Nature in the Neighborhood

It’s still a little cold to get super excited about a long ramble in the woods, but I like to think ahead, and the teachers from the Salem State Pre-K program and I had a great time a few weeks ago looking at ways to incorporate art and nature study into their year long theme studying neighborhoods.

As a librarian’s daughter and former English teacher, I believe strongly in centering lessons around stories.  Great stories make great hooks to engage learners of all ages!

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

Fiction and nonfiction related to local MA history and natural history

So we started the day with a read aloud of MT Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester, which I love, not only because it’s based on actual history, but because the illustrations and sea-chantey-esque text are captivating.  We then made sand paintings, with glue, sand, sea shells and sea glass (some courtesy of the local beaches, some thanks to Christmas Tree Shop).  People made some beautiful designs!  I only wish I had thought to have related music playing in the background while we worked.

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Inspired by the Delft tile-styled end papers in The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Mixed media sea serpent!

Mixed media sea serpent!

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Sand Castle inspired by The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Next we moved on to oral history techniques that are useful with pre-k and other young students.  Download the discussion notes here: Oral History Projects with Pre-K  As part of this activity, we also worked with Twisteez wire to make a representation of our favorite toy from childhood, and talked about 2D and 3D ways of working art into story telling and personal history.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Recreating a childhood memory in wire.

Art & Nature Center director Janey Winchell made a guest appearance to talk about great ways to get young kids involved in and actively observing on a nature walk, complete with a suggested Nature Walk scavenger hunt.

School Programs manager Emily Scheinberg also led teachers on an investigation of Salem  history in PEM’s collections.

What clues to Salem's past does a fire bucket hold?

What clues to Salem’s past does a fire bucket hold?

Finally, we wrapped up the day with a pair of observation activities: examining and understanding beach erosion via milk and cookies, and creating ‘viewing frames’ to take on a walk through the neighborhood to encourage close looking, thinking about perspective, and even the basics of composition.  These two activities were inspired by Corinne Demas’ The Disappearing Island and Dr. Seuss’ To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.

Download activity directions erosion and frames

What do you see on the street?  In the sky?  On the buildings as you pass by?

What do you see on the street? In the sky? On the buildings as you pass by?

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Decorating frames with a few of our favorite things.

Sandstone and conglomerate...aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip.  Which will stand up to milk's erosive force?

Sandstone and conglomerate…aka ginger cookies and chocolate chip. Which will stand up to milk’s erosive force?

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

The beach before the milky waves, representing several kinds of rock!

Want more?  Other classroom activities, read alouds, resources etc available for download here: handouts 2014

Ideabox: Plastic Bottles

Everybody loves to hate plastic bottles, and yet somehow it’s impossible to be rid of them, even for the most conscientious reusable-bottle carrier.  Here are a few incredibly cool artists who have figured out fun ways to repurpose the ever-present plastic bottle, and a few ways you can do the same.

ideabox plastic bottles

Art from the Ugly

Here are a few artists I admire, who work with plastics and make thought-provoking and beautiful objects from less-than-sightly leftovers.

David Edgar – makes impressively beautiful marine life sculptures from discarded detergent bottles.  He was a featured artist in the PEM/Art & Nature Center show, Trash Menagerie.

Miwa Koizumi – Her PET project created stunningly ethereal jellyfish and coral forms out of plastic bottles.  While not the most eye-catching of the pieces in Trash Menagerie, they were still among my favorites.

Christine Destrempes This artist is currently featured for her River of Words project in Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O, but one of her best known pieces is an installation of bottle caps, each representing a person who dies for lack of clean drinking water. 

Stuff You Can Do

Cool Project Links

Photo credit to the site linked below

Plastic Bottle Zippered Purse/Box – Upcycle those unredeemable bottles into handy containers.  (I’ve always been a fan of Winnie the Pooh’s ‘useful pot to put things in’ theory of birthday presents.)

Wave Bottles — One of my favorites, and you can find lots of suggestions for how to fill them.  (I use water with food coloring and baby oil because it’s perfectly clear, but some people recommend vegetable oil as well.)  I like adding a layer of glitter to lie on top of the waves, too, and gave people the option of also adding floating beads, or sinking shells, sea glass, and pebbles.  When I did this activity with a group at the museum, I went for a purpose-bought set of bottles with sealable leak proof tops instead of recycling, so that I didn’t have to worry about getting the label glue off.

Photo credit, Educational Innovations at

Science Kits — I don’t usually advocate for things one has to buy, and I haven’t actually tried any of these, so I don’t know how well they work, but they sure do look like fun.  (I really want to build a tin can robot!)

Plastic Bottle Bracelet Directions

It’s almost spring (or at least I can pretend it is, right?) and one’s thoughts naturally turn to the pleasant days to come when it isn’t imperative to wear three layers of sweaters on a constant basis and can bear to bare one’s wrists.  I was simply stunned at the variety of directions for making bracelets out of plastic bottles: these two cuff-style bangles are fabric-covered and felted, while this one (typos and all) recommends giving your bangle some twisted appeal by heating it over a candle.  I think anything involving not only exacto blades but heat and needles has the potential for tragedy, but then I gave myself a foot-long scratch with a sewing pin this weekend, so caveat crafter.

Photo credit Click the picture for directions!

My favorites, therefore, are these simple plastic and paper bangles, using two layers of bottle-rings to sandwich a particularly cool artwork, illustration, magazine cutout, or seasonal wrapping paper.  These directions recommend using metallic tape, which looks classy, but electrical tape works just as well, comes in a variety of fun colors, and stretches as you wrap it so you actually get very few problematic wrinkles.  The version I’ve made also cuts both rings at one spot so that the bangle can adjust to any size wrist: very helpful if you’re starting with a small bottle!

Twelve Days of Popcorn (Day 2): Underwater Art

It’s far too nippy here in New England to dig out the SCUBA gear, but a girl can dream, especially when faced with some truly beautiful marine-inspired artworks.

British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor creates artificial coral reefs, not by submerging old train cars, buses, and other mechanical detritus as is often done elsewhere, but instead by creating beautiful sculptures which evolve over time as they are colonized by marine creatures. These underwater sculptures can be beautiful, spooky, or strange, but are always compelling, from their pristine state to their eventual end as the heart of a new kind of natural beauty.

The Dream Collector, by Jason deCaires Taylor. Click for link to original image.

And for those of you who prefer to keep your feet dry while checking out marine art, there is the incredibly cool collaborative crafting of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, currently on display at the Smithsonian.  Based on the brain child of mathematician/professor/artist Daina Taimina, who first figured out how to use crochet to create this kind of mathematical form, others have gone on to build huge reefs including the Smithsonian’s Community Reef, which took contributions from interested participants in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area.

On the second day of popcorn, these ideas gave me glee — two coral reefs and a pop-up folding snow-bedecked tree…

Star Wars Ice and Scientific Mermaid Song: Exploring Sound

My anonymous tipmaster sent me a very cool video earlier this week showcasing the universality of the pentatonic scale.  (Bear with me: it means that anywhere in the world, people watching Bobby McFerrin jump around a stage can actually sing on pitch and together with almost no instruction).  This incredibly cool exploration of sound, music, and the way we think  reminded me that I’d been collecting some very fun sound-related links to share with you here on Brain Popcorn.

A Not So ‘Silent World’

Diving in New England is a relatively quiet business.  Most of the time, it’s your air bubbles, your dive buddy’s air bubbles, and the occasional scrape of gear on rock that accompanies you in the deep.  But not always, and not elsewhere.  Diving in the USVI a few years ago I was thrilled and startled to be surrounded by what seemed like a chorus of marine Morse code, and was informed that there were ‘very talkative shrimp’ on that particular reef.  A recent report highlighted by the Smithsonian suggests “A Noisy Reef is a Healthy Reef,” which is a fascinating new look at ways to measure the health of communities in endangered waters.

For most of us, the ‘sound of ice’ is skates carving up the surface, or possibly that sharp pop you get when you drop an ice cube into a glass of lukewarm juice.  If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the land of glaciers and icebergs, maybe you also think of the great rumble and splash of a calving glacier.  But what about a lake in winter?  Thoreau certainly noticed interesting sounds at his spot by Walden Pond:

The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature. One pleasant morning after a
cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of my axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods
around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head. The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun’s rays slanted upon it from over the hills; it stretched
itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. It took a short siesta at noon, and boomed once more toward night, as the sun was
withdrawing his influence. In the right stage of the weather a pond fires its evening gun with great regularity.

Read more from Thoreau’s Walden here.

If you can’t make it out to a pond when the weather is perfect, then listen to some amazing ice sounds from the warmth of your own desk, with sound artist Andreas Bick’s recordings, or check out compositions played on instruments made of ice by Terje Isungset.

Sounds Like a Fairytale

The Voice of the Little Mermaid — How might the Little Mermaid have sounded under water?  If, like certain people who shall remain nameless, you’ve ever tried humming in the swimming pool to find out, here’s a way to explore a little further.  An opera singer has actually performed most of an opera, singing underwater, and discusses her technique and the changes in the sound at the link above.  Very cool–but hard on the costumes, I should think!

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – Did you ever notice that when listening to the radio or the TV in the background, you could still get a sense of the meaning even without catching all the words?  Try reading this intro to “Little Red Riding Hood” aloud with a ‘storytelling voice’ and see how far you get.  Listen to the narrator on the Exploratorium’s page if you’re stumped, and find the rest of the story there too.

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.

Happy International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day, according to the calendar hanging in my office, was technically September 8th, but as I have been having inexplicable glitches attempting to access WordPress, I’m a little behind.  (But the Salem LitFest isn’t for another week, so I’m still in the running!)

Therefore, in the name of celebrating cool stuff, which today is reading (who am I kidding?  We celebrate reading all the time in my world), I bring you neat thoughts about literacy, and a handful of reading-related activities.

First of all, good news for those of us who have more books than shelves to put them on: Book owners have smarter kids from

And next, hear about how educators at the Eric Carle Museum focus on ‘reading the pictures’ in their storytimes as much as reading the words, improving comprehension and engaging kids and adults in the art of illustration: Noggin video

Looking for good books to read?  Ask your local librarian or check out some useful lists on Reading Rockets, helpfully organized by theme.

Also, don’t forget to check out the awesome interdisciplinary lesson plans available at the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge–many of them have literacy themes.  One of my favorites is the Adjective Monster, a ‘paper sculpture’ art and geometry project built around Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley.

Illustration from Wiesner's Flotsam

Inspired by the ‘reading pictures’ video?  Everyone loves a good wordless book, and David Wiesner has created several.  Try out this very cool classroom photography project featured in School Library Journal and inspired by Flotsam, with neat tie-ins to science and history.  Kudos to my Anonymous Tip-Master for pointing this one out! I love how crazy and beautiful his illustrations are, and part of a long tradition of fish-exaggerations.  In 1719, the first full-color illustrated book of fish was published, including several fish that were figments of the illustrator’s imagination!  (See The Fantasy Fish of Samuel Fallours for the scoop.)

For more science tie-ins, read Flotsam paired with Tracking Trash, a very cool book about ocean currents and the problem of the ocean as ‘plastic soup’ [National Geographic].  Sector 7 is also a personal favorite, and great for teaching story-boarding or introducing a unit on clouds.

And lest we think all literacy only has to do with kids old enough for words, a neat article about visual literacy that begins developing in infancy: Escher-Themed Nurseries?  Even 4 month olds can recognize impossible objects from Cognitive Daily.  (You thought I’d manage not to include a reference to Eye Spy in this post, didn’t you?  Tune in next time for more cool stuff to do with impossible objects and how to create your own scratch holograms!)