My friend, Dr. Myra Zarnowski, who teaches in the Education School of Queens College, has been asking me for years to "unpack my process." She wants me to articulate what has always been intuitive for me. Well, Myra, let me try to do just that, using my two latest books as examples.
1. I connect my reader emotionally to a phenomenon they have observed or can create. The first sentences in Ice Cream are:
"Ever eat ice cream soup? If not, here’s how to make it. Put a scoop of ice cream in a dish. Leave it alone. Wait. This is the slow but sure recipe for making ice cream soup."
Here I am inviting kids to do something slightly absurd and think about ice cream in a humorous way.
In Straw, I invite them to try something that looks easy but turns out to be impossible:
"Bet You Can't Suck a Drink Through Two Straws:
"Put two straws in your mouth. Put one straw in your drink and let the other hang
outside the glass. Suck away through both straws at the same time!"
Done correctly, no drink arrives in your mouth.
2. Next I invite the reader to wonder what makes these things happen. I ask them questions:
What is the shape of a scoop of ice cream? Does it have its own shape? Sucking is work that goes against the force of gravity. What is the source of that force?
I also give activities that help to answer the questions. What kind of face do you make when you suck? What happens to the size of the inside of your mouth when you suck? (I'm paraphrasing here so you get the idea.)
3. In Ice Cream , I point out that only one part of the mixture of foods that is in ice cream is the part that actually freezes. It's the water that's already in milk and cream. So scientists isolate the part that changes so they can understand it better. What follows are activities with ice and water.
In Straw, they discover that air pressure -- an invisible force-- does the work if you create a partial vacuum, a term they come to understand through the story of a historical experiment--the invention of the barometer.
4. Finally, I tie the principles discovered by science to technology, engineering, and math. In Ice Cream, they discover that different materials used for drinking can act as insulators and slow down the rate of melting. In Straw, I explain how a partial vacuum is made by a fan in a vacuum cleaner and they can discover the place where there is suction and where there is exhaust.
In other words, I begin with what they know, make them think about it in a different way and give them tools to explore those thoughts and then connect those thoughts to something else they are very familiar with. Because I integrate activities throughout, my books are hybrids between expository material, narratives and a lab manual. (They are not supposed to be read like a novel.) The child sees for him/herself the evidence that can be applied to solving other challenges. It's an arc I repeat over and over in all my books in different and creative ways.
Instead of dragging children into the world of STEM, I bring STEM into the world of children. It's a paradigm shift from traditional texts in the individual disciplines. And it works.