GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, Boston, MA. 9 am – 3 pm, April 4, 2020.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 14 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 7 – April 2, 2020.

See the full author list and the date on which they’ll post at Linking Literacy 2020
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Unleash the Secret Power of Science Writing in Your Classroom

Note: Cheryl Bardoe and Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano will present a session at NSTA with the above title. Join us for strategies and classroom activities to help your students write about science in ways that engage them and their readers.  

Cheryl Bardoe: Finding the “Hook” in Science Writing

I love research. I love asking questions and ferreting out the answers. The challenge then is to sift through the myriad of factoids to craft compelling stories. As I wrap up the research phase, I take a step back and ask:

  • What is the most exciting thing I’ve learned?
  • What has been the biggest surprise to discover?
  • Why is this topic important?

Journaling helps me process and prioritize information—and by the time I’m done, I know where I’m going to start each story. In writing about 18th-century mathematician Sophie Germain, I was impressed how her determination led to a breakthrough on what was considered to be an impossible puzzle. Hence the title and text refrain, Nothing Stopped Sophie. With Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle, I was inspired by the pivotal role these insects play in ecosystems. Thus the text, “One animal’s waste is the dung beetle’s treasure.” The story line turns the tables so that readers can view things that are often considered ugly—beetles and dung—as beautiful.

Nothing Stopped Sophie cover

            Teachers can use this approach to help students write about animal life cycles, volcanoes, gravity, and any STEM topic. After students gather their information, invite them to free write around these questions. This process of synthesizing and prioritizing information helps students understand their research topics at a deeper level. It’s also an opportunity to express big ideas from their research in their own words, taking an important step away from the words of others that they may have transcribed when taking notes. Then when students start writing, they can look in their journals for an idea to hook readers at the beginning their reports/essays/nonfiction stories. The rest of their information can flow from there. Helping readers connect to the material is the key to making science writing compelling!

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: Focusing Images to Convey Ideas

Big Bang cover

Another secret to creating powerful nonfiction is found in the images that often accompany text. These include photographs, illustrations, and imagery found in metaphors, similes, and analogies. Work on my first national book, Big Bang: The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular–expanded my own abilities.

Here’s a passage from the book. Michael Carroll’s illustration follows.

“Picture a balloon with dots all over it. The balloon is like empty space. The dots are like galaxies. The dots start out close together. However, as you blow up the balloon, the dots get farther away from each other, just like the galaxies in the expanding universe.”

Initially, this illustration concerned me. The image depicts the passage of time.  Here, the galaxies stay exactly the same. Yet in reality, they change. Would this image create a misconception? It might… but Mike, a talented, experienced artist illustrator, had a more immediate concern. I’ve kept his insight in mind in all of my projects since.

Generally, an effective (nonfiction) illustration focuses on one key idea aligned to the text. Given the context, did it make sense to introduce galactic evolution in this picture? (Nnnnooo.)

While sometimes it is appropriate to tweak details for accuracy, all writers—authors, teachers, and students—are wise to consider illustrations as simplifications aimed at increasing our audiences’ ability to grasp main ideas. Because of this, choosing images is a lot like selecting metaphors and analogies. Any one image or analogy can’t represent all aspects of the phenomenon it illustrates. Effective writers and readers are aware of these limits, and choose carefully within these limits. As we see with Cheryl’s storytelling thoughts above, we see that effective communication involves careful, yet subjective, selection of which details to emphasize.

In the Classroom

You can bring this lesson to life with this classroom activity, which involves any thoughtfully chosen images from nonfiction text, first shown out of context. In the activity, you use three simple questions adapted from Harvard University’s Project Zero resources to guide students to consider the details of an image, their initial interpretations of the image, and questions about it. Next, you lead students to examine the text that the image was intended to accompany. They can consider the content of both the image and the words and compare their initial responses to what the image’s intended meaning. As critical thinkers, they are empowered to consider whether they think their own interpretations are enhanced by this pairing of text and image, and the extent to which they think illustration and/or text might are effective.

By beginning with strong visuals and putting students’  meaning-making front and center of the literacy experience, this lesson promises to engage students who may be intimidated by or otherwise disengaged from the text; give them a new way of approaching and strengthening their own reading, writing, and, more generally, thinking. 


STEM authors and educators Cheryl Bardoe and Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, M.Ed., first collaborated over a decade ago on a project funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Pixels and Panoramas, which helped teachers and students investigate how examining the relationship between parts and wholes could deepen student understanding of science and art.


Cheryl Bardoe, children's book author

Cheryl Bardoe writes literary nonfiction that synthesizes science, math, history, and culture for young readers. Her award-wining books include Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakeable Mathematician Sophie Germain; China: A History; Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age; Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle; and Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas. Her books have been recognized by the NSTA, NCTM, NCTE, ALA, and Bank Street College, among others. As a teacher of writing, Cheryl encourages writers of all ages to have fun and be confident in their own unique voices.


Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, children's book author

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano Known for clear metaphors and their lively voice, Carolyn’s books for curious kids include the IRA (now ILA) Notable Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular, the widely acclaimed A Black Hole is NOT a HoleNational Geographic Kids’ Ultimate Space Atlas, and contributions to HarperCollinsChildrens’ popular Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out-Science series and the Engineering is Elementary curriculum storybooks. Her work has been recognized by many literacy organizations, and has been translated into several languages. Also a STEM education consultant, Carolyn works nationally with schools to bring dynamic, clear, and inspirational professional learning to K-8 teachers and to research and develop leading STEM curricula. She began her career as a museum educator, first with a small nature center in Connecticut and later with the Museum of Science, Boston, where she led exhibit-based educational programming, worked in exhibit development, and served as the Professional Development Director of Engineering is Elementary. She has served as a researcher and developer for Harvard University’s Project Zero, TERC, Citizen Schools, WGBH Boston, and numerous other institutions. She now offers author programs and curriculum and professional development services through two organizations that she co-founded and co-runs: Blue Heron STEM Education and STEM Education Insights. She is also in training to become a mindful awareness facilitator for children and the broader community. Her diverse interests are tied together by her passion for helping ignite curiosity and overall well-being in children and the adults who serve them by fostering learner-centered, empowering experiences and environments. Contact her for information about her author visits and educational consulting at carolyn@bhstemed.us.

Linking Literacy at the NSTA Convention in Boston, MA, April 4, 2020.

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