Posts Tagged writing lesson

STEM Tuesday — Deep Space and Beyond — Writing Craft & Resources

Interesting Intros

If you are like me, by the time you’ve read the first page or two, you’ve already decided if you’ll finish a book. The beginning, the intro, the hook, those are crucial to a reading experience.

blank page, book, textbook, university, wisdom, writingSo crucial, in fact, that when a nonfiction author writes a book proposal (an overview, outline, comparable books, audience information, author platform, etc.) the writing sample that accompanies the proposal almost always includes the introduction. Editors don’t ask to see the chapter that will require the utmost skill in handling technical information – in the space books featured this month that could include trajectories, subsystems, eight letter acronyms, and numbers too large for the human brain to grasp. They don’t ask to see the conclusion chapter – the one that is likely to require the greatest artistic ability to tie up the loose ends of in-depth concepts, inspire the reader, and launch them into further inquiry. No, editors want to see the introduction. The one that requires both art and craft, wound together skillfully enough to hook a young reader.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

So, how do successful writers begin? Let’s take a look at the choices made by Mary Kay Carson, Elizabeth Rusch, and Catherine Thimmesh in Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt, Impact: Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World, and Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon.

Setting the Mood

The first spread of Mission to Pluto is filled with a photo, a room packed with adults waving American flags and cheering. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe text is all about setting the scene. Author Mary Kay Carson could have chosen just about any detail:

  • the phones clicking pictures
  • the type of stick the flags were attached to
  • the hair styles of the individuals

But instead she picked details that accentuated her subject matter:

  • a nine-sided mission patch
  • a robotic spacecraft
  • a dwarf planet

She selected characters such as Bill Nye, the Science Guy, whose inclusion emphasized the magnitude of the occasion. And, she chose a quote (“Now we’re finally going to find out what really…”) that focused a spotlight on the mood in the room – a mood of anticipation. Thanks to the author’s skill, the text oozes that mood and lures me into flipping that page.

Building Anticipation

When you open Impact, you’ll be gazing deep into the starry sky. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgLike Carson, Rusch puts us right into a scene. From the text, we get concrete information like the date and location (a Russian city) but we get much more. People are “bundled up tightly;” they “crunched their way through the snow.” When I read “At 9:20 a.m.” – not “That morning” or “Sometime that day” – my readering radar goes off because that specificity is a clue that something is about to happen.

In the next bit, the words: “a strange bright point” followed by mysterious smoky trails tell us just enough to imply impending action. Not yet willing to give away the action, Rusch then artfully turns our attention to a class of fourth graders. Who’s the intended audience of this book? Fourth graders. Brilliant. Only then, when the scene is set, the anticipation built, and the relatable characters introduced, only then does the author unleash the action.  “Duck and cover!” Eager to know what happens to these kids, we flip the page.

Using the Unexpected

Team Moon begins with a full-page, labeled image of the flight path of Apollo 11. Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBecause the path is not nearly as straight forward as I had anticipated, my finger immediately starts tracing the white and then the blue lines and purple arrows. That image is coupled with a simple intro “The Dream . . . ” and a teaser “And the Challenge . . .” which has me charging forward to learn more.

The next page is not at all what I had expected, either. There is no traditional introductory sentence, no watered down overview of the lesson we are about to receive, no generalizations what-so-ever. Instead there is an unexpected photograph (black and white, a crowd of men huddled around a tv set), lots of specific verbs (dominate, transmit, clicked), and language that gushes with enthusiasm (flat-out miracle, wonder of wonders, flush with anticipation).

Applying These Lessons

Close reading of these introductions has me reflecting on my own writing. Could I make use of more specific verbs? How can I build the anticipation? Which of the many characters in a science story will be the best hook for my target audience? I’m grateful for mentor texts such as these.

By Heather L. Montgomery

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder.



The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on nonfiction kidlit resources. Readers and teachers, if you have any interesting resources to share, please leave them in a comment below. The Nonfiction minute offers a searchable archive of 400-word essays written and read by nonfiction kidlit authors. Each is accompanied by lesson suggestions. Nonfiction author Melissa Stewart offers fabulous nonfiction reading resources, nonfiction writing resources, revision timelines and more. Don’t miss her blog! 100 great science books for kids!

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!




STEM Tuesday Inventors- Those Awesome People of Science – Writing Craft & Resources


Reading Between the Facts

Don’t you just love it when a story comes to life? When you are reading something and you can smell the sooty aromas, hear the grinding gears of a new invention, taste the tang of tart pie? And when, long after you’ve put a book down, you find yourself wondering about the characters? But that’s fiction, right? A story that wraps you up and carries you away.

Wait, what about fact-filled books that transport you like that? When I looked at this month’s book list, packed with techy inventions and their nerdy inventors, a story that transported me was the last thing I expected. Physical science isn’t my thing, so I gritted my teeth anticipating some dull, dry reading.

                     Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgSupport Independent Bookstores - Visit                      
Boy was I wrong. Flying Machines: How the Write Brothers Soared had me so hooked I convinced my aerospace engineer husband he had to read it (sidenote: he was impressed with the accuracy of the content).  Eureka! Poems About Inventors drew me through periods of history I had never cared about. And then there’s Isaac The Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d which made me pondering how light works, I mean really think about the physics of it. A week later I found myself Googling “Newton’s Laws of Motion because I wanted to actually understand them – not just memorize them. How did this book do this to me?

I had to know.

So I did what every good writer does, I studied the words on the page. I looked at how Mary Losure cast stories, how she used sentences, how she arranged paragraphs, and how she constructed chapters that draw me in. And then I noticed something.

Writing Between the Facts

Mary Losure had written a lot between the facts. When you research a historical figure, you only have so much information.  From the level of detail included (like the child’s drawings found in the house where Isaac grew up) it is obvious that this author dug and dug and dug until she found gold. But even a gold nugget won’t reflect light unless it is polished and placed in just the right position – in this case it shone a spotlight on Isaac’s childhood attributes. Losure had to bridge the gaps between the facts.

I’m not saying she falsified facts. No, through clearly-stated, careful conjecture, she brilliantly brought her readers into the world of inquiry.

“Far in the future, a child’s drawings would be found scratched in the farmhouse’s soft stone walls: a windmill, a church, a figure with a spurred boot. It was clear the child who drew them was bright and imaginative. The pictures had been hidden by layers of plaster for many years. The people who found them wondered if the drawings had been made by Isaac. It was easy to imagine him scratching away, unnoticed by anybody in the busy household.” Page 5, The Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d

Once I noticed that, I turned my mental search engine on, pulled out my wet-erase markers and transparency paper. I got to work. I wanted to ferret out all of the hard facts on a page, find the gaps between them, and see how Losure bridged them. Laying the transparency paper over a page allowed me to mark up the page without leaving a mark in the book.

I highlighted the obvious facts in green, qualifying words in red, and passages I wasn’t sure about in yellow.

Page 5, Isaac The Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d 

Cool! Working my way through the book, I found lots of examples:

  • She presented us with quotes from texts he read: “In his book The Mysteries of Nature and Art, there were instructions for making: A Water Clock …” page 31
  • She admitted we don’t know but presented evidence: “No one today can know exactly how Isaac and his friends spent their time, but the list Isaac made …” page 55
  • She referenced oral history: “To this day, people tell an old familiar story …” page 122

I learned lots of writing moves from Mary Losure that day. And as a bonus, the next time I read a fact-filled text, you can be sure my mind will read right between the facts – that’s an skill for every reader needs to hone.


By Heather L. Montgomery

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder.

The O.O.L.F Files

For the Out of Left Field (O.O.L.F) post, let’s look at inventions gone wrong.

Some inventions are completely pointless, like shoe umbrellas and the car exhaust grill :

Inventions aren’t always used the way they were intended. Read how a soybean fertilizer became Agent Orange and why the Wright brothers regretted creating airplanes:

Time shares 50 of the worst inventions, including pay toilets, DDT and hair in a can:,29569,1991915,00.html

And then there are always human errors… To read true tales of technological disasters, check out Steven Casey’s Set Phasers on Stun.