Guest post by Heather Montgomery.

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

Inquiry. It’s a process we all know. Research shows its power, and as people who want young minds to grow, we all know its value. But, how do we jump-start inquiry?

Something Rotten by Heather Montgomery cover image

In my own experience, the greatest learning has come when I have had to fill in the gaps. What if we could provide that opportunity to kids?  

Here’s how it happened to me one day:

I was minding my own business, dissecting a road-killed snake. Not finding any good info on that particular species’ anatomy, I googled up a diagram of a related snake. As I snip-snipped my way through those gushy guts, the parts in front of me didn’t line up with that neat little diagram.

My mind insisted that I dig deeper.

I clipped, I snipped, I slipped all of the parts out on the table. With things sprawled out, I could see things were missing. What was wrong? Sudden I had questions and I had hypotheses. Two hours later I found myself feeling like I had made the discovery of a lifetime.

Now, what I learned that day was not new to science but it was new to me and I’ll never forget it. That process of trying to make the pieces line up, of trying to rectify the difference between the printed page and the real world, of trying to settle the cognitive dissonance going on in my mind – that is where the true learning set in. It is what prompted a 12-year journey and resulted in Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill.

What if we set students up for that? What if we give them the opportunity to fill in the gaps? What if we let them craft their own stories of discovery?

But trusting that process when crafting lessons (and books) can be hard. And putting this into practice can seem daunting. There are expectations, standards, and deadlines to meet.

How can we set up young minds for inquiry?

When teaching about metamorphosis, what if we give them a diagram of a butterfly lifecycle but a jellyfish as a subject?

Think of the standards they’d address without even knowing it:

Cover Little Monsters of the Ocean by Heather L. Montgomery
  • Asking questions
  • Developing models
  • Cause and effect
  • Patterns
  • Compare and contrast
  • Integrate knowledge from illustrations

What if we make the statement: “Bugs are just like people.” Then let the students prove us wrong (or right)? You know those students who like to prove us wrong – they will be engaged.

Bugs Don't Hug
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
  • Patterns
  • Distinguish point of view
  • Opinion writing

What if we set up their lab exercise for failure? When what they find in their pan can’t possibly match what is on their worksheet? Think of the critical thinking that could go on! The analysis, the evaluation, the leaning close and scratching of heads? The whispering to the partner? The decision about ignoring the mis-match or actually using the evidence in front of their eyes?

  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Constructing explanations
  • Structure and function
  • Provide reasons supported by facts
  • Write informative texts

A young man, Francoise Malherbe, who lives in South Africa became fascinated by bones when he was 3 years old. After a meal, he asked his father for the fish bones. As he grew, he kept collecting bones and started piecing the skeletons together. By age eleven he was collecting one road-killed animal a month and rearticulating it. Can you imagine what Francoise was learning? When you go to re-build a giraffe there are no easy instructions.

This is the kind of story that fuels my writing. This is the kind of thinking that fuels me as an educator. When inquiry takes over, genuine learning happens. Where can I leave gaps for kids to fill in their story?

Come join me at the Linking Literacy event during the NSTA National Conference, St. Louis, MO, April 12-13. There will be panel discussions, small group conversations with authors, and book signings.

Can’t make it? Check out #FreshLookAtRoadkill to follow the inquiry story.  


Heather L. Montgomery writes books for kids who are wild about animals. An award-winning educator, Heather uses yuck appeal to engage young minds. Her recent titles include: Little Monsters of the Ocean: Metamorphosis under the Waves (Millbrook Press, 2019), Bugs Don’t Hug: Six-Legged Parents and Their Kids (Charlesbridge, 2018), and Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill (Bloomsbury, 2018). Inquiry is her life. 

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