Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Two Ways of Seeing Trees

Today features guest blogger Rebecca Deatsman.

Balsam Fir
Outside it was a cool, sunny, perfect morning, but for the moment my students and I were inside the classroom. They’d come to the nature center where I work on a field trip, and my job was to teach them about identifying local tree species. Before we looked at the trees themselves, they had to understand the tool we’d be using, a dichotomous key.

Thankfully, they were patient while I explained the basics of the key. A written dichotomous key consists of pairs of mutually exclusive statements to describe the object you’re trying to identify. You pick the statement that describes your object, and the key directs you to the next pair of descriptions to narrow it down further, until finally you arrive at your identification. To practice I had the kids each take off one of their shoes and put them in a pile at the front of the room, and we wrote a key to determine who each shoe belonged to. It went something like this:
1. Shoe is a left shoe… go to number 2
    Shoe is a right shoe… go to number 3
2. Shoe has red laces… belongs to Annie
    Shoe has white laces… go to number 4

We also had to go over enough botany vocabulary for them to understand all the words in the tree key – coniferous vs. deciduous trees, alternate vs. opposite branching, simple vs. compound leaves, etc. Finally we were ready to go outside and put their new skills to the test.

Paper Birch
This is my favorite kind of lesson to teach, where the students immediately get to apply their new knowledge in an authentic way. Ecologists use dichotomous keys in their field work all the time, and here was my group of middle schoolers doing the same thing. Each one had to identify three different tree species and record what species he/she found in his/her field notebook, along with sketches or descriptions explaining the characteristics used to identify each one. If you want to try a dichotomous key for yourself, a great interactive one for the trees of Wisconsin, where I live, can be found at (EEK!) Environmental Education for Kids; with a little Googling you might find something similar for the region where you live.

As a naturalist, I firmly believe that being able to identify and name your plant and animal neighbors is a useful skill. It strengthens your sense of connection to the place where you live and gives you greater awareness and appreciation of the diverse natural community of which you’re a part. However, I also know that names and facts aren’t the only way to get to know trees, which is why we ended the lesson with a very different activity. I had the students pair up and distributed a blindfold to each pair. The “seeing” partner chose a tree and carefully led the “blind” partner to it, and the blind partner had to use his or her non-visual senses (mostly touch) to get to know that individual tree. When the seeing students led their partners away again, spun them around to disorient them, and removed their blindfolds, they had to re-find the same tree based on their observations while blind.

Yellow Birch
The students took copies of the tree key home with them at the end of their field trip. I hope they keep them and pull them out to identify the trees in their backyards. I hope they take the time to hug those trees once in a while, too. And I really, really hope that even when they grow up, they see the trees in their lives as something more than a nice green backdrop to more important things.

Rebecca Deatsman is a graduate student in environmental education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She blogs about the natural history of northern Wisconsin at Rebecca in the Woods and is on Twitter as @rdeatsman

Friday, May 25, 2012

Haying Experiences Turned into a Picture Book Manuscript

Virtually everyone who has ever tried to write a story has been given the advice, "Write what you know." This phrase means different things to different people- for example, some people have literally had an experience they describe in a piece of fiction while others may have experienced the emotion their characters are feeling, if not the same experience.

Lately, I've been immersed in the first scenario. That is to say, I'm writing a fiction picture book with made up farmers who need to bring in hay before a rainstorm, but I have experienced bringing in hay every summer for my entire life. I know what 'bringing in the hay' is like and therefore can write about it with authenticity and authority.

Many years ago, the seed of this idea was planted in my mind. It first came to me in September, so I started by writing from memory. In my mind, I went back to previous summers and recorded sensory details I remembered. Some came from my childhood, some from my adulthood, and some from memories of my children helping.  I have notes in my journal from these first attempts in September of 2006, and then in February of 2007 when I started to consider possible plot points. But the real work didn't come until I did "in the field" research. In June of 2007, 2008, and 2011 I brought my notebook to the hay fields and took notes in real time. I was amazed by the things I didn't include in my notes from memory. Most notably, I didn't include sounds, so I especially focused on those during last summer's research.

I simply recorded facts and details and let them percolate. Finally, after several fits and starts, the basic outline of a story came to me. I wrote it as quickly as I could and then I went back and reviewed all of my notes to see what I had missed. 

I'm now working on draft twelve of this manuscript and it's still not done. And when I say draft, I mean that each version is substantially different than the one that came before. Sometimes I changed the narrator, or the point of view, or I changed it from past tense to present tense. Other times I removed a whole scene or completely changed the ending or beginning. And this is a manuscript that at its longest has never been more than 1,000 words. Very few sentences (if any) are the same as they were when I first drafted this story. It's currently hovering around 650 words, though I need to rework the beginning again.

Some days I've been frustrated, sure, but mostly I've been excited. I LOVE revision because oftentimes that's when I truly find my character's story. And every time, I know I'm making it better. I rely heavily on my critique group and other trusted readers to to tell me when things are working and when they aren't,  but I always look to my characters to tell me if I'm telling their story "true."

Last Saturday my dad let us know he'd be taking in hay on Sunday, so you can be sure I showed up with my camera again. They had plenty of help, so I watched. I didn't take notes this time, rather I played my story in my mind as they worked. I asked myself if Kate (my main character) really could see the things I describe her seeing if she were sitting on her dad's lap driving the tractor. I watched the guys on the wagon stacking bales to be sure my descriptions were accurate. And I listened to the sounds again to see if I had them right. I also took loads of photographs for reference later.

I did all of this because setting is very important to me as a reader and as a writer. In many of my stories, the setting becomes almost another character- that's the naturalist in me coming out. I want readers to really feel like they're out there bringing in hay. 
Lest you think haying is all fun and games...check out those bits of hay heading straight to my son's nose. Hayfever anyone?
To learn more about haying, please read last year's post, Haying Season. In it, I share details of the process and suggest ways you can get involved.

To read about inspiration for a different picture book manuscript, please read Adoption Insensitivity.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Tree of Life

Today features guest blogger Patrice Sherman.

Credit: Library of Congress
Ever hear of the halliaeetus leucocephalus? Of course, you have.  Halliaeetus leucophalus is the scientific name for the bald eagle.  In Latin it means “white headed sea eagle”

John James Audubon drew the bald eagle you see here sometime in the 1820s.  Audubon spent most of his adult life drawing birds.  Between 1819 and 1846 he identified and drew over 435 different species of North American birds.

Why is identifying species important?  The scientific name for a species tells us how it relates to other life forms. Basically, the name is like an “address” on the tree of life.  The major category, or trunk, of the tree is “life “ itself. After that, living organisms are divided into domains and then into ever-smaller categories. The formal hierarchy looks like this:  domain > kingdom > phylum > class > order > genus > species.  So the complete name for our bald eagle is actually: Animalia > Chordata > Ciconiiformes > Accipitridae > Halliaeetus > Halliaeetus leucocephalus. 

Just as species are related to one another, so too are scientists—not biologically, but through their ideas.  This system of classifying species was first developed around 1735 by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.  Audubon relied on his copy of Linnaeus’s book when identifying birds in America. In 1826, Audubon traveled to Britain and gave a lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Sitting in the audience was a 19-year old student named Charles Darwin.

Five years later, when Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America, he became fascinated by a species of small bird he called finches. On each island, he noted, the finch population had a different type of beak. His observations led to the discovery 15 new species of birds, and to a theory that would change science forever.          

The process of identifying new species continues to this day.  According to the International Institute of Species Exploration only 20% of all species have been identified. That leaves approximately 8.7 million out there waiting to be discovered.  Each year researchers identify between 18,000-26,000 new species.  Many exist in only remote areas.  Some are so tiny they can only be seen with a microscope. A surprising number, however, are hiding in plain sight.
Photo credit: Colin Osborne, USFWS
 In 2009, Jeremy Fineberg, a student at Rutgers University, discovered a new species leopard of frog on Staten Island. Fineberg knew that most local frogs made a series repetitive croaks, or “chuckles.”  When he listened carefully, this frog only made one chuckle at a time. Three years later, DNA tests certified Fineberg’s frog as a genuine new species. 

 You don’t have to be an expert to discover a new species.  Many are found by ordinary people willing to take a second look, or second listen, to the world around them.  The identification of species encourages us to get right up close to nature, to note the smallest details. 
It also helps us do just the opposite.  When we find new species, we are inspired to step back and take a look at the whole tree of life.   We humans have our place on it, too. That’s us, homo sapiens, perched on our own special branch.  In Latin homo means “man” and sapiens, “knowing.” Every time we name a new species, we add a new twig to the tree. And with every new twig we learn a little more about the diversity of our planet, making the tree of life, a tree of knowledge, indeed.

Patrice Sherman is the author of several books for young readers, including the book Conservation Heroes: John James Audubon.  She likes to enjoy nature at Fresh Pond near her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  You can find out more at her website

Would you like to be a guest blogger. Read this post to get the guest blogger requirements.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Polliwog by Polliwog

Have you ever heard the story that goes something like this...
A little girl on the beach sees hundreds of sea stars (starfish) stranded on the sand and begins throwing them back into the water. A man approaches and tells her there's no point. There are too many sea stars.  Her efforts don't matter. The girl looks at the sea star in her hand and says, "It matters to this one."

This story is often used as metaphorical inspiration when people think they can't make a difference. The message is basically 'start with one thing.'

Recently, I had a more literal experience of this story.

Not long after the wood frogs descended upon our nearby "frog pond," my kids and I went back looking for eggs (more appropriately called spawn). We collected one mass that we brought home to watch. We placed it in a large plastic jug with plenty of water and muck from the pond. We changed the water occasionally to keep the balance healthy.

Finally, on Monday of last week, I noticed tadpoles emerging. Unfortunately, the kids were at school, but I had some time, so I hiked out to the pond to see what was happening. We've been in drought conditions here in the Northeast, so when I arrived, I found the water level significantly lower than when I had last been out there. I also found this:
It's an area approximately two feet by three feet that is covered by spawn left high and dry on land as the water level dropped. My heart sank. Literally hundreds, maybe thousands of little polliwogs were in there.
Can you see the shape of one in the shadow on the left side of the photo? Click to make larger.
All of them would die if I didn't do something. So, like the little girl in the story, I gently scooped up each mass, picked my way out along these rocks
and slipped them into the water. Even as I was walking, tadpoles were emerging in my hands.

Can you see the gills? They're the little fin-like things on the sides of it's body.
This isn't a great photo, but every aqua mass you see is one I deposited. There are more on the other side of the rocks, out of the shot.
I sat and watched one polliwog after another squiggle off into the safety of the murky bottom.

I'll be honest, there were moments when I was ready to just quit. It was hot, I wanted time to observe, I felt an occasional light-headedness with all of the up and down and balancing on rocks. But, my readers know I love this place and I love frogs. You may remember how devastated I was by the logging that took place over the winter and early spring and how I worried about the fate of the wood frogs. I couldn't leave them to die. I just focused on moving one mass at a time until eventually all were back in the water.

Author Anne Lamott called this Bird by Bird. I think I'll call it "Polliwog by Polliwog."

What task in your life could you better manage if you remembered to take it one little step at a time? How could you help your children or students learn this same lesson?

(Science fact I need to share: I'm not certain these eggs are Wood Frog spawn. Amphibian eggs can look very similar. I also tend to avoid research-I'd rather learn from my own observations for something like this. So, we're simply watching the tadpoles in our jug carefully to see how they change over time. Soon, we'll return them to the pond because they won't be able to stay healthy in our porch. Hopefully they will have changed enough for us to ID them by then. That said, if you can definitively ID the species from my photos, please feel free to put it in comments).

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cross Cultural Blues

Today features guest blogger D. Dina Friedman.

When my mother-in-law died last August, she left me a wonderful gift—the opportunity to finish translating my father-in-law Yoshi’s novel from Japanese to English.

 My mother-in-law did not speak a word of Japanese, and neither do I. The rough draft I inherited had been massaged from Yoshi’s broken English into her literate but turgid prose. My job was to tease a novel out of this mess that remained respectful to its Japanese roots, but would also excite an American audience. Though Yoshi and I are both published novelists with a mutual understanding of fiction, making the plot’s cultural nuances and characters’ thought processes understandable to an American provided a number of challenges I’d never encountered before.

First was that I had to constantly remind myself that this wasn’t my story. As a compulsive self-editor, and active critic of all I read (from published work to works in progress from fellow writers) I had to remain true to the vision that Yoshi had for the story. He is far better at crafting suspenseful plots than I’ll ever be, but his characters think outside the limited box of my American brain. Through a lot of internal dialogue they consider possibilities that I would prefer left unsaid, but Yoshi insists are necessary. We both understand “show, not tell,”  but it means something different to a Japanese audience. In fact, Yoshi tries to use it to increase the level of suspense by having the reader consider the possibilities, while I prefer the spare surprise.

Second, it has been hard for me to wrap my brain around some of  the things these characters think. They consistently talk of things like “dark auras” when describing people and “fulfilling their dreams” which to my American mind sounds cheesy. Yet, I hear this same sentiment expressed when talking informally to Yoshi’s friends.  Also, the characters are far more humble and easily embarrassed than their American counterparts. I know this is a facet of Japanese culture, but it’s hard to figure out how to get an American reader not just to understand, but to fuse with the characters and feel these things.

We’re currently on the third draft—a process where I tend to eliminate words and Yoshi tends to put them back in. He tells me he’s learned a lot from me, particularly my use of “if-clauses” leading the reader to form their own suppositions. From him, I’ve learned about pacing, and how to make sure each small detail matters. But neither of us is totally satisfied. I still think the book is stilted, and Yoshi thinks it’s too breezy. But perhaps this is also part of the cross-cultural blues. How can we Americans put ourselves in enough of a “Japanese mind” to fully appreciate the depth of this narrative, which is more than a simple mystery/thriller. It is about the dilemma of trying to free oneself from the constraints of thousands of years of tradition. That alone is a concept that is totally foreign to an American mind. Meanwhile, Yoshi and I continue to argue (politely, of course) about how much needs to be explained, and how much the reader can figure out on their own.

Yoshi is 82 years old and finishing this book is his dream. He wants it to be his final tribute to his wife, Gloria, the love of his life for more than 40 years. This is what I need to remember on the days when we’re both gnashing our teeth and spending over an hour on a single paragraph. Yes, I may have given up a lot of time when I could be focusing on my own writing, but I’ve also gained the ability to be even more persnickety about language. It’s different when you have to find the right word for someone else’s thought, and I’ve begun to gain a small glimpse of understanding into what it means to think like a Japanese. Yoshi’s been in my life for 32 years, but it’s only been in the past nine months that I feel I really know him.

We just came back from having dinner together. Yoshi says he's hoping that this will finally be the best seller with movie potential. He says he always feels that way about a book when he's in the process of writing it, and then he's always disappointed. Here's the place where culture doesn't matter.  As a fellow writer, I totally get this. But I tell him that whatever happens, it doesn't matter. The fact that we managed to pull this off should be reward enough. Ultimately, it has to be the process of "translating" what matters to you in a way that someone else from whatever culture can get it.

D. Dina Friedman is the author of Escaping Into the Night and Playing Dad’s Song. Visit her website at www.ddinafriedman.com

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Tribute to Mrs. Clay

On Sunday, I was honored to attend a milestone birthday party for my 4th grade teacher. That's right... the woman who taught me in fourth grade.

Mrs. Clay had a huge influence on my life and played a significant role in my decision to become a teacher.

What made Mrs. Clay so special? She made each student feel important. She got to know us and our families. She did fun projects. She read aloud back when teachers did not read aloud.

Mrs. Clay shared stories about her children and her life outside of school. She revealed herself to be fully human- more than "just a teacher" who kids think lives in the school.

She also played jump rope with us on the playground. I know this may seem trivial, but here's why it isn't. By playing with us, she showed us that our world- our nine year old interests- were important.

All of these things made me feel valued and appreciated.

One moment that particularly stands out for me is the day Mrs. Clay told me I would make a good teacher. Her confidence in me-to do a job that she did so well- propelled me that year. But, she also had the ability to offer gentle critique in a way that I could hear it, so that I could genuinely improve. Rather than tell me I was too bossy, she encouraged me to help other students find answers rather than simply tell them the answers.

When I found myself floundering for the right major in college, Mrs. Clay's words rang true: "You'd make a great teacher." And really, that was when I found a calling.

Not only did I become a teacher because of Mrs. Clay- I became a fourth grade teacher. And, the lessons I learned from Mrs. Clay were there, gently guiding me all the way.

Just yesterday, I met up with a young woman who went to the school where I taught. She told me I had been a big influence on her, even though I was never her teacher. And you know what she remembered most about me? That I was a real person to her. That I shared parts of my life and myself with the students in our school. That I treated them with respect as young people.

I told her she has Mrs. Clay to thank, because Mrs. Clay taught me to be that kind of teacher. One teacher really can make that big of an impact.

At Mrs. Clay's party, a guest offered a lovely toast in her honor. He ended by saying, "We all want to be like you when we grow up." Indeed we do.

Which teacher made a difference in your life? Have you told him or her? If not, I hope you will. In the internet age, it's easier than ever to find people, even if 30 years or more have passed.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Seeking Guest Bloggers

Beginning next week, Travel Tuesdays will go on hiatus. That's when I'll begin hosting guest bloggers here at Polliwog.

Polliwog recently passed the 20,000 hits mark. Now I’m hoping to expand my readership even further. In the process, I hope to help others do the same by hosting guest bloggers for the first time. You don't need any special credentials to be a guest blogger- just an interest in the focus of this blog. In fact, I encourage you to get in touch with me even if you don't think of yourself as a writer. I want to bring many voices into the conversation. You can pitch me an idea and I'll help you frame it, if you feel you need guidance.

Things to keep in mind:
  1. This blog has a very specific focus on nature and culture. Please familiarize yourself with my focus before contacting me. If you're not a regular reader, poke around and get a feel for the kind of posts I write. You might start with the "Popular Posts" on my side bar.
  2. All guest posts will include a bio of the author (to be provided by the author).
  3. You may link to your blog or website, etc. Any links MUST be kid friendly. This is non-negotiable.
  4. No hard selling. You’re welcome to link to your sites or to mention your books. Any links to other sites, however, must be related to your post. Read some of my posts to get a sense of the kind of links I provide. DO NOT contact me if your sole purpose is to try to sell your products on this blog. I will ignore your email.
  5. I encourage you to include photographs, as appropriate. All photos must be copyright free. (That is, you cannot find an image on the internet and use it in your post unless you found it on a site that clearly offers free usage or you paid for its usage). When in doubt, use your own photographs.
  6. Posts should be about 500 words at the most (less is fine). If you feel you have a great idea and want to write something longer, pitch me. (Some of my most popular posts have been over 600 words, so I'm open to a great idea).
  7. Posts should be edited for proper grammar, spelling, mechanics,etc. If you feel you're weak in this area, ask someone else to proofread for you. I'll also do a final edit before posting.
  8. Ultimately, I control the content on this blog. I reserve the right to reject a submission even if we agreed to an idea. (I would only do this if your post violates my requirements, especially #3, 4, or 5). If I have concerns, however, I'll contact you first to see if we can work them out.

Some possible posts:
  •  Description of your favorite natural place.
  • Ways you and your children (students) interact with nature.
  • Review/ description of your favorite book set in a natural place.
  • Review/ description of your favorite book set in another country/with a protagonist from another culture.
  • Lessons you (your children/students) have learned from interacting with people of different backgrounds.
  •  Others? Pitch me!

 If you’re interested in guest blogging, please email me. michelle(at)michellecusolito(dot)com

I look forward to hearing from you.

Do you want to read a post on a particular topic? Leave it in the comments I'll try to address it in a future post.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Wisdom from Maya Angelou

Today, some food for thought:

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”  ~Maya Angelou

Is Ms. Angelou correct? I'd like to think travel (as opposed to tourism) can prevent bigotry. Getting to know the locals wherever you travel must make a difference, right? What do you think? Am I'm too optimistic. 

Related Post:
Travel Tuesdays: Mark Twain Quotation
Travel Tuesdays; Awakening in a Strange Place
Travel Tuesdays: Travel Broadens Perspectives