Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Selecting Literature for Science Instruction

Just as my students and I spend time evaluating books for math instruction, we also carefully examine and debate the qualities of books that make them useful for science instruction. We begin by reading two terrific articles. They are:
  • Mayer, D. A. (1995). How can we best use children’s literature in teaching science concepts? Science and Children, 32(6), 16-19, 43.
  • Rice, D. C., Dudley, A. P., & Williams, C. S. (2001). How do you choose science trade books? Science and Children, 38(6), 18-22.
The Rice article builds on the earlier work presented in Mayer's article. Both use a checklist to evaluate trade books for their appropriateness for introducing and reinforcing science concepts. The checklist looks like this:
In addition to this guide, we also use a series of questions devised by Jo-Anne Lake in her 2000 work Literature & Science Breakthroughs: Connecting Language and Science Skills in the Elementary Classroom. These questions are:
  • Is there a strong science thread running through the text and illustrations?
  • Are there opportunities in the text and illustrations to enhance science skills?
  • Does the text incorporate vocabulary familiar to science teaching?
  • Do the illustrations and text introduce hands-on material reflecting and encouraging their use in an activity-based environment?
  • Have I chosen books that provide a balance in opportunities for all science strands?
  • Do my selections reflect a variety of literary genres?
  • What scientific principle and/or concept is projected?
  • Have I considered using a variety of special effects books in my selections?
After using both forms of guidelines, we work together to develop a list of criteria that we are all comfortable in using to guide our selection of books. The one guideline that students struggle most with in its use and application is: Are the animals/objects portrayed naturally? In this case, I like to encourage them to think more broadly about "living things," since often times plants and animals are anthropomorphized.

I'll admit, that I find this difficult myself. Take for example, the new book by Dianna Hutts Aston entitled A Seed is Sleepy. I love the artwork and the sheer poetry of the language. It is a glorious book. I bought it and I plan to use it with my students. However, somewhere between the strong science and the poetic language is this nagging feeling that the seeds are just too "human." Here are some examples:

A seed is sleepy.
It lies there, tucked inside its flower,
or its cone, or beneath the soil. Snug. Still.

Once a seed has shed its coat, it drinks in the rain, the dew, and yesterday’s icicles. It feasts on minerals in the soil. It knows to seek the sunlight… to push itself up, up, up through the soil. But it must wait awhile before that happens.
I balance my uneasiness about these anthropomorphized seeds with this idea presented by Patricia Manning in an article entitled Promoting Science Books at the Library.
"Science books can be beautiful as well as accurate and evocative. When the type font is elegant, the layout graceful, and the illustrations luminous, the whole book feels good to the hand and eye."
I interpret this to mean that there are some books out there that just demand to be loved and appreciated for their beauty, and A Seed is Sleepy and its Cybils-winning forerunner, An Egg is Quiet, certainly fall into this category. I'm not sure how I feel about this book as an instructional resource yet, or how I will address this issue in the classroom. What I do know for sure is that A Seed is Sleepy will be one of the books I pull out for intense discussion with my students when we begin to delve into the appropriateness of resources that use anthropomorphism. Until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. this has nothing to do with your post, but good luck at the conference and have fun!! maybe it will be a relaxing getaway?... Libby leaves today as well; must be the season for conferences...

  2. Tricia,

    Terrific post! There are so many more great science books for children today than there were when I began teaching--and teachers certainly have to learn how to evaluate them. One thing I always had my second graders check for was the year of copyright--especially for astronomy books books.

    I'm glad you brought up anthropormorphism and A SEED IS SLEEPY. It--and AN EGG IS QUIET--are beautiful books. They both approach science from a more artful perspective. One of the readings I assign to the students in my children's literature course in the third edition of ONLY CONNECT: READINGS ON CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, which is now out of print, is a piece by Chet Raymo entitled "Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein: Children's Books and Scientific Imagination." Raymo was a physics professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts for many years. He also wrote a wonderful weekly "Science Musings" column for the Boston Globe for twenty years.

    In his ONLY CONNECT essay he talks about the fiction book THE BAT-POET and how Randall Jarrell was able to convey scientific information through lines of poetic text.

    Raymo has a website I just found this morning: Science Musings by Chet Raymo. I thought you might like to check it out. I plan to check it out myself today.


  3. Hi Elaine,
    I just came back from a lengthy exploration of Raymo's site. It is terrific! I"m going to add his blog to my list so that I can follow the interesting science headlines he writes about.
    The essay sounds interesting. I am going to see if I can get ourInter-Library Loan to find a copy for me.
    Thanks for suggesting such great new resources.

  4. I just bought A Seed is Sleepy yesterday and plan to use it with my students in the very near future -- in our environments unit, they have planted a trial run terrarium and after spring break will try again based on their observations. I'll ask them if they think it is a science book. I'll probably slip in the term personification, too. (that's in our LA standards!)