WOW MOM: Mother’s Day Card Symmetry

Mom, if you are reading this blog post, please STOP. Right now. Delete this email immediately. Close your Web browser. Walk away.

Is she gone?

Ok, I’m going to let you in on a little secret — our homemade Mother’s Day cards. This year’s design comes from Loreen Leedy, author of the captivating math-based picture book, Seeing Symmetry. Loreen has a host of symmetry-related activities on her TeachersPayTeachers site, including the template for this WOWMOM card ($3) (Note: Her TeachersPayTeachers site has a free activity pack for the book Seeing Symmetry.)

Cooper asked me about symmetry just the other day. I’m not sure where he’d heard about it. Because he’d asked about the concept, making this card was a perfect opportunity to learn about the topic. While Cooper was decorating (with glitter glue, of course), I pulled some of Finley’s construction paper letters off the wall where they hang, so we could talk about which ones had symmetry.

Does Cooper understand symmetry now? Nope. I think that’s a fourth-grade math standard. But our glitter glue WOWMOM cards are sure to wow the moms in our lives. What do you have planned for Mother’s Day?


Perfect Picture Book Friday: Under the Snow

Illustrator: Constance R. Bergum
Publication Info: Peachtree Publishers, 2009
Intended audience: Ages 4 through 8
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: science, nature, animals, hibernation
Opening and synopsis: ”In the heart of winter, a deep layer of snow blankets fields and forests, ponds and wetlands. You spend your days sledding and skating and having snowball fights. But under the snow lies a hidden world.”
Children spend the winter playing on the snow and ice, but do they know the world lying underneath? A wood frog sleeps in scattered leaves, frozen until the warm spring thaws him. A chipmunk naps and wakes to snack, then sleeps again. Newts swim below the ice, zipping through the frigid water.
Why I like this book: Two years before Kate Messner’s much-lauded, Over and Under the Snow, award-winning nonfiction author Melissa Stewart produced this lyrical look at the winter wonderland under the snow. This book provides a strong example of how simple language and beautiful images can make nonfiction accessible to all ages.
Resources: Melissa Stewart includes a complete Teacher’s Guide on her site. You can access it… She also has three activities for the book: comparing animal sizes, create a picture story and snow math, which you can find … here. Finally, she includes a “readers theater” guide for students who want to stage a dramatic reading of the book. New York State’s Conservationist for Kids has a wonderful guide to hibernation. BrainPop has an interactive overview of hibernation. You’ll need to enroll in the free trial.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

Loving Ladybug Larvae

We need a dog. Without a pet, our house has become home to a rotating assortment of bugs. First, we raised butterflies. Now, we live with ladybug larvae. I think our family is single-handedly keeping Insect Lore — the store for all things buggy — in business.

Because April is National Poetry Month, I drafted “found poem” about ladybug larvae straight from the Insect Lore directions that accompanied the kit. (For a found poem, take a text, any text. You can subtract words, but not add any. Never rearrange the order. Changing tense, plurals, capitalization and punctuation is ok….see this “how to”  post at 6 Teaching Authors.)

The Life of Ladybug Larvae

Eggs hatch.

Larvae search for food.

Shedding skin — molting,

Must store energy for change.

Don’t worry, in Ladybug Land, they have plenty of food.

So that’s it the life of larvae. Like the caterpillars before them, the larvae will eat and molt for a couple of weeks until they become pupae. And from those pupae shall emerge our caterpillars, we hope.

Scoping Things Out

Much to our parents’ chagrin, my husband and I still have “stuff” stashed in their attics on the other side of the country. My Mom and Dad boast my Barbie dolls. My in-laws house lots of LEGOs. Occasionally, our parents bring an extra suitcase brimming with childhood treasures: Fisher-Price campers, American Girl Dolls and the like.

My husband’s latest endeavor is convincing his mom to bring his childhood microscope, especially since our boys are budding scientists. For some investigations, our assortment of magnifying glasses just won’t do, and purchasing a new microscope is a big investment. Recognizing a microscope migration may not happen immediately, I discovered a near-term substitute on Colleen Kessler’s Raising Lifelong Learners blog: the Carson Microbrite Pocket Microscope.

The Carson Microbrite arrived yesterday ready to go. It included the required batteries, and the instructions were easy to follow. You can adjust the magnification from 20 times to 40 times with a wheel, then focus with the lever. Press and hold a button, allowing the LED light to illuminate your specimen. The kit includes two slides with covers and a detachable slide “stage.”

We took it outside for a test drive yesterday morning. A roly-poly (aka pill bug) provided the most amusement. Magnifying him 40 times, we could watch his legs wriggle and his mouth parts move. Observing a flower, we could see the presence of pollen. We also looked at rocks, dirt, pine tree parts. This microscope’s portability makes it perfect for outdoor play or hikes: no need to wait until you are home to look at your specimens.

I found our Microbrite for under $10 on Amazon. At that price, it’s a perfect addition to your science tools.


This is my favorite time of year. It’s warm but not too hot. At 70 or 80 degrees, we can play outside any time of day. The pool is toasty enough for a late afternoon dip, the perfect segue to bath time. And the house is warm enough that I have to avoid turning on the oven, meaning our menu transitions to salads, sandwiches and grilled food. Oh, and I can wear my flip flops everywhere I go.

With that said, I’m always on the lookout for ways to spice up our growing outdoor play time. Finley’s teacher first recommended the following “bubble brew” recipe, which also appeared in the May 2012 issue of Big Backyard.:

1 cup dishwashing liquid (Dawn is highly recommended)

10 cups warm, distilled water

1/4 cup light corn syrup or liquid glycerin (purchase at the drugstore)

Mix all your ingredients in a large container. (I reuse an old bubble container I have). Word has it if you let this bubble brew sit for about a day, it works better.

My kids love using this mix in bubble guns and inexpensive bubble makers. You also can experiment blowing bubbles with all kinds of household objects, for example a drinking straw. Big Backyard recommends cutting off the top and bottom of a milk or orange juice carton and encouraging your child to guess what shape bubble the rectangular container will produce. The answer: bubbles are always round, since spheres have the smallest surface area.

You can create bubble art by adding food coloring to your bubbles. Blow them into the air and encourage your child to catch them on a blank sheet of paper.

With my apologies to my friends still facing snowy days, get out there and blow some bubbles.

What Children’s Book Author Lee Wardlaw Learned…From Her Cat

Saturday I attended my first writers’ conference: SCBWI-LA’s Writer’s Days. The highlight was hearing from Lee Wardlaw, who’s latest book, Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, has won 20 awards. Her talk, titled “Ten Things I’ve Learned From My Cats About Being a Children’s Book Author” was full of helpful tidbits. Here are some of the key points:

  • Cough up the furballs and move on. When rejection comes your way, make like a cat: Cough ’em up. Spit ’em out. And move on.
  • Play….with your writing. Try writing your manuscript in different ways, for example prose, rhyme, free verse, first person, third person, etc. I just read Ann Whitford Paul’s book about writing picture books. I highly recommend this resource, which provides a number of frameworks for approaching your narrative.
  • Nap. Lee advocates a 15-minute nap a day. Science has confirmed the importance of naps. My current idol, Jonah Lehrer, discusses what neuroscience has to say about the benefits of short naps ….. here.  I must admit that when I’m having a writing problem, the “final relaxation” in a yoga class always seems to do the trick.
  • Stretch. Full-time writing is a sedentary business. Get some exercise. Your body will thank you for it. And your writing might too (see yoga, above).
  • You have to expose your belly to get belly rubs. Put yourself out there and take risks. Take a class. Consider if your writers’ group is working for you. Try something new.
  • Beware of predators, primarily self doubt.
  • Purr. Do what you love.

Also, Putnam editor Stacey Barney offered the following approach when starting a writing project. Make sure you can write a one-line description for each of the following elements. You could even write these on a post-it and stick it to your monitor so you can refer back to it constantly:

  • Story. What’s your story about, for example, Harry Potter meets Captain Underpants.
  • Characterization. Why should we fall in love with your characters. Who are they (briefly)?
  • Writing. What style is appropriate for your story/characters? Lyrical? Tension-filled?
  • Voice. What personality and emotion shine through in your writing? Some writers are too dependent on dialog and don’t leave room for narrative reflection.

All-in-all the day helped me hone my craft. I’m certainly looking forward to the international conference in August. I hope to see my fellow 12 x 12ers there.

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Swirl by Swirl

Author: Joyce Sidman
Illustrator: Beth Krommes
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children, 2011
Intended audience: Ages 4 and 8
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: science, nature
Opening and synopsis: “A spiral is a snuggling shape. It fits neatly in small places. Coiled tight, warm and safe, it waits…”
Spirals snuggle, grow, protect, grasp, move, stretch and reach out to explore the world. In her lyrical book, Sidman shows how this shape appears repeatedly in nature, from calla lilies to shells and galaxies. Her notes in the back explain the strengths of the shapely spiral. Krommes’s bright wood engravings are a perfect complement to the text.
Why I like this book: Melissa Stewart recommended this book on her blog as an example of creative nonfiction that doesn’t necessarily have a narrative. This much-lauded book is a must-read for anyone aspiring to write children’s nonfiction. Sidman is a master of free verse, which makes this book appealing for young readers. And there’s much to learn about this mysterious and fascinating shape. Older readers will enjoy learning about Fibonacci spirals, DNA helix and spiderwebs in the back matter.
Resources: The fantastic blog, The Classroom Bookshelf, has a comprehensive list of activities and further resources for Swirl by Swirl. One of my favorite suggestions is to arm your child with a digital camera and seek out spirals in nature. Sidman’s Teachers page includes a Teacher’s Guide for the book, as well as a poetry kit for use in the classroom.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

Earth Day: Loving the Landfill

Waste Management's Julianne Haness shows us what's recyclable.

Each year, my MOMS Club tours the local landfill in honor of Earth Day. The field trip is always a big hit with kids and moms alike. What child wouldn’t enjoy meeting a garbage truck that holds 10 elephants worth of trash?

And this green gal always learns something new. Obviously your local recycling rules might be different but I realized:

  • I can get additional recycling and green waste cans for FREE! I have a second recycling can on its way.
  • Juice boxes, including orange juice cartons are recyclable.
  • Any plastic, even if it doesn’t have the recycling symbol, goes into the recycling bin.
  • But, keep the styrofoam out of the recycling, even if it has the recycling symbol on it.
  • Never throw greasy paper plates and pizza boxes into the recycling. These are broken down in the equivalent of a big blender to make new paper products. The grease can’t be removed.
  • Key takeaway: when in doubt, throw it into the recycling bin. They’ll sort it out later.
We learned a new recycling song, sung to a tune reminiscent of an Army march. I kept wanting to chant, “Sound off, 1, 2. Sound off, 3,4” each time we sang it.:

“I recycle you should too

I recycle yes I do

Don’t throw paper in the trash

Paper needs another chance

Take  your cans and give ’em a smash

Don’t throw your cans in the trash

I recycle you should too

I recycle yes I do” (courtesy of Waste Management)

Even if you can’t visit the landfill, you can create your own Earth Day fun:

  • Make recycled paper. Create a small screen by laying a rectangular piece of mesh over four popsicle sticks, one for each edge. Attach the mesh with a stapler. Have your child tear up old newspaper. Add it to your blender along with a little water. Adult, blend up your paper mush. Your child can carefully scoop out the paper mush and press it onto the screen, pressing out as much water as possible. Wait until it dries, and voila, paper.
  • Make robots out of toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners. This comes from FamilyFun (click on link for picture and details). Paint the rolls with acrylic paint. Punch two holes for arms. Cut the pipe cleaner in half and twist each half around a pen to create coiled arms. Attach them at the holes and paint on your robot design.
  • Enjoy some Earth-friendly books. We recently enjoyed Compost Stew and This Tree Counts, which were Perfect Picture Book Friday recommendations.

This year, Earth Day falls on Sunday the 22nd. How will you celebrate?

Perfect Pitch

I promise today’s blog post will be short and sweet.

Children’s book author Susanna Leonard Hill is featuring the pitch for my first picture book manuscript, Out of This World Opposites, on her site today. If you have a few minutes, please hop on over to her blog and provide some constructive criticism. Once I’ve tweaked my pitch, I’ll send out my first publisher’s query.

Wish me luck!

Exploring e-Learning Options

I’m always interested in exploring technology and how it can be used at home and in the classroom as a learning tool. As I’ve written in the past, I’m a big fan of the online Starfall games for helping preschoolers learn phonics and basic math skills. We’ve also had great success with free PBS Kids Lab games, which focus on math, reading and science featuring some of my children’s favorite characters like Sid the Science Kid and Curious George. As an instructor for the University of Phoenix, I’ve used computer-based marketing simulations with my students to help them visualize how marketing changes they initiate affect how customers perceive the product. Recently, my high-school friend Abby introduced me to two, more-focused e-Learning tools: ExploreLearning’s Gizmos and Reflex Math, and I’ve been playing with both through the company’s free trial.

Reflex Math has one specific purpose: to improve math fluency, in other words how quickly children can answer basic math facts. Before computers we did this with flash cards, timed worksheets or, one of my major memories, reciting times tables everywhere I went. Reflex Math has turned this practice into a series of games that hold children’s attention and motivate them. Students first create their own avatar and journey to an island to explore several math games. As they solve facts and earn coins, they can buy things for their avatar at the store.

I tested out an Egyptian-themed facts game where I “shot” serpents each time I answered a problem. I also solved a picture puzzle, earning pieces for each problem I mastered. I later chose the ninja game and climbed higher and higher each time I typed in a correct fact. For early elementary students, this game-based method of practice is far superior to flash cards, etc. I’d rather shoot a serpent or be a ninja any day. And for $35 for student for home users, the price is right.

The company’s other product, Gizmos, is a series of science and math simulations geared for grades 3 and up. I focused my attention on the science Gizmos, which allow you to conduct “hands-on” investigations in a classroom or home environment where you may not have expensive lab equipment. Gizmos also has a time advantage. Many of the experiments I preformed would have taken days or weeks in a traditional lab, whereas I was able to conduct them in just a few minutes on the computer.

Gizmos simulations run the gamut, from biology to astronomy and physics. I studied genetics by breeding mice, for example (a high-school simulation). I experimented with the effects of sun, food and water on the growth of different plants, carefully controlling for each variable. And, I learned about the phases of the moon by viewing a simulation that showed the Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s orbit around the Earth. For each Gizmo, ExploreLearning provides a student exploration sheet, which walks the student through the simulation, helping her to explore all its aspects. They also include a teacher guide, vocabulary sheet and an assessment.

Should Gizmos replace the science lab? I hope not. Getting your hands dirty, being forced to slow down, think and observe are all irreplaceable benefits of actually doing science. These are the moments I remember from middle and high-school science. With that said, schools and home school environments often don’t have the resources, time or ability to breed mice or equip boats with sonar to explore the oceans. In these instances, the Gizmos simulations stimulate inquiry and help learning come alive. For the homeschool market, Gizmos is $59 for first time buyers then $99 upon renewal if purchased through the Homeschool Buyers Co-op.