The Mermaid’s Muse: The Legend of the Dragon Boats

A poet named Qu Yuan, advisor to the King of Chu, is falsely banished to a far off island where the inhabitants really respect his wisdom. A dragon falls in love with him, and changes to a young woman, who asks him to come and live with her under the sea. The villagers assume, when they see him on the dragon, that he is going to be killed and they row out in their boats to save him, banging on the water to scare the dragon, throwing in rice cakes to distract the dragon, and attacking. The dragon refuses to fight back. The poet eventually changes himself into a dragon and says, “Do not believe everything your eyes will tell you.” After that, each year, the villagers celebrate the two dragons, and eventually come to celebrate with their own dragon boats.

David Bouchard, Raincoast Books, 1999, ISBN 9781551922485

Author: Dave Bouchard
Dave Bouchard is a former school administrator and teacher in BC. He has a school named after him in Ontario. He has received the Governor General’s medal and written many books. Three of his books are of Chinese folktales: The Mermaid’s Muse, The Dragon New Year, and The Great Race. Nine of his books reflect his Metis heritage which he discovered as an adult including I am Raven (click for teaching ideas).

Pourquoi Stories: How Things Came To Be
Pouquoi is French for “why”. This is a pourquoi story of how it came to be that there are dragon boat races and festivals around the world. Students could be asked to write their own imaginative, “how it came to be” story. One possibility is how the name of their school came to be, or the name of their town. Another is just an ordinary object such as an orange and how it came to be. Most pourquoi stories have a humorous element.

For example, I went to General Currie Elementary School in Richmond in grade one. We children believed that it was named after an American General (because that seemed more possible than a Canadian General) who had retired in Canada after the American Revolution. As an adult I discovered that he was the first Canadian commander of an all Canadian military division.

Art: Drawing the Dragon
There are many YouTube videos to teach students to draw important Chinese symbols, including the dragon. One I particularly like is How to Draw a Chinese Dragon by Paolo Morrone (below). Be prepared to stop the video at regular intervals so that students can catch up.

For more creative writing ideas, click The Mermaid’s Muse to download.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest

The story of Jadav Payeng, India, who started with a thicket of bamboo to stabilize an island that was being eroded away and over his lifetime has grown to a 1300-acre forest. It’s about the difference a single person can make.

Sophia Gholz, Sleeping Bear Press, ©2019, ISBN 978-1-5341-1024-3

Tree Proverbs
In every culture, around the world, there seem to be proverbs and sayings involving trees. Give each group four proverbs and ask them to discuss and prepare a written explanation of their meanings. Each group should have a unique set and then reports to the whole class the meaning of one of their sayings. Some examples are:

  • A little axe can cut down a big tree. (Jamaica)
  • The one who plants the tree is not the one who will enjoy its shade. (China)
  • Big trees cast more shadow than fruit. (German)
  • The taller the tree the harder the fall. (Dutch)
  • Do not cut down the tree that gives you shade. (Arab)
  • Useful trees are cut down first (Korea)
  • The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. (Chinese)
  • The tree falls the way it leans. (Bulgaria)
  • The creation of a thousand forests is in one acre. (USA)
  • All birds flock to the fruitful tree (Senegal)

Poetry and Art
A considerable number of poems have been written in tribute to trees, or about walking through trees. Why not add poetry to your tree unit?

  1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost)
  2. Trees (Joyce Kilmer)
  3. Birches (Robert Frost)
  4. The Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now (A.E. Housman)
  5. The Way Through the Woods (first stanza) (Rudyard Kipling)

Emily Carr was one of BC’s first “environmentalists”, showing in her art both the beauty of the forest, and the destruction wrought by forestry. There is a large collection of Emily Carr at Vancouver Art Gallery. Give your students a large sheet of watercolour paper (or regular paper if watercolour is too expensive) and a limited period of time (15 minutes?) To create an “interpretation” of an Emily Carr painting. This one is usually called Lone Pine.

True and Yet Not True?
First, show the students the images in the book and ask them to talk about how old Jadav is, how much life his 40 acres can support, whether he was ever employed, and how he makes a living. Second, give the students articles about the real story that this book is based on. Get students to discuss:

  • Is it OK that the story isn’t exactly precisely true, even though he is the actual person who did create a forest on his own and has certainly dedicated his life to doing it for no money?
  • Why would the author take liberties with the story?
  • Would the story be just as interesting and just as inspiring for young people if it were “factual”? What parts make it inspiring?

For more creative writing ideas, click The Boy Who Grew a Forest to download.

Pluto Gets the Call

Pluto loved being a planet but then receives the call that demotes him. He decides to head to the Sun to plead his case and on the way comments, mostly unfavourably, on the other planets as he passes them. The Sun consoles him with the fact that he now has a warm place in our hearts. With humour, we learn some facts about the solar system.

Adam Rex, Simon and Schuster, Beach Line Books, ©2019 978-1-5344-1453-2

Memorizing the Planets – In Order
Yes, there’s a mnemonic—My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles—but for me it’s as hard to remember the sentence as it is to remember the planets in order. I was once taught a story that works, because narrative is easiest to remember.

First, remember there are 4 inner smaller rocky planets, and 4 larger gas planets. Also, this names the planets from the sun out which means, for example, that if I say “Jupiter” you will always be able to say it is between Mars and Saturn.

Right next to the Sun, there was a very zippy planet called Mercury, named after the Messenger God because of its speed. Unfortunately, Mercury sneezed on the next planet over, which was the beautiful planet, Venus. Now mercury is poisonous so Venus scooped it up and threw it on the next planet, Earth. Earth didn’t want it either, and threw it onto Mars, the next planet and an angry red planet named after the god of war.

Mars was just winding up to throw it, when over the hill came a giant, that reached to the clouds, Jupiter. He was wearing a t-shirt with a huge red circle in the middle surrounded by the letters S.U.N. (Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). In the old days, he also had worn a ridiculous beanie cap on top of which was a tiny little model of the cartoon dog Pluto, but he doesn’t wear it any more.

Tales in Space
For general vocabulary, it’s a good idea to try out the Two Dozen Words You Need to Explore Space. Actually, I made that up, but they are still good words: satellite, orbit, rocket, space station, sputnik, comet, meteor, nebula, vacuum, astronomy, solar wind, big bang, Kuiper Belt, stardust, asteroid belt, International Space Station, telescope, cosmonaut/astronaut, heliosphere, black hole, galactic, magnetosphere, NASA, Canada Arm.

Once they have the words in their space suit, so to speak, ask them to write a story incorporating at least 10 of the words. It could be a space adventure such as Guardians of the Galaxy with a hero, an oddball sidekick, and a quest. It’s okay for them to create another adventure for characters they already know. The idea is to stretch their vocabulary into active use.

Ask them to highlight the words they use because there will be 2 marks: 1 for using the words, and 1 for the story, and you want your marking to be as easy as possible.

The Gods of the Greeks and Romans Are With Us Today
Give students a list of the products and events in our life that relate to the Gods of Greece and Rome. Ask each student to research one of them: what is the product and what does it do, what is the story behind the god it is named after, and why they feel that connection is appropriate. Prepare a quick PowerPoint or Keynote with pictures of the product or event. Students will turn in their paper, and also make an oral presentation. Two marks from one assignment and it’s fun too.

Here are some products: Nike shoes, Pandora jewelry, Versace designer uses the Medusa head, Ajax cleaner, Hermes fashion, Starbucks siren/ mermaid symbol, Trident gum, Goodyear tires with the flying sandal, FTD florists’ symbol of Mercury, Amazon delivers, Mars candy bar, Oracle database software, Ambrosia salad, Apollo Theatre in New York City, Delphi software, Vulcanized rubber, Centaur pharmaceuticals, Echo Digital Audio, Europa (website of the EU), Hyperion Records, Odyssey records, Pegasus travel, Poseidon Seafood, Prometheus books, Titans ()NFL team), Triton Tool and Die, Mercury Car, the Nissan Titan, the Volkswagen Phaeton, Venus Beauty supplies, Pegasus symbol of Mobil Oil. Honda Odyssey.

For more creative writing ideas, click Pluto Gets the Call to download.

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World

Earle Dickson’s wife Josephine has many kitchen injuries – cuts, burns, and scrapes. To help her Earle creates a cover to protect the injury that eventually becomes Band-Aid by Johnson and Johnson. Johnson and Johnson develops a market by providing them free to the Boy Scouts.

Barry Wittenstein, ©2018, Charlesbridge, 978-1-58089-745-7

Writing: Playing with the Structure
The most fun of this book is the series of endings—six times in the course of the book when a logical pause in the plot occurs, the author says “The End.” But when the page is turned over the plot continues! Phrases that restart the plot are “Actually, that was just the beginning,” “But WAIT,” “Oops, not yet,” “Sorry, not really.”

Students could start by writing a story, following the basic story plot of a problem, with three attempts to solve it, before succeeding. When the draft is finished, they could enlarge and expand it, by adding details of conversation, and including “The End” at each of the attempts to solve it then continuing on the next page with why that solution does not work.

Because of COVID-19
We have discovered during the pandemic, many adults don’t seem understand what a vaccination is and does. We attribute it often to the fact that in their lifetime and even their parent’s lifetime, they did not experience or see anyone who caught the many diseases that vaccination prevents. They have not experienced polio, measles, mumps, rubella, small pox, etc. and don’t know anyone who did. There’s a meme going around saying:

“Remember when you caught polio?”
“Of course you don’t. Your parents vaccinated you.”

So, if you did a small presentation about how vaccines work first, you could then assign pairs of students to study the 15 diseases for which we have vaccines—all developed since about 1920. If each pair took one disease, they could present on the following topics:

  • What is the disease and its effects?
  • How many people used to catch it?
  • How many people suffer long term effects from it or die?
  • Who developed the vaccine and when, and how?

Students could prepare a collective report—each pair preparing a two-page presentation with images. That project could be bound and catalogued for the library. Then students could prepare an oral presentation for their disease to help developing speaking skills.

Possibilities include:

  1. Insulin
  2. Tuberculosis
  3. Diphtheria
  4. Tetanus (lock jaw)
  5. Pertussis – whooping cough
  6. Penicillin (great antibiotic, not a vaccine)
  7. Yellow Fever
  8. Smallpox
  9. Shingles
  10. Measles
  11. Mumps
  12. Hepatitis A and B
  13. Polio
  14. Chicken Pox
  15. (You could include the COVID-19 vaccines if you like)

My Personal Timeline: Writing
The back of the book has a timeline for the major events of Earle Dickson’s life with a focus on his career with Johnson and Johnson. It might be an interesting project for students to write their own timeline, starting from their birth, kindergarten, grade one, etc. and also including any major events in each year.

For more creative writing ideas, click The Boo-Boos that Changed the World to download.

The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle: The Cool Science Behind Frank Epperson’s Famous Frozen Treat

Frank Epperson was a question asker and an experimenter as a child, especially with flavoured soda waters. He tested a lot of his concoctions on his little brother Cray. One year there was a cold snap in California where the weather dropped below zero and he experimented with a glass of flavoured water and voila a frozen drink on a stick. Eventually he worked out how to produce them in volume and called them the Ep-sickle, and eventually the Pop-sicle.

Anne Renaud, ©2019, Kids Can Press, ISBN 978-1-5253-0028-8

Books About Inventions
Here are ten picture books written about inventions. Students could work in groups of three to read the book and research the inventors. The group then prepares a 3-part presentation, each student taking one part. They may choose any of the following responses:

  1. A poster “celebrating” the invention and the inventor
  2. A comparison of similarities and differences of the “Real Life” of the Inventor to the book’s version
  3. A set of imaginary entries in the diary of the inventor
  4. A humorous poem about the invention and the inventor

Books about Inventions:

  • Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament
  • Popcorn at the Palace
  • Snowflake Bentley
  • Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call
  • Now and Ben
  • It’s a Snap! (George Eastman)
  • In the Bag, Margaret Knight Was It
  • Now and Ben (inventions of Benjamin Franklin)
  • Going Up! Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top
  • All Aboard, Elijah McCoy

The Science of Liquids
There are three experiments in the book that are feasible for students.

  1. Why oil and liquids don’t mix
    Oil is lighter and will float on water. If a drop of food colouring (which is water-based) is dropped into the oil, it will progress slowly down to reach and colour the water level.
  2. How to make your own lemon-flavoured soda water using baking soda.
    The baking soda reacts to the acid of lemon to produce carbon dioxide.
  3. How salt lowers the freezing point of water.

Countdown Poetry
Demonstrate with the popsicle version of the poem, and then ask them to use the pattern for something in Social Studies or Science. Examples are below:

5 words for what it looks like
4 words for what it feels like
3 words for what it tastes like
2 words for what you say
1 word for how it smells

Yellow, red, green, orange, blue
Cold, icy, melting, sticky
Chilled sweet fruit
Yum, yum
Strawberry
Popsicle

Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria, compass
Danger, foolishness, bravery, adventure
Hardtack, dried cod, chickpeas
Chewy, salty, dry
Sweaty
Columbus

For more creative writing ideas, click The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle to download.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown

It’s a simple biography of Margaret Wise Brown that tells of the life of one of the greatest children’s book writers ever. There are 42 pages, simple sentences, just a few examples, but what a lovely tribute to her.

Mac Barnett, ©2019, Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-239344-9

The Important Book

One of Margaret Wise Brown’s out popular books was The Important Book. The video below is a reading of The Important Book by Gary Eisenberg. Students will instantly understand that the pattern of the book itself, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, is totally an homage to her original book. You would have to know her books in order to recognize the homage.

The pattern is:

  1. The Important thing about…
  2. 5 facts about it…
  3. Then repeat, but the Important thing about the…

This is potentially a really successful writing pattern for your students. Use topics from the classroom, or gym equipment, or art materials, or positions on a team, anything that 5 things can be said about. The students construct a list of 5 items for their Important Book—humour matters if possible—and then write. The finished book will seem really easy for them to write, but it has a structure and will result in 7 sentences for each item, 5 items in total—35 sentences in total—and they’ll have a good time doing it. Below are a couple examples:

The important thing about the whiteboard is that it is white. It is in front of the room. It is written on with erasable pens—never with permanent pens unless you want the custodian to be angry. It contains important information about what we are doing. It can get very messy. It isn’t used very often any more. But the important thing about a whiteboard is that it is white.

The important thing about a pitcher is that he throws the ball. It has to be a round white official baseball. He throws in the direction of the home plate. The ball may be hit by the hitter and very rarely can be caught by the pitcher. If the hitter doesn’t swing, or swings and misses, it is caught by the catcher. The catcher throws it back to the pitcher who catches it. But the important thing about a pitcher is that he throws the ball.

Continue reading

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein

mary who wrote frankensteinMary Shelley is the 18 year old author of Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus) and this is the story of how, on a stormy night, in a gathering of recognized Romantic period geniuses, she began to write this story which is the inspiration of the entire Gothic horror genre.

Linda Bailey, ©2018, Tundra Books, Random House, ISBN 978-1-77049-559-3

Frankenfish and Other Cool Characters

frankenfishWhat about an art activity where students combine the features of several animals to create a frankenanimal? An elephant with zebra stripes and butterfly wing ears looks great. You might want to give out some basic animal drawings and some drawings of parts (tusks, horns, claws, patterns, wings, fins, tails, etc.) that they could combine to create their frankenanimal.

The Actual Plot of Frankenstein
If your students are interested, SparkNotes has an illustrated summary of the plot of the story of Frankenstein. Most people think Frankenstein is the monster and most people know how the monster was created, but they don’t know the actual plot—which is actually very strange and convoluted in today’s ears.

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Nothing Stopped Sophie

nothing stopped sophie cheryl bardoeThe Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain. Sophie Germain was an 18th century math prodigy who simply refused to accept the assigned roles for a female. Her parents, the schools, the science establishment—nothing stopped her insatiable need to understand and use mathematics. She eventually found the formula that would predict patterns of vibration. We use it today to build bridges, skyscrapers, skytrains, earthquake scenarios…anything that has a structure and can vibrate. In 1816, she became the first woman to win a grand prize from the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Cheryl Bardoe, ©2018, Little Brown and Company, ISBN 978-0-316-27820-1

Writing to a Pattern

One of the things that holds this story together is the repeated line, “But nothing stopped Sophie.” Ask students to write of something they wanted to do and worked hard to do—it can be as simple as mastering a computer program or a game, riding a bicycle, learning to type, playing an instrument, reading a map…it doesn’t have to be amazing, it just has to be a challenge.

Ask them to set up the scenario of failing at first, then having 3 tries before the final success. At each stage it would be “But nothing stopped (name of student)”.

The French Revolution and Sophie

A great way of remembering lists of things or connections of things is through mnemonics—memory devices. Most students easily remember, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” because it rhymes. We can remember HOMES as the names of the Great Lakes—Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior—because we can think of them as being in your HOME country,

Well, to remember when the French Revolution was, we need to think of the song, The Marseilles, and then sing,

Louis the Sixteenth was the king of France, in 1789,
He was worth than Louis the fifteenth
He was worse than Louis the fourteenth
He was worse than Lou-o-ie the Thirteenth
He was the worst…da, da, da, da
Since Louie the First.

Why does this matter to this book? It doesn’t, except that Sophie lived in France, during the French Revolution, and it affected how she saw math—as something solid, unchanging, and true in a world that was chaotic.

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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.

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.