Sunday, July 27, 2014

When a Book Hands Us Opportunities for Teaching, Let's Take Them

            Sometimes a book hands us perfect teaching opportunities. Frozen in Time  by Mark Kurlansky is one such book. This book—the biography of the Clarence Birdseye, who is probably best known for developing the process that provides us with frozen foods—could be folded into a unit on biography or an inquiry into the impact of science and technology on society. But, it could also be used as a nonfiction read aloud for middle grade students or a literature circle book for groups of readers or as a mentor text for young writers. And since this book will be released in November as a paperback as well as a hardback and ebook, it is a good choice for schools on a budget.

            Why do I like this book so much? First, it’s really interesting. Mark Kurlansky is a good writer, and I am pleased to say that he adapted the book himself from an adult version he wrote. The style is fluid and doesn’t feel dumbed down. Second, I learned a lot reading it. Here are some of the things I learned about: Labrador (where Birdseye lived for a while), refrigeration, the application of science in real world settings, and the role of salt in freezing and thawing. Third, I found Birdseye to be a fascinating character. As Kurlansky tells us, Clarence Birdseye lived a life of adventure and had a healthy dose of curiosity, which he vigorously pursued. In fact, the author describes him as a nerd of the Industrial Revolution because he followed his own unique path.

            Here are three ideas worth sharing with middle school readers, simply because they are so well presented:
1.     How Kurlansky deals with issue of accuracy. According to the author, the story of how Marjorie Post bought Birdseye’s frozen food company is commonly misunderstood. According to the story, the heiress of Postum Cereal Company sailed into Gloucester (where Birdseye lived) and dined on a goose that had been frozen by Birdseye’s company. She was so impressed with the taste of the goose, she pestered her father to buy the company. While this account appeared in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, it is inaccurate and Kurlansky explains why. This is a fine example of historical thinking in action.
2.     How Kurlansky explains why salt follows the rules of nature, but seems to act inconsistently. Do you want to know why salt is used to melt snow and ice, but also as a refrigerant? The author states, “Though salt acts by natural laws, it can do so many different and seemingly contradictory things that it appears to operate by magic.” His explanation is so lucid that it is a great example of clear scientific writing.
3.     How Kurlansky brings in historical context. Both the prologue (“The Nerds of the Industrial Revolution”) and chapter one (“A Fast Changing World”) situate Birdseye as living during a time of great change. He was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The author explains that during Birdseye’s life “the rate of original, life-changing inventions being developed and sold was dazzling.” These two chapters are especially strong in showing readers that a person’s life is influenced by the times in which he or she lived.
I think these are three important opportunities Frozen in Time provides for teachers and students. But there is another idea to consider too. How we introduce a book in the classroom should take advantage of what the book offers. 

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