Tag Archives: middle grade books

STEM Tuesday Exploration– In the Classroom

January. The month for making resolutions. At STEM Tuesday, it’s also the month for exploration. Why not resolve to explore creative ways to bring middle grade, STEM-themed books into the lives of young readers?

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgLaunch into exploration with Mission: MarsAuthor Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist and chairman of the Mars Institute, embraces the theme by transporting readers to this far-flung destination. As would-be astronauts contemplate heading to the Red Planet, even short segments of the book serve as possible springboards to new lessons or activity ideas.

For example, with a single, short passage on page 5, you can connect math, science, and ELA. Here, providing a sense of the distances to Earth’s nearest neighbors, Lee compares how many months it would take to drive (at 70 miles per hour) to the Moon and Mars—5 months and 5,000 months (more than 400 years), respectively. The numbers are fun and informative – and a great model for your students’ own sense-making and communication.

Invite them to check Lee’s calculations (because it’s good to get in the habit of checking authors’ figures). Next, students can write a similar passage comparing the same distances (to the Moon and Mars). After they select different vehicles and research or estimate typical speeds, you can help students work through how long it would take for the vehicles to get them to their destinations.

For a truly open-ended approach, ask students how they would try to solve the problem and invite them to give it a try on their own. Of course, you might prefer to provide more direction, using this example in a lesson on proportional reasoning, using tables, spreadsheets, unit analysis, or other approaches relevant to your curriculum goals. Afterward, return to Lee’s passage. Help readers notice that comparisons like this work especially well because they connect to something the reader can readily imagine or has experienced. Which of their own comparisons would be most useful to readers of different ages? Which might make the greatest impressions? Why?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgKeep on trekking. Once your readers-turned-math-and-science-communicators have the Earth-Moon-Mars scale under control, let them loose on the whole universe! Cracking open National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas (which I authored), check out the facts and figures related to the sizes of objects and distances across our Solar System, through the Milky Way, and beyond. Students can translate these measurements into the distance scales they have just developed based on vehicles’ travel times. Continuing your exploration of space, use Venn diagrams to compare and contrast various features of solar systems, stars, and more. Or take a close look at the different types of graphic information in this highly visual book. How do illustrations, scientific images (from telescopes, for example), photographs, and more draw readers in? How do they shape a reader’s impression of the information?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgDiving in to an exploration that is closer to home, check out Kenneth Mallory’s Diving to a Deep-Sea Volcano. Vbrant pictures of exotic organisms and underwater landscapes complement the fascinating story. As with space exploration, technologies for transportation, remote sensing, and communications play a vital role in oceanographic discovery. Now’s the time for an engineering design challenge that’s linked to ocean exploration technology–submarines and more.

For example, Engineering is Elementary’s* Ocean Engineering unit, Taking the Plunge, offers an engineering challenge focused on remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV), no electronics required. This or any well-developed ROV design challenge would make an important engineering connection to Mallory’s book, attracting tinkerers and readers alike.

The Hatfield Marine Science Center’s free ROV-related guide can also help you dive further into the deep sea exploration! For example, following one of the resource’s links, I found this wonderful clip. Watch an enchanting little fish roam its territory while a scientist reminds us that anyone watching the video live was witnessing the first-ever glimpse of this particular species. The experience—as well as the scientist’s voice–affirms that science is an exciting, vibrant adventure.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org Launch and dive into science exploration — at the same time. That’s no mixed metaphor if we’re talking about Jennifer Swanson’s Astronaut Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact. To strengthen conceptual knowledge and help readers connect science topics to the excitement of exploration, try reading the book before or during a science unit on density, buoyancy, plate tectonics, technology…or any of the other topics that are woven into the book.

The included science activities might be of special interest to help you extend the literacy experience, but don’t miss the obvious opportunity to reflect on the comparisons throughout the story.

You might want to use the text as a model for students–and challenge them to find and write about other topics with surprising or interesting connections. (How about comparing and contrasting the forces that shape mountains and canyons…that cause droughts and floods?) Whatever your learners choose, ask them to consider what concepts bind them and what connections they see in how people explore these topics.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgKeep an eye out for opportunities to explore. Speaking of “new” species, Sandra Markle’s The Search for Olinguito. reminds us that sometimes exploration involves taking a new look at something we have seen before. Curiosity and sharp observation are part of the story of scientific exploration. If not for scientist Kristofer Halgen’s observation of a unique pelt in a museum collection, the olinguito (an adorable raccoon relative) might not be known to science.  Emphasize this point with a fun, game-like experience.

Tell partners take a good look at each other. Then, ask partners to turn away from each other; each one should make a subtle change to his or her appearance. When partners face each other again, can they find the change? You can adapt this idea as an ongoing group experience. Every few days, change something about the physical environment. Challenge students to notice. Keep them tuned in to visual detail.

This book is also a great opportunity to help your students understand how scientists classify organisms in the first place. The American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a basic classification activity that you can use to engage your students in this essential content. At the end of the lesson, you’ll find links to extensions that will help you dive deeper or begin at a more advanced level.

To explore (scientifically) is human. One more note for this month: Science and STEM stories have the potential to positively impact the whole child, modeling, for example, inquisitiveness and tenacity. Science is a human adventure. Feeling the shiver of curiosity, digging for answers, facing challenges and disappointments, and celebrating success are all part of the experience.

Ask students to share their own stories that parallel the scientific tales of exploration in these books. Possible prompts include:

  • When have you had a question you really wanted to answer?  How did you figure it out?
  • When have you found yourself  inventing or adapt an object so you could do something you wanted to do? (Something as simple as using a paperclip to replace a button counts as an example.) 
  • When have you ever felt stuck? How did you get past that?
  • Tell us about a time when you reached a milestone that you worked hard to attain.

After students share their tales, turn to books on this month’s list in search of the scientists’ similar experiences.

Share your own exploration! As you venture into your own new territory with these books and the theme of STEM exploration, please don’t leave us in the dust. Drop us a line in the comments section below! Think of it as an entry in a communal adventure log!

  • How else do you help students experience reading and doing as exploration?
  • Do you prefer to focus on exploration as a one-time theme or sprinkle it throughout the year? Why?
  • What other books do you use to help introduce exploration as an important aspect of science? How?
  • What ideas worked well—or not so well—with your students?

 

portrait of author Carolyn Cinami DeCristofanoWhen she’s not exploring the topic of her next nonfiction book for kids, author, STEM education specialist, and President of Blue Heron STEM Education Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, M.Ed., helps students and teachers explore science and STEM fields with dynamic, hands-on author visits, professional development programs, and curricula that are customized to meet their needs and interests.

*Disclosure: As one of original authors and a consultant for Engineering is Elementary, I have professional ties to that program. However, I do not receive sales commissions or royalties.

Interview with Author N.H. Senzai

Naheed Hasnat Senzai calls herself a voracious reader, stalwart writer, intrepid traveler, and eater of good things.

Born in Chicago, she grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England. She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal. She attended UC Berkeley and Columbia University, and lives in San Francisco.

She is the award-winning author of Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2010), Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2014), and Ticket to India (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2015).

She joins us today to talk about her newest book, released this week from Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books , Escape from Aleppo. About the book (From IndieBound):

Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress. Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have been harassing his business. Nadia frowns.It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.

A common theme in your books is the experience of refugees, what they leave behind, and how they struggle to adapt to a new way of life. What drives you to write about such a difficult subject?

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children. Most of my books deal with such families, and in Escape from Aleppo, my hope is that Nadia’s story allows readers to walk in the shoes of a child whose life has been turned upside down by the trauma of war and the loss of everything they know and love. If we pause to reflect on that connection, that at one point we were all refugees, we can share in a common humanity.

How did you decide to depict the uglier, more violent aspects of Nadia’s journey and still make the book appropriate for middle-grade readers?

I believe that you do a disservice to your reader, especially middle graders, by not to telling them the truth, no matter how ugly. This is especially the case when discussing war, atrocities and the complexities of politics and history. We shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing the harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

You use flashback both to provide information about how Aleppo became such a dangerous place and to show what Nadia’s life was like before she had to flee. Why was it important for you to show that?

When people see scenes of war and images of refugees fleeing death and destruction, that becomes the viewer’s only frame of reference for that country and its people. When writing Escape from Aleppo, I wanted to show that Nadia had a normal life before the war, like that of any teen around the world. Aleppo was an advanced, cultured city where she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a sweet tooth, a passion for music and a dislike of Algebra! In showing the two sides of the coin, peace and conflict, I wanted to show how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

The book depicts a place and a culture that is very different from the experience of most Americans. What kind of research did you do to get the details right?

This, as with most of my books, was very research intensive, and I spend months absorbing and cataloging information! I’m lucky that I’ve lived and travelled in the Middle East for fifteen years, and have many friends in the region. It also helps that my husband teaches Middle East politics at Santa Clara University and he helped in putting the history and politics of the region in perspective. I spoke to many journalists and Syrians who shared first-hand accounts of the terrible conflict.

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Escape from Aleppo, what would it be?

Kids may have heard about the war in Aleppo or seen images of the conflict on the news or in social media. While reading Escape from Aleppo, I hope that can further delve into the rich history of Syria, the root causes of the war, the culture and people of this amazing country. I’d like to illustrate that Nadia and her family are like families anywhere around the world. Like parents living in San Francisco, Beijing, Sydney or New Delhi, Nadia’s mother and father want to give their children a safe and secure place to grow up, pursue their dreams, get an education and have a family of their own. At the end of the day, all families, no matter their origin, want the same things – peace, security and chance at a hopeful future.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed Escape from Aleppo?

What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?

I love writing for middle graders because at this age they can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story – but they can smell a skunk a mile away. They are sophisticated readers that can handle “heavy” topics via believable plots, authentic characters, dialogue that rings true and reality based facts. At this age, if we present complex material in the right context, we can open their hearts and minds to the world around them so that they build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?

I know this is advice often given, but it is at the core of writing middle grade fiction; READ. And not just middle grade novels. The best books are those that bring in unique, interesting, sometimes esoteric knowledge – that knowledge comes from reading about space travel, obscure poisons, baking techniques, Russian history, chemistry, flora and fauna of Madagascar… you get my drift. Read about things that interest you – it will make it into your books which will also be interesting!

Sparking the Imagination with Written Imagery

As a classroom teacher of upper MG readers, I’ve been wondering lately on the constant technological pummeling we get from images—gaming, TV, movies, computers, tablets, phones. Screened devices have a powerful attention-grabbing effect on kids, and with so many stimulating colors, photos, Snapchat animations, and videos to look at, the modern-day imagination is contending with a very different ball of yarn than in decades past. It’s great that we can Google-Machine “Roman Empire ruins” and see hundreds of pictures, and it’s fun to test our eye-hand coordination by slashing air-borne fruit, chopping ropes, or helping a chicken across a road. But for many readers, after all that color and movement and music, the imagination may balk a bit when given black words on a white page.

For that reason, it might be pretty difficult for a middle grade teacher, parent, librarian, or writer to hook readers on books with descriptive passages, figurative language, or a generally more literary bent. But instead of avoiding imagery, it may be more important than ever to give readers an opportunity to envision and imagine through the words on the page. We should strive to provide work-out routines and fitness centers for the imagination in our stories through language and description. Inclusion of imagery in MG stories will complement the reader’s experience and ultimately improve and enhance the reader’s imagination. And imagination is important in any setting, as it drives flexible thinking and creative problem solving.

So, in order to spark readers’ imaginations, how do you recognize good imagery in MG works, and how do you write your own? Here are some qualities typically associated with imagery:

  • Imagery is language that employs a mental use of the five senses.
  • It can use certain figurative language devices like similes and metaphors, personification, and hyperbole, but it can exist without any other lit devices being present, too.
  • Good imagery isn’t fluffy or fancy or filled with words you’d find on the SAT. Sometimes, in fact, incredibly simple syntax and short phrases make up excellent imagery.
  • Imagery lets you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell the surroundings  in the character’s world, and it draws the reader in with those experiences.
  • Most importantly, good imagery leads the imagination off-leash—it guides, but never forces. The imagination has to be allowed to run free, if it’s to grow strong.

Here are some scenes in three works of MG fiction with imagery to consider:

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The description of Camazotz is brilliantly creepy in its simplicity. L’Engle’s choice of short, clipped words and phrases reflect the vision concocted in the reader’s imagination of this austere town where anomalies are forbidden:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of land in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door.

Things get more eerie with the rhythmical description of the kids outside all those houses, girls jumping rope and boys bouncing balls:

Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

The imagery prompts our imaginations to not only see Camazotz but to hear and feel its driving beat, too.

Sarah Jean Horwitz’s Carmer and Grit, Book One: The Wingsnatchers. Big, immediate conflicts or surprised exclamations from characters can work beautifully as openers in MG fiction and nonfiction. But atmospheric imagery can be used just as masterfully to hook the reader into the story. In this book, the two-and-a-half-page opener has no dialogue and no loud clatter of forces. But the tone of mystery, the discordant sounds, and the symbolic light/darkness imagery all work together to pull the reader in:

At the South Gate, just outside the winding iron bars, the Autocat waits. Its jeweled eyes gleam in the darkness. It watches as each golden lantern on the pathway blinks out, one by one, and it growls–a rough, scraping sound like metal on metal, a sound never heard in the garden before. The creature slinks off into Skemantis’s black night, its mission accomplished.

Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rivka. Good imagery keeps firmly in the voice of the 1st person character, in this case, a young Russian refugee fleeing to America in 1919 and seeing Poland for the first time:

The same crooked cottages, the same patchy roads, the same bony fences leaning in to the dust. Looking out from the train, we see people dressed like us, in browns and blacks; people wrapped in layers of clothes.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share thoughts you have on imagery in MG writing, or name some writers you enjoy who do a great job at sparking readers’ imaginations.