Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thinking About Local and Global, Prairies and Wetlands, This Thanksgiving

Over the summer, I got an email from the University of Minnesota Press, informing me of the publication of Phyllis Root and Betsy Bowen's Plant a Pocket of Prairie. Immediately, I was intrigued. A university press publishing a children's book, not an academic tome? And a nonfiction picture book at that? Are there other university presses that do this? If so, why don't I know about them? (Really, if there are others, please tell me!) 

Often, I am thinking about the ways in which we move young people from the local to the global, the global to the local. A book firmly rooted in a particular place often gives us this opportunity to move back and forth between once place and another. A book written by a publisher very much rooted in one place, such as a university press, presents this opportunity on a whole other level.

Back in 2011, Marc and I presented together at the National Council of Teachers of Social Studies annual conference. Our presentation focused on nonfiction trade books in general and the new landscape of the CCSS (Marc's part) and on using a trade book as a vehicle for exploring the local and the global simultaneously (my part). I pivoted back in forth between Marc's book, Sugar Changed the World, and the intersection of commodities (slaves, sugar, cotton and clothing) in 18th and 19th century Massachusetts in a single house: The Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters Historic Site in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I teach. I did that because it was my local intersection; the point of the presentation was to have teachers thinking of how they can juxtapose the information in trade books with local history, so that history is never viewed as merely "here" or "there" but at the intersection of everywhere. 

So isn't it interesting to think about A Pocketful of Prairie as a book about the specific prairies of Minnesota, those that have been lost, perhaps forever, and those that remain, as well as a book about the global concepts of ecosystems, interdependence, backyard agriculture, and citizen science?  What does it mean for students in New England to read this book and consider the challenges faced by midwestern states? Sure, they learn about ecosystems in science and about the geographical regions of the United States in social studies. But wouldn't it be interesting to learn about these ecosystems and regions in comparison and contrast to one another? Is the eroding shoreline and disappearance of cod in New England the same problem as the disappearance of the prairie in Minnesota? What is each region's response? What does it mean that the monarch butterfly is disappearing in both places? What can we do to foster healthy ecosystems with an awareness of interdependence wherever we are? 

I am reminded of one of my favorite nonfiction picture books, Meadowlands, by Tom Yezerski. Yes, this is a book about the infamous Meadowlands of New Jersey. But it is also a book about ecosystems everywhere that are impacted by the presence of human beings, and how we work to reduce our impact and allow nature to do its careful balancing act. What's the lesson of this particular wetland for others? Don't we all have nearby wetlands in danger? 

If you and your students are interested in exploring prairies, and ways to restore prairie grasslands large and small, read Plant a Pocketful of Prairie. Native prairies used to cover over 40% of the United States. For many of you, this is your local community. For the rest of us, it's an important part of our history and natural environment. In my yard, in coastal New Hampshire, I have many of the same plants that exist in the prairie. I have coneflowers, milkweed, asters, and goldenrod. I want the monarchs to return to my garden after their two-year hiatus. I know they need some prairie grass along the way if they are ever going to make it as far north as my yard. 

If you're exploring the prairie or ecosystems these other books will also help: 

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