Using Children’s Books to Read into Things that Matter


Scientists, historians, and mathematicians create knowledge through inquiry. Myra Zarnowski (Queens College Elementary & Early Childhood Education) wants elementary and middle school students to learn about the process in nonfiction books that follow these professionals on their journey to the truth. Zarnowski, who serves as advisor to QC’s children’s literature program, teaches teachers, and students studying to become teachers, about presenting history through children’s books. She has also worked on what she calls the “literature of inquiry” with teachers and children at PS-IS 499—the QC School for Math, Science, and Technology, which was built in 2004 on the QC campus.

Zarnowski has found several titles that engage students and provide them with a road map for scientific inquiry. They include If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge, by Mark Aronson; Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot, by Sy Montgomery; Thanksgiving: A True Story, by Penny Colman; and The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe, by Loree Griffin Burns.

In spring 2010, with the support of a grant from the Raphell Sims Lakowitz Memorial Foundation, Zarnowski taught The Hive Detectives to two fifth grade classes at PS-IS 499. The book follows four scientists as they determine why 20 million bees from one beekeeper’s hives disappeared in a case that became called “colony collapse disorder.” The scientists eventually learn that the disorder is caused by a combination of common honey bee ailments, the chemicals used to treat them, and a new systemic pesticide employed by farmers.

“Students love the book,” says Helene Jacob, principal of PS-IS 499. “They track some of the information themselves and try to figure out what the best solution is, in their eyes.”

The book teaches scientific vocabulary as well as the process of problem solving, as the scientists use their skills to reach their conclusions. One student project that evolved from the book was the creation of “baseball cards” for each of the scientists, featuring their backgrounds and accomplishments. Students also kept journals and drew pictures depicting the inquiry into the bees’ demise.

Through The Hive Detectives, Zarnowski introduced the concept of personal agency: individuals can come up with ideas that make a difference in the world. “Kids come to understand that they can have an impact,” she says. “They see that they, too, can be scientists or historians—people who could also create knowledge.”

Zarnowski says her work fits in nicely with the push for literacy at PS-IS 499. Reading nonfiction books related to school subjects, such as science and social studies, bolsters students’ knowledge about those disciplines and makes them more accessible. Because studies show that today’s students are assigned far more fiction than nonfiction, she tries to correct the balance with her selections. “If students really want to understand science, math, and social studies, they need to read and think about authentic things and real problems,” notes Zarnowski.

Biography is another literary category that she recommends. In History through Children’s Literature, the graduate class she teaches at QC, Zarnowski encourages teachers to use this genre as a way to give students knowledge about the past. She explores the topic further in her book Learning about Biography: A Reading and Writing Approach for Children. “Biographies are appealing because they let you wonder about the limits of the possible—what can you achieve in this life,” says Zarnowski. “A biography tells a story and reflects the social times. You learn about the life of a person, and you learn about the historical context, and the issues that drove him or her.”

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