Of The Cells and Pores of Frothy Bodies

Cells extract from Micrographia

Cells extract from Micrographia

Science is a practical subject. It is also a literary subject. Reading science texts is important. It is the key to a scientific career and should have equal status to practical work in school’s curricula. It doesn’t. I have taught children about cells for twenty years, but until recently, I had never read Hooke’s account of his discovery. I also haven’t read Newton’s Principia and I’ve got a physics degree. There, I’ve said it. It’s as though I’ve only read the York Notes and not the novel.

My last blog was about adapting older texts for use in schools (here). I used a travel journal extract by Mary Kingsley, a Victorian scientific traveller. It is an engaging text full of adventure, charm and bravery. Children enjoy it. I have written about adapting Origin of Species (here): an ongoing project.  Continue reading

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A Hippo Banquet

Adapting Writers More Read About than Read

Mary KingsleyMary Kingsley, the Victorian scientific explorer and writer, is the subject of many Key Stage 2 topics. Her derring-do makes for great biographical writing. But her gutsiness and charm don’t usually come through unless you read her own words. I don’t think anyone does. Her writing is just a bit too tricky for most at KS2.

I am ambivalent about children’s adaptations of classic fiction. Characterisation and narrative complexity do not come out of the process well. For many stories, children should wait until they are old enough to enjoy it for themselves.

Nonfiction works much better. It is possible to keep the character of the text and preserve the principal ideas while simplifying just enough. Mary Kingsley is a writer we can read and not just read about.

Adapting texts

Adapting texts is an enjoyable task. There is a wonderful world of neglected scientific literature. A gentle, respectful edit makes these texts accessible to young readers and useful to teachers. To illustrate the process, I have selected an extract by Mary Kingsley.

 

A Hippo Banquet

(Original Text)

Mary Kingsley stampIt was a wonderfully lovely quiet night with no light save that from the stars.  One immense planet shone pre-eminent in the purple sky, throwing a golden path down on to the still waters.  Quantities of big fish sprung out of the water, their glistening silver-white scales flashing so that they look like slashing swords.  Some bird was making a long, low boom-booming sound away on the forest shore.  I paddled leisurely across the lake to the shore on the right, and seeing crawling on the ground some large glow-worms, drove the canoe on to the bank among some hippo grass, and got out to get them. While engaged on this hunt I felt the earth quiver under my feet, and heard a soft big soughing sound, and looking round saw I had dropped in on a hippo banquet.  I made out five of the immense brutes round me, so I softly returned to the canoe and shoved off, stealing along the bank, paddling under water, until I deemed it safe to run out across the lake for my island.  I reached the other end of it to that on which the village is situated; and finding a miniature rocky bay with a soft patch of sand and no hippo grass, the incidents of the Fan hut suggested the advisability of a bath.  Moreover, there was no china collection in that hut, and it would be a long time before I got another chance, so I go ashore again, and, carefully investigating the neighbourhood to make certain there was no human habitation near, I then indulged in a wash in peace.  Drying one’s self on one’s cummerbund is not pure joy, but it can be done when you put your mind to it.

Mary Kingsley – Travels in West Africa (1897)

Although it is ungenerous to paste this extract into a text analyser, statistically it is suitable for a seventeen year old. What a shame. For Victorian texts, it is often the sentence length that throws a modern reader: the middle section of this text contains some immense sentences. They are gorgeous and skilful, but raise the reading age by several years.

Cutting sentences in half and removing some vocabulary that I felt didn’t damage the text too much produced abridged version 1:

A Hippo Banquet

It was a wonderfully lovely quiet night with no light save that from the stars.  One immense planet shone in the purple sky, throwing a golden path down on to the still waters. Fish sprung out of the water, their glistening silver-white scales flashing like slashing swords. A bird was making a long, low boom-booming sound on the forest shore. I paddled leisurely across the lake to the shore on the right, and saw some large glow-worms crawling on the ground. I drove the canoe on to the bank among some hippo grass and got out to get them. While hunting the glow-worms, I felt the earth quiver under my feet, and heard a soft big soughing sound. Looking round I saw that I had dropped in on a hippo banquet.  I made out five of the immense brutes round me, so I softly returned to the canoe and shoved off, stealing along the bank until I deemed it safe to run out across the lake.  I found a miniature rocky bay with a soft patch of sand suggesting the possibility of a bath. Investigating to make certain there was no human habitation near, I indulged in a wash in peace.  Drying one’s self on one’s cummerbund is not pure joy, but it can be done when you put your mind to it.

Mary Kingsley – Travels in West Africa (1897)

This first cut is simple enough, removing 70 of the 293 words and dividing longer sentences. The text analyser now puts the reading age at 12.

The second edit is more painful. Cutting feels justified, but changing words and phrases takes care. The aim is to keep the style but reduce the difficulty. I have made the fewest changes possible. I have explained some of my decisions below:

The phrase, “flashing like slashing swords” is a gift to the KS2 teacher: a rhyme; alliteration and simile all in one.

I have struggled with the glow worm sentences. It isn’t immediately clear whether Mary is going ashore to get the glow worms or the hippo grass. It’s come about because I cut the original sentence in two. Instead, I have dodged and used the word “investigate.” The next time I use this text in class, I hope to solve this more elegantly.

Then there is the word “soughing.” A gorgeous onomatopoeia, its popularity peaked at the time of Kingsley’s book. It belongs to its time and belongs in the text. Google has a neat resource showing the popularity of words over time. Just google the word and click on “translation, word origin, and more definitions.” A graph, like the one below, will appear.

soughing

(Google analysis of the word ‘soughing’)

The final line captures so much of Kingsley, that it must stay. However, most young readers would struggle with the line preceding it. I have adapted it to smooth the path. The final edit is below.

Abridged version 2:

A Hippo Banquet

Mary-KingsleyIt was a wonderfully lovely quiet night with no light save that from the stars.  One immense planet shone in the purple sky, throwing a golden path down on to the still waters. Fish sprung out of the water, their glistening silver-white scales flashing like slashing swords. A bird was making a long, low boom-booming sound on the forest shore. I paddled leisurely across the lake to the shore on the right, and saw some large glow-worms crawling on the ground. I drove the canoe on to the bank among some hippo grass and got out to investigate. While hunting the glow-worms, I felt the earth quiver under my feet, and heard a soft big soughing sound. Looking round I saw that I had dropped in on a hippo banquet.  I made out five of the immense brutes round me, so I softly returned to the canoe and shoved off, stealing along the bank until I deemed it safe to run out across the lake.  I found a small rocky bay with a soft patch of sand: a perfect spot for a bath. I enjoyed a wash in peace.  Drying one’s self on one’s cummerbund is not pure joy, but it can be done when you put your mind to it.

Mary Kingsley – Travels in West Africa (1897)

It is now suitable, statistically, for 11 year olds. I believe I have kept to the style of the original, cutting, dividing and only occasionally replacing. The original is a joy, but if the difference between reading it and not reading it is an honest and gentle edit, I am happy.

Writing to Learn (not Learning to Write)

A first draft using Slow Writing techniques.

A first draft using Slow Writing techniques.

Writing is a process of deep thinking. It slows and clarifies thought: paragraph by paragraph; sentence by sentence; word by word. It allows the writer to go back, challenge and improve. It is perfect for science teaching.

Science lessons should be full of writing. Exercise books should be full of wonderful texts written by learners – phrases, sentences, paragraphs and complete pieces – because every piece of text involves deep thought.

Primary teachers know how to teach writing. Plenty of thought has gone into developing programmes and strategies to help pupils develop their writing skills. I love the Ruth Miskin Literacy and Language programme and everything by Pie Corbett – particularly Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum.

Both are brilliant at teaching children how to write different nonfiction writing styles, but their strategies promote the writing above the content. When I am teaching, the writing has to support the science, not the other way around.

Another challenge is time. To create a single piece of writing, most programmes take many days and involve talking, reading and practice before students settle down to write. I don’t have that time.

So I have to adapt the methods. These are my 5 key principles:

  1. Teach the content. Make it concrete. Teach it so the students can explain it to someone else.
  2. Talk before writing; pupils write better sentences when they rehearse the language first.
  3. Model the text. Show students what their work is supposed to look like. This is easier with fiction than nonfiction – fiction can’t be made “incorrect” by making changes. Making changes to nonfiction texts can make it factually wrong. You have to be very clear about what to change and what to keep. Choosing the right model text is vital (I write my own – it’s quicker than finding one that fits). High attaining learners may be able to use a model from another topic (or even subject) and take useful elements from that, but most learners need a model that is similar. In the food web example above, I gave pupils a model text using a different food web. The structure and even some of the sentences from the pupil’s work have been “magpied” from mine. That’s fine. The example in the middle paragraph is the student’s; that was my priority and that’s how we completed the whole lesson in one hour.
  4. Support the heavy lifting. Remember what you are asking your students to do:
    1. Learn a new and challenging scientific concept or skill.
    2. Put individual thoughts into clear sentences using new, sophisticated terminology.
    3. Sequence those ideas so that it makes sense to a reader.
    4. Add in the structural sentences that draw readers in and guide them through the text.

I find @Learningspy’s Slow Writing strategies helpful and I’m not the first to adapt Slow Writing for science (see here). In the food web example above, I asked my pupils to do the following:

Introduction:

  • use the word complicated to describe the feeding relationships in a pond.

Middle Paragraph:

  • give an example of a predator.
  • give an example of prey.
  • give an example that is both.

Conclusion:

  • describe how a food web helps us understand the environment.

You can see where my writer has used these in her draft.

5. Piggy-back on English lessons – plan the science curriculum to benefit from the English teaching. When students are learning how to write an explanation, that’s the time to get them to write explanations in science too.

When students have taken the time to explain a scientific concept in their own words, they have been engaging with the idea for an extended period of time. They have challenged their understanding. There is nowhere to hide. Writing is a window into a learner’s mind; it reveals understanding and misunderstanding to both the learner and the teacher. You don’t get much better than that.