Family Book Club
Literacy rates in the east coast range from average to below average when compared to international standards. This is part of the reason for the massive educational reform that is ongoing in Nova Scotia at the moment. Literacy, The ability to read, write and understand what has been communicated is critical to school success and it starts at home.
Reading is the glue that brought my family together and keeps us together. When I met my partner I was living in Germany. We were roommates and he spoke very little English and I spoke even less German. In short we were both illiterate in each other's language. We decided to form a book club to teach each other our respective languages. We bought our first books in two languages and alternated reading chapters to each other. We laughed, we learned, we fell in love over “Die Kleine Hexe” (The Witches) by Roald Dahl. It took us three months to read this short children's chapter book, but learning was the goal, not finishing. Ten years later we are no longer illiterate and our book club has expanded to three members. We have changed the format to insure the smallest reader in the house is an equal and active participant. This meant we had to re-think our club. How do you share a book club with a non-reader? How can you pick a book that everyone can enjoy and contribute to discussing? How do we make sure it stays fun? With this little book I want to share our formula for a successful family book club for a busy family. Our book club time has become a cherished part of our day and we are not only improving literacy skills for everyone we are making memories.
I will confess the family book club concept is not mine. I thought we were being original until I searched on the Internet and found out lots of families have book clubs. There are a lot of strategies out there, but none of them worked for us. I’m not a super mom. I work, probably a little too much, my partner too and honestly we figure we have had a successful family day when we manage to get supper on the table before 7pm, and can all find clean socks and towels. Balancing work and family time is hard for us and we needed a club that didn’t add more work. Something that didn’t involve extra preparation, special planning or even dare I say it a lot of reading. Unlike many of the websites and articles you see discussing family book clubs by creating a special event around the completion of the book, we needed a way to make a family book club into a daily routine that didn’t involve costumes, cookies or special locations. I admire the people that can do that- those ideas look amazing! But from my many failed attempts at Pinterest projects I knew we needed something simpler. This is that. Simple.
Here are the four key features of our family book club:
1. It's everyday not an event
A traditional book club has all members of the club reading the same book and discussing it at a set period, generally once a month. This doesn’t work for obvious reasons. Therefore, in our family book club- everyone chooses their own book and they are all different based on reading ability and interest. The fun is in the choice-everyone has control over choice. We do this daily. Members can bring the same book every day for months, or pick new books daily regardless of completion. Its not important to complete a book, but rather to enjoy picking it up.
2. Everyone reads together
In the early days, the accomplished readers, read the book to the emerging readers, but they also read snippets of their own books aloud to others. It’s a family read aloud, that lasts anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour based on schedules and temperaments. Not everyone has to read from their book, but everyone has to be there, sharing in the book. This is a good time to look at reading skills, running your finger under the words as you read which highlights the connection of text to sound. Or taking turns reading words or sentences that you know the young reader can accomplish easily. Another thing we do is look at the roots of words- and try to figure them out. For example- exit and external both start with ex, because the prefix ex means “out of”. We look for these parallels to help understand new vocabulary. It’s not necessarily about teaching reading-the hard work happens at school- this is a time to foster love of reading- so playing with sounds, pictures and voice. At the first sign of resistance- we stop and one person will read, while the others can relax and listen.
3. All books and readers are equal in discussion
After reading, and sometimes during reading we stop- we discuss, pictures, characters, their motivations, their facial expressions, the plot. We discuss why we like the book, or why we didn’t. Regardless of the level of the book we discuss it’s content equally. I have had some very serious discussions about SkippyJon Jones, while my daughter has shared in the debates about culture and the environment from Braiding Sweetgrass.
4. Books hold secrets
We highlight that it is OK not to understand the story at the first read. We talk about the obvious meaning, sometimes this means clarifying what that might be and how we figured it out. But we also talk about the “secret” meaning. Does the book have a moral? Is there another message- we try to decode this message and discuss what that might mean for us individually or as a family.
Now what does any of this have to do with science? There are two ways to foster scientific literacy while reading. The most obvious is that knowing how to read is critical to success in science, but the less obvious is what happens in those conversations around words- looking for patterns, sounding out complex words and analyzing their meaning is incredibly helpful for a young scientist to make progress in the language of science.
Alternatively, the content of the books we read can both illustrate scientific process or knowledge. For example: “Whose Tail is on the Trail at Grand Canyon” is a book that reminds us of our trip to the Grand Canyon, but teaches animal identification skills while “Violet the Pilot” illustrates trial and error learning. Through these books we discuss the fundamentals of scientific inquiry- the moral of science as it were. Alternatively books like “Inside Your Outside” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” explain biological concepts through poetry and rhyme which will help students remember. When reading these books rather than looking for morals of the stories, we might spend greater time identifying the science content and questioning how realistic the concepts are- do the pictures make sense? How are the books true to real life/science and how has artistic license been applied?
Following these steps I became a fluid German reader, so arguably one could say the book club has literacy benefits for all family members but the big gain we have found is fostering an interest in reading and the quality family time it brings. There is nothing like curling up with a good book in the company of those you love.
Has been the call across Cape Breton the past few weeks and we decided to give it a try this year- because Nova Scotia winters are long and the trees seem to be the only living things that are showing any signs of spring so far. I wanted to find a reason to be outside and the teacher inside of me thought that this would make a great lesson on the interconnection of science, traditional knowledge and the economy right in our own backyard. It also become an excellent problem based learning opportunity for the entire family, with aspects of technology, chemistry and physics.
It all began with the discovery that the trees in our yard were all Sugar Maples. I learned that in Nova Scotia a lot of older homes are surrounded by Sugar Maples, because not only does the tree look nice and shelter the house from the elements, but traditionally many people made their own Maple Syrup. How do you know your if your tree is a sugar maple? Most people can identify a maple as a maple and to be fair all maples will give some kind of sap, just not as sweet as the sugar maple. Sugar Maples are identified basically by their distinctive bark and leaf shape it only took a minute to figure it out once I read this: http://garden.lovetoknow.com/wiki/Maple_Tree_Identification
The second step was to figure out if the sap was running and how to tap it. The Mi’kmaq refer to March Si’ko’ku which directly translates to “Maple Sugar Time” so that gives an approximate start time but how do you really know? One clue is the weather- warm days and freezing nights cause the sap to start flowing-there is an interesting biological lesson in there related to the pumping action of tree roots- and osmotic pressure but basically it was a watching game. When we had consecutive days of above 0C and below 0C nights we tapped the first tree to see what came out. When we started getting a steady flow we tapped the other trees.
We purchased all the tapping equipment for under $20 at the local hardware store. The equipment consisted of tree spouts and clear tubing. We used all manner of things to collect the sap, including cleaned milk jugs and kitchen pots. We quickly learned during peak running- milk jugs were too small. So we had to increase efficiency so as not to waste any sap, which when we started felt like magical drops of gold in a bucket. You need to be careful about where and how many taps are on a tree to ensure the health of your tree. Here is a quick reference: http://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/tapping-maple-trees-zbcz1502
The tricky part of the project began with sap to syrup process. We learned that the ratio of sap to syrup is 40:1, so that is a lot of liquid to reduce. This is where experiments in technology, chemistry and physics really kicked into high gear. Any of the problem solving we had done around collecting sap more effectively dulled in comparison to this new challenge. First we built an outdoor wood stove using an old metal barrel because boiling off that amount of water in the house would have created far too much humidity inside. After we fired through half our woodpile we got a little smarter- adjusting the fire height, pot size and insulation of pot to reduce heat loss. This involved conversations about surface area and heat transfer that involved many friends and family as we stood around the fire in the evenings. We also learned from Mi’kmaw tradition that if you pour out your Maple sap in large shallow troughs mother nature will do much of the work for you overnight. The water will freeze and rise to the top of the trough and you can lift the ice off in the morning leaving a more concentrated syrup underneath. We also learned that Maple water doesn’t taste half bad, and according to the Mi’kmaq is good for health. This was great news because our capacity to collect far surpassed our capacity to reduce the sap. After 3-4 days of intense work, we had produced about 20 mls of syrup. So how are local syrup producers able to make syrup that doesn’t cost a million dollars? We certainly felt the time an effort we put into our product made the syrup we bought (and previous found expensive) look like a bargain in comparison. Apparently the secret is osmotic pressure - commercial syrup produces reduce the sap using reverse osmosis. So next year we are trying that. It seems that good old osmotic pressure is the secret behind all things maple Syrup.
Lessons for kids and adults: