The Salamander Room: Amphibians & Reptiles

Blog, She Wrote: The Salamander Room- Amphibians & Reptiles

This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

It’s the last day of March, 2014! Surely it will be time to choose spring titles and enjoy the good weather. The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer is an adventuresome tale of a young boy on a quest to keep a critter he finds in the woods.

Author Inspiration & The Making of a Book

We had the amazing opportunity to meet Anne Mazer last fall when she agreed to meet with our Writer’s Workshop group in our home. I was reading in the back of Spilling Ink, a book we use in workshop (which she co-authored) and it turns out she lives in our town! I reached out and she was delighted to join us. We were thrilled to listen to her stories about being an author and we learned the inspiration for The Salamander Room. Here are some tidbits of what she shared with us that day:

  • The Salamander Room was inspired by a boy asking his mom “what if” questions while she was on a group hike one day. All kinds of experiences lead to writing ideas! She’s never seen the boy since. Our writers thought it would be so cool if the grown boy were to find out he was the subject of this timeless tale.
  • We saw the galley copy of the book- A book galley is a preliminary copy of the book with most things final, but the author has a chance to change a few things if they are not right.
  • Author’s Notes- We saw an entire folder of notes and manuscripts of the book. Bits and pieces of her writing process- just fabulous!
  • The publishing process- She told us many stories of how a book comes to be from notes to published book. The kids were riveted and could have listened for hours.
  • What else? We learned about other books she has written and what books are in the works- like a sequel to Spilling Ink.
  • Bonus- She was thrilled to listen to the kids’ workshop stories that day. What an experience for the kids to be heard by our special guest that day.

Blog, She Wrote: The Salamander Room- Amphibians & Reptiles

Studying Amphibians & Reptiles

Spring is a wonderful time to get out and observe reptiles and amphibians. Vernal pools abound where these critters will make their seasonal start. Make plans to get out and observe!

Teaching Classification of Organisms

Blog, She Wrote: The Salamander Room- Amphibians & Reptiles

The study of animals gives you the perfect chance to introduce the categorizing of animals (and plants or other organisms). Discuss:

  • Linnaean Classification- A way to sort organisms by their like characteristics developed by Carl Linnaeus in the early 1700s.
  • Bionomial Nomenclature- Widely regarded as the biggest contribution Carl Linnaeus gave to the categorization of organisms.
  • Domains- Are you aware that there is a new level of classification above Kingdom? I have to admit this was new to me as I studied with my kids this year in biology- and I’m a certified biology teacher! The domains identify two types of bacteria and then eukaryotic life forms as the three domains. Which means if you use Domains, then you also have a four Kingdom system of classification.

The Classification Game

Blog, She Wrote: The Salamander Room- Amphibians & Reptiles

There are a variety of ways to play this classification game. You’ll need a large number of pictures of animals. If you want to include plants and other kingdoms that’s fine too. You’ll need to determine how big you want this game to be. You can use it to cover all of the classification system or just portions of it. The pictures here show classes within the animal kingdom. A few ways to play:

  • Plain Sorting- Give the student a large pile of animal pictures with no labels. Have them sort the animals into groups based on their characteristics. When all the animals have been sorted, have them take the class labels and place them with the correct group. This is a fun way for kids to discover how animals are alike and different and from there to identify and name the criteria for membership to a group.
  • Sort into Classes- In this version, set out the labels for the classes (and whichever other groups you want to include- orders, for example) and give the students the pictures. They must put the picture under the correct label. They can play alone or with others and take turns.
  • Race- this game is played with the labels already out and you provide each time with a set of the pictures. See who can win first. If you are playing in several groups and the winner isn’t entirely correct, then they are out and the other teams can start again.

Resources for Studying The Salamander Room

  • Giant Science Resource Book from Evan Moor- This is one of my favorite books for simple, clean, thorough notebook pages for elementary and early middle school science.
  • Fold n Learn – by Five in a Row. FIAR offers free fold n learns for their units if you sign up for their mailing list. What a deal!
  • Snakes in Culture- CurrClick class on April 15th. Take a look at the snakes around the world and how they are viewed in that culture. A family friendly one day class.
  • Five in a Row unit on The Salamander Room at Blog, She Wrote
  • Adventure Box: Insects & Critters- has many ideas and resources for keeping your own amphibian and reptile pets

Have fun exploring critters and habitats in the warm weather this spring!

BookBigIdeaSpringJoin other iHomeschool Network bloggers for A Book & A Big Idea Spring. Put a little spring in your homeschooling this season with lots of seasonal book ideas.

The Snake Project

Blog, She Wrote: The Snake Project

This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

The Snake Project was born out of Rebecca’s interest in the wild caught snake she started caring for last summer. Of all the kids, she took a liking to him and asked to keep him long term. She learned about garter snakes and what they eat and how to care for them in captivity. Throughout the summer her interest grew and when it was time to discuss what she would study in science this year, she chose to use snakes as her entry into the world of biology.

Why Study Snakes?

The inspiration for the project was a wild caught garter snake found around our mailbox last spring as the weather was finally turning consistently warm. What made us turn the experience into a biology course?

  • We had a live specimen to care for and learn about.
  • Snakes are a window into how live organisms are organized and put together.
  • Taking care of a snake requires a lot of research- so studying snakes and their morphology is a natural extension of the work involved.
  • It isn’t just about the snake we have. It opens a world of exploration on many species and classes of organisms.

Blog, She Wrote: The Snake Project

Snake Research Is The Basis for a Study of Biology

Seeking information and researching snakes on a deep level has led to exploring the following biological concepts:

  • Cellular Structure & Function- animals cells to see what snake cells are likeĀ  but also plant cells as a comparison.
  • Skeletal & Muscular Systems- of snakes but also humans to see how they are the same and different
  • Aestivation- survival mechanism of reptiles for when they are overheated
  • Brumation- Reptilian hibernation
  • Classification- traditional Linnaean classification with binomial nomenclature
  • Digestion- Snake anatomy and function with a look at human digestion
  • Excretory System
  • Nervous System
  • Respiratory System
  • Reproductive System
  • Circulatory System
  • Habitats
  • Ecosystem
  • Biomes
  • Communities & Populations- community interactions, characteristics of populations, biodiversity
  • Recycling of Matter- nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, water cycle, carbon dioxide-oxygen cycle
  • Survey of the Animal Kingdom- Starting with the least complex to the most complex

We started with a list of things she wanted to know about and then the list expanded as time has gone on. Bring your kids to the table and let them take charge!

Blog, She Wrote: The Snake Project

Resources for The Snake Project

This project was Rebecca’s creation right down to the resources she wanted to use. Below is a list containing the types of books and websites she used along with some specific titles if she found the book particularly useful.

Note that she is going beyond what is typically available to kids her age and seeking out expert materials.

Some of these titles are pretty intimidating for most, but she enjoyed them. Even the books meant for veterinary school students had plenty to read that she understood based on the other work she has done. There are pictures and diagrams to decipher. Rebecca says that it was difficult sometimes not knowing all the terms, but she gained a greater overall understanding of what she was after. Definitely a win!

Take away: Don’t be afraid to get college and professional level resources. They will provide more detail and less overview which will result in a deeper knowledge of the topic. So much better than always skimming the surface!

Blog, She Wrote: The Snake Project

Seeking Experts for Project Discoveries

Rebecca exhausted the resources she initially got from the library and off of our bookshelves pretty quickly. She poured through them and made lots of notes. As she worked, she began to have more questions which she wrote down.

One question she wanted to answer was, “How do snakes move?” To answer the question she reached out to some experts she knows.

  • A professor at our local veterinary school
  • A student at the local veterinary school
  • She simply explained what she was studying, what she wanted to know, and asked them for any resources they might have on the topic.

Later, when she needed help checking the health of her brumating snake she:

  • Contacted students from the Herpetology Club at the local university- she had just seen them present a few days earlier and reached out to them.
  • They contacted an expert they knew and gave Rebecca suggestions.
  • Checked in with the local pet store- to ask about snake care. This is not a chain store, but a locally owned small animal store with many reptiles for sale.

Some of the most valuable information she has gained during her studies this year have come from experts in the field. Don’t hesitate to contact your local university. If you have trouble making the right connections, try your state’s land grant university which is home to the Cooperative Extension. Their charter includes outreach to the public and you may have success.

Blog, She Wrote: The Snake Project

Snake Project Success

The project has been successful enough to continue all year. I started out with the idea that we could commit to the first quarter and depending on whether or not she was still learning and heading into new territory, we could keep it going. Here’s a look at some of the big moments so far:

  • Temperature Study- On our basement to determine whether it was safe to brumate her snake there for the winter. She used a temperature recorder used for tracking the temp of chemical shipping crates and kept in the basement in December. She put the temperature tapes in her project notebook and graphed the results. Steady temps for sure!
  • Food Study- She researched what garter snakes eat and how much of each thing. She was able to feed him up until worms and slugs were no longer available.
  • Brumation vs Feeding for The Winter- She calculated how much it would cost to feed her snake its winter meals vs brumating him for the winter months. Given her careful research and conclusions, we allowed her to brumate the snake.
  • Herpetology Class- at our homeschool co-op this spring. While she is not learning much new content, she has enjoyed seeing and learning about different reptiles. This particular class is student taught which is unique.
  • Designed a Snake Garden- With information about shelter, plants, and food, Rebecca mapped out a garden which would attract snakes. Just what you want, right?
  • Brumation Observations- She checked on her snake and kept notes on his demeanor while he was brumating.
  • Snake Morphology- She has done extensive studying on the structure and function of snake anatomy with labeled diagrams and notes sometimes comparing them to human anatomy and physiology.
  • Snake Diversity- Explored types of snakes and where they live, safe vs non-safe snakes, etc.

Blog, She Wrote: The Snake Project

The Mentor’s Role in The Snake Project

Since this is a student led project, what have I done all this time?

  • Kept my own project journal based on her work- I actually have all her projects in one notebook separated by tabs. Too many projects to keep after to have one for each!
  • Jot down her ideas when she tells me about them- I can use it later as reminders for her.
  • Keep a list of questions she asks- This is great fodder for when the project slows down. I can ask whether or not she ever found out about __________.
  • Make equipment/materials available- I don’t necessarily advertise what we have, but I do make sure she knows what’s around when she is searching for the right thing. For example, we’ve used the temperature recorders before so she knew we had them on hand.
  • Advice on contacting experts- She knew who she could contact, but little reminders about etiquette are always nice and making sure it’s a kind email is important!
  • Help to the the resources- Once they are identified, I make sure they get here if my help is needed (like picking up a book at the library).
  • Available for Conferencing- Being generally available to answer questions and point in the right direction if stuck is time well spent.
  • Provide the time- Just as with her history and fashion projects, we’ve afforded the time for her studies. She is eager to learn biology. Why not have it happen within the context of a great project that she has designed?
  • Keep tabs on forward momentum- This is big for me. I want to be laid back, but I need to see forward movement on projects and not stalling!

Wrapping Up The Snake Project

As the school year draws to a close, what is next for The Snake Project?

Rebecca’s project journal is full of notes, sketches, labeled diagrams, lists, questions, resources, etc. It’s my hope that she will put all the data together in a way that can be remembered and presented to others which will help to cement what she has experienced this year. Ideas I’ve heard her toss around:

  • A Snake Encyclopedia
  • New Snake Enclosure
  • Branch out into other reptiles- She’d like a Gargoyle Gecko
  • Book- with information she chooses
  • FAQ book/poster

I’ll be sure to share the last few months of the project as well as the final result when the time comes.

It’s been a fulfilling experience so far and I think much more meaningful to her as a student of biology to have filtered the topic through the lens of her interest in snakes.

I’m looking forward to her next science project!

Project Based HomeschoolingIf you’d like to learn more about this approach to learning, check out Project Based Homeschooling by Lori Pickert. This book has given form to ideas I’ve been using for years! You might also be interested in Lori’s blog Camp Creek Blog- Project Based Homeschooling where she has a wonderful community of families with similar philosophies of learning.

Geography Quest: Great Lakes Ice Edition

Blog, She Wrote: Great Lakes Ice Edition

This post may contain affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

Surely you haven’t experience this winter without seeing a headline about ice on the Great Lakes. They keeping vying for my attention. After all, how can you resist the beckoning of icey satellite images of some of the largest freshwater lakes in the world? It’s been a long, cold winter for the northeast and many parts of the midwest and even the south. And with extended cold weather comes the ice. Today’s Geography Quest focuses on how much of the Great Lakes (and other other nearby waterways) are frozen.

Do The Great Lakes Really Freeze Over?

As I was doing the research for this Quest, I found some really stunning video and satellite photography. This first one shows time lapse footage of the Great Lakes (especially Lake Superior) freezing this season.

  • Find out if the Great Lakes have frozen over and if so, how often does it happen?
  • When is the last time the lakes froze to the extent they are frozen right now?
  • Which ones freeze the most often and/or the fastest?
  • Are there any that don’t freeze?
  • What factors account for the differences in how the lakes freeze?

Does Niagara Falls Freeze Solid?

Just last week there was a news segment on folks making the trip to the falls to see them frozen solid. What do you think?

I’ve been to Niagara Falls in late April when the sun is bright and warm and watched ice the size of cars flow over the falls. With all the ice on the Great Lakes this year, I’m sure the falls will remain icy for longer than usual.

What are Ice Jams?

I didn’t learn about ice jams until I moved to NY. It stands to reason that all this ice has to go somewhere. Already this winter we’ve seen flooding in our community caused by ice jams. More awaits since many of the creeks and their tributaries are still frozen and it looks like we’re due for a frost.

The first video shows a Coast Guard boat tasked with breaking up the ice on Lake Michigan to get the shipping industry moving again after winter.

The next video explains what ice jams are and it shows the ice built up on the Illinois River. Ice jams cause flooding when the water cannot pass around them.

Make Your Own Ice Maps

Chart your own ice maps by doing these few things:

  • Grab a map of the Great Lakes Region. I like to enlarge maps using the poster feature in the Adobe printing for pdf documents.
  • Estimate the amount of ice cover for each lake and color in the amount cover. Make a key for your map.

Blog, She Wrote: Great Lakes Ice Edition

Long Term Effects of Great Lake Ice Cover

What can you find out about the long lasting effects of so much ice cover?

  • How long will it take the ice to melt?
  • With so much ice to melt, how will that affect the summer swimming season? Water has a high thermal mass and take a while to warm up even without lots of ice!
  • How will the shipping industry deal with the ice? Will ships be able to navigate through to the St. Lawrence Seaway?

This has been an extraordinary year for cold weather in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Enjoy a look at ice formation on the Great Lakes.


Tips for Botanical Illustrating

Blog, She Wrote: Tips for Botanical Illustrating

This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

We had the distinct pleasure recently of attending a workshop on botanical illustrating through our 4-H Plant & Environmental Science committee. Rebecca loves to draw plants in her journals and has been honing her talents. The workshop was a fun way to reinforce skills she’s been working at on her own.

Botanical Illustrating Has a Long History

Our artist instructor shared reminders about people drawing plants throughout history. We know that Lewis & Clark took with them naturalists and they themselves kept extensive journals on their journey west in 1804.

She also mentioned that Charles Darwin drew many pictures of plant life during his infamous sail aboard the HMS Beagle.

In addition, Beatrix Potter is well known to have been a natural scientist and an illustrator of the natural world in addition to writing stories for children.

Blog, She Wrote: Tips for Botanical Illustrating

An Artist’s Advice for Drawing Plants for Botanical Illustrations

Botanical illustrators are still needed to provide detail that a photograph may not easily reveal. Cross sections are drawings because the artist can render an accurate image of the many layers of detail in the plant. So, how do you approach making a botanical drawing?

  • Pay attention to detail not the plant’s surroundings.
  • Box off quadrants of the plants and focus on drawing the shape of one quadrant at a time.
  • Notice and draw individual shapes not the plant as a whole which will lead to the best accuracy of the specimen.

Blog, She Wrote: Tips for Botanical Illustrating

Opportunities for Illustrating Plants

Need a reason to draw the plants you find?

  • Keep a garden journal and draw the various stages of growth.
  • Illustrate your leaf collection.
  • Improve your nature journaling by drawing the plants you see on a walk.
  • Collect for your nature table and draw what you find.

Rebecca has already requested one garden upgrade for this next season and she’s working it out with Dan. They are going to make a cement table top from the directions in The Family Handyman. Before the slab sets, she will draw plant designs into the cement. It’s going to make a fantastic garden table. She can hardly wait to sit out there in the warm weather to observe the garden and do her school work outdoors!

Blog, She Wrote: Tips for Botanical Illustrating

Resources for Botanical Illustrating

We enjoyed a look at some of these books. I added a few of my own discoveries on the topic. Pick them up at the library for an added bonus to your nature journaling.

Tools for Botanical Illustrating

Where art is concerned I prefer to provide the best tools we can afford. It’s frustrating to any budding or seasoned artist to work with inferior implements. I’ve also noticed the better the tools, the better the results.

  • Drawing pencils- not just your ordinary #2 pencil, but a set of drawing pencils ranging from soft to hard. Rebecca recently got her first set and it’s made a big difference in her ability to shade. With this being her first try with them, we went with a modest priced set.
  • Watercolor Pencils- Our favorite moderately priced sets are the Prang pencils. They have thick color and you can use them in a variety of ways. Have you ever seen Harmony Art Mom’s Watercolor Pencil 101 Tutorials? This post opened up some new ways of using the medium. It’s a must view!
  • Colored Pencils- We use Prismacolor pencils for our art projects. They lay down the color so nicely and they are worth the investment if you take care of them.
  • Pencil Sharpener- I like the Prismacolor sharpener because it is kind to the expensive pencils!
  • Watercolor Paper- Nothing beats water color paper for when you are using this medium. I find it helps to take in the water and leave the pigment nice and brilliant in the finished product.
  • Sketch Book- Rebecca loves the smaller sketch books with a hard cover and thicker pages for use with wet or dry media. The hard cover lets her sketch out on the trail which is a favorite past time for her.

Blog, She Wrote: Tips for Botanical Illustrating

Plant & Flower Anatomy and Taxonomy

Before we drew our botanical illustrations, we were given a review of plant anatomy. Understanding the various plant parts and where they come together is important for making an accurate drawing with labels.

Floral formulas help to identify what family the flower is in- is it a rose? A lily? Orchid? Flowers have a certain number of petals (corolla) and sepals (calyx) along with the reproductive parts- the stamen (andrecium) and pistol (gynecium). Of course floral formulas only apply to angiosperms (flowering plants). Do you remember the taxonomic name of non flowering plants like conifers and ferns?

Blog, She Wrote: Tips for Botanical Illustrating

Botanical illustrating is a great way to combine art and biology. Of course, as children grow, their skills will change. Not all of my children love to sketch, but they have all done it. I find that Rebecca can be very inspiring to her brothers and she will often take them out on excursions or rope them into helping her collect. Enjoy these resources and get ready…spring is right around the corner, right?

Geography Quest: Great Backyard Bird Count Edition

Blog, She Wrote: Great Backyard Bird Count Edition

This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support!

It’s that time of year again! When families everywhere will be counting the birds that come to their yards in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) sponsored by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada. This year’s count takes place on February 11- 17, 2014.

Observe & Submit Your Bird Checklist

Have you participated in the GBBC before? If not, you can read all about how to get started. It’s a pretty easy gig:

  • Register or log in for the count.
  • Count birds for at least 15 minutes a day on one or more days of the GBBC.
  • You can count for longer than 15 minutes and you can count birds on as many days and in as many places as you’d like during the GBBC.
  • Read the directionsfor submitting the checklists using the checklist page or the new app.
  • Do you regularly use eBird? eBird is another website where you can submit bird sightings year round. If you are already an eBird user, please use your eBird account and your observations during these dates will count toward the GBBC. That is great information because I did not know that.

Use GBBC Data to Map The Results

Did you know you can access historical data on the GBBC? This would be a fun map making adventure.

  • There a few map options available to explore on the website.
  • Toggle between top ten lists for species and the map room to find what to map.
  • Pick a favorite bird species and map its populations in North America- or name any location.
  • Observe the data and see if you can find winter patterns or to see if any migration patterns emerge.
  • Look to see if there are patterns in the activity of a species using the places page.
  • What other types of maps could you make using the data from the GBBC? Tell us about them!

Resources for the GBBC

Need some help to keep things easy? Here are a few resources made available by the folks with the GBBC.

  • Create your own tally sheet.
  • A downloadable pdf data form
  • Birding apps recommended by the GBBC- this makes it easy to keep track of the birds you see and you can use it to log your results when the count is complete.
  • iBird Pro mobile bird guide- It’s got a thorough library of bird species information, calls, pictures, etc. This is one of the few apps I’ve paid for for my phone!
  • Merlin- this is a new app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This looks pretty good although it’s not available for Android until the spring. Bummer! It’s a bird ID guide- I saw the prototype at the lab a couple years ago and it’s fun to use.

Join us this week to count some backyard birds and submit your results to the GBBC. Our feeder needs filling before we get more snow tomorrow. We see a bunch of birds daily out there enjoying our black oil sunflower seeds. I’m looking forward to officially tallying them this weekend.