Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Caterpillar Investigation, The Final Installment

My regular readers probably thought I dropped the ball on the caterpillar investigation my children and I started back on September 26th. For those who don't know, we found some mystery caterpillars on our parsley plants. We observed them for a while, placed them in our butterfly house, and watched them turn into chrysalids. Then you never heard about them again.

Until now, that is! As I reported last October, we left the butterfly house in our porch all winter. Finally, on Friday, one butterfly emerged. We were very excited!

(June 3rd Update: The second butterfly emerged today- one week after the first).
We placed a small container of water in the house and let the butterfly dry its wings for a while. Then we opened the house to let it out. I gently placed my hand in front of the butterfly and let it crawl onto my finger. We didn't try to touch it in any way- I just let it crawl on me and stay as long as it wanted.

Check out the beautiful pattern on it's underside.

And look at its fuzzy back and the proboscis curled up under its eyes. The proboscis is a straw-like tube the butterfly uses to drink nectar.

After a few minutes, it flew off my finger and went directly to the irises blooming in my flower garden. Look closely and you'll see the proboscis going into the flower to get nectar. The butterfly flitted to several flowers to eat. Imagine... this critter hasn' t had any food since the parsley it ate last fall when it was still a caterpillar. We thought it seemed hungry.

When it left the flower, we chased it into the backyard, watching it flutter up and down in the breeze. Then things got really exciting and a bit scary. A bird came out of nowhere and chased after the butterfly. We could hear its beak snapping shut! I have never heard that before. We watched in horror, certain our newly emerged friend was going to be bird food. At the last minute, the butterfly swerved into the leaves of a nearby maple tree and escaped. Of course, we understand the laws of nature, but boy were we glad it got to live as a butterfly for a least a while longer.

Here's the bird that chased it. I know it's small in the photo- I didn't have my zoom lens on because I was photographing a butterfly. Can any bird lovers out there identify it by its silhouette?

Last fall I asked if any of you knew the species. Now that one has emerged as a butterfly, my son looked it up in a field guide and declared it a Black Swallowtail Butterfly.

This investigation demonstrates that you can never fully predict what will happen in nature. I knew the caterpillar would emerge as a butterfly if all went well, but I could not possibly have planned the chase scene with the bird. Such excitement! And, as an aside, just 5 minutes later, a Bald Eagle swooped though our yard so low to the ground that we could easily see it's white head. There was no better show in town on Friday than the one happening right outside in our yard.

Have you noticed any butterflies in your area lately? Ours was the first one I had seen this year, but over the weekend more appeared. How about in your neck of the woods? Do you know the species?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

At the Sea Floor Cafe

Another author I saw at the SCBWI conference was Leslie Bulion. Leslie and I met once before at a publisher's open house. We connected again through the KidLit for Japan auction when I "won" the bid for a two copies of her latest book, plus a Skype visit. I already owned and loved her book, Hey There Stink Bug, so I was happy to get a copy of her second book of poetry, At the Sea Floor Cafe: Odd Ocean Critter Poems.

 At the Seafloor Cafe, illustrated by Leslie Evans (same illustrator as Hey There, Stink Bug) offers up a variety of interesting poems and illustrations about ocean critters.  For each organism, there' s a poem plus additional scientific information. At the back of the book, there's a glossary of terms, notes on the specific forms of poetry used, and additional websites kids can explore to learn more.

During the Skype visit with my son's class, Leslie focused on three poems: 'Walk Like Nut' (about the coconut octopus), 'The Invasion of the Bone Eaters' (the Osedax worm), and 'With Her Eggs Tucked Underneath Her Arms' (about the broody squid). Even though Leslie was basically a "talking head" projected on the wall, it felt like she was in the room with us. We simultaneously ran a brief Power Point presentation that Leslie had prepared to illustrate her points. She shared information about how scientific research in the deep ocean has changed over the last 20 years or so and then taught us about some of the odd and wonderful sea creatures in her book. Leslie's visit was content rich and engaging.

In an age of standards-based education and high-stakes testing, books and Skype visits such as Leslie Bulion's offer the perfect opportunity to address both science and English Language Arts standards. Many so-called integrated lessons fall short. They may involve reading a science book in an ELA class but no real science is learned. Or, the science may take a back seat to reading skills. Leslie's work, however, bridges the two areas flawlessly. After all, she's been writing poetry since she was a kid and she studied oceanography in college.

Have you Skyped with an author? How did it go? Can you suggest books that successfully bridge two or more content areas?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hive Detectives

Last weekend, I attended the SCBWI annual New England conference. (SCBWI is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). As a "pre-published" children's author, I count on SCBWI to guide me on my journey toward publication. This conference offered me a chance to learn more about the organization's history, to network, and to focus on my craft. I also got to meet two giants in the business- Jane Yolen and Tomie dePaola. For anyone who teaches or has young children, these are probably household names. Many of us at the conference were giddy with excitement. Suffice it to say that they are my "rock stars."

The biggest highlights for me, however, came from connecting with other writers and meeting some lesser known writers I admire. In my next two posts, I'll focus on two of those writers and their books.

As my long-term readers know, my father-in-law and I took up beekeeping two years ago. So when I first saw Loree Griffin Burns' book The Hive Detectives at my local library last fall, I checked it out immediately. This book focuses on the current research to determine the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is the name given to the unknown cause(s) of the huge die-out of honey bees you've heard about in the news. I devoured the book, then insisted my father-in-law read it even though it's a "kids book." I shared it with my son's science teacher. I also held it up at a viewing of the film Vanishing of the Bees at the Bioneers by the Bay conference last fall. To say I love this book would be an understatement.

What makes Hive Detectives so wonderful?
  1. Carefully researched information (with documentation of sources in the back matter).
  2. Well-written, engaging narrative.
  3. Impeccable book design (by Cara Llewellyn).
  4. Beautiful, informative photographs (by Ellen Harasimowicz).
  5. Quotations from "real-live" beekeepers and scientists who are on the cutting edge of scientific research.
This last point is one of the things I most love about non-fiction for kids today. The great non-fiction children's writers of today are not simply reading a bunch of books on a topic, compiling information, and writing it in language that is accessible to kids. They are out in the field, doing deep meaningful research on their topics. They are talking to the scientists on the front lines. Many writers observe the research first-hand and sometimes participate in it. In the last couple of years, new research has been published in children's books before it ever reaches adult books.

In a workshop I attended with Loree, she told us that she allowed herself to be stung so she could understand what it felt like. That experience informed her writing and resulted in a great photograph for the book (See page 41). More and more authors are doing this kind of in-depth research.

So what does this all mean? Kids get access to the latest, most up-to-date information presented in interesting, engaging new formats. This is great for any kid, but may be especially important for the many, many boy readers who tend to prefer non-fiction. 

After reading a book like this, many children will pay closer attention to the bees they observe. That attention offers the perfect opportunity for you as a parent or teacher to support a bee investigation.Think there are no honeybees around? There's a good chance there are. Backyard and urban beekeeping are on the rise. Some restaurateurs in Washington DC are keeping bees on the roof of their building and using the honey in their restaurant. Last fall, I met a woman who keeps rooftop bees in the Bronx. Honeybees in the Bronx! Isn't that amazing?

Have you or your children been inspired by some great non-fiction lately? What are your favorite non-fiction titles for kids?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Nature Observations With Young Children

Last week we found a dead bumblebee in our screened porch. Being the nature girl I am, I prevented my husband from sweeping it out. I wanted to handle it and get a closer look. I'm always watching those big, fat insects as they lumber by. I remember my dad, who studied as an aeronautical engineer, telling me that bumblebees should not be able to fly- their bodies are too fat and their wings too small. Yet, somehow they do! I figured the dead one offered me a chance to see their body parts up close in way I am unable to do when they are flying. I left the bee on the table in the porch.

When my husband and I came home from being out a few days later, my daughter (age 5 1/2) ran up to me to tell me she had drawn the bumblebee. She couldn't wait to show me her work. She told me my mother had helped her spell some of the words.

Here's what she did:

(Please note that I do not present this as an example of what all 5 1/2 year olds should be able to do. Quite the opposite, in fact. Developmentally approprate work varies WIDELY. In other words, your child's writing and drawings may seem less or more developed than my daughter's. That's perfectly normal. Take your child/students from where they are).

I let her tell me all about her work. She told me about her drawing and read me her labels. She also read the sentence she wrote on the lines below the drawing, "We found a dead bee." Then we had a conversation about her work.

My first question was, "How many wings does it have?" She looked at the insect, said "4," then grabbed a pencil to alter her drawing that only showed 2 (She added the lines that divide the triangular shaped wings).

Next I said, "I see you put two eyes right here in the front where the eyes are on the bee. I can see them on here (I pointed to them on the bee). My son (Age 9) who was nearby listening said, "Can I see?" We all looked closely at the two black eyes on it's head.

To my surprise, she didn't draw a smiley face on the bee, which is very common with young children. They add human-like characteristics to the animals they observe. I'm not certain she had really seen the two eyes- she may have simply drawn them on as children her age tend to do. That's why I drew her attention to them as if I were noticing them because of her drawing. If I were here teacher, rather than her parent, I would have probed deeper to dig into her understanding. In this case, I didn't want a fun exchange with my daughter to become too teacher-like.

Finally, I asked, "How many legs does it have? She quickly said, "6." I asked if she wanted to add two more legs to her drawing. She said, "no" because she would have to erase all of the legs and start again to make it look right. I let it go at this point. If I were her teacher, I would have gently encouraged her to make corrections so the other scientists in our classroom would have the correct information. As her mom, I let it go but made a mental note to count the number of legs on other insects we examine together this summer.

I share this story as an example of a way that you might help the kids in your life pay closer attention to nature. You don't need any specialized training to ask children this kind of probing questions. You don't need to know all the answers. You can learn with your children/students. You could  count the wings and legs and observe the eyes together. This approach works with all kinds of natural items- insects, birds, mammals, trees/ plants, even rocks and fossils. Simply look closely and talk or write about what you observe. Count, measure, compare, and describe in detail.

Once you have some direct experiences, then you might consult a field guide or other children's book. In fact, I recommend The Bumblebee Queen April Pulley Sayre if you find yourself exploring bumble bees.

Warning: Once you start noticing details in nature with your children or students, they will notice and share details all the time. My kids share something with me at least once a day. Sometimes this will happen when you're occupied with other responsibilities, like maybe cooking dinner or using the bathroom. Or perhaps you'll be teaching a math lesson and your students will interrupt you to describe the ant trucking through your classroom or the birds outside your window. Prepare yourself for these instances. How will you handle them? Obviously, scolding children and directing them to get back to their Math assignments is counterproductive to encourging future observations. So what will you do? 

Please share your suggestions.  How will you handle these kinds of interruptions?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Signs of Spring- Bird Sightings

Birds have been active in my neck of the woods. This morning, my daughter heard this one before she saw it. She rushed inside to mimic it's call to me. We watched it for as long as we could before we had to leave for school.

We put our hummingbird feeder out this week. Within one hour we had our first visitor.

Even as I'm writing this in my screened in porch, the number of birds in my yard is astounding...
I literally just stopped typing to snap these photos from within my porch. (The photo quality isn't great because I shot them through a screen, but they help make my point.)

 And then there are these impressive birds that have been hovering over my yard for the past few weeks. Anyone know what they are? Leave your guesses in the comments.

ADDED May 10, 2010
I can now say with confidence that the first bird is a Turkey Vulture and the second one is an Osprey.

Also, while browsing in my favorite, local Indie bookstore, Baker Books, I found this book the other day:

It would be a fantastic addition to a study of birds of prey. Large "gatefolds" (pages that fold out) help readers comprehend the size of the birds wingspans.
END added material.

Birds are everywhere. Regardless of whether you live in a rural, urban, or suburban area, you can enjoy birdwatching with your children and students. Learning their names may appeal to some children but learning about nature does not require labeling the species you see. Some even argue that labeling stops the learning- once you know the name of a bird, you can look it up and learn facts from another source. If you don't know the name, you tend to focus on making your own observations and end up with a more intimate knowledge of the animal.

If bird watching appeals to you and your students I highly recommend Inquiry at the Window:

 You can also read my post on Hummingbirds from last year.

Have you been noticing lots of birds in your area? What have you been seeing? Please be sure to tell us your general geographical area.