Inspire Writing with Memorials

Memorials promote powerful, personal encounters with moments in history.  I recently created my own memorial to commemorate a time in which my newly married parents were separated during World War II. The assemblage of photos and letters documented the years 1942-1945, when my father, JJ, was setting up radio communications in Iceland while my mother, Wanda, worked in an ammunition plant and then, later, stayed at home raising a newborn son (my brother, Joe).

The centerpiece of the memorial was a newspaper clipping that featured a story about my mother’s drawing of my father holding his newborn son. The idea that prompted the drawing was that JJ had never seen or held the newborn. Wanda created the drawing by viewing a photo of her husband in uniform and then adding the baby in his arms.  When Wanda sent this drawing in the mail, the army “censors” discovered the drawing; they then shared the drawing and story with the St. Louis newspaper.  A photographer at the newspaper created a photo montage; using a photo of my father dressed in his army uniform, the photographer combined it with the baby’s photo.

The collaged photo appeared alongside my mother’s drawing. In the newspaper story, she explained, “You see, he has never seen, much less held his 11-month-old son.  So, to fulfill his desires as best I could, I sketched this picture of him holding his own flesh and blood.” Wanda also added “We write each other every day and the mail arrives on an average of once a month, so, at times, I get as many as 30 letters in one day.”

In addition to this newspaper clipping, the memorial contains several letters that JJ wrote, including the letter that tipped off Wanda about his destination in the war.  Before JJ left for army training, they discussed that letters would be censored (“Idle Gossip Sinks Ships” was stamped at the bottom of his army stationary). So my father devised a code: when he knew the location of his war assignment, the first word of that letter to my mother would indicate the country by the initial letter of the word.  JJ’s letter dated on November 11, 1942 began “Incidentally, as you know all my letters in the future and as of now are subject to censor….” He intended to signal that he would be stationed in Iceland, but my mother in a panic thought the letter “I” stood for Italy and that JJ was headed to the fierce combat.

A final item that I included in the memorial was a harmonica.  As the story goes, when my father arrived home to be welcomed by my mother and the 2 ½ year-old son, a son he had never seen in person, my young brother clung nervously to my mother’s dress, fearful of this tall, strange man with the booming voice. My father crouched down and dropped the duffle bag from his shoulder. As he unzipped the bag, he brought out a shiny harmonica, blew across it, and handed this magical, musical object to his son, winning him over.

This memorial was created as an example for a student writing contest that the library is sponsoring this fall, inviting students to create their own memorial or collection of things that have a special significance.  Students will then be encouraged to write a short essay or poem about how this collection is meaningful to them or suggests a special moment in history. In creating my own memorial, I rediscovered the importance of the bonds of love in the face of separation, and I realized that creativity can defeat challenging hurdles. Memorials can help us connect to our shared humanity; as author and historian David McCullough often states, “history is about people, history is about being human.”

Curation and Curiosity

Cabinet of Curiosities

The librarian’s role as curator was the topic of a TxLA conference session by Joyce Valenza. For anyone who has attended one of Joyce’s high-energy presentations, you know that you leave with your brain whirling with new ideas. This session on curation was timely because the new AASL standards feature curation:

Curate: Make meaning for oneself and others by collecting, organizing, and sharing resources of personal relevance.

Here are four curation tools that I plan to explore this summer. My goal is to curate resources for students and also guide students as curators:

Google Custom Search
Combine the power of a Google Search with the expertise of a librarian assembling the websites for students to search. The Google Custom Search box can be embedded on your library resource page.  I plan to explore further the option to register as an educational nonprofit to turn off ads on the Google Search boxes.

Symbaloo Gallery
Here is a Symbaloo that I created to begin curating resources for Copyright and Fair Use, Digital Citizenship, and Media and News Literacy.

Visually organize content in grids.  Here is an example of Joyce Valenza’s Pearltree and a blog by Richard Byrne about Pearltrees (FreeTech4Teachers).

TES Teach with Blendspace
Bring together videos, photos, and documents into a visual grid that encourages exploring resources.

I have also assembled a list of suggested books that can be used to introduce our students to the idea of curation and promote its value in the research process.

Young Readers
The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell by Candace Fleming (picture book biography)
Author Fleming dramatizes a true moment in the life of artist Joseph Cornell: as a young boy, Joey was fascinated by collecting things and he organized a special ticketed event for friends and family to view his collections.

Beatrix Potter by Alexandra Wallner (picture book biography)
This is my favorite version of Potter’s young life because it shows her fascination with exploring nature and desire to be a scientist. Unable to pursue this scientific field because she was a woman in the Victorian Period, she turned her love of nature to creating delightful drawings for the Peter Rabbit tales.

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman (picture book)
A grandfather shares his special matchboxes with his granddaughter. Each matchbox contains a small object that marks a moment in his immigrant story.

Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis (fiction)
A young child explores a grandmother’s collection of pennies; the year on each penny designates significant events in the grandmother’s life.

Middle School Readers
What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World by Rosalyn Schanzer (Biography) . Darwin’s natural collections and observations in his notebooks fueled his scientific theories.

The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Darlene R. Stille This historical look at the expedition of Lewis and Clark includes primary source drawings and diary entries from Lewis and Clark’s journal.

Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange by Elizabeth Partridge
Dorothea Lange’s documentation of social issues through her photos is a great example of sharing important ideas with an audience.

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
This fiction story is loosely based on an Outsider artist whose cast-off sculpture assemblages were exhibited at the Smithsonian. A young boy is assigned community service with this “junk man,” and the boy begins to find personal healing as he assists in gathering the pieces for the sculpture.

High School Readers
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
In this historical fiction novel, a teenage girl is assigned to community service, assisting an elderly woman in cleaning out her attic. What they discover together is a treasure trove of memories of the elderly woman’s experience as an orphan train child.

The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom
by John F. Baker, Jr. As a seventh grader, Baker discovered a photo in his history textbook
that depicted slaves on the Wessyngton Plantation. The people in the photo were his
grandmother’s grandparents, and it prompted Baker to begin a life-long project of collecting oral history interviews and photographs that were later assembled as part of a special exhibit at the Tennessee History Museum.

Cabinet of Curiosities by Guillermo del Toro
Director Guillermo del Toro surrounds himself with curiosities and collections that help to inspire him in his movie projects. This book is filled with his sketches, journal entries, and collections from his estate that inspire his imaginative works.

Looking forward to hearing your ideas on how librarians can engage students’ curiosity and encourage their desire to become curators of knowledge.

Bibliography for Image
Georg Hainz Cabinet of Curiosities. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
Accessed 5 May 2018.

Magical Portals for Research

“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time (from

Searching a special collections archive can at times feel as mind-boggling as finding the wrinkles that lead you to another time dimension. How do you find those “magical portals,” entry points to archives, and simplify daunting site navigation? Though the role of librarians has evolved from that of “gatekeeper,” “gatekeeper” does have a metaphysical ring to it–conjuring up a scene from Monty Python in which you must correctly answer the riddle posed by the bridge keeper or risk being hurtled into the abyss. The challenge for librarians is to identify entry points and model search strategies, thereby minimizing frustration and building students’ skills as independent researchers.

Here are a few favorite “magical portals” and search strategies that our students have been using to enrich their research with primary sources and scholarly articles:

Science Research: Engines of Our Ingenuity and Topics in Chronicling America
Fifth graders have been exploring the lives of scientists and inventors and applying design thinking to their research. Challenged to find examples of how society reacted to the science discoveries, students used the podcast articles from Engines of Our Ingenuity, written and hosted by Dr. John Lienhard in association with the University of Houston and Houston Public Media. One student unearthed a gem in the article “Darwin Boards the Beagle.” Darwin was close friends with the captain of the Beagle at the beginning of the journey, but as the captain learned more about Darwin’s evolving theories, they collided with the captain’s own beliefs in the Bible and he become an enemy, participating in debates in Oxford to discredit Darwin. This article provided the student with an example of how society’s beliefs conflicted with Darwin’s discoveries.

Search strategy: Rather than using the Engines of Our Ingenuity search box, an Advanced Google search provided more specific results.
(Bound phrase search) “engines of our ingenuity” Darwin

Topics in Chronicling America links historic newspapers themed to topics such as famous persons and events in Science and Technology. This is a much easier way for young researchers to navigate the Chronicling America archived newspapers through the Library of Congress.

Search strategy: Select a topic, such as Invention of the Telephone, and click on newspaper article “A Wonderful Invention.” Scan the paper for red highlighted word and use the box finder tool to zoom in and read this article about how Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone to an enthusiastic audience.

History Research: JSTOR Daily
Seventh graders researched social reformers of the 1800s and were challenged to connect these reform movements to modern reform initiatives. In searching for articles on Laura Bridgman, the first blind and deaf girl to learn how to read and write, we discovered JSTOR Daily, an online publication that puts contemporary issues in historic context using research from the journals archived in JSTOR. The Laura Bridgman article, for example, explored the changing views towards special education.

Search Strategy: A bonus to these JSTOR Daily articles is that they link to JSTOR journal articles. For instance, the Laura Bridgman article linked to a JSTOR journal article about Dr. Howe’s educational methods in teaching Laura to read and write.

Language Arts: Constitution Daily, Circulation Now, and New York Times Archives
Eighth grade Language Arts students incorporated primary sources as they researched US History topics. Several museums and newspaper archives have online articles to highlight their collections and provide easier access to the content. Below are just a few examples:

Constitution Daily blog showcases content from the National Constitution Center. The Scopes Trial article provides historic context to the trial as well as links to a Tennessee House Bill on Teaching Science (2011).

Search strategy: Rather than using the Constitution Daily search box, an Advanced Google search provided more specific results.
(Bound phrase search) “scopes trial”

Circulation Now blog links historic items from the US National Library of Medicine (NIH).  The “Heart Surgery on Film” article discusses the work of one of the first female heart surgeons, Dr. Nina Braunwald, and the blog was written by a library graduate student, Rachel James.

Search Strategy: I used this article by Rachel James to model search strategies and resources that Rachel used to develop her research on heart surgery.

New York Times Archive themes articles to famous events and provides links to historic newspapers. This article on the Three Mile Island disaster links to a newspaper article written at the time. Though you need to be a subscriber to view the historic newspapers, the featured articles often contain specific examples from the primary source newspaper.

Search Strategy: Use Advanced Google search archives “three mile island”

These are just a few of the “magical portals” that have opened up new ways for students to navigate archives. Rather than a straight path, research requires searchers to remain curious and experiment with search strategies. As Madeleine L’Engle observed in A Wrinkle in Time, “experiment is the mother of knowledge.”

Thinking Like Leonardo

In the “Should it be STEM or STEAM” debate, no one is a better poster child of how Science and Art complement each other than Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s journals are filled with close observations of nature and the human body, as well as engineering drawings and notes detailing inventions, such as the precursors to the submarine, tank, and machines of the air.

Our students will be exploring how to think like the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci in preparation for a writing workshop with Diane Stanley, author of the biographies Leonardo and Michelangelo. Following are a few curricular collaborations that highlight the genius of two Renaissance thinkers and creators, Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Leonardo’s Journals
Librarian Eve Zehavi will guide fourth graders as they discuss quotes from Leonardo’s journals and look closely at his sketches to determine what Leonardo emphasized about the act of thinking and creating.

How do you think like Leonardo?
How do you see like Leonardo?
How do you problem solve like Leonardo?

These are just some of the questions fourth graders will ponder as they reflect on quotes and sketches. Selecting one of Leonardo’s quotes and relating it to journal sketches, students will write a reflective paragraph using the model of “A Quote Sandwich:”

Top Bun of “Quote” Sandwich
(1) introduce the speaker and the quote

The “Meat”
(2) state the quote

Bottom Bun
(3) summarize the quote in your own words and connect to meaning of the quote based on sketches and designs in Leonardo’s journals.

Here is a reflective paragraph example that will be shared with students. Color coding shows parts of the “Quote Sandwich” and an image from Leonardo’s journal is selected to match the quote:

Painting Competition:
Leonardo and Michelangelo’s Battle Scenes

Our sixth graders have been studying the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and have been reading about the ancient artists and engineers who created them. One ancient artist, Scopas, created a famous scene of Amazons battling Greek soldiers, which appears on columns of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.  A history article described Scopas as a “Michelangelo of the Renaissance.”   Discovering this comparison became the impetus to have students compare and contrast this Greek artist’s battle scene with famous battle scenes by Leonardo and Michelangelo.

In one of the most famous painting competitions of the Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo were each challenged to paint a battle scene glorifying the history of Florence. The paintings were to be on opposite walls of the same room of a Florentine republic council chamber. Leonardo was an older, established artist, and Michelangelo was a young, 25-year-old talented sculptor; both artists disliked each other and were very disparaging of each other’s artwork (Isaacson 367).  Author Diane Stanley depicts this painting battle in her two books Leonardo and Michelangelo, and this article from The Guardian will also be shared with our sixth graders.

I collaborated with the history and ELA teachers to develop primary source images and articles so that students can analyze these artworks to discuss comparisons. The history teacher, Cori Beach, will have students connect what they observed earlier in Egyptian art of a Kushite and Nubian battle scenes to the more realistic portrayal of soldiers in battle by the Greek artist Scopas. Donna Baughman, ELA teacher, will guide students to look closely at the artworks and to write in their journals brainstormed action verbs that help describe these battle scenes, such as the following:

Greek figures in the Scopas battle scene “lunging,” “stumbling,”

Expressive face of soldier by Leonardo described as “glaring” and “screaming”

Figures in the Michelangelo battle scene “twisting,” “arms thrusting”

Students will also make a list of transition words and bring these brainstorming journals with them to the writing workshop. Using this structure (adapted from Owl Writing Lab), students will write a comparison/contrast essay during the Writing Workshop with author Diane Stanley:

  • First: discuss how the Scopas battle scene is similar to either Leonardo’s or Michelangelo’s battle scene (and use specific examples and descriptive words).
  • Second: discuss how the Scopas and Renaissance battle scenes are different (and use specific examples and descriptive words).
  • Third: discuss characteristics of Scopas’ style (Hellenistic art) and evolving characteristics in Michelangelo’s or Leonardo’s art style (Renaissance, Humanistic art).

Looking Closely
We are excited to see how our fourth and sixth graders look closely at primary source images and quotes and connect to “Thinking Like Leonardo” and “Thinking Like Michelangelo” in this Writing Workshop. See below for further Leonardo resources to explore:

Treatise on Painting
(Leonardo’s notes on painting assembled and copied by his assistant, Francesco Melzi, and printed in 1651–Leonardo died in 1519)

Math and Science Activities for Leonardo

Math Forum: Leonardo da Vinci Math Activity

Da Vinci: The Genius
(Museum of Science, Boston)

Inventions Activity Quiz

Mirror Writing (Writing Backwards)

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (for adult readers)
Leonardo da Vinci by Diane Stanley
Michelangelo by Diane Stanley

“And the Winner Is…” by Jonathan Jones (discusses the
painting contest between Leonardo and Michangelo)

Bibliography for Images:
Hamburger Low Polygon. Clip Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 27 Dec 2017.

Botanical table by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), drawing 237. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 5 Jan 2018.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus: The Amazon Frieze. British Museum.
Accessed 27 Dec 2017.

Leonardo, Heads of Warriors, Study. Photo. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 27 Dec 2017.

Michelangelo. Battle of Cascina. 1504. Fordham Art History.
Fordham University.
Accessed 7 Dec 2017.

Leonardo da Vinci. c. 1514. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 31 Aug 2017. Accessed 7 Dec 2017.

Launching an Idea Wall

This year, new school construction provided opportunities for our middle school library.
A library office and workspace disappeared to create a hallway connecting the new lower school building to the middle school building. It felt like the old adage…”it’s not like we’re losing a daughter, we’re gaining a son.” The equation for the new library design might be the following:

new library spaces (hallway) + increased traffic (both lower and middle school students) =
literacy education opportunities

Installing large whiteboard Idea Walls along one side of this new hallway was a design that quickly took shape, but with every new opportunity is a challenge:

How do you prevent the Idea Wall from becoming a static space–a glorified bulletin board–and instead create a public space that ignites ideas, promotes discussions, encourages interactions, and makes visible a culture of learning in the school community? Here are a few ways the library has launched the Idea Wall.

Opening the Doors to Imagination

We began with a themed slogan at the top of the Idea Wall,
“Open the Doors to … Imagination,”
and Alice in Wonderland illustrations by Tenniel framed one large panel of the Idea Wall. Our school community was invited to write the titles of their favorites books featuring magical portals or doors as an important part of the storyline. We also had a Literary Door contest.  Students, faculty, administrators, and even visiting alumni had fun adding the title of their favorite books to the Idea Wall.

Exploring an Author’s Book

October’s Idea Wall theme was created by students in the Literary Magazine class to help promote our Book Fair Author, Allan Wolf, who wrote a novel in verse about the sinking of the Titanic, The Watch that Ends the Night. Students used the rich back matter of this book to create a “match-the-statistics” on survivors in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd classes, as well as write the names of countries of those on board the fated ship (these country names were written in a wave-like pattern beneath the ship). Blue-toned post-it notes featured the names of people and quotes, and viewers were invited to match the person’s name to the poem excerpt that described this character’s point of view. A final section of the Titanic Idea Wall featured a poem from the book and invited students to find words that showed onomatopoeia as well as words and phrases that used analogy or vivid language.

Writing Contests
November’s Idea Wall was also designed by the Literary Magazine students. Using the door theme again, fifteen door images were selected by the students (using Britannica Image Quest) and the students wrote writing prompts for each image. The school community was encouraged to select a door image that makes them curious, and write a poem, descriptive paragraph, or short story based on the writing prompt. The Literary Magazine editors will judge the entries, and winners will enjoy a pizza lunch with our January writing workshop author, Diane Stanley, as well as have the writing piece published in the Literary Magazine. Below is one example of an imaginative doorway image and writing prompt.

Thinking about Thinking
The second whiteboard panel along the library hallway invites viewers to “Think about Thinking.”  The first installation was titled “Thinking Fast and Slow,” and professional books were displayed tied to this theme: Making Thinking Visible, The Shallows, and I Read It But I Don’t Get It.

A Venn diagram and laptop screen graphics encouraged viewers to add their experiences of when they think fast/think slow when using print sources or the internet. Though this first installation did not get interaction from students, fellow teachers liked having a space to highlight metacognition and thinking strategies. This year our faculty meets once a week in PLC groups, and one of the PLC groups reserved the Idea Wall in October to display an interactive Growth Mindset board and also displayed fiction and nonfiction books themed to “grit” and “growth mindset.” It was wonderful to have this Idea Wall space spearheaded by other faculty, and I anticipate that the PLC groups will take turns highlighting their learning on this portion of the Idea Wall. This also provides a great way to showcase our professional book collection to teachers!

New Directions for the Idea Wall
Modular furniture has been ordered for the library hallway opposite the Idea Wall, and I envision that this will make the space even more inviting for students. Faculty have been encouraged to reserve the wall space if they wish to brainstorm ideas connected to their curriculum, and once a few initiators try this out, I think more faculty and students will take advantage of using this space.

I look forward to hearing how your school incorporates Idea Walls to ignite ideas.

Additional Resources:
This past summer I attended STLinSTL hosted by MICDS, and educator Lynn Mittler’s session on Design Thinking provided the following resources:

Design Thinking for Educators
This free Design Thinking toolkit includes Map Frameworks (maps to group thinking/data, as an alternative to a Venn Diagram).

Ideo U
Resources and workshops on Design Thinking

Book Resource:
Creating Cultures of Thinking, by Ron Ritchhart

Britannica Image Quest Citation:
Nanniebots. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 12 Sep 2017.


Books of Hope and Resilience

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.                                                                                                                                    Emily Dickinson

The natural disasters caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma challenged local residents and people across the nation to respond quickly and compassionately.  As a librarian who finds inspiration and hope in stories, here are reflections on recent events in Houston and suggestions of 3 book themes that illustrate hope and resilience.

Theme 1: Problem Solving Keeps Hope Afloat
Nationwide people responded quickly to solve logistics of supplying help and aid.  The parent organization at my Houston school, Annunciation Orthodox School, set up a SignupGenius to send email alerts for a particular family’s needs, such as cleanup, making meals, picking up laundry, etc.  Most requests were filled within the hour of the email alert, and individual volunteers managed their own signup duty.

Book Suggestions:
What Do You Do with a Problem? by Kobi Yamada
Picture book shows a young child buffeted by the storms of a problem.The child changes the perspective of fear to one of determination, facing the problem as an opportunity to make a difference.

Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
A grandmother helps a young girl overcome her fear of a looming thunderstorm by involving her in assembling the ingredients for a “thunder cake.”  In this shared creative activity, the granddaughter’s fears are calmed.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
“I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart.”  In the midst of poverty and famine, William
sees the problems of Malawi and invents a solution: a windmill to generate electricity and pump water. Using pictures of a windmill from a donated school textbook (Using Energy) and inventively assembling discarded scraps and a bicycle dynamo generator, William successfully creates the windmill.  Read more on his blog.

Theme 2: Helping Provides Healing
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, huge garbage trucks rolled in from San Antonio and Austin to pick up flood debris; volunteers provided meals, clothing, and shelter; and crews from Louisiana’s Cajun Navy and Tennessee’s first responder teams joined local emergency crews and local residents with boats to rescue stranded flood victims. Images, videos, and shared stories of these amazing efforts inspired us.

Book Suggestions:
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearshall
“Some angels are like peacocks. Others are less flashy. Like city pigeons. It all depends on the wings.” An angry and emotionally distraught teen, Arthur T. Owens, is assigned to community service with a trash picker, James Hampton. As Arthur helps James assemble this trash into a beautiful artwork, the teen finds hope and healing in his own life and discovers that beauty and angels of hope can be found in unlikely places. (Based on the life of outsider artist James Hampton.)

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
“Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.” The American Olympic rowing team, competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, discover the importance of “the boat,” the joined efforts and shared love that can overcome impossible odds.

Theme 3: Creating Places of Hope and Refuge
Important to easing distress and fears is the creation of places of hope and refuge. The Houston Convention Center, church halls, family homes, and our schools were just some of the places transformed into shelters for flood victims and families. These temporary havens of safety allowed victims time to rest as they rebuilt their lives.

Book Suggestions:
Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack
In the segregated South of the 1950s, a young girl looks forward to a trip to go “Someplace Special.”  Passing benches marked “Whites Only” and riding in the back of a segregated bus, the young Tricia Ann arrives at her “special” place, the Nashville Public Library that bears the sign “All are Welcome.”

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
In 1911, a fourteen-year-old girl, Joan, flees from her cruel father and the bleak future of farm life. Seeking a new life in Baltimore, Joan is stranded on the streets of a strange city until a kind man invites Joan to work for his Jewish family as a hired girl.  What follows is a series of funny and charming misadventures as Joan, with her Catholic upbringing, blends her life and future goals with this compassionate Jewish family.

Please share your favorite books of hope and resilience. Thank you for using stories to lift spirits of those in distress.

Weaving Literature into Science: Novel Engineering

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I wove my webs for you because I liked you….By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
                                                                                    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Charlotte, the spider who saves Wilbur’s life by weaving remarkable words into her web, is the perfect literary analogy for Novel Engineering, a new movement in literacy that seeks to engage students in design thinking and engineering through an integration with works of literature.

Charlotte, as a design thinker, empathizes with and defines Wilbur’s problem (being slaughtered); she then brainstorms a series of words that could be spun in her web to show Wilbur as a remarkable pig. The word “crunchy,” supplied at first by Templeton the Rat, is quickly rejected for more appropriate words, Some Pig! and Charlotte spins her first web prototype. Charlotte continues to test her web prototype by building other webword designs: Terrific, Radiant, and Humble. The end result is that Charlotte solves Wilbur’s problem by saving his life, even as her own life as a spider comes to an end. Her reflection on the engineering process–that by helping Wilbur, “it lifted her life a trifle”–is an inspiring commentary on how good design can better the lives of others.

This summer I attended a Novel Engineering workshop at the STLinSTL
conference hosted by MICDS in St. Louis. The workshop presenters, Christy Moore (MICDS) and Monette DeSimone (City Academy), introduced attendees to Novel Engineering, an initiative that states its objective as follows:

Students use existing classroom literature–stories, novels, and expository texts–as the basis for engineering design challenges that help them identify problems, design realistic solutions, and engage in the Engineering Design Process while reinforcing their literacy skills.

The workshop immersed attendees in the Novel Engineering process. We listened to the children’s book Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and defined the problem to solve: a farmer’s garden is being eaten by hungry rabbits.

Working in teams of two to three, we used a Novel Engineering planning sheet to state the problem; identify the client (either the farmer or the rabbit); suggest a plan; and sketch an initial design.


Selecting an assortment of materials–such as paper cups, clay, tongue depressors, straws, and tape–we constructed our design.  My team chose the farmer as our client, and we built a hydroponic device designed to keep the growing plants at a height unreachable by the hungry rabbits. After making a rough sketch, the design had to be tweaked so that the support stilts would securely hold the hydroponic structure (a triangular base of tongue depressors held the cone-shaped hydroponic device the best).

We revised our plan and sketched the new design and finished assembling the device (note in the photo that we also built pipes and a water tank to supply water to the hydroponic plants). Each team then presented their engineered solution (some teams chose the rabbits as clients and created catapult devices to assist the rabbits in quick entry to the garden food). Below is an example of the Novel Engineering planning sheet.

The Novel Engineering process could be easily adapted in a library setting, and it addresses several AASL standards:

1.2.5 Demonstrating adaptability by changing the inquiry focus.
1.2.6 Questions and display emotional resilience by persisting in information             searching despite challenges.

This project could be further enriched by requiring students to research background for their design, such as what types of hydroponic devices are currently being used. The conference presenters videotaped their students as they presented their engineered designs; the engagement and enthusiasm of the students was very apparent.

Below are a few resources as you consider weaving literature and the sciences in Novel Engineering.

Novel Engineering Suggested Book List and Activities

TED Talk by Amos Winter (shows refining a design to meet a client’s needs:
an inexpensive, all terrain wheel chair that works in wind and sand)

Crash Course Kids:  What is an Engineer?

Crash Course Kids:  The Engineering Process


Take a Reading Field Trip

“History is more than war and politics; it is literature, the arts, engineering…above all, history is human.”

This quote is a constant refrain in David McCullough’s recent book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand Forwhich is a collection of lectures he gave on the importance of developing connections to history.

His commencement addresses often close with a plea for graduates to read and learn about the history of their country.  Several years ago, I attended a lecture by McCullough at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and he mentioned that one of the best ways for families to encourage a love of history is to visit and walk historic sites with their children.

Taking to heart McCullough’s emphasis on encouraging reading and learning about our human history, I would like to suggest a few pairings of books with history museums that you might visit.  The list is far from comprehensive; it would be wonderful to expand this list with suggestions of your favorite books and museums.

City Museum
St. Louis, Mo.
This museum has to be seen to be believed.  Started by a salvager who did not wish to discard the beautiful history of St. Louis, the museum took shape as local artisans created an artistic, interactive environment of salvaged history.
Book to Pair:
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
When forced to complete community service hours with a junk man, a young boy discovers the beauty of this junk through the man’s artistic creation.

Gettysburg National Military Park
Book to Pair:
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Shaara’s son, Jeff Shaara, continued the Civil War sagas. Jeff recounted in a lecture that as a boy he toured Gettysburg on several occasions with his father—his father talked as they walked the battlefield, imaginatively plotting what would become the classic Civil War story.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum
New York
A museum dedicated to understanding the daily life and struggles of immigrants
who came to America for new opportunities.
Books to Pair:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Francie Nolan and her Irish-American family struggle with poverty, but their lives are rich in their love for each other.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Intended as a way to remove tenement children from dangerous living conditions and bleak futures, the orphan trains supplied cheap labor for farmers and business owners.

Peabody Essex Museum (Historic Homes Tour)
Salem, Massachusetts
The historic homes tour provides insight into how early colonists viewed the New World, an environment that was often perceived as dangerous.
Book to Pair:
All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry
Though the location of the village is never mentioned in this book, this Edgar-winning novel is described as Speak meets The Scarlet Letter.

Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Salem, Massachusetts
Book to Pair:
Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill
This novel in verse tells the events through the eyes of several girls who were the accusers in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel
Memphis, Tennessee
The site of Martin Luther King’s assassination, this museum combines a timeline of civil rights events, primary sources, oral histories, and a burned-out bus to dramatize the danger faced by the freedom riders. Visitors even can walk near the balcony where King was assassinated.
Book to Pair:
March: Book 2 by John Lewis
Congressman Lewis recounts how the Freedom Riders boarded buses headed to the South to challenge racial desegregation laws.  Their efforts were met with violence.

Chinese-American History Museum
San Francisco, California
Book to Pair:
Bubonic Panic:  When Plague Invaded America
The Chinese Exclusion Act and the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire are some of the events as this epidemic unfolds.  Good tie-in for STEM and wonderful incorporation of primary sources.

Field Museum of Natural History
Chicago, Illinois
A naturalist’s dream, this museum shows fossils, skeletal remains, and dioramas of life as it evolved.
Book to Pair:
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Gothic thriller set in Victorian Age when the Theory of Evolution inspired fossil hunting “wars” as well as animosity from religious fronts who saw Darwin’s theory as negating the bible.  Central to the plot is the young daughter, Faith, who aspires to be a naturalist like her father, but who is constrained by social conventions of her period.



Teaching Empathy with Primary Sources

“They never saw a child.”
Ruby Bridges

It was my first reading of The Watson’s Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, and I was fascinated by the book’s structure: most of the book is not about Civil Rights, but rather about bullying, and it focuses on childhood scenes that, though depicted with some comic relief, have an undercurrent of humiliation, intimidation, and violence. The young narrator, Kenny, tells the story of his African American family’s decision to drive from their home in Detroit to Birmingham, Alabama so that the bullying, wild behavior of his older brother, Byron, can be reined in. Byron is going to spend the summer with his grandmother in Birmingham; as Byron’s father says, it is hoped that this experience will give Byron a taste of the “real world.” The “real world” is the South of the 1960s, with communities fractured by segregation, protests, and bombings.

This book’s structure of beginning with playground cruelty–the bullying by Byron and his friends–and then showing a societal pattern of discrimination and violence towards a race, caused me to wonder if the author Curtis was helping young readers to relate to childhood cruelty first to try to grasp a much larger issue of society’s cruelty. Working closely with an English teacher, Joanna Hasbell, we decided to build empathy towards a time period that seems remote to these fifth graders, and we would build that empathy by looking at primary sources first to help see the person behind the cruel events. After students used primary sources to make observations and raise questions for further inquiry, they explored a webquest of pre-selected database articles and websites to read background information and make further observations on some of the cultural influences and issues of the 1960s.

Look Closely to Build Empathy

As a class, we began by viewing a photo of young Ruby Bridges, who is pictured walking from a building and being escorted by several men in suits. Fifth graders began looking closely and observing details, such as the men wearing badges and armbands that said “marshall.” One student guessed Ruby was being arrested, but the lack of distress in her demeanor and the number of officers to apprehend one young girl made this an unlikely guess. Students then guessed that these men were protecting her, acting as body guards. Analysis questions from the Library of Congress “Primary Source Analysis Tool”  helped to probe further observations, such as describing the physical setting (students guessed that Ruby was walking from a school building) and reflecting on what was not being shown in the photo (reactions of the crowd who were angered at desegregation of the school).

Their observations and questionings–such as “Were people angry at Ruby and angry about desegregation?”–gave students a direction for further searches to locate photos or articles to support their assumptions. Students also practiced advanced search techniques that would be used in the webquest to locate additional primary source photos or background articles: 1) bound phrase using quotations, such as “Ruby Bridges”; limiting website, such as; and scanning an online article for a particular word or short phrase by using the find command (cmd F on a Mac or cntrl F on a PC).

After practicing the guided inquiry techniques of looking at primary sources, each student examined a different primary source. As they looked at photos of scenes depicting segregated movie houses, protest marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and school stand-offs, students were encouraged to look closely at facial expressions, body language, and wording on buildings and protest signs. They noted, for instance, body language: the photo below depicts white men, arms defiantly crossed, using their bodies to block the doorway of the University of Alabama as Governor Wallace delivered his speech upholding the segregation policy; contrasted with this, an opposing white man stands with his hand on his hip (a federal agent infuriated that Governor Wallace is defying the desegregation laws). In another photo, students contrasted facial expressions of two young protesters: a stern-faced African American marcher and the jeering white man who marches alongside him.  The wording on the two protest signs supports interpretations of the facial expressions.

Governor Wallace Refusing African American Students, 1963. (Britannica Image Quest)

Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In, 1960. (Britannica Image Quest)

Some students viewed primary sources that provided insights into how popular culture shaped the society, such as movie posters and photos from 1960s movies: theme of racial conflict (To Kill a Mockingbird); or attitudes toward “pranking” (The Parent Trap); or physical violence viewed humorously (The Three Stooges). Even toys of the 1960s were explored, such as Barbie dolls (idealized “white” beauty) and G.I. Joe dolls (black soldier doll with stereotyped features). Database articles as well as websites provided additional background information.

To Kill a Mockingbird movie poster, 1962. (Britannica Image Quest)

As students began reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, the English teacher asked students to brainstorm words related to the concept of “Mean,” and she used the student responses to make a bulletin board word cloud. Their brainstormed words reflected a growing understanding of the complexity of negative feelings.

An additional opportunity for close observation and building empathy occurred during our school’s author visit with Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales graphic novels use the language of cartoons to dramatize historic moments (often humorously), and Nathan shared with students how primary sources and historical research are combined in his tales. In a writing workshop session with the fifth graders, Nathan asked students to use one of the primary source photos at their table to create a four-frame cartoon. The photograph depicted a Coke machine labeled 6 cents and “Whites Only.” Nathan asked students to pretend that their cartoon characters traveled in a time machine, viewed the Coke machine, and reacted to the “Whites Only” message. Below is one student’s cartoon statement on the nature of freedom in the United States.

See the Child

In a PBS interview with Ruby Bridges, Ruby commented on the angry crowds that gathered as she went to school: “They didn’t see a child. They saw change, and what they thought was being taken from them. They never saw a child.”  In this collaborative project, fifth graders used primary sources to connect with a time period that seemed to them to be very distant. By looking closely, they “saw the child” and used empathy to guide their inquiry-based research, thereby deepening their understanding of the 1960s.

Bibliography for Images

Coke Machine Cartoon. 2017. Used with Permission.

Governor Wallace Refusing African American Students, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 11 June 1963. Britannica Image Quest, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In. 1960. Britannica Image Quest, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Hasbell, Joanna. “Mean” Word Cloud. 2017. Used with Permission.

To Kill a Mockingbird. 1962. Britannica Image Quest, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.  Voltaire

“Judging a book by its cover” has the negative connotation of shallow perceptions and narrow-mindedness; however, in a recent Design Principles unit, 7th and 8th grade students examined cover art of young adult books to critically evaluate design principles and to brainstorm ideas as they created snowflake-themed posters. This unit was part of an elective class, Literary Magazine, but these ideas could be adapted as a library unit on media literacy, in particular a discussion on how media messages are constructed using a media language with its own rules, thereby supporting the following AASL standard:

2.1.6 Use the writing process, media and visual literacy, and technology skills to create products that express new understandings.

The following description of the design project may spark ideas for your own students to identify design elements, evaluate how the elements are used for persuasive communication, and create their own products that incorporate effective design.

Collaborative Learning and Discussion
GO! A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd became the textbook for learning about design principles. (This resource text and the initial design activity was the brainchild of my librarian predecessor, Dorcas Hand, and I am grateful to build on her creative lesson.)

Working collaboratively on a Google slides presentation,  each student summarized a design principle from a chapter in the GO! book and chose one image from the book to illustrate the design idea. Using a Google image search of advertisements, students selected a second image.  Book cover art was used as a third example, and in a serendipitous opportunity, our library had just received new young adult novels through donations at our Book Fair. Spreading out these new books on tables, students began to explore cover art that best matched their design principle. Following are a few examples of book covers students selected and shared in a group discussion of effective design (all book cover art from Amazon):

Book:  Twenty Questions for Gloria
Author:  Martyn Bedford
Design Principle:  Cropping

(Landscape image with girl beneath tree is cropped as a silhouette of a girl’s face–Student commented that the tree is positioned to mirror the girl’s brain, suggesting that this book involves psychological intrigue.)

Book: The Skeleton Tree
Author:  Iain Lawrence
Design Principle:  Asymmetry

(Student added a yellow line to the image to point out the asymmetrical design: large, black cliff on the left balanced out by the smaller cliff edge with two figures overlooking an immense wooded valley.)


Book:  Towers Falling
Author:  Jewell Parker Rhodes
Design Principle:  Inversion

(Inverted image of twin towers is mirrored in harbor waters with current building, the One World Trade Center, in upper half of image. Young characters in the story are trying to bring meaning to the reflection, memory, of the 9/11 disaster.)

Book:  The Weight of Feathers
Author:  Anna-Marie McLemore
Design Principle:  Vertical/Horizontal

(Horizontal lines add a sense of stability and strength to a design–like the strong horizon line in a landscape.  According to the design textbook, horizontal lines can also be used to suggest seriousness, and the thin lines of the tree limbs reflect the precarious balance of the two young people who fall in love.)

Book:  The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle
Author:  Janet Fox
Design Principle:  Light/Dark

(Large, dark mass of the castle threatens danger and the small lit doorway illuminating the children suggests a mysterious adventure awaits.)


Book:  Anna and the Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Design Principle:  Big and Small

(Journeying/Quest theme of book is emphasized with small image of the walking girl contrasted with large, shadowy wings of the flying bird–Swallow Man–who travels with her.)

Collaborative Poster Design and Discussion

Students used a combination of design principles to create their own poster to advertise for writing and art submissions to our school literary magazine. Beginning with a paper doll pattern and white paper, students cut out their design of a taller student holding the hands of a younger student, which supported our theme of
unity/community participation in the literary magazine.  
These paper dolls were created in a circular pattern, giving the design the appearance of a snowflake.  This link provides sample directions to creating circular paper dolls (snowflakes).  The snowflake image signified the unique aspect of each student’s creative efforts.

Students shared digital photos of their paper snowflake in a Google file so that each student could assemble images as they wished for their final poster design.  Using Google slides to create their  poster (two slides created for an upper and lower half of the poster–joined together after printing in color), students demonstrated wonderful collaboration as they helped each other with newly discovered design approaches, such as 1) cropping snowflakes as a circular shape rather than the square-shaped cropping tool, 2) showing each other how to use gradated colors rather than a solid fill option for shapes, and 3) suggestions on style, size, and weight of type fonts.

Students wrote a reflection paragraph that discussed the following:

  • design principles used in their poster
  • design challenges and how they solved the challenge
  • slogan to encourage creative submissions to the literary magazine
  • intended audience for the poster (whether to hang the poster in the lower school or the middle school)

Resulting posters, like the snowflakes themselves, were uniquely persuasive in their ad messages.  After an animated discussion, students voted whether the posters should be hung in the lower or middle school, and students posted their ads strategically in the two buildings.  As a confirmation of the effectiveness of their ad designs, I had one teacher approach me immediately after we hung the posters with an armful of concrete poetry by her fourth grade students.  Here is a video featuring some of the student poster designs.

Follow-up Activities
In keeping with the theme of the importance of creativity, I shared the story of Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin.  Bentley devoted his life to photographing snowflakes, feeling that his work gave people something just as valuable as a “practical” occupation like raising cows.

To emphasize the importance of design decisions, I showed students the “turquoise belt” scene from The Devil Wears Prada in which the fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), gives a tongue lashing to a young intern (Anne Hathaway) while putting together a fashionable outfit from a vibrantly-colored dress. I had students point out the design decisions that Miranda makes very quickly: 1) color (complimentary colors of orange-red dress with turquoise belt); 2) scale (proportion contrast of the short jacket with the long dress); and 3) bright-colored yellow hat to compliment warm tones of the dress.  One big idea of this scene is that design decisions are not accidental, they are well thought out and follow principles of design.  You can view a clip from the scene and a debate on design industry in this Huffington Post article

Additional Resources

Media Literacy:

AISL blog, “Messages in the Media”

Center for Media Literacy

ACRL Standards
See discussion of “metaliteracy,”  collaborative learning with emerging technologies with an emphasis to “collaborate, produce, and share.”