Monday, September 14, 2015

Exciting Discoveries Reveal the Nature of Science

             The recent discovery of a new species in the human family—Homo naledi—identified by anthropologist Lee Berger and his team of researchers in South Africa reveals how science works. That is, our understandings are tentative and, therefore, subject to change. You can read a New York Times article about this groundbreaking discovery at This find not only helps us understand how we evolved as humans, it also illustrates what Dr. Berger means when he said, “There is no substitute for exploration.”

            We have an exciting opportunity to connect this new discovery to previous work by Dr. Berger. In the book The Skull in the Rock, published in 2012, authors Lee Berger and Marc Aronson describe how a different fossil discovery in South Africa changed our understanding of evolution. In this case, Matthew Berger, the scientist’s son found a fossil of a bone from a species previously unknown to scientists. That species, Australopithecus sediba, provided a new window on the past. You can read the Classroom Bookshelf’s review of Skull in the Rock as well as their numerous ideas for teaching and suggestions of useful resources at

            When used together—the new information about Homo naledi and the older information about Australopithecus sediba--clearly show the nature of science in action. This material illustrates these big ideas:
·      Science is tentative, yet reliable. While generally reliable and durable, scientific knowledge is subject to change over time. It can be expanded or discarded.
·      Science is the product of observation and inference. Scientists gather evidence by making observations in the natural world. They make inferences based on a combination of observation and prior knowledge.
·      Scientists use creative and imaginative methods. There is no single, lock-step method for doing science.

            We teachers have a grand opportunity here for developing scientific literacy. First, there is material readily available about both discoveries on the Internet. Constructing text-sets incorporating nonfiction books, journal articles, newspapers articles, and videos will be easy. Second, the immediacy of this find makes it exciting. And, third, we get to show the true nature of science. It's a gift.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Family Histories

            Remembered family stories are small treasures. They remind us of events that—while not of broad historical significance to the world at large—are important to us individually as part of our own histories. 
            Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event by Rebecca Bond is an outstanding example of a family story to share with elementary school students. This book relates an episode in the life of Antonio Willie Giroux, the author’s grandfather, who lived in Ontario, Canada, in a hotel run by his mother. He loved the hotel, the people who worked there, the residents who came to hunt or fish, and those who worked in the forest that surrounded the hotel. Antonio wanted to get closer to the forest animals, but mostly he just managed to observe the evidence that they were there—their sounds, tracks, and nests.
            In 1914, when Antonio was almost five, a terrible fire broke out in the forest, causing the people living in the hotel to head for the nearby lake to escape the danger. Men, women, and children standing in the lake with water up to their knees were soon joined by the forest animals such as foxes, bobcats, and bears. Amazingly, Antonio got to see the forest animals up close. At the author tells us, Antonio “never forgot how he had watched that distance between animals and people disappear in the summer of 1914.” It was truly a memorable experience.
            This book is a fine choice for a read aloud and subsequent discussion of family histories. Afterwards, try some of these Common Core/Common Sense ideas for students and teachers: 
  •  Write and illustrate a family story you want to remember and share with others.     
  •  Notice the artwork in this book—the detailed drawings that capture the setting of rural Ontario, the hotel, the people who lived there, the surrounding forest, and the animals. Illustrations and words work seamlessly together. 
  • Examine the captivating language that appeals to the senses. Gather several examples. Here is one: “When Antonio was almost five, the summer was so dry the green carpets of moss yellowed, the silky grass crisped, and the pine needles on the trees turned brittle.” 
  • Read the author's note and examine the accompanying photograph. Ask students if they have a family photograph they can use to help them tell or write about a family story. 
            If you are looking for a terrific read aloud or a great way to jumpstart the writing of family stories, this is the book for you.