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.
A picture-book biography about Samuel Morse and his team’s game-changing telegraph system hits the STEM criteria right from the start.
S? Check! Morse explored the science of electricity and made it useful for the first time.
T? Check! He helped develop a new technology with its own techniques, skills, methods and processes for code-based communication.
E? Check! His team engineered entirely new devices and systems to solve the problem of slow information exchange.
M? Check! Of course, there’s math! Morse calculated and figured and number-crunched like crazy to stretch wires from coast to coast and beyond—and to make it a worthwhile investment.
In researching Samuel Morse, That’s Who!, I learned that he didn’t start out as a STEM superstar. Not at all. Rather, Morse’s impressive record of failures on his way to success caught my attention.
The Failures of Samuel Morse
I first discovered the trail of Morse’s “accursed life” (as biographer Kenneth Silverman called it) while I was researching materials for my book Noah Webster’s Fighting Words at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The facility there holds the most famous portrait of Webster, painted by one Samuel F. B. Morse.
My curiosity sparked, as it often does at the start of a new book, with a question: How was one of America’s most lauded inventors also such an accomplished artist?
More research revealed that young Samuel Finley Breese Morse wanted more than anything to become America’s leading artist—a painter on par with Europe’s greatest names.
Morse needed to fund his artistic dreams with more than the meager income of portrait-painting. So, he did what many people in post-colonial America did: he tried to invent a big money-maker.
Spoiler-alert: he failed.
He failed again and again. Even when he landed on the idea of an electromagnetic telegraph machine with a binary code system, he encountered miscalculations, bad timing, faulty materials, and other serious setbacks while trying to make the whole concept work. It seemed like the telegraph would be one more clunker to add to his list.
But he kept at it.
And he kept at it, for several years.
By the time he succeeded, he’d set aside his paints for good and redirected his creative talents.
STEM = Habits of Mind
To me, Morse’s persistence as well as his ingenuity tells a true STEM story. These “habits of mind” can reveal how an individual addresses STEM-related problems, according to Carrie Launius and Christine Anne Royce in their article “What Makes A Good STEM Trade Book?” on the National Science Teaching Association’s blog (January 13, 2020). They write that STEM books can “teach resilience, grit, and determination…and assist students in understanding that failure may be part of the real-world STEM process.”
These honest STEM stories give us permission to fail, assess, and try again. Students need to know that mistakes or setbacks aren’t necessarily all bad—they can be opportunities to learn, grow, change, and improve.
In my school presentations, I like to share my manuscript revisions so students can see the writing process—the wild brainstorming, the different forms and approaches, the additions and deletions, and the editorial teamwork that turns a manuscript into a book.
Revision is about trying many, many ways to tell a story.
Thomas Edison said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That’s the attitude that seems to permeate the stories of most successful inventors.
They keep at it.
I hope my books encourage readers to do the same.
Tracy Nelson Maurer has written more than 100 nonfiction books for children, including the award-winning titles Samuel Morse, That’s Who! and John Deere, That’s Who! (Henry Holt). Her next book, Lady Bird Johnson, That’s Who! (Henry Holt), launches Winter 2021. She loves talking about the writing process and she’s especially looking forward to the STEM-book discussions at the 2020 NSTA Convention’s Linking Literacy event on April 4, in Boston.