STEM Tuesday

STEM Tuesday — Fungi — Writing Tips & Resources

You know what I love? A chance to get nerdy about science and writing! So this month’s list of fun-gal books provided lots of fun for this gal. In addition to surprising facts—Did you know fungal spores can sometimes seed rain?—I found at least ten different ways to categorize these books. How many can you come up with? For this post I’ll share just one so I don’t steal all the fun 🙂

Today we are going to have a blast, do something dynamite, experience the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Today we are going to analyze books based on the Common Core-English Language Arts.

 

 

 

 

 

Wait. Why aren’t you jumping with joy? How come I don’t hear any gleeful giggles?

Maybe—whether you are a kid gritting your teeth through class, a teacher grinding through lesson prep, or an adult writer grasping to “get” this industry—just maybe you need practice romping in the joy of discovery.

Let me show you how it’s done.

Dip into the ELA standards and you’ll see three types of writing described:

  • informative/explanatory texts,
  • opinion pieces,
  • narrative writing (true or imagined stories).

Joy, oh, joy right? Okay, maybe not. That info is sitting there is like a lousy lump. A bunch of blah, blah, blah. We all know that science books are informative. They are explanatory texts. Duh.

But what if I found something a little suspicious in our fungal stack? Would you zoom in closer with me? Would you be willing to search out some odd evidence?

If you were on a hunt for a piece of narrative writing, what would you look for? A character. Action. Some voicy voice? Pick up a copy of Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices and you could say: check, check, check!

If we want to get academic, plop the book down beside the ELA Standards for writing, 4th grade. According to the Core, narrative should:

  • orient the reader by establishing a situation. The opening page of Rotten Pumpkin does this loud and clear: “Here I stand, bright with light, proud and round. Tonight is my glory night.”
  • introduce a narrator. Jack the smiling pumpkin draws readers in.
  • use sensory words to convey experiences. “My vomit dissolves pumpkin nutrients so I can lap them up. A delicious, nutritious smoothie!” Whoever said analyzing books had to be boring!?!

I could go on about how this could be lumped in with narrative books, but I’ll leave the rest to you. Go ahead, I’ll make it super easy and put the link to the standards right here and the link to an online preview of the book right here. Now, you go find more evidence.

And then there’s opinion writing, something you might not expect to get a whiff of on a serious, science blog post, but COME ON! Opinions spice things up! Consider why The Mushroom Fan Club, by Elise Gravel, is just such a hoot. Hint: It’s not because she’s all straight-laced and impartial. Nope.

She even admits to being obsessed. And just what, pray, is she trying to prove? The first spread: “It’s like a treasure hunt” and the last: “So, did you enjoy our TREASURE HUNT?” kind of give it away.

For practice, pair up Gravel’s text with the 4th grade standards to find examples of

  • “create an organized structure”
  • “provide reasons that are supported by facts”
  • “link opinion and reasons”

Lookie, lookie at what you’ve done. Found a little fun matching this mushroomy stack with the Common Core’s three categories of writing. I knew you could do it! Now, I wonder what you would find if you looked at Melissa Stewart’s 5 Kinds of Nonfiction instead…

 

 

 

 

 

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Heather L. Montgomery loves taking a closer look at fungi (and slugs and bugs and poop and anything else in nature). Then she writes (narrative or opinion or explanatory books about that supercalifragilisticexpialidocious stuff. Books like: Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other, Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill, and What’s in Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures. Learn more at www.HeatherLMontgomery.com.

Author Spotlight: Will Taylor + a GIVEAWAY!

In today’s Author Spotlight, Melissa Roske chats with author Will Taylor about his latest middle-grade novel, The Language of Seabirds (Scholastic, July 19) as well as his inspiration behind writing it. (Spoiler alert: It’s the book of his heart.) Plus there’s a chance to win one of THREE copies of Will’s book–plus a signed bookplate–if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details! 👇👇👇

The Language of Seabirds

Jeremy is not excited about the prospect of spending the summer with his dad and his uncle in a seaside cabin in Oregon. It’s the first summer after his parents’ divorce, and he hasn’t exactly been seeking alone time with his dad. He doesn’t have a choice, though, so he goes… and on his first day takes a walk on the beach and finds himself intrigued by a boy his age running by.

Eventually, he and Runner Boy (Evan) meet—and what starts out as friendship blooms into something neither boy is expecting… and also something both boys have been secretly hoping for.

Interview with Will Taylor

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Will! Thanks for joining us today.

WT: Thank you so much for having me!

MR: First and foremost, I loved The Language of Seabirds and devoured it in two sittings, staying up past 2am both times. I was in tears by the end. What a powerful, gorgeously written book!

WT: Gah! Oh goodness, thank you, thank you, thank you! This book is an actual piece of my heart, and it means the world to hear you connected with it.

Personal Exploration and Gratitude

MR: As stated in the author’s note, the book is deeply personal to you. It’s the book that “changed [your] heart.”It’s also very vastly different from your other MG titles. What was the impetus for writing it?

WT: *big exhale; stares out the window* I think mostly I just needed to try. I adored writing the silly, bouncy MG of my first three books, but writing them didn’t require any change from me. When the opening image and title of Seabirds popped into my head one evening, I knew this would be different: a character-driven book that would require a huge amount of honesty and a willingness to go into all sorts of uncomfortable places. That frankly terrified me. Luckily my agent more or less demanded I write it, and after a few false starts I found my feet and the story began to grow.

By the time the first draft was done, I could tell that I was definitely growing along with it. I guess it was a story I needed to explore, even if I didn’t feel ready. It was scary, since I knew it wasn’t what my readership was used to and I didn’t even know if I had the skills to properly tell it, but I think sometimes the thing that scares you is a signpost of exactly where you should put your attention. I’m definitely grateful I did.

Heart of Glass

MR: As above, your novel addresses a difficult topic for many tweens: grappling with their sexual orientation. In fact, Jeremy, the 12-year-old protagonist, has built an “invisible pane of glass” that goes everywhere with him; a “secret shield and barrier.” Could you tell us more about that?

WT: The pane of glass is partly a literary device (readers will notice Jeremy and Evan swapping beach glass as they grow closer, and there’s a ton of broken glass at the climactic end of the book—symbolism!), but mostly it was a way for me to describe my own invisible wall I carried with me from my late elementary years right through college.

Before I came out, every decision I made was filtered through that barrier. I was constantly monitoring myself and others, assessing potential threats and checking my defenses, running a whole secondary operating system aimed solely at keeping the truth about who I was hidden. I gave Jeremy that exact feeling in order to investigate it on the page, and I hope, if I’ve done my job correctly, many LGBTQIA+ readers will see their own experiences reflected there as well.

Speaking in Code

MR: Additionally, the book’s dedication reads: “For every kid who’s had to speak in code.” Is this similar to the “glass wall” Jeremy has built for himself?

WT: The dedication is a nod to the innumerable queer codes that have arisen over the years as people who feel isolated behind their walls pull off the trick of carefully reaching out for community while still remaining hidden to the world at large. I will never forget the first time I saw through another closeted gay boy’s walls and realized he could see through mine. We both shifted just the tiniest bit, just enough to see and be seen, to confirm, and no one else around us knew it. I remember being giddy for the briefest moment, then doubling up my walls and leaving just to feel safe again. I was thirteen.

Looking back as an adult, I understand now just how stressful it was living with that constant sense of danger. I dedicated Seabirds to kids who’ve had to learn to speak in code as a way of acknowledging them and the extra weight they carry every hour of the day.

Birdish Books

MR: In addition to friendship and romance, birds factor heavily into your book— particularly the seabirds of the Oregon coast. What is it about seabirds that piques your interest and speaks to you as an author? Do you have any favorite bird-related books, fiction and/or nonfiction? (For more birdish book suggestions, click here.)

WT: Oh, I love seabirds! I really can’t explain why, they just feel magical. And they have so many options, from riding the wind to jumping off tall cliffs to walking along the beach to sitting down anytime they like right there on the ocean. Imagine how free we would feel if we could do all those things! (Ooo, hey, symbolism again!)

As for bird books, the list you linked to is great! I adored Celia C. Peréz’s Strange Birds and Kaela Noel’s Coo. I’m sure there are some awesome non-fiction bird books for younger readers out there, too, and hope folks check in with their indies and libraries for recommendations if they’re interested!

Secret Language

MR: As a follow-up, Jeremy and Evan create their own seabird-related secret language. For instance, “marbled murrelet” mean friends, and “Caspian tern” means high-five. What gave you the idea to create a secret language for Jeremy and Evan? Also, what is its significance in terms of the boys’ friendship and budding romance?

WT: The secret language idea goes back to the theme of queer coding, for sure, but fits specifically into this story because Jeremy starts off really not ready to talk about what he’s feeling. Just the idea of expressing these emotions he’s trained himself to keep hidden is unthinkable for the first entire half of the book. Still, he craves the spark of connection, just like I did, so the bird code becomes a way for Jeremy to safely tell Evan what he’s going through inside. To tell his truth, but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson so perfectly put it.

Of course, in the simplest sense codes are also just plain fun. I loved codes as a kid! When so much of the world is out of your control, secret words make you feel powerful and special and part of some grand adventure, especially if they’re shared with friends. I think creating and using the language of seabirds plays a big role in helping Jeremy and Evan overcome the awkward stage any new friendship has more quickly than they might have done without it. As the book progresses and they grow closer, that secret language takes on deeper and deeper meaning, culminating with the addition of one final bittersweet word at the end.

The More Things Change

MR: Relocation is another important theme in your book, due to Jeremy’s possible move to another city following his parents’ divorce. How does this affect Jeremy in terms of the “glass wall” he’s built around himself?

 WT: Jeremy is very scared of change. He feels safe in familiar environments, places where he knows what potential threats are present and how he can defend himself against them. When he’s unable to predict that, he doubles down on his internal glass wall as the only thing he can count on to keep him safe. Readers can see this throughout the book as they spot Jeremy often looking out from behind a window, or from an overlooked corner, or from a few steps behind whoever he’s with. This is second nature to him, the urge to put something between him and the world, and his greatest fear is the exposure that would happen if anyone—particularly his parents or peers—were to look back and fully see him.

Rather than feeling like an opportunity for an upgrade, then, relocation becomes a risk—one that might feel too big to take. Whether he will base his final decision on hope or fear (the two sides of his glass wall) is something we definitely see him struggle with throughout the book.

Read, Read, Read… and Write, Write, Write!

MR: The Language of Seabirds is your fifth published book for middle-grade readers. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from? Is there a secret sauce you can share with Mixed-Up Files readers?

WT: It is so, so wild to realize this is book five. I one-hundred percent still feel like a newbie! I’m not sure I can suggest any secret sauce apart from read, read, read, and write, write, write–but I absolutely recommend keeping notes on anything that catches your attention. I have stacks of notebooks full of story ideas, character sketches, potential titles, science facts, scribbled plot outlines, favorite TV episodes, dream fragments, etc., and I flip through them all a couple times a year. Different pieces jump out at me every time, all going into the big compost pile in my head, and every now and then enough pieces come together in the right way that I feel that “click” and the story unrolls like a carpet. You can feel it happen.

After that, it’s time for the long hard work of bringing the story into the world through the keyboard. (And after five published books and half a dozen shelved ones, I’ve finally accepted this part never gets any easier. It is, simply, the work.)

So that’s my tip, I guess! Gather the things you love and like. Wallow in your dork-level fascinations. Compile interesting fragments. Harvest notions and oddments and dreams. Futz and sort and tinker. Run a net along the riverbed of your life and see what sparkles in the sun. Watch what clumps together. Listen for the “click.”

Writing Routine and Rituals

MR: What does your writing routine look like, Will? Do you have any particular rituals?

WT: I lost my longtime day job at the start of the pandemic, so this system has only applied to my last couple books, but my routine is based on spending at least one full hour every weekday being there for my current WIP. (Important to note I live alone so have the privilege of doing this regularly.) Many days I wind up working for several hours, on others that single hour is all I can manage, but I try my best to always make sure that one core hour happens.

Being There

WT: I want to point to my use of the term “being there,” by the way. This took me a long time to understand, but writing isn’t always about putting words on the page. Sometimes the book needs you to just sit with it, mulling things over, listening to the burble of characters, massaging a handful of sentences or one tricky transition. And that counts. That’s time spent in company with the book. Of course, deadlines are real things, too, so words do need to happen. But I really believe getting into the mindset of spending time with my books rather than approaching them like a boss trying to extract labor has helped my work enormously.

Oh, and I have no idea why, but I write best with something over my head. A blanket, a hoodie, a towel, whatever’s comfy and available—for some reason it helps me tune out the world and deep dive into my imagination. It does make me look like a giant mushroom, however, so thank goodness I prefer writing alone!

Books on the Horizon

MR: What are you working on now? Enquiring minds want to know!

WT: Okay, so I have like half a dozen “post-click” projects in the “waiting to be written” pile, but I’ll just share about the two MGs I’m actively spending time with right now. One is a historical escape adventure set in 12th-century England full of swords and castles and haunted forests and ice, the project of my Susan Cooper- and Rosemary Sutcliff-loving heart. The other is another contemporary gay middle school romance, a comedy this time, centering around a ballet dancer boy having to hide his sexuality if he wants to make the big time and the overlooked, “couldn’t hide it if I tried” soft boy who helps him reconnect with his heart and art. Basically a gay version of Strictly Ballroom crossed with my second-favorite movie of all time, Center Stage. Neither of these are under contract yet, but I’m working hard so hopefully that will change soon!

Catch That Dog!

WT: I have to shout out my latest silly MG, Catch That Dog, which came out in June. It’s another book of my heart, specifically the part that sobbed and laughed all through Flora & Ulysses. I’m super proud of it and hope anyone into “overlooked girl and her remarkable pet overcome terrible grownups” stories will check it out.

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack?

Hmm, I don’t really eat while I write, but when I’m done writing, a grilled cheese sandwich is my favorite thing to bring me back to earth.

Coffee or tea?

Both! Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. With an English dad and Welsh stepdad I was raised with tea making up a solid third of my diet, but coffee took over the morning slot a long while back and is absolutely not going anywhere.

Favorite seabird?

People are gonna think I’m joking, but I am obsessed with regular old seagulls! There are tons of them around my part of downtown Seattle (my upstairs neighbor feeds them anchovies from his window so they like our building) and I am always so jealous of how they can soar and glide on the wind like hawks, and sit comfortably on deep, deep water, and explore the world so freely through the vertical axis. I totally want to be one someday.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

Hahah I don’t know if I get the question! Um, nay? Let’s . . . not have one?

Superpower?

Healing. No contest.

Favorite place on earth?

Gah! Okay, I have to cheat and give three answers: Death Valley, the Orkney Islands, and the hills around my uncle’s house in the tiny village of Taliesin, Wales.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

This has genuinely been the hardest question! My practical homebody survival brain says tent, water purifier, and hand-crank distress radio, but that’s neither funny nor interesting. . .

Okay, how’s this: If I had to live there alone for a while and could find enough resources not to promptly die, I would want the big, illustrated edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Books of Earthsea; a hand-crank record player equipped with Kate Bush’s entire discography; and a giant pallet of pens and paper so I could keep on writing kids’ books. Because it’s genuinely all I’ve ever wanted to do.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Will—and congratulations on the publication of The Language of Seabirds. I truly loved it, and I know MUF readers will too!

WT: Thank youuu! It’s been an honor and an absolute pleasure!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!

(THREE winners in all!)

For a chance to win a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF SEABIRDS–plus a signed bookplate–comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 7/21/22 EST.) U.S. only, please. 

About the Author

Will Taylor is a reader, writer, and honeybee fan. He lives in the heart of downtown Seattle surrounded by all the seagulls and not quite too many teacups. When not writing he can be found searching for the perfect bakery, talking to trees in parks, and completely losing his cool when he meets longhaired dachshunds. His books include Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort; Maggie & Abby and the Shipwreck Treehouse; Slimed; Catch That Dog!; and The Language of Seabirds. Learn more about Will on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

STEM Tuesday — Fungi — In the Classroom

Fungi—mostly invisible to us yet found almost everywhere we go! It makes for a really interesting topic for students to explore in the classroom. How do fungi grow? Where can we find fungi? What shapes, colors, and sizes are fungi? And what other fascinating fungi facts can we discover? These books from our STEM Tuesday list inspired the following classroom ideas.

 

Funky Fungi book coverFunky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More by Alisha Gabriel and Sue Heavenrich

The engaging narrative, which masterfully incorporates the science of mycology, is brimming with cool facts (like making shoes from fungi) and tons of fun STEAM activities and experiments – beginning with the creation of a “FUNgus” journal. It’s intriguing sidebars, stunning photographs, illustrations, and graphs, and scientist highlights make this a fun read with something for everyone kid and adult alike.

 

 

Fungarium: Welcome to the Museum by Ester Gaya, illustrated by Katie Scott

A stunning, oversized book organized like a museum guide with “galleries” on fungal biology (reproduction and spores), diversity, interactions (Mycorrhizas and termites), and their relationship with humans (pathogens, edible, and pharmaceutical). In addition to engaging facts, vividly detailed images, there are three gorgeous ecosystem illustrations featuring the connection and interactions of fungous within mountains, temperate forests, and tropical forests.

 

 

Mushroom Rain by Laura K. Zimmerman

From what they smell like to who eats them, this is a fun introduction to the diverse and sometimes bizarre world of mushrooms. Older readers will enjoy the information at the back, including how mushrooms can cause rain.

 

 

The Book of Fungi: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World by Roberts, Peter and Shelley Evans

Perfect for browsing, this book is as advertised: filled with life-sized photos of mushrooms, plus descriptions and range maps. Written for adults, but a treasure for kids who love to peruse field guides – if you can find it at your library.

 

 

 

Classroom Activities

Go on a mushroom hunt!

Explore outside with students to see which mushrooms they can find. Carry The Book of Fungi: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from around the World with you or download a fungi identifying app to your phone or tablet. Or students could bring digital cameras or draw images of the mushrooms they find. Visit a nature area and remind students not to touch mushrooms, as some may be poisonous. Look near rotting trees, on the sides of living trees, or where there are rotting leaves and plants. Have students document what they see and then identify the kind of mushroom they found. If they want, they could make the FUNgus journal described in Funky Fungi. See how many the class can find!

Spore slide investigation

What do spores look like? Students can study them under a microscope in this investigative activity. First prepare some microscope slides for students. Use a variety of fresh mushrooms, cut off the stems, and place the mushrooms gill-side down on top of the slide plates overnight. Make sure to label each slide. The next day, remove the caps and you’ll see that spores have dropped onto the slides. Cover each with slide with a glass coverslip. Next set up some microscopes with the slides and set them at the lowest magnification level. Ask students to view the spores and record what they see for each type of mushroom. Ask them to increase magnification and see how it changes their view. Students can then compare the different kinds of spores. Do they look the same? What are their differences?

Mycelium dig

You can find mycelium just about everywhere in gardens and forests. All you need to do is dig! Provide students with gardening gloves and garden trowels. Make sure they have notebooks or digital cameras to take photos. Now ask them to dig in shady spots to see what they can find. Tell them to look for cobweb-like white material in the soil. Once they. find some, tell them to document what they see. What does the mycelia look like? What else is in the soil? Have students record the location and depth of their hole too. Then students can share their findings with the class.

Spore art

Mushrooms can make some beautiful art! Here’s what students need to create some spore art in the classroom:

  • fresh mushrooms from the store, with gills covered as much as possible
  • cutting board and sharp knife
  • thick white card stock
  • water
  • cardboard box
  • markers or colored pencils
  • hairspray

Steps:

  1. Have students cut the bottom part of their mushroom to expose the gills.
  2. Then place the mushroom cut-side down on the white card stock. Add a few drops of water to the top of the mushroom.
  3. Cover the mushroom and card with an upside-down cardboard box and let it sit overnight.
  4. Remove the box and the mushroom the next day. You should see a pattern of spores that look like the gills and shape of the mushroom. Be careful to not disturb the spores!
  5. Spray some hairspray on top to secure the spores. Students can draw around the spore design. They can label their art too with the type of mushroom they used. Beautiful!

Hope you enjoy trying these activities out. Here are a few other sites to explore to find more fungi activities or videos for students:

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This month’s STEM Tuesday classroom activity list was prepared by:

Karen Latchana Kenney loves to write books about animals, and looks for them wherever she goes—from leafcutter ants trailing through the Amazon rain forest in Guyana, where she was born, to puffins in cliff-side burrows on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. She especially enjoys creating books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries—but also writes about civil rights, astronomy, historical moments, and many other topics. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and son, and bikes, hikes, and gazes at the night sky in northern Minnesota any moment she can. Visit her at latchanakenney.wordpress.com.