Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Homeschooling Activity Club

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor our homeschooling activity this month we made slime. We’ve done this before, but I’ve always used the recipe that calls for Borax. This time we made slime with liquid starch instead, since I’ve discovered that it creates a stretchy  pliable material that I prefer to my traditional Borax slime recipe.

We talked very briefly about the science behind making slime, the way that the liquid polymers in the glue are bound together by the liquid starch. We’d gone into more detail about this at an earlier activity club when we made slime with Borax, so I did not feel it needed an in depth review.

In addition to being a fun activity, it was also an experiment. The slime directions I was using, found here called for clear glue. I was reasonably certain that regular glue would also work, but I didn’t know for sure, and when I tried it at home with the only glue I had (wood glue), it didn’t work, so there was some element of uncertainty. I decided I’d have the kids try both types of glue so they could discuss differences (if there were any) and see if one type of glue made a better slime. As it turned out, they both worked about equally well. As you can see in the picture above, the only real difference was in the color quality. The clear glue produced vivid translucent color, while the white glue created pastel colors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe mixed more or less equal parts clear glue and liquid starch, plus some liquid watercolors and glitter to make the slime more interesting. The original directions say to add the starch a little at a time, and when I made a practice batch (since it’s never a good idea to try something out with an expectant audience), that’s exactly what I did. However, when it came time to make it with the group, I ended up just splashing the liquid starch into their bowls, since it made the sharing of the starch bottle easier. I would definitely recommend the slower method. It took much longer and a lot more stirring and kneading to get the slime to really come together when we put a lot of starch in at once. This is good to know because I want to re-use this activity as one of my summer science crafts, where I will be working with a much larger group that might not adapt well to patiently stirring.

The original website I found the recipe at indicated that if you had straws, you could blow bubbles with the slime. Of course we had to try it. Getting the hang of it took a little more concentration than the kids were expecting, and the younger members struggled a bit. But we did have some great success once they figured it out, and the adults had some fun blowing bubbles for the younger crowd. (As you can see in the picture, I provided gloves for the children who wanted to play with the slime, but didn’t want to actually touch it.)


Engineering Challenge: Boats

A boat made of tin foil, tape, and popsicle sticksCan you float twenty pennies in a boat made of these materials? That was the question posed at this weekend’s Engineering Challenge. The children were given tin foil, wax paper, coffee filters, saran wrap, soda straws, popsicle sticks, and masking tape to build with.

Before the program started we talked about what makes a boat float, and why boats can float even though they are heavier water. If I were to run the program again, I think I would also have spent five minutes talking in more depth about the materials we were going to use and their properties.

As usual, I created several level of challenges. I was reasonably sure that everyone would be able to float 20 pennies by the end of the hour (though it took some children quite a long time to achieve that goal) and that others would succeed on their very first attempt. Multiple challenges meant that everyone could ultimately be successful with at least one goal, while also being given levels of challenge that were truly difficult for that individual to achieve. Once a child

managed to float the pennies, they almost always immediately ran to get more pennies to see just how many they could float in that particular boat before it sank, so “float more pennies” was not going to be much of a challenge. Instead, I noticed that since tin foil featured very heavily in most of the initial designs, I made the second level of challenge be to float twenty pennies, but without using tin foil. Since tin foil folds so easily and maintains its shape in a way that the other materials do not, this meant that most of the children had to completely revise their designs, rather than just recreating them in a non-tin foil material.  The third level of challenge was to float the pennies using only two materials.

A child adding pennies to the boat they built out of popsicle sticks and wax paper

There was a lot of trial and error with this challenge. I did not need to emphasize that the engineering process involves a lot of redesigning to make improvements because the children were highly engaged in tweaking their designs. I did not see any frustration during the program. Even the child who struggled with the first level of challenge was motivated and happy as he tried design after design until he finally found one that worked. Luckily his mother understood how important it is for children to work through their own ideas, and let him experiment with designs that, from an adult perspective, were clearly not going to be successful. She did confess afterwards that it was quite difficult not to jump in and just tell him the “right” way to do it. It was all worth it to see the growth in understanding as the program progressed, not just in how boats are designed, but also in how the various materials interacted with one another and with the water. (This is why I should have had a discussion about the materials before we began building.)

Engineering Challenge: Card Towers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur second Engineering Challenge for school-aged children was to build towers out of playing cards that could hold the weight of a book. After our first engineering challenge, I realized that the wide range of ages and abilities meant that some of the children were going to succeed immediately, while other would struggle. Since I wanted everyone to be both ultimately successful but also challenged, I decided to create multiple challenge levels. Everyone would start off with the same challenge, where I purposefully set the bar fairly low. Once that challenge had been met, I would give that individual a second, more difficult challenge. This strategy seemed to work well for us. Everyone managed to complete at least the first level, and thus walk away feeling confident and capable. Most of the children were engaged by the extra levels of challenge and even started creating their own personal challenges.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATraditionally this project is done with index cards, but the library had a huge supply of card catalog-ready marc record cards on hand, so I used those instead. Before we started, we talked about all the different ways we could possibly use the cards to build with, including classic card towers, folding, rolling the cards up, and cutting the cards and inserting the net card into the slot. We also talked about what makes a structure stable. The Engineering Adventures program put out by the Boston Museum of Science has a fabulous (and free!) unit about building, and I borrowed from some of their ideas for the pre-building discussion questions.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally, I just handed out the cards and let the students start building. I encouraged parents to either help their child, or build their own tower. Modeling good engineering attitudes (such as failure means you’re one step closer to making it better) is important. The older children also got a kick out of competing with their parents. Since the children were more willing to think outside the box and take risks with their non-traditional building techniques, they were often more successful than the adults. There were a few parents with the proper backgrounds to build some really amazing structures, and seeing the incredible success of those structures to withstand stress was an inspiration to many.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs trial and error made the structures more and more stable, the students started issuing their own wilder and wilder challenges. I had brought a stack of identical books that I use for my lapsit program so that we could test more than one tower at a time, yet always use the same book. My extra levels of challenge tended to focus on the height of the tower, but the children were just as, if not more, interested in challenging themselves to hold more weight, including the entire stack of books. Eventually they made me go and get a dictionary! One of the younger boys had brought his stuffed dog, and the dog was incorporated into the challenge by just about everyone. This was actually more difficult than it would seem, since the stuffed animal was difficult to balance properly on the tower.



Over the summer the library partnered with the Harwich Conservation Trust to create a StoryWalk. First created by Anne Ferguson in Maine, a StoryWalk combines physical exercise and literacy – and in this case some science as well! Basically, we bought multiple copies of a picture book, then deconstructed the book, carefully cutting the pages out with a razor. We then laminated each page and stapled them to stakes we had pounded into the ground along a short trail at the Bank Street Bog. Since each page was intended to only be seen on one side, this is why we needed more than one copy of the book. The intent was for walkers to be able to start at the beginning of the trail, then come across a new page of the book every few yards, allowing them to read the story as they walked along the trail. We set it up to change the book every two weeks, trying to find books that fit a general science theme of bogs, meadows, and bees, since those were all aspects of the environment the StoryWalk was located in. The books chosen were Over in the Meadow, Frog in a Bog, and The Honeymakers. We had a lot of positive feedback from the people who used the StoryWalk, but it was also a learning experience.

Some changes we will make next year:

  • Pound in the stakes more firmly. The HCT volunteers underestimated the depth to which the stakes needed to be pounded, resulting in a handful of the stakes falling over during the course of the summer.
  • Put a backing on the pages. Whether it’s a piece of dark construction paper laminated on the back of the page or a piece of wood permanently attached to the stake, having a dark backing would have made some of the lighter colored pages easier to read. When the sun was shining at the right angle, the pictures and words from the “wrong” side were sometimes visible, making it difficult to read.
  • Find another method other than staples. The staples created tiny holes that allowed water to seep in. It was only a minor problem on a handful of pages out of almost a hundred, but if we can avoid it in the future, so much the better.
  • Include a waterproofed notebook system for feedback from walkers. While we heard back from many people who used the StoryWalk, it tended to be people who had gone to the Bank Street Bog specifically for that purpose reporting back to us. It would help us to know how many people enjoyed the books that were not expecting to find them there.

Newbery Project – Hattie Big Sky

A lovely book, and a fascinating look at the ups and downs of homesteading at the turn of the century. It was interesting to see such a familiar children’s book topic (homesteading) set in 1918 rather than the more familiar 1880’s, so that fear of grasshoppers and talk of horses were juxtaposed with automobiles and the first world war.

As I was reading at first I found myself wondering why this book garnered the Newbery Honor, but now that I am finished and as I am reflecting, I can see why. The writing was solidly good, with occasional brushes with excellent. The characterization was wonderfully done. Traft, who I thought was a bit too villainous at first, ended up being a reasonably complex character. He was angry and did hurtful things, but if I try to see the story from his perspective, I can also see why he did some of those things, and how sometimes things were out of his control.


The end of the book surprised me. I thought for certain that something miraculous was going to happen at the last minute to save Hattie’s claim. I’m glad that the author chose to let Hattie lose it to be true to the many, many homesteaders that did. So few books, for either young people or adults, are willing to let the main character pour their heart and soul into something, to want something more than anything else, and then deny the character. Yet that is the way real life works in so many cases. And, just as in real life, Hattie does not crumble. She keeps going, and takes from the experience strength. That’s a true pioneer spirit. END SPOILER

Newbery Project – Hope Was Here

A very sweet book. It almost made me want to quit my job and take up waitressing, Hope was so convincing in describing how essential a good server can be to changing people’s lives. (She makes it clear that it’s hard work too, but it’s the joys and triumphs that stick with me.)

I appreciated that this book did not have an unrealistically happy ending. The ending was still happy, but not in a rainbows and sunshine perfect way that would have done a disservice to the rest of the story.

I wonder how many kids read this book and then wanted to get into local politics? The political situation is a bit too simple for real life (most of the time corruption is far harder to prove, and people in real life are rarely entirely corrupt) but it was appropriate for the audience. I would have made Hope 12 or 13, she often seemed too young for 16, though that, of course, would have meant she couldn’t work. The very young-voiced narrator on the audiobook I listened to may have also contributed to that impression for me.

I loved the symbolism behind the grafting of trees when Hope is adopted.

The setting was clear, the writing was good, the characters were well-drawn. I suspect that there was a lot of debate the year that this book won a Newbery Honor, though I would agree with the committee’s choice to give the actual Medal to A Year Down Yonder.

Newbery Project – 2012 Analysis

In 2012 the winner of the Newbery Award was Dead End in Norvelt, with Honors for Inside Out and Back Again and Breaking Stalin’s Nose.  Looking just at those three books, I think that I would have given the award to Inside Out and Back Again. Dead End in Norvelt simply had too many problems with pacing (the history vignettes were interesting, but could have been more effectively integrated into the general themes of the book), and characterization (the villain of the piece never rang true for me.) Breaking Stalin’s Nose would probably have been my personal clear winner if not for the surreal hallucination scene. The characters were well drawn and the book remained true to its child perspective while also giving clues to a larger picture. But that scene felt strangely out of place and didn’t fit with the rest of the book, drawing me out of the story very abruptly. Inside Out and Back Again, while not a perfect book, at least didn’t have any outrageous flaws compared to the others.
Left completely to my own devices, I think I would have given A Monster Calls an award, though there is some debate about whether the book was even eligible. I also agree with Jonathan Hunt from the Heavy Medal blog that Amelia Lost would have been a fabulous addition to the canon as well.

Newbery Project

This Book Blog is going to take a new journey. We’ll still be talking about books, of course! But writing about a book every day was clearly not sustainable (as evidenced by almost a year’s absence). Instead we’ll see a more relaxed updating schedule.

We’re also embarking on a new endeavor! I have challenged myself to read every Newbery Winner and Honor book! If I read two Newbery books every month, then it’ll only take me 20+ years to finish them all! Consequently there will be plenty of discussion of older titles that have won these two awards. Technically books that won the Newbery Honor before 1971 were retroactively given the award. Previous to that year they were called “runners up” for the actual Medal.

Young Adult – The Christopher Killer

Cameryn Mahoney has always wanted to be a forensic investigator. At seventeen she has read every book on the subject she can lay her hands on. Her grandmother is disapproving, she says the profession is too morbid, and insinuates that Cameryn is just like her, meaning the mother that ran out on the family when Cameryn was three. Luckily, though Cameryn’s father is willing to encourage his daughter’s pursuits – possibly because he himself is the coroner in an extremely small town. He somewhat reluctantly agrees to take Cameryn on as his assistant.

But even in a small town, things can get exciting. The new deputy, for instance, who Cameryn’s father appears to hate for no apparent reason. Or the fact that the second case Cameryn helps out with turns out to be the body of a friend, apparently murdered by a serial killer.

The Christopher Killer is the first in a series, and some of the elements laid down in this book are clearly intended to extend to other volumes, such as her unresolved relationship with her absent mother, or more confusing relationship with the new deputy. There are red herrings and clues that seem obvious only after the ending is revealed, the marks of a good mystery. While it is somewhat doubtful that a teenager would be allowed to work on a federal serial killer case, regardless of how small the town is and how strapped for workers they are before the FBI shows up, the suspension of disbelief is acceptable as wish-fulfillment. The book leans towards the sensational, but this will hardly bother the target audiences.