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!



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.


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


Slice of Life Classroom Challenge

Are you looking for a cool way to integrate more writing into your classroom this coming month?  If so, be sure to check out Two Writing Teachers!  Stacey just posted a short guide on how to get ready to host a Slice of Life Challenge in your classroom.  I hosted a challenge with my class last year and it was a ton of fun.  I am looking forward to doing so again.

This week I plan to come up with an easier tracking system, because I was overwhelmed with my 50 students last year.  Whatever I decide to use, I will blow up on the poster machine.  And I need to figure out what I will give out as a reward to those who complete the challenge.


There is a great post right now over at Big A Little a about how posters around the blogosphere use notebooks. The comments provide some great reading, and I am happy to learn I am not the only person out there who snaps up notebooks every chance I get. At any given time, I have notebooks everywhere. You can find them on my nightstand, in my purse, in my schoolbag, in the car, on my desk, and all over the rest of my house.

My personal favorites are Moleskine notebooks. I have a couple in my purse, the small handheld size. I have a few full-sized Moleskines in my school bag as we speak. I love them for their history (Hemingway!?) and their portability. I also love the variety of notebooks available. I need to use lined paper, as I have horrid handwriting. The lines force me to write semi-legibly. 🙂 I do wish I could find some Moleskine notebooks with colored covers. I adore pretty covers, and the only qualm I have with Moleskine is that the plain black covers don’t excite me!

I also love those spiral notebooks you can find at the bookstore. They have lined paper and the edges are multi-colored. I tend to use them for school and jotting down ideas for planning and for upcoming units. When it comes to school, I am also the Post-it queen. I am constantly writing on the lined notepads, super-sticky, for sure, in all different colors. Anytime I find post-its on sale, I grab as many as I can carry and run to the checkout. There might be something wrong with me….

Class of 2k8

Check out the new Class of 2k8 Blog! I started hanging out at the Class of 2k7 back around April and what a fun group! Now that those authors have “graduated”, it’s time for the new class to take over. The Class of…. idea is a great way to keep track of new releases in the children’s book world. So head on over!

Writer’s Notebook Wednesday

Today, while outside for a fire drill, I noticed that it is almost December. It is cold.  Frigid, almost.  Considering that the temperature on Thanksgiving was a balmy 65 degrees, today’s high of 40 degrees seems practically Arctic.  I notice the red noses on my students and the I’m-freezing-cold-can-we-please-go-in-now(whyisthistakingsolong) hoppity-dance they are doing to keep warm.  The leaves are no longer on the trees and the ground is cold and hard; finally frozen, brown , and dreary.  As I look around, the cold air on my skin and the chattering teeth I hear behind me remind me that Christmas is drawing nearer and winter is here for the long haul.  This gives me the idea that winter and cold will be surrounding me for a while and I should get used to it.  

Some people view winter as the dead time of the year, the low point in the wheel of seasons. Not so, says I. Look around you- the heartbeat of winter beats all around us. Notice the deer hoof prints in the newly fallen snow and imagine the small family scampering across the backyard in the dusky twilight. See the scarlet red flash of a cardinal as it alights from the snowy ground. Listen to the ‘chirp chirp’ of the winter birds as they eat at the birdfeeder. Taste the hot cocoa, with whipped cream and peppermint, as it passes over your lips. Feel the nip of the cold air as it chills your nose. Feel the warmth of the fleece gloves and scarf that you wrap yourself in to shield against the cold. See the snow-white moon in the navy blue sky, with the lone bright star shining in the distance.


Winter is beautiful. Stop, look around, appreciate it. Soak in the cold air and the bright sunlight. Relax under a blanket next to a warm, crackling fire. The wheel of seasons has been turning since time began and will keep turning when our time is up; now is our time to be a part of it.


Ruth, over at Inspiring Readers and Writers, has posted some though-provoking questions on her blog. I’ve been mulling them over for the last few hours and decided to share some of my thinking here on The Reading Zone.

-Do teachers have time to write & read for personal reasons? If we don’t have time for it, then why would we think our students have time for it? Plus, in reality, it’s not about having time, but making time.
This question immediately hits home for me. As an avid reader, I do see my time for reading sometimes diminishing. I choose to watch TV or even nap instead of reading. Every so often, 2-3 days will go by and I will realize I haven’t been reading. When I don’t read, though, it’s almost like there is a dull ache deep down inside of me. Reading is such a huge part of my life that its absence is noted almost immediately. In all honesty, I really do make as much time as possible for reading, specifically reading for pleasure. I may not review every book I read on the blog, but I am constantly reading. This is something I am always bringing up with my students.

I try to discuss my own reading on a daily basis in my classroom. In my booktalks, while helping readers choose their next book, and when having conversations with students- I will talk about the books I have read lately. I know they keep track, because they will frequently respond with “Ms. M., you were just reading another book! You are already on a new one?” or “Wow, you read a lot!” This always makes me smile, because I know they are paying attention to my reading life. I also share my experiences with abandoning books and why I choose to read certain books over other books. It validates the choices that my students make when they see their teacher making similar decisions. By this point in the year, my students are even comfortable disagreeing with me and telling me that I should give a book “another chance”. Sometimes, when I abandon a book I think it serves as a better advertisement than my book talks! Certain students flock to my abandoned books list because they know they enjoy books I usually dislike.

In the classroom, I advertise my reading life on a bulletin board. It’s actually not a real bulletin board….it’s just the front of my desk covered in butcher paper and surrounded by a border. Every month, I tape my reading log to the front of the desk so my students can see the list of books I completed that month. By the end of the year, I will have 9-10 lists on my desk. This matches the reading logs my students keep in their reading binders, again validating the work they are doing in their reading lives.

As for writing, I admit I am guilty in letting that slide. I want to write. I want to be published. I want to be an author. But I suffer from the same confidence problems that my students do. I am not confident in my abilities and tend to put my writing to the side, choosing other hobbies instead. However, blogging has been a new outlet for my writing, forcing me to reflect on my teaching practices while also writing daily (or almost daily)! Plus, Writer’s Notebook Wednesdays force me to publish something on my blog every Wednesday. It’s great motivation!

-What about teachers who “don’t like” writing or reading? Yet, everything academic revolves around reading and writing.

This statement is all too true, and all too annoying! Everytime we have a grade-wide language arts meeting at school, I am surrounded by groans. As most of our teams are departmental, not everyone teaches language arts in our district. This means many teachers are quite vocal about their hatred of the humanities. I frequently hear how much this teacher hates reading or that one hates to write. How can you be a teacher and dislike reading? Regardless of the subject, you must read in order to teach, study the latest pedagogy, and be an informed citizen for your students. The same goes for writing!

I do think that when teachers say they hate reading and writing, they are referring to reading and writing for pleasure. I can name on one hand the adults I know who read and write on a daily basis (not related to work). It is an unfortunate effect of living in the digital age. I do my part though, constantly making book recommendations and passing on books I have enjoyed. Sometimes, I think my books are the only books some adults around me read all year! Yet, as I said above, I can’t imagine not reading 100-150 books each year, personally.

-Is it a realistic expectation for teachers to read and write for their own personal reasons, outside of teaching?

This question forced me to really sit down and think. Is it unrealistic to expect our teachers to read and write for pleasure? The language arts teacher, writer, and reader in me says “No!” Reading and writing should be a part of daily life for all adults. But another part of me says that’s wrong. I would be highly offended if someone told me that I needed to study history and math for my own personal reasons, outside of school. I don’t teach those subjects and they very rarely come up in my own classes. I can understand a math teacher saying that they never have an opportunity or reason to share their reading/writing (or lack thereof) with students, thus rendering it useless as a model for them. In that same vein, I can’t recall ever discussing math with my students, other than the occasional reminder of how to figure out their averages. While I surely use math in my own life, it’s just not something that would come up in my lessons at school. If I don’t enjoy doing math problems in my spare time, and it wouldn’t be useful in my classroom, why should I force myself to do it?

Wow, what great questions, Ruth! As I was answering them, I came up with even more questions of my own. Is departmentalizing the right thing to do for our students? When we compartmentalize each subject into its own sepatate niche, are we doing our students a disservice? Should they be immersed in reading and writing in all subjects? Obviously, I have a lot more thinking to do. In the meantime, check out this post from the The Book Whisperer. She has some similar thoughts.

WN Wednesday Entry

Today’s theme for Writer’s Notebook Entry (as taken from Two Writing Teachers) is: Who has changed your life? What person or people have made such a huge impact on your life that they’ve changed the course of it for you?


Many people have changed my life over the course of the last 24 years. I sat down and tried to choose one to write about and realized I couldn’t do that without feeling like I was leaving someone out. Instead, I decided to take the topic in a new direction.

My life, both personal and professional, was changed 3 years ago when I entered my cooperating teacher’s classroom for my first practicum. Her classroom was full of monarch butterflies. They decorated the walls, windows, ceiling, bulletin boards, bookshelves, and desks. Monarchs at all stages of the life cycle were present in her room that day- eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, and adults. To be frank, I thought it was a little crazy.

Over the course of the next few months, I slowly learned about monarch butterflies. I watched as the third-graders in my charge watched, wide-eyed, as an adult emerged from its chrysalis for the first time. I saw the wonder and amazement in their eyes as they saw their caterpillars metamorphosize in their classroom. I joined them as they waved goodbye to the adult monarchs at their butterfly release. I was amazed by their knowledge and expertise when they gave tours of the classroom or explained their classroom pets to visitors. They truly were “monarch experts”.

For the next year I was back and forth in that classroom, eventually doing my own student teaching there. Throughout this time, Sue encouraged me to take the workshop which inspired her- Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies. I always managed to put it off due to work or school commitments, telling myself that I had already learned everything I needed to know in that classroom. Finally, I managed to squeeze the 3-day workshop into my schedule.

Those 3 days were the most powerful in my short teaching career. The friends and colleagues I met inspired me creatively, professionally, and personally. Since then, I have raised monarchs every spring and summer. Monarchs are my classroom in the fall, and this year they are the theme of my classroom. The power and strength of this tiny insect, less than 3 inches wide, is awe-inspiring. As I tell my students, if this tiny butterfly with fragile wings can migrate 2000 miles to forest that its great-great-great grandparents left in the previous spring, then we can do anything.

This winter, I will finally be traveling to Mexico to visit the over-wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly, in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico. I fully expect to be a different person when I return. So while the monarchs themselves aren’t a “person”, they have made me the teacher, global citizen, and human being that I am today.

Writer’s Notebook Wednesday


“Don’t drop the ring, don’t drop the ring, don’t drop the ring!”

I repeated the mantra over and over in my head as I rolled the thick, heavy wedding band across my thumb. Below my feet, the wooden planks that made up the dock seemed to have spaces the size of textbooks between them. I inched the ring up higher on my thumb, feeling the large space between the metal and my skin, as I imagined the horrified gasps of the wedding guests when I dropped it. In my mind, I could hear the plunk of the heavy ring on the wood followed by the bloop of the ring hitting the water before sinking to the bottom of the bay. Gripping it tighter, I repeated my new mantra under my breath, “Don’t drop the ring”.

“May we have the rings?” the minister asked suddenly. With a sigh of relief, I handed over the wedding band. As Julie turned to place it on Scott’s finger, I bent down to straighten her train. As I did so, I glanced at the dock beneath my feet and uttered a silent byt grateful prayer of thanks to whichever god looks over small-fingered Maids of Honor and expensive wedding rings.

Writer’s Notebook Wednesday


This is my first contribution to Writer’s Notebook Wednesday! It is a personal narrative I have been writing alongside my class:

As we pulled into the stranger’s driveway, the excitement in the car grew. The garage door was open and we could see two golden-fleeced puppies playing in a large crate.

“We are definitely getting one!” Megan exclaimed. We all laughed, but we knew it was true. We could never leave without a puppy, having seen them.

Quickly, we piled out of the Rav-4 and introduced ourselves to the breeder. She let us know that the boy was the one wearing a green collar and that the little girl was the one in the pink collar. The boy was already reserved but the little girl was available.

“Go ahead, you can let them out and play with them. Take them out on the front lawn!” the breeder said. Megan rushed to the cage and opened the latch.

A tangle of legs and tails piled out, all golden and fluffy. Yip yip! Both puppies raced towards the lawn, tumbling over their unsteady legs wagging tails. We watched them play with each other, racing around the lawn and garden, wrestling and playing. Megan chased the little girl and then sat down in the garage. Without a sound, the little girl slowly approached. She sniffed Megan’s foot expectantly and before we could say a word, she threw herself into Megan’s lap! We were in love! After a few more minutes, Megan scooped up the puppy in her arms and said in a decided voice, “We are getting her!”.

With a laugh, we turned to the breeder and made it official. As the money was turned over and the contract was signed, we made our way to the car with our new baby girl. After an hour of playing outside with her brother, meeting a whole new family, and being adopted- she was exhausted. As we pulled out of the driveway, she snuggled up on the backseat, between all of us. As she slept soundly, surrounded by the love of her new family, Mom leaned back and said, “Welcome home, Lucy”.