Proving That Oil and Water Mix:
Science and Literature in the Middle School
Jim Brewbaker and Kerri Deal
In Kerri Deal's sixth-grade classroom in Columbus, Georgia, students have listened-and, in the best tradition of eleven year olds, squirmed, fidgeted, stared out the window, doodled, chewed candy, made goo-goo eyes at an observer (me), and even paid attention, sort of-as she reads aloud chapter 4 of Jean Craighead George's There's an Owl in the Shower (1995). This novel recounts the experiences of Borden, a youngster whose logger father is out of work because the spotted owl is on the endangered species list. By happenstance, Borden rescues an orphaned baby owl and takes it home. Thus the plot thickens.
Among other things, chapter 4 of There's an Owl in the Shower details both what owls look like and what they eat-mice and other small rodents, for the most part. The catch is that they digest these critters only partially. Once again, the plot thickens.
Now it's time for a science activity. Students in threesomes and foursomes begin the morning's task: to examine and describe what they find in an owl pellet, an odorless brown object that looks more like a tootsie roll than anything else, though its resemblance to something their dogs would deposit in the backyard is unmistakable as well. Owl pellets, undigested stuff the birds cough up several times each day, are found near or under the nests of most varieties of North American owls.
By the time the kids finish-about twenty-five minutes later-they will have prodded and poked their way into their owl pellets, discovering as they do clumps of fur, tiny skulls, teeth, leg bones, and more.
Kerri Deal's kids are lucky. They get their science seasoned with literature. They get to read about or try on their own practical applications of science through experiences with quality young adult literature such as There's an Owl in the Shower or Karen Hesse's The Music of Dolphins (1996). These novels and others described here stimulate their scientific thinking and reinforce their developing scientific knowledge. Their science class, to boot, stimulates them to read, to ask the magical do-you-have-any-more-books-by-that-writer question.
Before we tell you more about how Kerri Deal "mixes oil and water," I have a small confession: Not long ago I had trouble thinking about mixing my English language arts teaching with science. It scared me. For one thing, I took my last science class-reluctantly-when I was a freshman. I figured out which science was the easiest at my university, gritted my teeth, enrolled, and endured the experience.
Something in me murmured insistently: science is for science teachers .
In the same vein, my experience has been that science teachers certainly don't mess with literature. As undergraduates, most science majors tolerate freshman English more than they relish it. They doggedly cite sources for their literary research paper according to the quaint preferences of the MLA rather than the jazzier APA, which they will use thereafter. They sell their semi-used Norton anthologies back to the bookstore at their first opportunity. Afterwards, they rarely if ever experience what English majors come to regard as a normal human activity-that is, talking about writers' lives, works, and technique.
Maybe you hear the voice too: literature is for English teachers .
For a long time, educators were pretty comfortable with this compartmentalized view of teachers and curriculum- and the world . School structures simultaneously reflected and reinforced the status quo . Testing programs, then and now, helped pile more bricks on the already sturdy walls between departments. How can English teachers cover relative pronouns if they let their kids do science? What do novels and short stories have to do with the scientific method and the DNA molecule?
More recently, though, the emergence of the middle school, the notoriety of such innovative high schools as those affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, and books such as Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise (1984) have shaken the monolith to some extent. Today, middle school teachers like Kerri Deal connect language arts and other contents through theme-based units. As well, committed teachers in the best high schools are finding ways for English classes to connect with history and political science.
Even so, mixing science and literature seems to be more of a leap that, say, American literature and US history. The backgrounds of English and science teachers are too different. There's too hefty an experience span to bridge. Everyone is hell bent on covering their own chunk of the curriculum.
Kerri Deal knows better. She's teaching me better. I'll let her explain:
Novels for Mixing Oil and Water
Barron, T.A. The Ancient One . Philomel, 1992.
The Ancient One , blends time travel, environmentalism, and baseball in an appealing narrative. Visiting her great aunt in Oregon, 13-year-old Kate joins in efforts to protect a redwood grove. Transported back five centuries, Kate meets Laioni, a girl from the Halami people. They are accompanied on a quest to avert the volcanic evil of the wicked Gashra by the owl-like Kandeldandel and Judy, a reluctant young logger. Barron details both beauties of the landscape and horrors of imagined hazards while Kate learns "that all living things are linked." She cannot save "The Ancient One," the largest of the redwoods, but other trees become a park and seedlings embody hope.
In a 1992 amazon.com review, physician philosopher Robert Coles wrote, " The Ancient One [is] written with grace and subtlety. All of us urgently need to hear its urgent and convincing message."
Dickinson, Peter. A Bone from A Dry Sea . Delacorte Press, 1993.
Vinny leaves her mother and stepfamily in London and arrives in Africa where she meets her father, Sam, a scientist at a fossil-dig site. Once together, the two re-establish their damaged relationship. Through self-discovery, Sam realizes how much he values his daughter's companionship, and Vinny grasps what she and her father share. Both must struggle for each other's acceptance-Vinny for her father's respect for her intellect, Sam for his role as a father. A Bone from A Dry Sea uses archaeological terms and theories while juxtaposing parallel stories. Teachers should be aware of the difficult subject matter and vocabulary. Interested students will find the book challenging and thought-evoking.
Fleischman, Paul. Seedfolks . HarperCollins, 1997.
A vacant lot is transformed into a garden growing not only vegetables but a sense of community and beauty among those who labor there. Kim plants beans in honor of her late father, a Vietnamese farmer. A neighbor, suspicious at first, watches Kim doggedly tend to the withering crop. Neighbors soon join in, each cultivating a section of the lot. Suddenly, a place of beauty stands amidst the city's grime and offers hope for residents who had lost it. In this moving story, Paul Fleischman shows once more that he is adept at writing from many perspectives.
George, Jean Craighead. There's an Owl in the Shower . Harper Trophy, 1995.
Because protecting spotted owls has cost Borden's father his job as a logger in the old growth forest of northern California, Borden intends to kill any spotted owl he sees, until he and his father find themselves taking care of a young owlet.
Hesse, Karen. The Music of Dolphins . Apple/Scholastic, 1996.
What begins as a book about speech development ends up as a truly captivating quick read for young adults. Mila, who at age 12 is rescued from the island ocean environment off Florida, knows dolphins better than humans. She was raised by them since the age of four. She is very confused. Hesse vividly captures what Mila feels in her strange new world. The narrative will capture middle school readers and perhaps stimulate them to learning more about dolphins and how sound travels in different mediums.
Hesse, Karen. Phoenix Rising . Puffin Books, 1994.
Fifteen-year-old Nyle's life is hard enough after the death of her mother, but the meltdown of a nuclear power plant east of her New England home changes her entire world and that of her neighbors. If she and others wear their masks until it is safe to take them off, they will probably survive. Others-including Ezra Trent and his mother-are not so lucky. Refugees from the disaster, they move into Nyle's farmhouse where the two teenagers develop a close friendship.
Korman, Gordon. Losing Joe's Place . Scholastic, 1990.
Gordon Korman tells a tale of three guys on their own in a big city. Don, Ferguson and Jason take summer jobs at a soap bubble wand factory and take over a brother's apartment and red Camero. His rule is this: "Don't lose my lease." Don loses their jobs, though, by showing a cost effective way of making wands. Their landlord is a stingy, deli-owning sneak. Kiki's father won't let her talk on the phone. Jessica can't cook or pass home ec. While Don makes plastic wands, Ferguson bounces from job to job and Jason keeps the apartment neat and cooking. When the landlord Plotnick goes to the hospital, Jason takes over the deli. Thus everything is smooth sailing. Or is it?
Lawson, Robert. The Great Wheel . Scholastic, 1994.
When Aunt Honora reads his fortune in his tealeaves, Conn Kilroy knows he is destined for greater things than his small Irish village can offer. But could he ever imagine that the wheel Aunt Honora spoke of would be the world's first Ferris wheel? Or that he would be one of the men chosen to construct it for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair?
Lisle, Janet Taylor. Angela's Aliens . Orchard Book, 1996.
Georgina, Poco, and Walter have anticipated Angela's return after a year away, but she-looking older than her eleven years-is oblivious to them. The town has a group concerned about UFOs. The protagonists sneak out one night and see Angela briefly before she disappears. When all search for Angela, Georgina finds her. Angela says she was taken by aliens and returned on a beam of light. She describes both the encounter and the earless aliens. Symbolically, Angela's parents never heard her when she tried to get their attention. Separated, busy with their own careers, they realize that Angela needs them. Angela's Aliens will hold the most appeal for younger readers struggling to understand the meaning of friendship and changing relationships.
Paulsen, Gary. The Schernoff Discoveries . Delacorte Press, 1997.
Here as elsewhere, Gary Paulsen plays the experience of male early adolescence for laughs. Harold Schernoff is a fourteen-year-old "science whiz and social outcast" who, along with his best friend (the unnamed narrator), courts disaster by applying his junior high version of the scientific method to all sorts of social problems and new adventures. Harold and friend learn to ski and fish, hatch a scheme to make money by retrieving golf balls from a river, and plan how to meet girls. Harold on sex: "What is it anyway?" Paulsen shows his empathy for the struggles of growing up and the value of laughter. Middle school students will find this an entertaining read.
Peck, Richard. The Great Interactive Dream Machine . Dial, 1996.
The Great Interactive Dream Machine , science fiction with a twist, will appeal to middle school readers. Josh Lewis' best friend, techno-nerd Aaron Zimmer, turns his computer into a flawed wish-granting machine. Transported in space and occasionally in time, the boys unwittingly fulfill the wishes of Aaron's family poodle and Josh's boy-crazy sister. They must discover how to return to current time and space as well as catch "the Watcher," who wants the machine. One need not understand computers to like this book, although technical language provides added pleasure for the would-be hacker. The climax is both poignant and a bit crazy, but readers will approve.
Ruckman, Ivy. Night of the Twisters . Harper Trophy, 1984.
Inspired by a 1980 disaster in which tornadoes devastated a Nebraska town, this first-person narrative aptly conveys this "night to remember." The tornado strikes while Dan and his best friend Arthur are alone with Dan's baby brother. The boys barely make it to the basement before the tornado destroys the house. Fast-paced, the narrative does not take a breath until the end, when the community begins to rebuild itself. Middle school students, even the most reluctant reader, will be captured by the descriptions of what it is like to survive a tornado.
Seuss, Dr. Bartholomew and the Oobleck . Random House, 1949.
Dr. Suess's appealing Bartholomew and the Oobleck is for kids of all ages-including middle-schoolers. A brave young page, Bartholomew Cubbins, saves the Kingdom of Didd-mainly because he gets the King to say he is sorry for what he did. King Derwin gets bored with the same old stuff: rain, sunshine, fog, and snow. He wants something new to come down from the sky. He calls upon the royal magicians to do the job, and Oobleck-yucky green and gooey-is what he gets. It's not like rain, it's not like snow, and it's not like fog. No, it arrives in a greenish glob and threatens the kingdom.
Activities for Bringing Science and Young Adult Literature Together
The table which follows provides two things: first, suggestions for science topics significant to each work of literature that students might investigate through their school library or on the Internet; second, an overview of learning activities that science teachers (or language arts teachers, if they practice a bit first) can use with works of literature we have described here. In most instances, the activities column indicates web sites where a more detailed description of the strategy is available.
High school English teachers, rather than throw up their hands in frustration, should think small first when it comes to integrating science and literature. Let's say an eleventh-grade teacher uses literature circles on a regular basis. In addition to the usual small-group roles that students take on (discussion director, vocabulary enricher, passage master, artist), it's a small step to introduce the role of scientist. The scientist's task would be to identify scientific elements or topics in the reading assignment, topics that members of the group could investigate on their own or as a follow-up assignment for credit.
Kerri Deal is a teacher at Fort Middle School, Columbus, GA.