Friday, February 09, 2007

The Poetry of Science

My college roommate was an English major. I was a biochemistry major. At the very least, this strange combination of interests made for very lively conversations. I listened while she read passages and poems aloud while trying to make sense of them, and she was subjected to my ramblings about oxidative phosphorylation and the right-hand rule.

When I started teaching (science, of course!), I wanted to find ways to make science come alive for students. I wanted it to be enjoyable and exciting. But most of all, I wanted it to be accessible. Science is so often about textbooks and vocabulary. I was convinced there had to be other ways to deliver the content. I found one of my greatest tools in the Far Side cartoons of Gary Larson. I would often begin a lesson by showing one on the overhead projector (yes, I taught in the days before we had computers in the classroom). One would always appear on a test as a short answer question of the variety "Explain the science behind this cartoon and why knowing the science makes it funny." My favorite is one of an alligator sitting in the witness box being grilled by an attorney while the jury looks on. The alligator shouts, "Of course I did it in cold blood you idiot, I'm a reptile!"

In addition to cartoons, I used songs (think Schoolhouse Rock, but updated) and poetry. While I still use all of these devices, poetry is the one form that I continue to seek out for use with my preservice teachers. I have a growing collection of books on science topics that use poetry as a means to make science understandable. Here are a few of my favorites.
  • The Earth is Painted Green: A Garden of Poems About Our Planet edited by Barbara Brenner - A lovely volume that combines art and poetry, this book contains a wide-ranging collection of 91 poems by the likes of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Charlotte Zolotow, Jack Prelutsky, and Shel Silverstein. Nicely divided into eight sections, including earth, trees, plants, seasons, and environmental well-being, this volumes provides a fitting tribute to nature.
  • Spectacular Science: A Book of Poems by Lee Bennett Hopkins - This anthology of 15 poems includes work by Valerie Worth, Lilian Moore, Carl Sandburg and others. Covering topics such as rocks, snowflakes, and stars, readers are invited to think about science and the work that scientists do.
  • Science Verse by Jon Scieszka - This terrific collection of witty poems tackles science content while parodying poems by writers including Joyce Kilmer, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost and more.
  • There are MANY absolutely terrific books by Douglas Florian that combine art and poetry. Here are a few of animal titles.
    • beast feast - A collection of 21 poems and paintings about a variety of animals, including walrus, kiwi, lobsters, camels, bats and more.
    • in the swim - A collection of 21 poems and paintings about sea life.
    • insectlopedia - A collection of 21 poems and paintings on spiders and insects.
    • lizards, frogs and polliwogs - A collection of 21 poems and paintings on a variety of slimy and scaly creatures.
    • mammalabilia - A collection of 21 poems and paintings on all manner of mammals.
    • on the wing - A collection of 21 poems and paintings on a variety of birds.
    • zoo's who - A collection of 21 poems and paintings on a variety of animals, including the bush baby, tortoise, ladybugs, slugs and more.

  • Our Seasons by Grace Lin and Ranida McKneally - In this book, questions related to the changing of the seasons are answered in a clear and concise way. Each question and answer is accompanied by a beautiful painting by Grace Lin, along with a haiku that relates to the illustration.
  • Two books by Amy Goldman Koss.
    • Where Fish Go in Winter and Answers to Other Great Mysteries - This collection of poems provides answers to simple science questions in rhyme. Questions answered include "How do seeds know which way is up?" "Why do leaves change color" and as the title suggests, "Where do fish go in winter?"
    • Curious Creatures in Peculiar Places - "Toads with fire-engine red tummies, goggly-eyed tarsiers with sticky fingers and sloths who hang upside down from their toes are among the many creatures you'll find in this look at some of the nature's most bizarre animals and where they live. Lively rhymes provide oodles of facts to fascinate all readers (from the book)." A map is provided so readers can identify where each animal comes from. This book was a selection of the 1989 John Burroughs List of Outstanding Nature Books for Children.

  • Animal Sense by Diane Ackerman - This wonderful volume contains 15 poems, 3 for each of the 5 senses, with each one about a different animal.
  • Voices From the Wild: An Animal Sensagoria by D. Bouchard - This volume contains 25 poems, 5 for each of the senses, with each one about a different animal. Each poem describes how animals use their senses to survive in the wild. A lifelike painting of each animal accompanies each poem. Finally, the book concludes with short paragraphs about each of the animals.
  • Land, Sea & Sky: Poems to Celebrate the Earth - Supported by photographs from the Sierra Club, this book contains a collection of poems celebrating nature that includes such authors as Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and others.
  • Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems by Kristine O'Connell George - This collection of poems captures the beauty of trees through the seasons.
  • Ordinary Things: Poems From a Walk in Early Spring by Ralph Fletcher - This lovely volume of 33 poems celebrates the experiences of a walk through the woods in spring while encouraging readers to observe such objects as birds' nests, birch trees, shed snake skins, and many other treasures.
My Friday Poetry offering comes from this last volume. Enjoy!

Time to leave my desk
and leave my house,
pulling the door behind.

I walk the way I write
starting out all creaky,
sort of stumbling along,
looking for a rhythm.

Each footstep is like a word
as it meets the blank page
followed by a pause
before the next one:
step, step, word . . .
Just Added - Elaine Magliaro over at the Blue Rose Girls wrote on this topic last fall. Check out her November 10, 2006 post on Poetry & Science. I've found a kindred spirit folks, someone else who loves language, children's books and science. Thanks, Elaine!


  1. Tricia,

    I know you and I would work well together. I love this post! When I was studying to be a teacher--back in the sixties--I was one of a handful of elementary education majors who chose a specialty in science.

    When I was teaching, I always looked for poems to integrate with science units. Fortunately, there is an abundance of poetry teachers can use in this way.

    I think poets--like scientists--are careful observers. They see things in things that most of us don't notice. I found that reading and writing poetry with my students
    in conjunction with a science unit helped to make them better observers, taught them to look at things more closely and to think about them more carefully.

    I don't know if you saw my Science and Poetry post at Blue Rose Girls in November:

    Just a few more poetry books to add to your list:

    By Joyce Sidman:

    By Tony Johnston:

    By Kristine O'Connell George:

    By Marilyn Singer:

    The following book by the late Barbara Juster Esbensen is now out of print--but if you can find a copy, I know you will love it: ECHOES FOR THE EYE: POEMS TO CELEBRATE PATTERNS IN NATURE

    One last thing: Are you familiar with John Moffitt's poem "To Look at Any Thing"?

    Thanks for always being here with great lists of books to recommend!

  2. Tricia,

    Consider yourself rounded up. The Poetry Friday roundup will be at Blue Rose Girls this week.

  3. Hi Elaine,
    I was up last night unable to sleep, so I started thinking that this would be a great topic for Poetry Friday. As I was writing, I found myself thinking that you would be the only one who might read it, let alone appreciate it! I just started blogging in early November, so I was not aware of your post. It really wasn't until January that I finally got comfortable with what I wanted to put out there. It's also when I started to read other blogs. I've missed much in the last year!

    Thanks again for your suggestions and kind words.

  4. P.S. - Thanks for adding me to the round up!

  5. Tricia,

    I am a neophyte blogger myself. I became a contributor to Blue Rose Girls last October.

    You may want to check out the two posts I wrote about Joyce Sidman's poetry books back in early November. Sidman is one of the best poets writing for children today. She writes with the head of a scientist and the heart of a poet.

    Check out her website:

    And, Tricia, keep doing what you've been doing. Your blog is an excellent resource! I think I'll recommend it to the students in my children's literature course.

  6. Hi Elaine,
    I will definitely check out your entries and Joyce Sidman's site.
    Thanks for the encouragement!

  7. Sheesh. Trying to follow you and Elaine with new recommendations is... well... tough. Still, I'm gonna toss two other books into the stew:

    Wild Fibonacci by Joy N. Hulme (illustrations by Carol Schwartz) has poems about the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence/Fibonacci numbers in nature. (Unsurprising I'd mention this one, I suppose!)

    How Does it Feel to be a Tree by Flo Morse (illustrations by Clyde Watson) has no hard science but has a great point of view: questions a child asks a tree about being a tree.

  8. Thank you so much for mentioning my books Where Fish go in Winter and Curious Cratures!
    Best Fishes, I mean WISHES,
    Amy Goldman Koss

  9. Gregory - I'm thrilled the author of the Fib and Oddaptations came to visit. I will, of course, check out your suggestions.

    Amy - What can I say? I'm honored! Yours were some of the first books I used with my class in the late 80s. I continue to share "How Do Seeds Know Which Way is Up?" and "Why Do Leaves Change Color?" when I lead Project Learning Tree workshops. Thanks for visiting!

  10. This was a wonderful post Tricia. Glad I found it!

  11. What a fabulous list of poetry/science books! Thanks for putting this all together. I am going to bookmark it for reference.

  12. My students just LOVE this one:
    The Blood Hungry Spleen and Other Poems about our Parts by Allen Wolf and Greg Clarke.

  13. Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up by Lisa Westberg Peters, a collection of slightly-skewed earth science poems....

  14. Thank you for this inspiring post, Tricia. I’m working on two science-themed manuscripts that include poetry, so this list of titles is great to have. Some of your readers may be interested in a math book written in verse (can’t go far in science without counting or measuring something!) If so, please check out my spring 2008 book Missing Math: A Number Mystery. Here’s an excerpt:
    Our dinner tastes peculiar,
    but it isn’t Daddy’s fault.
    His cookbook has no quantities—
    he put in too much salt!

    For a quick peek and a link to a video preview:
    Missing Math