Posts Tagged Curriculum Tie-in

More Than a Middle Grade Book Club

For Narnia!

Jonathan Robbins Leon, Osceola Library Youth Specialist, gets into the spirit for book club meetings. Photo by: Osceola Library. Used with permission.

I sat down this week to chat with Jonathan Robbins Leon, a youth specialist at the Osceola Library, about how he incorporates STEM and history into his book club for middle graders, and he passed along some great ideas for parents, teachers, and librarians who want to add a little something extra to their middle-grade book discussions.

MP: Tell us a little bit about how you started the book club?

JRL: We started this last August. The sessions run from August to May. It started out as a home-school book club to tie books into home-school lesson plans. Last session, I chose 8 random books, but this year, I decided to do a series.

MP: Why did you decide to do a series, and which series are you focusing on this year?

JRL: This year, I did the Chronicles of Narnia. It has worked out well. It gives the kids a goal to work toward, finishing the series, and we’ve had a lot more regular participation than just choosing different books for each session.

MP: So, the kids read along with each session. What if they haven’t finished a book yet?

JRL: The activities that I chose go along chronologically with the events of the books, but the kids don’t necessarily have to have read the book in order to enjoy the activity or participate.

MP: That sounds interesting. Can you give us an example?

JRL: In The Magician’s Nephew, there’s discussion about the dying sun on Charn. So, we talked about the life cycle of a star and built solar K’nex machines. Also, we talked about World War II, which is the setting for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We talked about what it was like during World War II. The kids planted mini victory gardens and learned how to sew a button. We also handed out recipes for war cakes that would have been made with what was given on a ration card.

MP: Have any interesting observations come out of these sessions?

JRL: During our World War II session, we talked about the roles of women during war time and how some women fought during the war, and one girl raised her hand and asked “Then, why does Lucy get told that she needs to wait during the battle?” It led to an interesting discussion about gender roles.

MP: Any tips for teachers, parents or librarians thinking about coming up with their own extension activities?

JRL: This first one is obvious but read the books. The first session of the book club, I’d read the books, but a long time ago. So, the meetings weren’t as detailed as they were for this session because I read the Narnia series knowing that I was going to be planning the book club around them. I made pages of notes as I was reading. Also, break it down into how many meetings you’re planning to hold. Make sure the final meeting of the book club has all the fun stuff so that it’s a reward for finishing the whole session.

MP: Were there any other lessons that you learned from planning this session that you’d like to pass on?

3-D Printed Narnia Charms

3-D Printed Charms that correspond with each Narnia book were incentives given to kids who finished a book. Photo by: Osceola Library. Used with permission.

JRL: This session we added an incentive, a little 3-D printed charm, for each book read. This has helped to keep the kids reading along with the activities.

MP: Are there any resources that you can recommend to help planning a program like this?

JRL: Think outside just what goes on in the book, and find ways to connect the time period of the book, the culture, and the author’s background. Teacher’s guides are incredibly helpful for this because they’ll often have extension ideas. Also, consider inviting guest presenters to add depth to the meetings. We’ve Skyped with Big Cat Rescue about lions, and had a magician come in and teach some beginning magic tricks.

MP: Any other suggestions?

JRL: Make sure that you have enough copies of the books for everyone to read. Also, if you can, find young reader copies for younger siblings that may want to participate. Finally, at least in a library, if you are having guest presenters, advertise them separately from the book club as well to get more interest. For example, our meeting with the magician was bigger because some people only came to see the magician, but we had several people join the book club afterward and stick with it.

MP: This sounds awesome! Do you plan on repeating the program with other series?

JRL: We’re definitely going to continue this next year. I’m thinking about doing either A Series of Unfortunate Events or Harry Potter.

For more information about Osceola Library’s home-school book club, visit their page here. Or for more ideas to pump up your own middle grade book club, check out our list of Author Websites with Discussion/Activity Guides as well as our reference page For Teachers and Librarians.

STEM Tuesday – Shining the Light on Technology, Engineering, and Math — Interview with Author Elizabeth Rusch

STEM TUESDAY from the mixed up files

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Elizabeth Rusch! She’s the author of this month’s featured technology/engineering book, The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the OceanThis fascinating installment in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field series tackles the engineering challenge of turning ocean waves into useable electricity. As Horn Book‘s glowing review explains, “Rusch fully explores the engineering process, capturing the determined, entrepreneurial spirit of the profiled engineers as well as the need for creative problem-solving and ingenuity, a test-and-retest mentality, a high tolerance for failure, and perseverance through the quest for research funding.” The Next Wave received starred reviews from both Kirkus and School Library Journal.

Mary Kay Carson: Why did you decide to write The Next Wave?

Elizabeth Rusch: I keep a folder of clippings of newspaper and magazine articles that interest me. Once in a while, I read through them to see if there are any topic hiding in there that I might want to cover. About ten years ago I found that I had clipped a bunch of articles on scientists developing these cool devices to harness the movement of ocean waves and turn it into electricity. One Oregon scientist Annette von Jouanne was not only inventing clever devices but also finding ways to support other engineers and inventors in their work. I thought she would be a perfect place to start. I interviewed her and accompanied her as she tested a new device that bobbed up and down in the water and wrote an article about her work for Smithsonian magazine. As I was reporting and writing that piece, a little voice kept saying: Kids would find this fascinating – they love the beach, the ocean, invention, and environment. So I expanded my research to include the stories of other ocean energy inventors, such as “The Mikes” —Mike Morrow and Mike Delos-Reyes—childhood friends who were developing and refining a device that sits on the ocean floor that they first designed in college.

MKC: What was writing about engineering like?

Elizabeth: I loved covering a new, evolving renewable energy field. Engineers have already pretty much figured out great ways to harness solar and wind energy but ocean energy was and is still wide open. We don’t yet know the best way to take the up and down motion of waves and turn it into electricity. That means that all devices being invented and tested are wildly different. So I got to witness history in the making. Mike Morrow invited me to his lab, which was big cluttered shed in his backyard. It was like being in the garage with Steve Jobs as he invented his computer. I also observed tests in these huge wave flumes and basins and out the open ocean. Each test was really suspenseful because no one knew how the devices would perform. So I was crossing my fingers and cheering right along with the engineers.

Download an accompanying Common Core Guide and Discussion and Activity Guide for The Next Wave.

MKC: Are STEM topics especially interesting to you?

Elizabeth: I don’t actively set out to write STEM books. I am drawn to important, compelling stories that have been overlooked – and it just so happens that many of those stories are in STEM fields. I love stories of invention because they are at their core stories of the human spirit and our quest to understand the world and solve problems we face. To me, inventing something is essentially an adventure requiring creativity and heroic effort in the face of daunting obstacles. A fun example is my recent book The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano. While it is a picture book biography about music and history, I was delighted to see it was named a Best STEM Trade Book by NSTA-CBC.  So I guess what I’m saying is that to me STEM is just in integral part of the human story – and I love telling human stories.

Win a FREE copy of The Next Wave!

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, fellow science nerd and author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson


STEM Tuesday – Shining the Light on Technology, Engineering, and Math — Writing Craft & Resources

TEM From An “S” Guy

When I first saw the June STEM Tuesday June topic, Shining the Light on the TEM in STEM, I did a double take. Being a scientist, I felt left out. I threw stuff. I cursed. I ranted to my friendly Aeromonas bacterial cultures in the lab about feeling left out.

Fortunately, my cultures are good listeners and the wise bacteria kindly pointed out the fact that, if looked at from a neutral eye, the “S” in STEM actually does get a lion’s share of the STEM attention. I took this prokaryotic wisdom into consideration, returned the agar plate to the incubator, and went home to contemplate the need to shine a light specifically on the technology, engineering, and mathematics side of STEM.

It turns out that the science component of STEM does appear to hog the limelight and push the TEM to the shadows. The “T”, the “E’, and the “M” often get a bad rap. So I’ve changed my tune. Welcome to June, TEM! Glad to give you guys a moment in the electromagnetic energy waves of the solar spectrum.

But I also want to ask the TEM what we can do better to present and teach technology, engineering, and mathematics so they don’t seem quite so foreign to the majority of us. What can we do to make these things easier for young people to grasp? What can we do to help the young people who gravitate toward the TEM?

TEM Brain Muscle

TEM thinkers are often put into their own lane from the time they are young and kept there safely in that lane as they mature. Instead of expanding their knowledge base and widening their talents, TEM thinkers are often pigeon-holed to their specific skill set. Is this because they look at the world through the somewhat unique lenses of logic, design, and formula? Is there a certain level of trepidation for us to guide others down this TEM path when we ourselves are uncomfortable guiding them in those subjects?

What can we do to draw the non-TEM thinkers into at least an understanding of basic ideas and power of technology, engineering, and math? On the other hand, how can we develop TEM thinkers without slotting them down a narrow, pocket-protector lane in life?

Both TEM-phobics and TEM-philics need to be given problems to solve instead of shown the solutions. Allow them to develop their brain muscles and unique skills through problem-solving rather than simply giving them the names and uses of the tools in the toolbox. They need the space to try. They need the freedom to fail. They need an environment where mistakes are a step in the learning process and not an environment where the learning process is gauged solely by counting the mistakes.


I’ve been preaching for years that the scientific method is not a series of lifeless, formulated steps but is a full technicolor philosophy of problem-solving. It’s scientific storytelling! The scientific method is to problem-solving as plot and story structure is to a writer. It gives us a plan. It gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Instead of looking at TEM as solely a conglomeration of code, circuits, calculations, and formulas, we should look at the code, circuits, calculations, and formulas as tools we use to tell a story.

Unfortunately, we often get caught up and confused by the tools instead of focusing on telling the problem-solving story. The story/solution is more important than the tools. For example, what’s more important when writing a simple program to calculate the slope of a line, the programming logic or the programming language? The language is the tool we can reference or find as needed, but the logic and the design are where the real magic lies.

Is it enough to only know that the Slope = (y2-y1) / (x2-x1) or can we be a better problem solver by understanding that the rise and run of the line numerically define the slope? By defining the slope in measurable terms, we define the characteristics of the line. Once we understand the characteristics of the line, we can use that knowledge to develop a ramp to help Mrs. Hays transport her gigantinormous suitcase of books easily up the school stairs and into her classroom each and every day. Now that’s a story!

Framing the TEM (and the “S”!) in terms of telling the story of the way something works or how a problem is solved can help young thinkers expand their STEM skills without getting tangled up in the sometimes confusing toolbox.

Novel Engineering

Novel engineering is a pretty cool concept I first learned about at the 2017 nErDcampKS. I wandered into this session with no idea what novel engineering was, and as a non-teacher, no idea of its power. The concept is surprisingly simple. The teachers use a text or a story and assign the students a problem to solve from the story. The students then work in groups or as individuals to analyze, design and build a solution to the problem. Makerspace rooms or areas in the schools can be set up to give the students the resources needed.

Linda Sue Park’s A LONG WALK TO WATER was a popular choice for middle school novel engineering projects. The teachers in the session talked about how the kids worked out solutions on how to find, carry and store water more effectively.

Another upper-elementary teacher gave the example of how she used the Rapunzel fairy tale in her classroom as a novel engineering project. The goal for the students was to design an alternative system for Rapunzel (a Barbie doll) to escape the four-foot tower built in the classroom without the aid of any knights in shining armor. This teacher said her students really got into the project and came up with great solutions, including an adventurous escape from the tower on a zip line.

Thinkers & Tinkerers

In the classroom, in the lab, or in the home, let young minds be thinkers and tinkerers. No matter what letter of the STEM acronym these young minds gravitate toward, they need the platform and the space to learn. Provide books and lessons and leadership to promote a maker environment for our STEM learners. Teach them to how to use the tools of code, structures, pathways, classifications, circuits, calculations, and formulas, to help them solve problems, not get trapped or intimidated by them.

The tools don’t solve problems, problem solvers do.

Thinkers and tinkerers rule!

Now back to work. Hopefully, those Aeromonas bacteria will allow me some of my own thinking space to work through the experimental problems I’m currently experiencing.

Have a great TEM month!

Mike Hays, STEMologist, Class I


The O.O.L.F Files

The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on the TEM of STEM. I have to admit, there’s some pretty cool stuff listed below to check out. Readers and teachers, if you have any interesting O.O.L.F. files links you’d like to share, please leave them in a comment below. The STEM Tuesday community appreciates it! We’re all in this together!