Science Book a Day Interviews Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong
Special thanks to Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong for answering 7 questions about their recently featured book and series – The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science: Poems for the School Year Integrating Science, Reading, and Language Arts, Third Grade Student Edition
Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University. She has published extensively, including five books on literature for children and over 100 journal articles. Her current work focuses on poetry for children, including a regular blog, PoetryforChildren. She is also the regular “Everyday Poetry” columnist for ALA’s BookLinks magazine. – From Pomelo Books
Janet Wong is a graduate of Yale Law School and former lawyer who switched careers and became a children’s poet. Her dramatic career change has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN’s Paula Zahn Show, and Radical Sabbatical. She is the author of 30 books for children and teens on a wide variety of subjects, including writing and revision, dumpster diving, diversity, and chess. – From Pomelo Books
Pomelo Books: http://pomelobooks.com
#1 – What was the impetus behind The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science series?
JW: Our first two books—The Poetry Friday Anthology (K-5) and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (grades 6-8)—contain poetry on writing themes such as personification and metaphor, but also poems on many popular themes like sports, food, and pets, so it was a little surprising that one of the most popular weekly themes was “Science and Technology.” Teachers and their students really loved the handful of science poems in those books and asked us for more.
SV: There’s such great potential for overlap between science and poetry, it was fun to gather poems that explore the usual topics of nature and animals and take it a step further– into engineering, physics, technology. Literacy advocate Bernice Cullinan has said, “Scientists observe with a clear eye, record their observations in precise, descriptive language, and craft their expressions. Poets do the same thing” and we agree completely. We think kids who love science will be surprised at how poems can capture details and processes– and kids who love poetry may be surprised at poems can be about scientific topics.
#2 – How have you worked with students on these books? Have they been taken up by many schools in the US and around the world?
JW: We’ve been told by our main distributor (QEPBooks.com) that our books are in over 1000 school districts in the United States, including some districts that have bought our books for every single classroom. And we know that our books have sold through Amazon to teachers and readers in Australia, England, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, and more—pretty exciting!
SV: I was recently attending a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, and had the opportunity to talk with teachers, librarians, parents, and authors about poetry for young people and it was so gratifying to see them respond to our anthologies– particularly to how relevant and playful poetry could be. They also loved the “Take 5” strategies and how do-able this approach is– as does every group of educators we talk to. Kids seem to take to poetry naturally, but adults are often anxious and uncertain– so sharing a simple strategy like the “Take 5” steps helps bridge the gap.
#3 – What has impressed you most by the poems that students come up with about science?
JW: In the writing workshops that I do with children at schools, we’re usually pressed for time—the norm for teachers who have so many things that they need to cover each day. But children will rise to the occasion and write a poem in as little as five minutes, especially if you (the teacher) write a poem at the same time on the board, crossing words out and making a messy first draft, a “sloppy copy,” to show students that it’s OK to struggle. One easy way to start a poetry exercise is to put a “scientific word” on the board as a writing prompt—“sound waves,” for instance—and then to build a word bank together (invisible, cannot see, hear, feel, travel, ear, vibrations). Help the word bank grow by adding words that rhyme or almost rhyme, as well as alliterative words. Ask students to use at least 3 words from the collective word bank. The simple act of choosing or rejecting words from the bank deepens a student’s understanding of a topic. And children today are constantly seeing and hearing tidbits in popular media on science and technology, so their awareness and intuitive understanding of science and tech is pretty amazing.
#4 – Do you think poetry is underrated as a teaching pedagogy, and do you think it should be taken more seriously? What are the learning benefits?
SV: Australian author and professor Mem Fox has said, “Rhymers will be readers; it’s that simple”. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight. Here she highlights how valuable the mental structure of poetry can be for young children as they’re learning how literary language is different from everyday spoken language. And Rebecca Rupp, an American writer and scholar observed, “Poetry makes you smarter…. and all kinds of research indicates that rhyme, rhythm, and imagery boost memory formation and recall.” That really speaks to how powerful poetry background can be for young people as they’re developing their literacy skills. Poetry is meant to be read aloud and thus offers a transition from hearing the spoken word to reading the printed word. In addition, it’s full of great imagery, vivid vocabulary, and powerful emotions– things that kids of all ages can understand.
JW: Especially in these busy times, poems that can teach both literacy and a content area like science make it possible to “kill two birds with one stone” or, as George Ella Lyon said, to “hatch two birds from the same egg.”
#5 – I see there are different volumes for different ages. Does poetry need to be presented differently at these different ages and levels of understanding?
JW: Most teachers like the way our Teacher Edition of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science group poems by grade level—even if they use poems from grades other than their own, they use the recommended poem as a starting point. This past summer, though, we received some insightful comments and requests to regroup the poems according to topics—all the “push and pull” poems together, all the “disasters” poems together, all the “ecosystems” poems, etc. So we’re doing it; right now we’re putting the final touches on a new children’s edition entitled The Poetry of Science: The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science for Kids which will be ready for release on December 1st in both a print version and also an ebook version. This children’s edition pulls together the original 218 poems in the Teacher Edition plus 30 bonus poems, with illustrations on each page. Reactions to advance reviewer copies of the book have been very enthusiastic; people especially like the large selection of new black-and-white art by German illustrator Frank Ramspott, whose ability to draw both abstract concepts and technical details is amazing.
#6 – There are teacher and student editions of your books, how do they work together?
SV: The teacher editions contain “Take 5” mini-lessons for each and every poem so that the busy or novice teacher (or librarian or parent) has guidance in sharing a poem immediately. These teacher editions also contain additional resources like lists of related blogs and websites. The children’s editions or student editions, on the other hand, just feature the poems without the explicit teaching tips. So young readers can browse the poems freely and teachers can display the poems for all to see.
#7 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?
JW: We’re exploring multi-format transmedia projects, hoping to do something that furthers literacy while engaging children with non-book materials such as cards or apps. Stay tuned and please follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or our websites for the latest news!
[Image supplied by interviewees]