Monday, October 26, 2015

Medical mystery

I love a good mystery.

And I was a little surprised reading Red Madness: how a medical mystery changed what we eat by Gail Jarrow that it proved to be such a good one.

It’s about a disease I had never heard of, pellagra, that plagued various people around the world but seemed to be worse in the southern states of the United States in the early 20th century.

It’s a horrendous disease that caused extreme suffering; weakness, skin rashes and blisters, gastrointestinal issues, insanity, and eventually death. The pictures included in the book are fairly arresting but not sensational and provide a very good idea about how debilitating and painful pellagra could be for those afflicted.  Personal stories of ‘pellagrins’ are interspersed throughout the book that convey their suffering and helpless.

The author spins this as a medical mystery that concerned doctors for years and eventually turned into a public health issue that involved government agencies trying to figure out the cause of and cure for the disease. Along the way we learn about food production, poverty, quality of life and other social issues that related to the US transitioning into a more industrial nation. 

Until an epidemiologist, Joseph Goldberger, began making scientifically controlled tests, there were several pet theories as to how pellagra proliferated and was to be cured. Goldberger’s experiments on dogs, himself, other scientists and even prisoners (informed about the tests) eventually proved that the disease was related to a deficiency found in inadequate diets.  (Now I know why niacin is so important!) It was especially fascinating to read about the doctors involved and how egos contributed to slow advancements in eradicating pellagra.

Overall, a very well researched historical book that looks at the social context, health issues and implications for economically poor people of the early 1900s.  An interesting book for cross-disciplinary classroom use for science and social studies for grades 6/7 and up that have implications for even today. The importance of sound science in our everyday lives is brought home with a book like this, showing how advancements in many areas not just public health, have improved our quality of life.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Divergent thinking

Recently I facilitated a workshop about children’s literature and divergent thinking for undergraduate-teachers-to-be.  I didn’t start out with the idea of divergent thinking per say.  I was thinking more along the lines of books that both promoted creative and critical thinking but also books that were clever (‘divergent’) in and of themselves.  The divergent thinking element came from a book recently added to the Doucette Library collection titled Creativity and children’s literature: new ways to encourage divergent thinking by Marianne Saccardi. This book helped me coalesced my ideas for the workshop into a coherent and practical session.

I think this is a book that is well worth a look if you’re big into using children’s and young adult literature in the classroom. 

It provides lots of suggestions for recent books (though classics are found here too) with examples and ideas for classroom activities and teaching.  The first four chapters are based on the genres; poetry, fiction, fantasy and folklore, and nonfiction to highlight a wide range of children and young adult titles. 

The first chapter includes a fabulous range of poetry books that encourages students to look at their world in new ways. There is an emphasis on the importance of metaphor and the connection between metaphor and understanding of dissimilar concepts and things. Poetry, as described here, becomes a wonderfully divergent way to explore and exploit metaphor when teaching. A few of the books highlighted are Outside Your Window, AFoot In the Mouth, Poetrees and Hip Hop Speaks to Children.

I love the title of chapter two – Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary World of Fiction. This is the one I spent a lot of time working with while I prepared for my workshop.  Once again the books listed are ones that will resonant with the readers with and encourage them to see their worlds in new ways, promote creative and critical thinking, and maybe even help them solve problems. She also looks to the books themselves to see if they are divergent in their approach too.  (To be honest, the books that I love most to blog about are these ones – books that go to a new level in their storytelling or relaying their content.)

The chapter focusing on folklore starts with a quote from Albert Einstein –

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Metaphor is again emphasized here. She states,
 “But perhaps nowhere is metaphor more powerfully met than in the literature of folklore and fantasy.  Metaphor IS the language of folklore. Folk and fairytales and the high fantasy and science fiction novels of today’s literature for children abound in archetypes for good and evil, wisdom and foolishness, kindness and selfishness, and so on.” (p.87) 
Often there are little lessons to be learned from traditional tales like the one the lazy grasshopper learned the hard way once winter arrived and the compassion shown by the industrious ant who takes him in.  Or the important lesson learned by the main character in the book, Nasreddine, that one must decide what to “hear from others [as] wise or silly or hurtful.”

The last genre is nonfiction. In this chapter, the power of nonfiction will come from teaching to texts that demonstrate passion and curiosity by their authors. The subject matter will be presented in highly engaging ways (Steve Jenkins – see last week’s blog), often highlighting people who emulate divergent thinking themselves, seeing beyond the status quo, tackling seemingly insurmountable issues, or pushing boundaries. Think Nelson Mandela or Temple Grandin as examples.  There are many activities included for these types of books that will enrich classroom experiences for students.

I strongly encourage you to spend some time with this book.  It will present lists of books for all grades and perhaps offer some suggestions that will reframe your use of literature in the classroom. When presenting my workshop I did include many of the titles here but also added many more. The lists are only a starting point and once you get into the flow of divergent thinking you will begin to see connections with titles you're already familiar with and likely be opened to new books when they come along.

Monday, October 12, 2015

#1 Fan - Totally biased

I love Steve Jenkins.

I love his illustration style.  I love that he focuses on the natural world sharing lots of quirky trivia and facts about every group of critter out there. I love that he finds a new approach with each book. I especially love that he keeps producing books.

The latest book to hit the shelves in the Doucette Library is How to Swallow a Pig:step-by-step advice from the animal kingdom (co-written by Robin Page).  The book begins with the premise that knowing how to swallow a pig – whole!- would be a useful skill to have --  but maybe you’d want to work up to this.  It’s not for amateurs.

So, to work up to swallowing whole pigs in one go, you might want to practice a few other animal adaptations beforehand. Here we go:

*Trapping fish the way humpback whales do would be a technique to consider. 
   1- locate fish (herring and sardines are the best);
   2 – notify friends;
   3 – scare fish together by slapping your tail on the water.  No tail, problem tail. You have whales for friends, remember;
   4 – herd the schools together by blowing bubbles and circling in smaller circles.
   5 – It’s dinner time! Open mouth wide and swim straight up through your clustered school. Yum.

Other adaptations include nest-making the Tailorbird way, which requires sewing a leaf together; keeping biting insects away using the toxins of millipedes like Capuchin monkeys do; disguising yourself like a mimic octopus which can take on the shape of other water creatures such as a sea snake or a lionfish (really clever this); or spin a web like a barn spider (think Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web) the real challenge being able to spin silk thread.

Too many animals to list here but not to marvel at and emulate, apparently. The back pages includes additional information about each animal he illustrates.

Whether learning how to swallow a pig is really in your best interests, picking up this book and any other written by Steve Jenkins definitely would be.  This will be of interest to elementary and middle grades.

Others that I consistently recommend and teach with include:
What do you do with a tail like this?

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