I just finished Loree Griffin Burns’ new book Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard and once again I understand why we need to light a fire under our students regarding learning science & social studies “content.” Our students have to be informed, actively engaged citizens for the world to be a better place and I’m not saying that lightly. Burns’ books take you into the real world of being active citizens in taking care of our world (it takes a village, right?) and her writing as well as the layout and design of her books are student-friendly for 4th-8th graders. They could be read aloud (as part of a unit of study) with the photos and features shared on the document camera; they could be read as part of critical thinking nonfiction-literature circles; they could be book-talked and on display in the classroom library; they could be read for inquiry projects. There are so many possibilities.
In Citizen Scientists, Burns describes how citizens around the world document the travel and conditions of butterflies, birds, frogs and ladybugs. Burns starts by clearly defining the terms “citizen,” “scientist” and “citizen science” – “the study of our world by the people who live in it” – including “everyday people.” She immediately makes the student reader feel welcome and a part of the community of citizen scientists and then draws us in even further with descriptions of how we, everyday people, can tag butterflies or document birds sighted to help scientists and then shares narratives of volunteers who track these creatures.
I read Hive Detectives:Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe when I was putting together a primary grade text set on the life cycle of honey bees and the impact of environmental shifts on honey bees. While this book is for older students, it was an excellent primer for me, the teacher, on the Colony Collapse Disorder (2006) and the research that has gone into figuring out what happened when millions and millions of bees just disappeared from keepers’ hives. This enriched my thinking about what I might say and do with younger readers who are reading books on the same topic but at a more appropriate level – like The Buzz on Bees: Why Are They Disappearing? by Rotner (2010). For older readers, Burns’ book gets at how it takes a village to solve a problem – many different kinds of scientists and a wide-variety of groups are involved in figuring out how we harmed and how we can prevent harming these creatures – who pollinate so many plants that are essential to our lives.
Have you heard of the Eastern Garbage Patch? A floating patch of garbage twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean? In Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam & the Science of Ocean Motion (2010), Burns leads you there with information on oceanographers who have tracked debris like Nike sneakers and rubber ducks for years, examining and learning more about ocean currents – a great tie in to oceanography units of study. Again – it’s taking a village of scientists, ship captains, beach combers to help us stay on top of this issue and work to resolve it, BUT we, everyday citizens, can be of help, too. (Honestly, I will think twice about using a plastic fork from now on.)
I’ve been reading a lot of Elfrieda Hiebert’s work on the Common Core – what she says over and over is if we want students to achieve in reading and understanding informational texts – we have to host spaces for students to read, read, read these texts. I think the trick may be locating books like Burns’ and helping students see the relevance of these books as they pursue understanding how to be active citizens in a natural world very much in need of our attention.