually exclusive.

 

We need to work with our colleagues in all disciplines in order to better serve our students.

 

What I have learned so far is that teachers can implement much of the Common Core just by bringing newspapers into the classroom, in any subject area.  My students read the paper every day and write in response to what they read.  They are surrounded by informational text mentors as I work with my history co-teacher, and then we draw connections between current events, the literature we read, and the information they study in history.  It’s truly a multidisciplinary approach and the students enjoy it!  The improvement in their reading and writing skills in just a few months is tremendous (and measurable!).  Even better?  They are reading more!  They pick up the newspaper and can think critically about the issue affecting their world.  Then they apply that same thinking to literature.  They also increase their background knowledge, very much like Kelly Gallagher has done with his Article of the Week, which enhances the reading they do, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. (To see what Jon and I are doing in the classroom, check out our weekly column on the NYTimes Learning Network.  Learn more about how we implemented it.)

 

You know what else?  I see more room for independent reading in the Common Core Standards.  I’m actually adding fiction to my English I class because we cover so much NF alongside history.  And I love sharing contemporary literature- YA and adult- with my students in 9th and 12th grade.  Now, thanks to the interdisciplinary call in the Common Core, I have an excuse to bring more of those books into my classroom.  Just take a look the summer reading suggestions my freshmen students receive.

 

The alarmist article did bring up one good point.  It’s about time teachers and districts started reevaluating the canon literature foisted upon every student.  Does every seventeen-year old need to read Catcher in the Rye? Or are there other, better books out there now?  Maybe every student isn’t ready for canon literature in high school.  So let’s get them ready by bringing them to the table and meeting them halfway.  Find what they like to read.  Offer them YA and NF, allow them some form of choice.  And get them reading!  There will be time for canon later. Right now, we need to get them to read.  As Penny Kittle says, “It’s not rigorous if they are not reading it”. So find what they like and bring that into the classroom! The standards give me more freedom to bring in newspapers and magazines, nonfiction books about math and mechanics, science and hobbies.  And those books can ladder to more rigorous texts.  And so on.

 

The standards give me the freedom to decide how I get my students ready.   I’ve found room for lots of choice. The examplar texts are just examples. They are not mandated. I’m sure there are districts who have decided to mandate them, but that’s a battle we need to fight as teachers.  Stand up to your administrators and set them straight!

 

Listen to me.  I am a teacher on the ground who is implementing the Common Core Standards every day.  Can we get one thing straight?  Nowhere does the Common Core state that literature must be removed from the classroom. If anyone is telling you, the teacher, that you can’t teach literature then you need to get out your copy of the Common Core and explain that they are wrong.  Don’t misunderstand me-there are plenty of districts making bad decisions around the CCSS. But the standards themselves aren’t as bad as these articles make them out to be.  Check out the Uncommon Corps for some real, in-the-field knowledge about bringing more nonfiction into classrooms.  Like me, Marc Aronson, Sue Bartle, Mary Ann Cappiello, Kathleen Odean, Myra Zarnowski think there is a dearth of fabulous nonfiction being shared with our students and they are embracing the call to action for more NF in the classroom.  And it’s about time.

 

There wasn’t a lot I could do, on a daily basis, about NCLB, Race to the Top, or other initiatives driven by lawmakers.  But the Common Core?  That I can drive with my own actions.  We are the ones on the ground, in the trenches, and we will lead with our actions.  We need to empower good teachers. Standards tell me where my kids should end up. I get to decide how we get there.

Full STEAM Ahead with Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered

Full STEAM Ahead

The past summer, I read Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered in one sitting.  (My review here). I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so when I decided to query authors for Full STEAM Ahead, Eliot immediately jumped to mind.  The research he conducted for the book took him all the way to a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  You can’t get more hands-on in science than sitting amongst the bonobos and interacting with them and their caretakers! And what I really love is that the story began with Eliot researching where the name of his favorite store, Bonobos, originated.  Talk about real-life applications of research!

Eliot contributed some Q and A about the way science influenced his writing.  Specifically, he is here today to talk about the time he spent at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He has even shared some video clips of the time he spent at the sanctuary!

Q: Did you make any surprising observations about bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary?

A: One thing I discovered while I was at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo was that the orphans really don’t like men. I’m a smaller guy, so they didn’t mind me too much, but whenever I had an orphan on my lap and one of the larger men on the staff—a gardener or a guard—would come over, the orphan would immediately be on his feet and crying for her surrogate mother to come over and hold her.

Of course, it was mostly likely men who came into the forest and killed that orphan’s mother. The young creatures receive so much love at the sanctuary, and have such a good time playing with one another, that it’s easy to forget where they all came from. But the immediate, visceral fear on an orphan’s face in the company of men made it all come back. They are 98.7% human, and extraordinarily sensitive. They’re as likely to forget about losing a parent as we would be.

Esperance Tsona and Anne-Marie Ngalula, surrogate mother and nurse, respectively, at Lola ya bonobo, Kinshasa. (Video taken by Eliot Schrefer.)

 

Q: Did it concern you to write about animal welfare in a country with so much human suffering?

A: Jane Goodall, who no doubt gets asked this question all the time, wrote a wonderfully articulate response in her memoir, Through a Window:

Often I am asked whether I do not feel that it is unethical to devote time to the welfare of ‘animals’ when so many human beings are suffering. Would it not be more appropriate to help starving children, battered wives, the homeless? Fortunately, there are hundreds of people addressing their considerable talents, humanitarian principles and fund-raising abilities to such causes. My own particular energies are not needed there. Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form— whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings—brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunately streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us. If only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic—one that would respect all living beings. We should stand at the threshold of a new era in human evolution—the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.

I feel like being a sensitive adult leading an examined life entails a low level of guilt— this nagging feeling that we’re not doing enough to help others, that there’s so much to be improved but no clear way to help. Normally that guilt can be ignored, but it’s brought to the surface when we face suffering directly. One of the ways to hide that guilt back away is to say that some sufferings are outranked by others and can therefore can be ignored. But that’s a sure route to not doing anything about any of them. At some point you have to trust in compassion and the support of others, that someone else might take care of the rest of the world’s woes if I help this specific creature in front of me.

Bonobos also serve as the ambassadors for a number of less adorable species. Congo has one-eighth of the world’s forests.1 By protecting them for the sake of the bonobos and chimpanzees and gorillas, we’re also protecting the insect, amphibian, reptile, plant, and mammal species that reside there. Benefitted, as well, are the tribes that live within the forests and steward a huge plant biomass that tempers global warming.

Bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, outside of Kinshasa, using rocks to crack nuts. Video shot by Eliot Schrefer.

1Wolfire, D.M., J. Brunner and N. Sizer (1998) Forests and the Democratic Republic of Congo. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.

I love that Eliot Schrefer devoted so much time to the biology and zoology of the bonobos, determined to get it right for the book. It was certainly worth it!  I knew very little about bonobos before reading Endangered, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since  I finished reading it.  The science and research aspects are so realistic and I imagine they will inspire many readers to learn more about the great apes.  Maybe Endangered will even guide some readers into conservation or zoology!  How great would that be- students reading about math, science, or engineering and then jumping into a career inspired by that reading!

But even if the reader doesn’t become a zoologist or an environmental scientist, Schrefer’s book (and the story behind the book) will bring the bonobos to the forefront in many readers’ minds.  STEM may seem like an overused buzzword, but it is vital that our students understand the world around them.  Reading about bonobos, an endangered species, will hopefully inspire our students to protect the world they will one day inherit.  And understanding science and conservation is vital to being someone those in charge listen to.  As English teachers, we can introduce our students to STEM, compassion, and empathy at the same time.

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!

Introducing……Full STEaM Ahead!

Full STEAM Ahead

As a humanities teacher in a STEM-based school, I frequently hear from students that they “hate English” and “will never need to write papers or do research” when they become engineers or scientists.  After I count to ten, I always list off the many examples of friends and colleagues who work in those fields and are responsible for reading and writing more than they ever imagined back when they were high schoolers.  For the past few months I have been brainstorming ways to show my students that the world isn’t divided into cubicles and that the real world combines math, science, reading, writing, language, health, speaking, listening, social sciences, history, and so much more.

Take me, for example.

I am a reader, writer, teacher, blogger, social media user, therapy dog handler, and citizen scientist.  I wouldn’t be happy if could only work in one field. And in the 21st century, we need to prepare our students to be more than paper-pushers and solitary worker bees.  Another issue I frequently think about is the need for our students to be innovators.  STEM- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics- is the new buzzword for schools around the country.  I love what my colleagues and I do at our school and I think the cross-curricular opportunities we provide our students with are priceless .  My students need to be innovators and thinkers, brave enough to try fail and then try again, over and over. And they need to learn how to fail in school.

For a few months now, I have been working on a new series for the blog.  I am a STEM-loving English teacher who often feels caught between my love of science and my love of literature.  While I have managed to find a job that allows me to embrace both, and hobbies that do the same, I meet far too many students, teachers, and parents who believe that life must be lived within the confines of either/or scenarios.  Either you are a scientist or a writer.  Either you are a linguist or an engineer.  Either you are a mathematician or a reader.  While I know that this could not be farther from the truth, it is still a stereotype I butt heads with on a  regular basis.

That’s when I started reading about STEAM.  I spent a lot of time exploring STEAM-notSTEM and found myself agreeing with almost everything they stand for.  As they say on their website, “creativity enables innovation”.  We need innovators and that’s a skill that needs to be cultivated in our students.  If we want to succeed as a country, we need to encourage and incubate innovators. So what is STEAM?  It’s a call for the addition of a national arts curriculum to the science, technology, engineering, and math focus that is the focus of many educational institutions right now.  The arts are proven to be a key to creativity, which in turn leads to innovation.  According to  STEAM-notSTEM

The future of the US economy rests on its ability to be a leader in the innovation that will be essential in creating the new industries and jobs that will be the heart of our new economy…STEM is based on skills generally using the left half of the brain and thus is logic driven. Much research and data shows that activities like Arts, which uses the right side of the brain supports and fosters creativity, which is essential to innovation. Clearly the combination of superior STEM education combined with Arts education (STEAM) should provide us with the education system that offers us the best chance for regaining the innovation leadership essential to the new economy.

I’m not an artist by any means.  I can barely draw a stick figure, bubble letters leave me frustrated, and my coloring leaves something to be desired.  But I love doodling, sketchnoting, and writing. I completed a NaNoWriMo novel, writing 50,000 words during the month of November.  My art is usually related to writing or reading, with a infrequent Pinterest-inspired craft thrown in the mix.  But that NaNoWriMo novel I wrote last year? It is focused on the migration of the monarch butterfly.  Science informs a lot of my writing and my teaching, and I realized that many of my favorite books also include real science.  This was a eureka moment for me and I had an idea.  Why not reach out to writers who delve into real science in their books and have them share their stories?  Those authors, of books that I would classify as lablit, as this NYTimes articles details, have become experts in a STEM-related topic in order to write the story they needed to tell.

Science and art have not always been relegated to separate corners.  Leonardo Da Vinci and the renowned Persian polymath Omar Khayyám, both of whom I study with my freshman humanities students, were readers, writers, poets, astronomers, inventors, designers, and scientists. . One of Carl Jung’s mythological archetypes was the artist-scientist, for heaven’s sake!  The artist-scientist archetype represents builders, inventors, and dreamers.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And according to Scientific American, “Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.”   It’s time for us to recognize these geniuses and those who are among us today, moving effortlessly between poetry, science, design, math, and much more.

I reached out and a fabulous group of authors agreed to share their experience with STEM as part of my new blog series, Full STEAM Ahead.  It’s time for the STEM world to embrace the arts, and reading and writing are a great way for teachers to bring STEM and STEAM together in the classroom.  The feature will be running weekly, with the first author scheduled to share his story on Thursday.  Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award nominated Endangered (one of my favorite books of the year!) will be sharing how he researched bonobos and spent time studying them while working on his book.  Please be sure to come back on Thursday to read the first entry in the Full STEAM Ahead series here on TheReadingZone!

Bookworm Camp Day 4!

Today was all about Karen Sandler’s Tankborn. I was really looking forward to today because there is so much to talk about in Tankborn! Class structure, genetic modification, the definition of human- lots of great conversations to be had!

We started the morning with a discussion of the book itself. The kids talked about their favorite characters, their feelings about the setting, questions they had, etc. It was a productive conversation and they were really enthusiastic. The discussion naturally moved towards the controversy surrounding bioengineering and genetic modification. Exactly as I expected.  This gave us the opportunity to watch Paul Root Wolpe’s TED talk: It’s Time to Question Bio-engineering. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must take 20 minutes to listen to Wolpe.  He is a bioethicist and his talk will blow your mind! The campers were fascinated by some of the animals and modifications that he shared.

After watching Wolpe’s talk and discussing some of the animals, the kids then designed their own genetically modified animals or plants.  After drawing them and coloring them in they presented them to the class and rationalized their place in the world.

The campers were really enthusiastic about bioethics so we too some time to debate a few scenarios presented in the NIH’s Bioethics curriculum guide. Some weird stuff has been designed by scientists!  Did you know there are Glofish? Originally developed to help scientists discover pollution in waterways, they are now sold in pet stores like Petsmart and Petco.  Their genes have been injected with bioluminescence from coral so the fish are neon colored and glow under black light!  We had never heard of Glofish and they caused quite a controversy in the room.  Some of my campers wanted to buy them immediately while the others were horrified at the very thought, for moral reasons.  It was a great debate!

Before lunch, we read another 30 pages of Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, which the kids are loving. We took a few minutes to watch a SciFri video presentation about the parrots in Brooklyn, which we all learned a lot from.

After lunch we decided to do our afternoon reading outside. We read for about 40 minutes and it was wonderful!

Then it was time to go back inside and continue our discussion of Tankborn.  We watched a few author interview videos from Karen Sandler’s website and then studied the maps of Loka that are available there.  I also shared the short story that Karen Sandler has made available on her website.  This led to a great conversation about the meaning of the word human and we should define it.  I told them about the Declaration of Rights of Cetaceans and we researched the intelligence of whales and dolphins.  The idea of giving dolphins and whales “person rights” was very intriguing to my campers. We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing whether or not dolphins and whales deserve to have rights and to have those rights protected.

Tomorrow is our last day!  I’m sad to see the week end but I am looking forward to finishing  Liar & Spy and spending the day talking about Seurat, acting as spies, and reading!  Plus, I have books to give away tomorrow!

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