Weighing the Elephant

In the mountains of China was a small village living peacefully with their working elephants. They especially liked the baby elephant who would play with the children. The Emperor demanded the baby elephant but it refused to play with the Emperor’s children. The Emperor determined to put him death, but first posed an absurd riddle—whoever could weigh the elephant could win it. A little boy in the village solved the problem (by using displacement) and the baby elephant returned home.

Ting-xing Ye, ©1998, Annick Press, 0-978-155-037526-8

Impressing Students with Hei-dou’s Ingenuity

Read the story to the point where Hei-dou realizes how to solve the problem. In groups, have students propose methods for weighing the elephant. Discuss. Choose the best. Then read the ending so that the students can really appreciate the boy’s ingenuity.

Show images of scales in general. Ask students to explain how they work. (Bringing actual scales in to class would be more exciting.)

Extreme Writing Topics

Always present three possible topics for Extreme Writing so that students will have a choice. My book, The Power of Extreme Writing, is available at ASCD for a complete explanation of this unique approach to journaling.

  1. Stories about weighing things and being weighed yourself. What about measuring how tall things are?
  2. Times when you lost something or had it taken away.
  3. Stories about your pet.

Elephants and Humans

This might be a time to look into the difference between an African and an Indian elephant, and the range of their natural habitats, their behaviours in the wild, and what they have been trained to do by people or ways they have been used by humans.

Starting from this picture book as a stimulus, you can show the first few minutes of the BBC documentary on Hannibal’s army with elephants, to get them interested in elephants in history:

Students then see the list of what they might explore. There are 21 choices on the PDF you can open. With those in front of them, students could pose questions such as:

  • What role in history have elephants played?
  • Are their any patterns to their use?
  • What species of elephants are alive, and which are extinct?
  • How do humans use elephants now?
  • Etc.

As they research their individual topics, they should keep the questions they posed in mind.

Unless you have a small class, students can work in pairs to do their research. Give them a short period of time and ask them to write something like 20 interesting facts about their topic while keeping the class’s inquiry questions in mind. They can then use those facts to individually write a short essay. Finally, you can create a PowerPoint using images I have collected on Pinterest. Students would finally present their information for each page orally as each image appears, sharing their presentation to the class.

Finally, close with a discussion of the original class questions. Have you answered all of them? Are there any patterns to the information? Why have elephants been so important in history? How do you feel about elephants when you are finished?

For 7 creative writing ideas, click Weighing The Elephant to download.

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Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer

The story of how 200 years ago, the daughter of Lord and Lady Byron, Ada Lovelace, wrote the first program—before there was electricity to make it work. Working with Thomas Babbage on the Analytical Engine, she wrote step-by-step how Bernoulli numbers could be coded for the machine.

Diane Stanley, ©2016, Simon and Schuster, 978-1-4814-5249-6

Author Study

Because Diane Stanley has written at least 16 books about historic characters, now might be a good time to do an author’s study. Begin by gathering as many copies of all 16 of them as you can. For the purposes of an author study that can be done quickly, students should read 3 of them, not counting Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science. That would provide them 4 to consider. Below is a possible outline for their report:

  1. RANK
    List them from favourite (#1 ) to least favourite( #4). Summarize each book in a paragraph, with a sentence for each indicating why they are in that position.
  2. DIANE STANLEY’S LIFE
    Write 20 sentence facts about Diane Stanley’s life. Check out her biography on her website, Wikipedia, Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, or Simon & Schuster. Include whether you think what she says about herself is reflected in her books.
  3. ART
    Check her website’s “art stuff” section for an explanation of how she does her illustrations. She has many styles of art. Of your 4 books, which did she illustrate herself? Which style of art did she use for each? Why do you think so?
  4. ADDITIONAL FACTS ABOUT THE HISTORIC CHARACTER
    Take one of the books that has the least number of additional notes about the historic character and research 10 additional interesting facts she does not include. Do they make a difference to how you see the historic figure
  5. HOW MANY WORDS IN HER BOOK
    Approximately how many words are in each book. Count 3 of the pages from the middle of the book, total, and divide by 3 to create an average number per page. Multiply that by the number of pages in the book (Usually 32). If you have something interesting to say about a topic you have gathered information on, this is all you need to write to be an author who makes money for your work.

Unrecognized Women Scientists and Inventors

Historically there has been a lack of recognition of the work of women scientists beyond Ada Lovelace. It is often true as well that their work has actually been credited to others. It might make an interesting quick inquiry project for students to select a woman to investigate. What was the discovery or invention? What happened? Is there any pattern in what happened? And any other questions the class as a whole wishes to investigate.

  1. Rosalind Franklin: DNA. The Nobel prize went to Watson and Crick.
  2. Chien-Shiung Wu: Disproved the law of parity. The Nobel prize went to Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yan.
  3. Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Found the first pulsar and Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle got the Nobel prize.
  4. Esther Lederberg: Found a bacterial virus. Her husband and two others got the Nobel prize.
  5. Lisa Meitner: Found that atomic nuclei can split in two and Otto Hawn won the Nobel prize.
  6. Nellie Stevens: Discovered sex is determined by chromosomes. It was credited to Thomas Hunt Morgan.
  7. Margaret Knight: Patented a paper bag machine. The patent was stolen by a man although she won her case in court.
  8. Elizabeth Magie: Invented Monopoly (she patented it as The Landlord’s Game) and Parker Brothers credited it to themselves.
  9. Judy Malloy: Wrote the first hypertext fiction. That “first” was credited to Michael Joyce.
  10. Candace Pert: Found the receptor that allows opiates to lock onto the brain. Dr. Solomon Snyder received an award for it.
  11. Martha Coston: Designed the signal flares for US Naval vessels. Although he had been dead for 10 years, the patent went to her husband Franklin Coston.
  12. Mary Anning: Only now famous as a British finder of fossils. She was unrecognized because of her class and sex.
  13. Marthe Gautier: Discovered the cause of Down’s syndrome. Two men received the credit.
  14. Emmy Noether: Her theorem united two pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Her foundational work was used in the textbook by B. L. van der Warden but not mentioned by him until his 7th edition.

Algorithms

Because we we are introducing programming at earlier ages, now might be a good time to explain the concept of an algorithm—an incredibly detailed set of directions to do something . We have “algorithms” in our head to do many automatic tasks such as tying shoes, getting dressed, typing, searching on the Internet, etc.

For a computer, an algorithm can’t miss a single tiny step. To avoid having to develop a part of the code each time, if you need to count something in the game you are designing, you “plug in” the “count this” algorithm, already designed by an earlier programmer.

The Khan Academy has a really good explanation of algorithms at here.

Ask students to write the most detailed algorithm they can for something like borrowing a book from the school library, or riding on public transit, or making the grilled cheese sandwich.  Students can suggest other possibilities and they can exchange and “debug” each others algorithms, by pointing out essential, simpler steps that need to be included or errors that would have them frying the sandwich before putting the cheese in.

For 13 creative writing ideas, click Ada Lovelace to download.

The Real Story of Stone Soup

The fisherman in this story is fooled by his three nephews.  They persuade him that they will make stone soup, then distract him at each point, in order to add real ingredients to the soup.  He is

Ying Chang Compestine, ©2007, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 978-0-52547-493-5

The Chopsticks Game

Our fisherman makes bowls and chopsticks from bamboo. It might be fun to gather a class set of chopsticks.  Some students will be accomplished users, and others will never have held them.

Buy about 90 pieces of butterfly pasta.  Make 60 pieces of 4 cm x 4 cm coloured cardstock.  Each student gets one pair of chopsticks, 1 pair of yardstick pieces, and 6 pieces of butterfly pasta. (Put the cardstock and butterfly pieces in individual ziplock bags for ease of distribution.)

Ask students put their pasta on one of the pieces of cardstock.  They are then to transfer each butterfly pasta to the other piece, using their chopsticks.  When they are accomplished at the transfer, you could allow them to play with them during recess to have chopstick races.

I think that chopsticks may have “created” Chinese cuisine.  That is, Chinese dishes are cooked in sauces with small bites, easy to pick up with chopsticks.  Western cuisine on the other hand is eaten with a knife and fork because it is cooked before cutting it up.  The Chinese tended to think that all the “butchering” (that is cutting it up) should happen before the food is served.

Extreme Writing Topics

Always present three possible topics for extreme writing so that students will have a choice. My book, The Power of Extreme Writing, is available at ASCD for a complete explanation of this unique approach to journaling.

  1. Food I prepare myself
  2. Stories of playing a trick on someone, or having a trick played on me.
  3. Stories of working hard, and stories of being lazy (doing a whole lot of nothing

Stone Soup and Creative Mornings

Creative Mornings meets once a month and is an organization that is free to attend and belong to.  Speakers also speak for free to an audience of  about 200 “creatives”—writers, artists, software developers, advertising pr people, photographers, actors, etc.

Creative Mornings Stone Soup is made to demonstrate the values of community and sharing using the story of Stone Soup.  Each of their speakers over the last year or so, has one line from the story, and the effect is really terrific.  You could think of doing something like that with your students.

For 6 creative writing ideas, click The Real Story of Stone Soup to download.

King Louie’s Shoes

King Louis XIV ruled France (the superpower of its day) for 72 years. He had the biggest army, the biggest palace, the biggest parties and gifts, but, he was short. To compensate, he first commissions the highest throne, then the biggest wig, then the highest heels. Dancing in his new heels, he falls and is embarrassed.

D.J. Steinberg, ©2017, Simon and Shuster, 978-1-4814-2657-2

Vocabulary
Partly because England was invaded by the Norman French in 1066, many English words have French origins, and have made their way into everyday use.  In this book, baroque and derriere are two of the French words used.

From the letter B, here is a small sample of English words that began as French:

  • baroque, bachelor, bacon, bailiff, ball (the party not the toy), bandage
  • banquet, barge, barrette, barricade, base, basil, basket, basset (the hound)
  • baste (sew), batter, bauble, bayonet, beagle, beast, beautification, beauty
  • beef, beggar, beige, belfry, benevolent, berate, beret, bestial, beverage,
  • bias, bigamy, bikini, billiards, billion, binocular, biopsy, biscuit, bison
  • bistro, bizarre, biscuit, blame, blank, blanket, blemish, blister, block, blouse
  • boil, boisterous, bomb, bon appetit, butcher, bon voyage, border, botanic
  • bottle, butler, boulevard, boundary, bouquet, boutique, bowl, buzzard
  • brace, bracelet, Braille, branch, brave, bribe, brick, browse, brunette
  • brute, bucket, buccaneer, buffet, bugle, bulge, bullet, bulletin
  • bureaucracy, burglar, bushel

Several vocabulary activities are possible to play with words:

  1. FRENCH THROUGH THE ALPHABET
    Students in teams select 3 letters of the alphabet and find 20 English words that started as French words. Wikipedia has a good list—Google List of English Words of French Origin.
    Or, give them a list of countries in the world that have contributed words to English and have them identify 15 loan words and their definitions. One characteristic of English is how flexible it is in adopting words from other languages.
  2. COMPLETE SENTENCES IN FRENCH-ORIGIN WORDS
    Challenge students to write the longest totally English sentence, using as many words that began as French words as possible. For example, “The buccaneer berated the butler for boiling bacon for the buffet.” (6 words out of 11) and “The bestial brute (with bayonet drawn) browsed the banquet, barricading the beggar from crossing the boundary to the buffet.”
  3. CATEGORIES OF WORDS FROM FRENCH
    Put the words above on individual cards, and ask students create categories for the words as much as possible. For example: words about clothing include baste, bauble, beret, blouse, bracelet, brunette, bikini, and boutique; words about food include: basil, banquet, bacon, biscuit, bistro, bon appetite, butcher, bracelet, buffet, beverage, batter, boil, and beef. Discuss what the categories might mean; for example, the French are famous for good food, so a lot of food words were borrowed.

Roman Numerals

King Louis in this book is actually Louis XIV. This could be an interesting opportunity to introduce students to Roman numerals.

Teaching Roman Numerals below provides a clear and entertaining explanation of how to read the numbers. Plus, it gives the reasons to learn them: to read the titles of royalty, Egyptian dynasties, and the pope; to read the date of issue of movies; to read the titles of many computer games; to read the numbers on analog watches and clocks; Olympic Games (Games of the XXVIII Olympiad; for sections in the introduction to a book (section II); on public buildings and monuments; World War I and World War II; and so on.

For 10 creative writing ideas, click King Louie’s Shoes to download.

It’s a Snap: George Eastman’s First Photographs

In 1877, George Eastman started what was then the complicated hobby of photography. He decided to invent a camera—the Brownie—that would make it possible for everyone to take pictures and today, we can take pictures with our phones.

Monica Kulling, Tundra Books, ©2009, 978-0-99776-881-1

Taking a Good Photo

Students can learn some of the basics of good photography. They can practise improving photos by cropping magazine and newspaper photographs. When so many cameras are now available in schools, students can practise taking good photographs, as well. (The first two tips in italics are also mentioned at the back of the book.)

  1. Frame your shot—look at what is behind the person. Why take their picture in front of a garbage can, or where it will look like a post is growing out of their head?
  2. Almost always you can move closer and get a better shot.
  3. Avoid clutter in the picture—a clean single image is best.
  4. No more than 3 people in the picture—unless it’s a crowd shot where you don’t want to see individuals.
  5. Keep the sun behind you, so that it falls directly on the subject.
  6. Fluffy or dramatic clouds always look good in the background of a picture.

Kodachrome

In 1976, Kodak had 95% of the market for film. Kodachrome film was the standard of photography, although kodachrome discontinued production in 2010 after over 75 years because there are fewer pictures now that are developed.

Paul Simon’s song, Kodachrome (below), has a chorus that celebrates photography.

KODACHROME
You give us those nice bright colours
You give us the green of summer
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
Oh yea!
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away

Students might be interested in writing their own 9-line poem celebrating or making fun of taking photos in their life, or being photographed. First, brainstorm words and phrases related to photography such as: snap, smile, say cheese, hold that pose, be natural, camera, capture, iphone, flash, pic, paparazzi, focus, selfie, lens, enlarge, digital, zoom, or edit.

For 8 creative writing ideas, click It’s a Snap to download.

The Strongest Man in the World

In graphic novel style, we hear the story of Louis Cyr, a French-Canadian who was the “strongest man in the world.” His life story is told in flashback with some of his amazing feats of strength.

Nicholas Debon, Anansi Press, ©2007, 13: 978-0-88899-731-9

Writing in Flashback

This book begins with Louis Cyr’s report to his daughter that the doctor says due to his health problems he must retire. He then tells his daughter the story of his life, and ends with his final show. For students to imitate this style, I think they should begin with the complete draft of a story they have already written that is in time order. Then after you read them the story so that they can see how it is done, they would re-write their story, beginning with the moment before the ending, and then the full story, and finally the full ending of the story.

Other Books in Flashback

These picture books are variations of the concept of the flashback. They could be read as further examples of this style of writing. Point out that “money can be made” and “A’s can be gotten” by using an interesting style:

  • Miss Rumphius
  • Kamishibai Man
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
  • One Small Blue Bead
  • Pink and Say

Guinness Book of World Records

Students love the Guinness Book of World Records. Select several records a day to read aloud…and then be sure that the library has a couple of copies for students to read on their own.

If you look on the Internet, Louis Cyr is still considered to be the strongest man who ever lived. This Canadian boy apparently weighed 18 pounds when he was born.

For 7 creative writing ideas, click The Strongest Man in the World to download.

The Three Questions

In this picture book, based on a Leo Tolstoy short story, our hero Nikolai seeks the answer to his three questions from a series of animals, ending with the wise turtle of the mountain. It is his response to a stranger’s cry for help that leads him to the answer. It’s a simple book based on three questions: What is the right time? Who is the most important one? What is the most important thing to do?

John J. Muth, Scholastic, ©2002, 978-0-439-19996-4

Fables

A fable has specific characteristics:

  • There are animals in the story.
  • The animals talk.
  • The animals represent human qualities.
  • A fable is very short.
  • There is an explicit statement of the moral of the story.

By this definition, which of the qualities of a fable does this story have or not have?

Internet Version of the Book

I looked at several YouTube versions of this book, and think this is the best. If you want to read it yourself, simply turn off the sound, and read aloud as the story proceeds.

Philosophy for Kids

The Teaching Children Philosophy website has a collection of some interesting activities for students based around picture books (click book modules). Some discussions that might be useful are:

  1. What is it to be a hero? to be heroic?
  2. Give students a small collection of 3 songs. What makes a beautiful song? An ugly song? What makes something beautiful or ugly?

(This can be applied to images as well.)

For 10 creative writing ideas, click The Three Questions to download.

Detective LaRue

The follow-up book to Dear Mrs. LaRue, using the same pattern, finds Ike accused of abducting the neighbour’s cats. Mrs. LaRue is on vacation, and the story proceeds through his letters from jail, and on the road, as he tracks down the culprits. As with the other book, his letters in black and white show the difficulties he is claiming to have; the coloured pictures show the reality of his experience.

Mark Teague, Scholastic, ©2004, ISBN 0- 439-45868-4

The Letter Story

This book can provide an excellent model for telling a story that advances through a series of letters. Ask students to first outline a story they wish to write, then to add rich details in the form of a series of letters home, or to a friend, or someone who has moved a way, telling a bit of the story in each letter.

The Point of View Story

Each page of the book contrasts black and white with colour. The black and white portion of the picture represents how Ike is seeing the situation. In the first letter he is seeing himself as sitting in a bare cell, singing with a rat, with a metal tin, presumably having held food on the floor, looking pathetic. In the colour picture, he is sitting at the officer’s desk, with dog bones and a doughnut, drinking a coffee the officer has presumably poured, while typing his letter on the officer’s typewriter.

This is an excellent model for two perspectives on any historic Social Studies event being studied. For example, on one side of the page of a report on Columbus, students could write the historic story of Columbus. On the other side, the same story from the point of view of the miserable sailor who is suffering from sea sickness, shortage of food, scummy water, scurvy, crowded conditions, etc.

Did you know, for example, that the three ships of Columbus were actually the Nina, the Pinta, and the Navidad. Apparently, on Christmas the crew was drunkenly celebrating and a sailor ran the Santa Maria aground. They built a new ship from scavenging the old one, and anything else they could find and christened it The Navidad (for the name of Christmas in Spanish.) It would make a great letter.

YouTube Reading Rockets

An interview with Mark Teague about his early writing experiences is available at YouTube Reading Rockets where he describes dictating stories to his mom. It’s very short…and might make a really good prompt to students writing a journal entry about their earliest writing experiences.

For 10 creative writing ideas, click Detective LaRue 2pdf to download.

Marco Polo

The story of Marco Polo and his trip from Venice to Beijing starting in 1271 and his return 24 years later. The illustrations are in an eastern 13th century style, with gilding and gorgeous elaborate borders all using Chinese inks. Be selective in your choices of what you read – it is a long picture book.

Demi, Marshall Cavendish Chidren, ©2008, 978-0-7614-5433-5

Here is a three-minute summary of Marco Polo’s travels …without the amazing things that he saw and reported. It could be a quick introduction before you start your selected readings.

The Life Lessons of Marco Polo

Try giving the students a set of potential life lessons we could learn from Marco Polo before you read excerpts from the book. Ask them to listen and select four potential lessons. Tell them they can also draw lessons of their own from your readings. For each of them, they are to write one paragraph explaining how Marco Polo exemplifies that lesson. Discuss their opinions in small groups and as the class.

  1. Go outside your comfort zone.
  2. Always record your travels.
  3. Taste many different types of food.
  4. Stick to your guns.
  5. Be prepared to take risks.
  6. Build a network of connections and friends.
  7. Work hard for your money.
  8. Learn other languages.
  9. Be charming.

Why You Wouldn’t Want to Take A Trip with Marco Polo

An opposite point of view could be taken of Marco Polo’s travels…and that is, all of the privations and dangers he encountered. Ask students to listen as you read, and make a list of things that were difficult on his journey…then to write a letter, or an essay, or a rant about “Why I Wouldn’t Want to Take a Trip with Marco Polo.”

Zentangles

While Demi’s used patterns and designs common in the Middle East in the 1200’s, those are difficult for students to imitate. On the other hand, elaboration of design within an outline can be easily achieved using zentangles. There are many websites and YouTube videos dedicated to zentangle, a popular contemporary “doodle” students can use to create a frame or illustration for a piece of their own writing. Start with a simple outline drawing, and then pattern the inside. This particular YouTube not only demonstrates fitting designs into an outline, it also provides many different patterns students can imitate. Have a set of patterns available on a single sheet of paper for each student as well.

For 10 creative writing ideas, click Marco Polo to download.

The Highest Number in the World

1770495754Gabe is a hockey player whose lucky number is 22, the same number as her hero, Hayley Wickenheiser. But her new jersey is #9. She is crushed. Gabe’s grandmother explains that the #9 was the retired number of Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, bobby Hull, etc. and that #99 was Gretsky’s number. Gabe is reconciled, and dreams of her own retired #9.

Roy MacGegor, Tundra books, ©2014. 978-1-77049-573

A School Sports Survey

It’s worthwhile setting up an Inquiry about what sports are being played by students in your class, and potentially the whole school. Picture your students out there interviewing fellow students, learning the math of it, thinking about the questions they want answered so that they collect the best information to answer their questions.

Here’s a really simple question they might want an answer to: What are the most common sports played outside of school? Compare males to females and primary students (K-4), intermediate students (5-7), or middle school students (5-9) if that is how you are organized. Students learning percentage calculation can do the math as well for their results. Report results in a school announcement, in a school newsletter, and on your class blog so that they receive the maximum publicity for their results. The School Board may also be interested in knowing the kinds of organized athletic activities students participate in outside of school hours.

Students should first survey their own class, to become familiar with the form, as well as how to tally and use the results. In a single class, if it is a split grade, you can have four categories – male and female for each of the grades. Then, assign them in teams to fan out at recess and lunch and collect results. Teach them polite survey methods: “Will you please help our class with a survey? It will only take a few seconds.” Ask students to read it to students who look like they may have trouble (ESL students, or primary students). Students carry a book to balance the survey on, and a pen to write with. At the end, “Thank you. We’re going to announce the results over the PA.

A Discussion About Hockey

There are many discussion questions that can arise from this book:

  1. Why are hockey organizations reluctant to have mixed male and female teams?
  2. What is our opinion of violence in hockey? Especially now that we are finding that even one concussion can cause permanent brain damage.
  3. How will global warming effect hockey?
  4. When the kids say, “Hayley, Number 9” is that bullying? When does teasing cross over into bullying?
  5. Why are fewer Canadian parents signing their kids up for hockey?

Below are some of the reasons parents give for the decline in the percentage of Canadian youth enrolling in hockey. See what your students think.

Some Reasons Given for the Decline in Hockey Enrollment

  • New immigrants from warm countries have little experience of it.
  • Warmer winters make it harder to create home-made rink by simply flooding a field.
  • The equipment is very expensive.
  • Parents do not approve of body checking as it likely to cause brain damage.
  • Parents do not want to pay for expensive dental work to repair broken teeth.
  • Parents do not like the attitude of “hockey parents.”
  • The professional games are too expensive.
  • Rink times for less elite players are often at ridiculous times of the day.
  • The skill of teams have been diluted by opening up so many franchises.
  • Players are being encouraged to actually injure other players.

Hockey Songs

Two hockey songs could be played while using this book:

  • The Hockey Song by Jughead
  • The Hockey Song by Stompin’ Tom Connors

There are a few others, but these are kid friendly.

For 9 creative writing ideas, click The Highest Number in the World to download.