Monday, June 28, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

Now that we are a full week past the solstice, summer is in full swing. Flowers are blooming all over the yard, butterflies are flitting around. I keep hoping to spot some monarch eggs or caterpillars on the milkweed I’ve been nursing for two years, but so far, nothing.

But there’s plenty of life hanging out on my maple tree. Of course, there’s all the usual suspects—ants, spiders, flies. But because I don’t want to keep showing you the same thing week after week, I decided to try something new.


It’s called patience.

Instead of just snapping photos of the first little critters I spotted, I circled the trunk slowly, looking up, looking down. I really focused my full attention on the tree.


I watched and waited, waited and watched. I knew something magical would appear if I just slowed down and centered myself.

And sure enough, it did. Look, a daddy longlegs. I’ve never noticed one of these on my tree before. It’s so perfectly camouflaged that I didn’t see it until it moved. Then I quickly switched to my macro lens, and snap. I got this great photo.

I’m glad I waited to see something special.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

I couldn’t find any creepy crawlies hanging out on my maple tree this morning, but that doesn’t mean the tree isn’t thriving with life. The tree is host to all kinds of living things. Here are a few examples:


I cut this branch off the tree a few years ago so visitors wouldn’t have to duck below it as they strolled down our brick sidewalk to the front door. Now it’s the perfect home for this interesting black mold.

In the center of this image you can see a flat, seafoam green lichen that’s taken up residence on the trunk. On the left, you can see it’s sharing space with a forest green lichen that looks like a tiny evergreen forest and a different light green lichen that has a rougher surface.

This leaf holds the promise of new life. I have no idea what’s developing inside those long, vertical eggs. Maybe we’ll find out next week.

Enjoy every day of this sunny summer. They’ll be gone before we know it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Final Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

Yesterday marked the last day of school here, so I'm scaling back on my blog for the summer. Until the new school year begins, I'll only be posting on Mondays.

But before I sign off until September, here's one more set of Gross and Goofy Facts:

  • Most of the time, your heart beats about eighty or ninety times a minute. People who exercise a lot have lower heart rates. The hearts of some Olympic athletes beat just thirty times a minute.

  • Your heart keeps on pumping day and night, year after year. During your lifetime, it will beat about 3 billion times and pump about 100 million gallons (379 million l) of blood through your body.

  • Each beat of your heart pumps about 5 tablespoons (74 milliliters) of blood into your blood vessels. Most of the time, your heart sends out about 2.5 gallons (9.5 l) of blood per minute. But when you exercise, your heart picks up its pace. At top speed, it can pump up to 20 gallons (76 l) per minute.

  • Blood makes up about 7 percent of your body’s total weight. So if you weigh 100 pounds (45 kilograms), the 6 quarts (5.7 liters) of blood circulating through your body weigh about 7 pounds (3 kg).

  • Right now, your body contains about 6 quarts (5.7 l) of blood. About 24 percent of that blood is in your arteries. About 66 percent is in your veins, and about 10 percent is in your capillaries.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Pump It Up: The Secrets of the Heart and Blood. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Have a great summer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Behind the Books: The Art and Science of Illustrations

This week I’m finishing up the next manuscript in my A Place for Animals series. Right now, the book, A Place for Bats, is schedule for publication in 2012.The text is pretty much done so I’m pulling together reference materials to help the book’s illustrator, Higgins Bond, get started on her sketches.

Because these are science books, everything in the art needs to be 100 percent accurate—from the anatomy of the animals to the kind of vegetation shown in each environment. For each spread, I indicate the time of year and the time of day, and I suggest where the habitat is located. Sometimes I list other animals (besides the featured one) that might be included in a painting. I frequently send along photos that I’ve taken myself or that scientists have sent me.

For example, when we were working on A Place for Birds, Higgins used photos I took of the grasslands at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, MA along with various images of grasshopper sparrows to create a lovely painting of the bird in its natural setting.


Once Higgins receives the materials I’ve compiled and instructions from our art director, she starts her own research. She decides what she’d like to show, the perspective of each piece, the position of the featured animal(s), etc. Then she adds to my materials with many more hours of research.

For each sketch, she needs to make sure the right flowers are in bloom, that the animal behaviors shown are accurate, and so forth. When I review the sketches, she provides scientific names of the plant and animal species she’s included, so I can double check them for accuracy.

Since so much effort is involved in this process, you might wonder why we don’t just use photos to illustrate the book. There are a few reasons. Many of the creatures featured in these books are rare, so the photos we need would be hard to find. In fact, they may not exist at all. In addition, most of the animals are fairly small and the background landscapes are huge. It would be impossible to show both in one photograph. One big advantage to paintings is that everything can be perfectly in focus simultaneously.

The longer Higgins and I have worked on this series, the more we have gotten to know one another. And so by now, we each know how we can assist the other person to create to most beautiful, most interesting, and most accurate books possible. I can't wait to see her sketches for Bats.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

This is the last week of school in my hometown, and I had vowed it would also be the last week of this blog until next September. If teachers and kids get the summer off from school, why shouldn’t I get to take a break, too?

Well, the answer is that you, my dear readers, won’t let me. Whenever I’ve casually mentioned my plan to friends and colleagues, they’ve said, “But what about your maple tree?”


And I have to admit, those words echoed my own thoughts. I’ve been so dedicated to recording the tree’s weekly changes since last September that the idea of not completing its annual cycle was weighing heavy on my mind.

So here’s my compromise. For the summer, I’ll be blogging on Mondays about my tree, but I’ll be taking Wednesdays and Fridays off. That way I get a break, and we all get to keep tabs on my little maple.

I can’t wait to see what we find there during the next couple of months.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Science-sational Jokes

Q: What did the comet say as it whizzed past Saturn?
A: How about giving me a ring sometime?

Q: What did Earth say to the Sun?
A: You’re the light of my life!

Q: Why was the asteroid unhappy?

A: He knew he’d never be a star.

Q: Where did the Moon go on vacation?
A: The galax-sea.

Q: How did Mars become the red planet?
A: It stayed out in the sun too long.

For some more serious information about space, check out my book How Does the Moon Change Shape?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Behind the Books: Struggling with Academic Texts

Ever since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, teachers have felt obligated to devote more time to language arts and math instruction, with the goal of improving student scores on assessment tests. As a result, many elementary students now receive significantly less science instruction than they did a decade ago.

I’m a strong proponent of integrating science and language arts instruction as one solution to this problem. And over the past few years, I’ve developed several strategies to help teachers do that. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw that the April 23, 2010, issue of Science included a special section called Science, Language, and Literacy.

I found most of the articles interesting, but one piece really made me think. In “Academic Language and the Challenge of Reading for Learning About Science,” Catherine E. Snow, the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at Harvard University, is deeply concerned that today’s students are struggling to read and write academic language.

Although I feel that Snow unfairly chose a very poor writing sample to illustrate the pitfalls of using nonacademic texts to describe scientific principles, her article did raise an interesting question in my mind. Is there some characteristic inherent in academic language that makes it superior for communicating complex ideas? Or is it the act of composing a written statement, regardless of the language used, that helps scientists (or historians or people in other academic disciplines) solidify their thinking?

I’ll come back to these questions in a minute, but first I’d like to point out that Snow’s observation—that today’s students are struggling with academic language—doesn’t surprise me a bit.

After all, the nonfiction texts twenty-first century students read are farther removed from academic texts than ever before. In fact, most recent award-winning nonfiction trade books read like stories. The writing style is lively and engaging and often incorporates a variety of narrative elements. The design, format, and art in these books all work with the text to enrich the presentation.

Science textbooks are also more visually dynamic than in the past, and their writing style is less formal. Every few pages, readers encounter full-page or full-spread features that clearly show students how the science topics being discussed are relevant to their daily lives.

Today, most schools teach writing using the Six Plus One Writing Traits, which guides students in crafting prose that is interesting, easy to understand, and enjoyable to read. Six Plus One emphasizes the use of strong, active verbs and colorful phrases to grab the reader’s attention. Students are encouraged to use a conversational tone and to let their voice, or personality, infiltrate their writing. These traits are diametrically opposed to the standard conventions of academic writing, which features complex sentence structure, a distanced, authoritative tone, and judicious use of passive verbs.

When I first started reading academic texts in the 1980s, comprehending them was a challenge. The terse writing was thick with unfamiliar vocabulary and unfamiliar concepts, but the style was not all that different from the language in my high school science textbooks or the language I was expected to use when writing papers for English class.

Today’s young people have a very different experience when they encounter academic texts. For them, navigating academic writing is like translating a foreign language. Not only do they have to confront the high-level vocabulary and sophisticated concepts, they must deal with language constructions and conventions that are completely new to them.

These students have no prior experience reading or writing texts with an impersonal authoritative voice. To them, such writing seems dry, stodgy, and elitist. They have been taught to focus on specifics and provide rich details, so they find the more general approach of academic texts vague and confusing. They have learned to value writing that flows well and is easy to follow, so prose with complex grammatical constructions seems impenetrable. No wonder they are struggling.

At the end of her article, Snow recommends that educators spend more time helping students learn to process academic writing. But I wonder if that’s really the best course of action.

I worry that middle school and high school students faced with the arduous task of deciphering academic text may become so frustrated that they lose their interest in science. That’s the last thing we want to happen. Maybe it would be better if, instead, academic writing evolved to reflect the way twenty-first century learners approach the world.

Put another way, if academic writing were to become less formal and less terse, would the communication of scientific ideas suffer?

According to Rhonda J. Maxwell, author of Writing Across the Curriculum in Middle and High Schools (Allyn & Bacon, 1995), “Writing . . . helps students synthesize knowledge. When students organize their ideas through writing, the information makes more sense to them.” Based on Maxwell’s observations, I’m inclined to think that what matters is the writing process and the critical thinking it requires—not the language conventions employed by the author.

What do you think?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Good Morning, Maple

Would you believe I’m still trying (and failing) to get a photo of the wily blue jay that has been spending so much time in my maple tree this year?

Yesterday, I found one of its feathers in the grass just below the tree. What a tease!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

  • A southern giant petrel swallows a lot of salty water as it feeds on fish. How does the seabird get rid of all that salt? By letting it leak out of the large nostrils at the top of its beak.

  • Many dolphins send out high-pitched sounds through their snouts. So do some bats. When the sounds hit something, they bounce back. And each returning echo gives the animals a more complete picture of their surroundings.

  • The Fitzroy river turtle of Australia has a nose, but it also breathes through its butt. The water-loving reptile takes in as much as two-thirds of its oxygen through two large pouches on its rear end. What a great trick!

  • A whale has one large nostril on top of its head. This blowhole lets the massive marine mammal breathe without lifting its head out of the water.

  • Each spring, salmon swim hundreds of miles up rivers and streams to spawn, or release eggs and sperm, in the place where they hatched. How do the fearless fish find just the right spot? They sniff it out.
Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Up Your Nose: The Secrets of Schnozes and Snouts. To find out more about the whole Grosss and Goofy Body series, read this very thorough review from School Library Journal.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Behind the Books: Integrating Science and Language Arts

Most people think of me as a children’s book author who writes about science, but I consider myself a scientist first and a writer second. Over the last few years, as “teaching to the test” has increasingly limited science instruction in elementary classrooms, I’ve also taken on the role of science educator.

According to a recent study, nearly 86 percent of scientists who reported loving their jobs could trace their interest in science to someone they knew or an experience they had when they were 7 to 10 years old. This finding demonstrates the critical importance of solid science instruction for elementary students. And yet, No Child Left Behind-mandated tests stress language arts and math over the content areas.

What’s the solution to this problem? Integrating science and language arts. Coupling inquiry-based science lessons and language arts instruction allows educators to prepare students for the critical reading and open response portions of NCLB tests without neglecting science education. And here’s the good news: It’s much easier than you might think.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a number of ways to sneak key science concepts into popular language arts teaching strategies. These include:

So far, I’ve received nothing but positive feedback from the teachers who have tried my ideas in their classrooms, so I’m hard at work developing more.

I hope it won’t be long before programs like Partnership for Twenty-first Century Skills begin to move our educational system in new and exciting directions. But until that time comes, sprinkling science content into language arts lessons is one way to make sure that elementary students have access to solid science instruction.