The Science of a Fiction Picture Book (#STEAM) by Leslie Helakoski

I love using picture books with my high school students, so I am always on the lookout for new stories. Reading picture books to high school and middle school students has important implications. The use of picture books can increase student motivation, understanding of concepts, and build background and context for academic learning (Carr, Buchanan, Wentz, Weiss, & Brant, 2001). Plus, picture books are the perfect length for use in lesson plans. The story can be read and shared with students in a single class period with time left for independent practice.

Leslie Helakoski wrote a fantastic post for The Nerdy Book Club about her new picture book, Hoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep. In the post linked below, she explains how the book can be used in classrooms. She includes ideas for covering English standards using the science topics in this fictional story.

Carr, K.S., Buchanan, D.L., Wentz, J.B., Weiss, M.L., Brant, K.J. (2001). Not Just for the Primary Grades: A Bibliography of Picture Books for Secondary Content Teachers. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, (2), 146.

Nerdy Book Club

Even a fictional picture book can engage young minds in scientific thought. Comparing and contrasting are great tools for learning and what better way to explore this concept than a fun story?


HOOT & HONK Just Can’t Sleep began as an exploration of a nocturnal owlet, sleeping during the day and active at night, and a diurnal gosling, with the opposite schedule. But as the story developed, the chicks ended up in each other’s nest and I took comparing and contrasting to a new level. Beyond physical characteristics and sleep patterns, the story delves into the two birds’ activities and showcases the side-by-side patterns of the chicks’ days and nights.

This set-up allows for comparing several concepts: sunrise/sunset, nocturnal/diurnal, dark/light, sleep/wake, open/close, up/down, moon/sun and herbivore/carnivore all inside the lyrical story of two displaced chicks finding their way home.

The illustrations make the compare/contrast structure stronger. The reader sees…

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Time in Nature = Happier, Better Students


Sometimes I’m asked why non-science teachers should bother trying to work nature into their curriculum.  Thanks to the Children & Nature Network I can share this handy infographic with those folks! The graphic focuses on younger students but there is no reason we can’t apply the same ideas to older students.  What teacher doesn’t want to see their students more focused?  Not to mention, studies show that spending time outside  boosts performance in reading and writing and enhances creativity and critical thinking.  As an English teacher, these are things I strive to help my students with every day.  How wonderful is it that we can help students achieve many of these things just by providing them with time outside?

And you don’t even have to get outside! Studies have shown that students who are able to view nature through school windows also receive a boost in academic performance.  Too often, our classroom windows are covered by blinds.  If they aren’t covered with blinds, teachers often end up scolding students for staring out the windows and daydreaming.  But what if we could harness students’ interest in what’s outside the window?

I am thinking about getting one of these window bird feeders for my classroom windows this fall.  I’m in the basement, so I don’t have large windows.  However, the windows I do have are under a tree that many species of birds use throughout the school year.  We also have resident squirrels and a groundhog.  My students can’t see much out of the windows, so I hope that adding something like this feeder might help bring a little bit more of nature into our classroom.

If your classroom is not in the basement you might be interested in some of the window birdhouses that are available.  They won’t work for me because no bird wants to nest that close to the ground.  However, they are great for classrooms on the 1st floor or higher.  The birdhouses use suction cups to stick to the glass and have a window on the inside allowing viewers to watch the birds build their nest and hatch their young.  It’s like a class pet, without the clean up!

These are just a few ways that we can bring the outdoors in.  How do you bring nature into your classroom?

Happy 200th Birthday, Thoreau!

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817.  Today we celebrate his 200th birthday! Walden Pond, the inspiration for one of his greatest works, will hold celebrations all week. You can find our more out the bicentennial celebrations here.   However, celebrating Thoreau shouldn’t be limited to one location or one day in 2017.  We can celebrate Thoreau in English class all year and follow in his footsteps by bringing our students outside.

In “Walking“, published in The Atlantic in May 1862, Thoreau established the importance of spending time outside.   He reminded readers that, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” That wildness can be found anywhere that we find nature.  Wildness might be the soccer field next to the school or it could be the forest.  Regardless of how large the area is, it can be wild for your students!

Many American literature classes include Walden as part of the curriculum.  Personally, though, I think that Thoreau is more relatable when students read his essays.  “Walking” is accessible to most students and can be studied in a few class periods.  Why not read Thoreau’s essays, including “Walking“, outside with students this year?  There are many ways to approach this essay. I designed a lesson for the NYTimes Learning Network for the essay; it can be found here.

Bill Schecter, a teacher who created an elective called “Meet Mr. Thoreau”, reminds us that the leaves, trees, sky, rain, and dirt that Thoreau surrounded himself with at Walden can also be found in our school yards (2009). Thoreau said, “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” What happens to our students when we keep them inside all day?  Instead of tying students to desks, why not bring them outside and challenge them to write about the grass?  The clouds?  The birds?

If you want to let your students have their own Walden Pond experience- take them outside.  Let them see, feel, hear, and taste nature! In the meantime, peruse Thoreau’s writings and pull out essays or excerpts that fit in your curriculum.  Celebrate Thoreau to the fullest!




Schecter, B. (2009). On Teaching Thoreau. The Thoreau Society Bulletin, (265), 1.

Moellering, K. (2013). Metaphysical Dirt: Teaching Thoreau Outside. The Thoreau Society Bulletin, (282), 5.








Bill, S. (2009). On Teaching Thoreau. The Thoreau Society Bulletin, (265), 1.


The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

61cbvznrdjl-_sx336_bo1204203200_ picked up The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit  after a friend recommended it.  I decided to listen to the audiobook when I discovered it was available through my library system as I would be spending a few hours in the car commuting back and forth to class.  I thought the premise sounded interesting.

I had no idea how enthralling Finkel’s book, and Christopher Knight’s story, would be.  I’m already making plans to include The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit  in my upcoming Literature and the Land unit during the first marking period.  I think some of my ninth graders will be just as fascinated by Knight’s story as I was.

Chris Knight’s story is nothing short of compelling.  In 1986, he parked his Subaru Brat in the Maine woods, threw the keys in the console, and walked into the woods with nothing except a few supplies.  For nearly three decades he lived in the woods and did not interact with a single human being.  He stole food and supplies from unoccupied seasonal cabins in the area to survive and was finally caught by police when surveillance methods became more advanced.

The book is based on Finkel’s extensive interviews with Knight after his arrest and shines a light on man’s relationship with nature and man’s relationship with mankind.  The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit  is a thought-provoking book that made me pause and think numerous times.  Why did Knight leave?  Is it always wrong to steal? What effect does cutting off human contact voluntarily have on a person’s psyche?  Knight confessed to 1000 break-ins and is not portrayed as some type of savior or hermit in the book. He’s very honest about his faults and that makes him even more intriguing.  Finkel presents his story alongside neurological research, interviews with experts, and nature studies.  It’s absolutely riveting.

This is a book I can foresee my student’s really digging into.  I can’t wait to share it with them.  It’s also a great book to pair with Thoreau or Emerson’s classic works.