Monday, November 23, 2015

It’s all relative (sizing)

How big is Earth or the Solar System or the Milky Way galaxy?
How old is our planet and when did the first animals and people appear on it?
Some things are so huge or so old that it’s hard to wrap your mind around them. But what if we took these big, hard-to-imagine objects and events and compared them to things we can see, feel and touch? Instantly, we’d see our world in a whole new way.

This is the start of the introduction to If…a mind-bending new way oflooking at big ideas and numbers written by David J. Smith.  (Just a note: David J. Smith wrote If the world were a village which I adore for a lot of the same reasons I love If.)

And Smith has been stunningly clever in presenting objects and events in a highly engaging way, holding our attention and allowing us to make new connections to the natural and human world.  All those concepts that can seem too big to really get a grasp on (example: the whole 4.5 billion year history of our planet condensed into a 2 hour DVD, humans only show up for the last two seconds.  Whoa, Nelly! That puts us in our place, I’d say) become much more comprehensible.

As he did in If the world was a village, he reduces really big numbers in ways that we understand more easily.  We know exactly how long a two hour DVD is.  We know what a year feels like or an hour.  Or what 12 inches looks like or an average sized drinking glass. An on it goes.

Part of what is fascinating are the subjects that the author has focused on such as the vastness of the universe, evolution and physical attributes of the planet such as land mass and quantity of water.

Also, the appearance of humans, our activities and things that impact our quality of life are well represented here.  For example, significant events are compressed into one calendar month (31 days) and include happenings such as when Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus were born, when paper is invented in China and when enslaved Africans first come to the Americas.  On the last day of this month he includes the discovery of water on Mars in 2013.

Another example that really speaks to a current social issue is the distribution of wealth around the world.  This is illustrated with just 100 coins stacked into piles.  Here are a few of the facts: the richest 1% have 40 coins; 9% would have 45 coins; 40% would have 14 coins; and finally, 50% of the world’s population would have one coin among them to share.  Talk about keeping it real.

The last example, I’ll share is the one about our everyday lives and what we do with our time.  Based on the size of a jumbo pizza cut into 12 pieces 4 slices represents the time we spend at school or work; 4 slices represent time getting ready for bed and sleeping; 1 slice denotes time spent traveling between places including holidays; 1 slice shows how much time we spend shopping, doing household chores including caring for others; 1 slice relates to eating and preparing our food and lastly, 1 slice represents time spent on the fun stuff.
The illustrations by Steve Adams are bright, bold and clear at representing time, space, and quantities.

I would highly recommend this book for math, science and social studies classes for grades 3 to 7 and even higher.  The universe, the earth and our lives all become much more coherent when looked at through the lens of relative size.

Monday, November 16, 2015

.--. .- - - . .-. -. ...

I See a Pattern Here by Bruce Goldstone is terrific!

It’s terrific because it’s easy on the eyes, interactive and inviting, approachable, interesting and fun, giving us lots of insights into patterns.

It starts out with the basics of what makes a pattern.  Sharp, bright photographs of patterns found in nature, on fabrics, household objects, architecture, and art convey that patterns can be found anywhere.

The variations to be found between patterns are broken down and, when appropriate, translated into ‘Mathspeak’.  These are the terms used by mathematicians to describe patterns.  For example, moving or sliding a shape in a direction (left, right, up or down) from the original is called a translation. When the same shape is used over and over by changes sizes that’s called scaling.

I loved the pages that included a classic quilt pattern called the Sawtooth Star and demonstrated how colour plays a role in how elements of the pattern can pop out and become much more noticeable.  Combining colours and shapes provides almost endless arrangements.

Bruce Goldstone has done a wonderful job (like most of his books) laying out the basics and the variations to be found in pattern. This will be a very useful book in elementary math classrooms when studying patterns, symmetry and geometry. I recommend it for grades 2-6.

Oh. The dots and dashes in the title line is Morse code for the word ‘patterns’.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Teddy’s adventures – The sequel

A Bear on the Homefront by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat continues the story of the teddy bear we first met in A Bear in War. I blogged about it in 2010, recommending the book as a resource for Remembrance Day. 

In the first book, Teddy is returned to his human family in Canada after the soldier he accompanies to Europe dies at Passchendaele, Belgium.

Teddy resumes his story as British children arrive in Canada at the start of World War II - a safety precaution against bombing raids.  This time Teddy accompanies a young nurse, Aileen, as she meets the newly arrived children, traveling with them until they arrive at their destinations to settle with Canadian families.

Among the many children are Grace and William who Teddy picks out as looking particularly lost and afraid.  Aileen takes them under her wing offering Teddy to William to hold. Teddy is able to comfort the two homesick children on the train ride west to Winnipeg. Arriving late at night, Grace and William are very nervous about meeting the Dents, the people they will stay with. William wishes he can stay with Aileen and Teddy.

Aileen and Teddy decide that Teddy should go with William to help him adjust and settle in.  After Aileen leaves, William notices that Teddy looks sad and Teddy acknowledges that he wonders if he’ll ever see Aileen again.  William understands Teddy’s feelings as they reflect this own about leaving home and coming to Canada.

Living on the Dent’s farm turns out to be a different way of living for the children but the couple is kind and work to make the two feel welcomed. They soon settle into a new routine.  Nevertheless, William still misses home and wishes that the war would end soon.  So, does Teddy. After five long years, the war finally ends and the children return to England.

And Teddy? Well, he’s packed up and mailed to a Montreal hospital to be reunited with Aileen.  Teddy exclaims, “Finally, we were all back home, where we belonged.”

Bear On the Homefront will tie in nicely with units about Remembrance Day (November 11th) for elementary students. Besides connecting to Canadian history and war it speaks to the bigger ideas of home and family.

The authors include a page of information about Teddy, Aileen and her father, the soldier who died in 1917.

The following link will take you to the Canadian War Museum’s website and you can see a picture of Teddy which is where he now displayed.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Mysterious vs Mystery

Last week I fessed up to loving mysteries.

So here’s a bit of a roundup of books that are mysteries or have a wonderful dose of mysterious elements without being full blown who-dunnits:

This one will appeal to the younger elementary grades with lots of silliness to keep them giggling.  We have a very keen foursome of chicks and one wry dog to find out what happened to their client’s, the titular ‘weird blue chicken’, birdhouse. The formatting for this chapter books will help counter its length for young readers with large print, illustrations and lots of white space. Recommended for grades 1-3.

The Marvels by Brian Selznic
This one is the most recent publication by Selznick once again employing his brilliant combination of text and pictorial narratives.  Don’t be daunted by the size of the book as the first 400 pages fly by.  This part of the story is told through illustrations about a shipwrecked boy in the 1700s who is rescued and becomes attached to a theatre in London. His story connects to a family of actors and their trials and tribulations over the years. Part two is a contemporary story of a runaway boy trying to track down an unknown uncle. The uncle lives in a very odd house that seems inhabited by people from days-long-gone-by.  Lots of questions but with answers that are slowly revealed to us.  Both mystery and mysterious elements will hold you to the end.  Terrific read for grades 4-6.

The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place) by Maryrose Wood
I’m late to the party on this series but am glad that I did eventually get to it. I listened to the audio-book version of this title and thought it very well done.  IT has a bit of a gothic feel with a young nanny employed by a mysterious lord to look after his wards in a country mansion. The three children have been raised by wolves with no clues as to who their parents were or how they came to live in the forest connected to the mansion.  Who are they? And what is their connection to the nanny?  Lots of very humorous bits. Recommended for grades 4-8.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
Another good read for upper elementary grades. This one has lots of mysterious elements peppered throughout the story.  Micah is desperately worried about his very sick grandfather who he lives with but is hopeful that the mysterious Lightbender from the Circus Mirandus will be able to offer a cure.  The thing is, the Circus Mirandus isn’t your everyday circus and is only accessible to those who believe in magic. The Lightbender is someone the grandfather had met while a little boy.  How can that be? A gripping story about illusions, faith, and acceptance of the inevitable. Recommended for grades 4-6.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
This one is mostly about growing up and finding were you fit in as relationships are redefined.  Three girlfriends work to keep their friendship strong and develop new relationships as they start grade 7.  The writing and characters are beautifully done (typical of Stead’s books) but there is a secondary story that is woven between that of the girls’, of an unknown person who also is struggling with friendships and making good decisions. Who is this person?  What has she/he done? Not a real ‘mystery’ as such but again with mysterious elements to keep you guessing. Recommended for grades 6-9.

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest
Losing her best friend in grade 5 in a terrible accident has not be easy to get over for May and years after the event, she still suffers the loss.  But the image of a cartoon princess wielding a katana-sword and looking very much like the comic book character the two girls developed for themselves begins appearing in random places around Seattle.  May is convinced that this is a message to her from Libby.  Lots of mystery and action here to keep readers engaged.  Recommended for grades 7 and up.

Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge
A short, story-in-verse novel about Walker dealing with the death of his eldest brother.  To help him process his grief, Jesus (yes, that Jesus) shows up to help him deal with the pain. I love the characterization developed for Jesus as an understanding, compassionate man who really digs his red trainers.  The interaction between Walker and Jesus is pretty fun (is this for real? How come He’s here? If He’s here why can’t he fix things? etc.) and keeps the pain of grief from becoming too much. I would recommend this one for grades 9 and up.

Jackaby by William Ritter
A fun coincidence about this book; I recently came a across a series of adult mysteries with many similar features to this young adult novel.  An interesting combination of detective work, mystery and the paranormal. It’s the 1800’s and young Abigail Rook arrives in America somewhat on the lam from her parents, looking for a life of adventure. Enter R.F. Jackaby, a Sherlockian-type detective with the unusual aptitude for recognizing elements of the supernatural in a local crime spree. Lots of action and unusual characters to keep readers entertained. Oh, and if this appeals to you check out the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch for a contemporary twist.  Apparently, London is rife with paranormal activity whatever the era.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Medical mystery

I love a good mystery.

And I was a little surprised reading Red Madness: how a medical mystery changed what we eat by Gail Jarrow that it proved to be such a good one.

It’s about a disease I had never heard of, pellagra, that plagued various people around the world but seemed to be worse in the southern states of the United States in the early 20th century.

It’s a horrendous disease that caused extreme suffering; weakness, skin rashes and blisters, gastrointestinal issues, insanity, and eventually death. The pictures included in the book are fairly arresting but not sensational and provide a very good idea about how debilitating and painful pellagra could be for those afflicted.  Personal stories of ‘pellagrins’ are interspersed throughout the book that convey their suffering and helpless.

The author spins this as a medical mystery that concerned doctors for years and eventually turned into a public health issue that involved government agencies trying to figure out the cause of and cure for the disease. Along the way we learn about food production, poverty, quality of life and other social issues that related to the US transitioning into a more industrial nation. 

Until an epidemiologist, Joseph Goldberger, began making scientifically controlled tests, there were several pet theories as to how pellagra proliferated and was to be cured. Goldberger’s experiments on dogs, himself, other scientists and even prisoners (informed about the tests) eventually proved that the disease was related to a deficiency found in inadequate diets.  (Now I know why niacin is so important!) It was especially fascinating to read about the doctors involved and how egos contributed to slow advancements in eradicating pellagra.

Overall, a very well researched historical book that looks at the social context, health issues and implications for economically poor people of the early 1900s.  An interesting book for cross-disciplinary classroom use for science and social studies for grades 6/7 and up that have implications for even today. The importance of sound science in our everyday lives is brought home with a book like this, showing how advancements in many areas not just public health, have improved our quality of life.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Divergent thinking

Recently I facilitated a workshop about children’s literature and divergent thinking for undergraduate-teachers-to-be.  I didn’t start out with the idea of divergent thinking per say.  I was thinking more along the lines of books that both promoted creative and critical thinking but also books that were clever (‘divergent’) in and of themselves.  The divergent thinking element came from a book recently added to the Doucette Library collection titled Creativity and children’s literature: new ways to encourage divergent thinking by Marianne Saccardi. This book helped me coalesced my ideas for the workshop into a coherent and practical session.

I think this is a book that is well worth a look if you’re big into using children’s and young adult literature in the classroom. 

It provides lots of suggestions for recent books (though classics are found here too) with examples and ideas for classroom activities and teaching.  The first four chapters are based on the genres; poetry, fiction, fantasy and folklore, and nonfiction to highlight a wide range of children and young adult titles. 

The first chapter includes a fabulous range of poetry books that encourages students to look at their world in new ways. There is an emphasis on the importance of metaphor and the connection between metaphor and understanding of dissimilar concepts and things. Poetry, as described here, becomes a wonderfully divergent way to explore and exploit metaphor when teaching. A few of the books highlighted are Outside Your Window, AFoot In the Mouth, Poetrees and Hip Hop Speaks to Children.

I love the title of chapter two – Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary World of Fiction. This is the one I spent a lot of time working with while I prepared for my workshop.  Once again the books listed are ones that will resonant with the readers with and encourage them to see their worlds in new ways, promote creative and critical thinking, and maybe even help them solve problems. She also looks to the books themselves to see if they are divergent in their approach too.  (To be honest, the books that I love most to blog about are these ones – books that go to a new level in their storytelling or relaying their content.)

The chapter focusing on folklore starts with a quote from Albert Einstein –

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Metaphor is again emphasized here. She states,
 “But perhaps nowhere is metaphor more powerfully met than in the literature of folklore and fantasy.  Metaphor IS the language of folklore. Folk and fairytales and the high fantasy and science fiction novels of today’s literature for children abound in archetypes for good and evil, wisdom and foolishness, kindness and selfishness, and so on.” (p.87) 
Often there are little lessons to be learned from traditional tales like the one the lazy grasshopper learned the hard way once winter arrived and the compassion shown by the industrious ant who takes him in.  Or the important lesson learned by the main character in the book, Nasreddine, that one must decide what to “hear from others [as] wise or silly or hurtful.”

The last genre is nonfiction. In this chapter, the power of nonfiction will come from teaching to texts that demonstrate passion and curiosity by their authors. The subject matter will be presented in highly engaging ways (Steve Jenkins – see last week’s blog), often highlighting people who emulate divergent thinking themselves, seeing beyond the status quo, tackling seemingly insurmountable issues, or pushing boundaries. Think Nelson Mandela or Temple Grandin as examples.  There are many activities included for these types of books that will enrich classroom experiences for students.

I strongly encourage you to spend some time with this book.  It will present lists of books for all grades and perhaps offer some suggestions that will reframe your use of literature in the classroom. When presenting my workshop I did include many of the titles here but also added many more. The lists are only a starting point and once you get into the flow of divergent thinking you will begin to see connections with titles you're already familiar with and likely be opened to new books when they come along.

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