Monday, September 30, 2013

Making Recycled Paper

In one of my favorite scenes of Ida B (this week's book), Ida B's dad tells her that they need to take care of the Earth. One of the best ways to do this is by recycling! Let's make our own recycled paper to help take care of the Earth just a little.

  • newspaper
  • water
  • aluminum foil
  • flat strainer
  • corn starch
  • leaves, glitter, or pressed flowers (optional)

 First, take your newspaper and cut it into very small pieces. (We used a paper shredder to speed up the process a little.) Put all the tiny pieces of paper into a bucket or large bowl and cover with warm water. (The ink from the paper might stain the bowl, so maybe don't use your fanciest one.) Let the paper/water mixture sit overnight.

Once your mixture has taken on sort of a lumpy-oatmeal texture, it's called pulp. And once you have pulp, you're ready to make paper! Spoon some of the pulp onto a sheet of aluminum foil and spread it into a thin layer. Remove as much of the water as you can by pressing a flat strainer over it. (We used a pizza pan with holes in it, but you could also make a strainer by poking holes in a piece of foil.)

When you've removed as much water as you can, cover your pulp layer with another piece of aluminum foil and flatten it with a rolling pin or heavy books. Carefully peel off the top piece of foil, then leave your project somewhere warm and safe to dry! (This is the part where you can decorate your paper by adding flat leaves, flowers, or even glitter.)

Once your paper is totally dry, just peel off the foil! Then check out this site or watch this video to see how paper is recycled on a much bigger scale. Thanks for helping take care of the Earth!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ida B by Katherine Hannigan

 From Goodreads: Ida B. Applewood believes there is never enough time for fun.

That's why she's so happy to be homeschooled and to spend every free second outside with the trees and the brook.

Then some not-so-great things happen in her world. Ida B has to go back to that Place of Slow but Sure Body-Cramping, Mind-Numbing, Fun-Killing Torture—school. She feels her heart getting smaller and smaller and hardening into a sharp, black stone.

How can things go from righter than right to a million miles beyond wrong? Can Ida B put together a plan to get things back to just-about perfect again?

My Two Cents: Ida B is such a compelling character with such a darling, distinctive voice. I don't often re-read books (too many new ones to try!), but I read this one again. And it was every bit as funny and sweet and touching as the first time around. A great example of how kids can be kind and strong and vulnerable all at once.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Katherine Hannigan's website, including this reading group guide for Ida B
  • Ida B's dad tells her to take care of the earth. Learn ways you can help take care of the earth here.
  • If Ida B were an apple, she'd be a McIntosh--"tangy with a thin skin." Check out this directory of apples and decide which kind you'd be and why. (Who knew there were so many?)
  • Id B has some tricks for helping Ronnie remember his multiplication tables. Check out some more multiplication memory tricks here and here.
  • One of the characters in this book has cancer but fights it really well. See how you can help the fight against cancer here and here.
More to Read:
  • Another remarkable book about a kid making the change from home schooling to public schooling: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • Another great middle grade pick by Ida B's author: True (...Sort Of) by Katherine Hannigan
  • Another book about a girl who has to start school while her family is changing: Prairie Evers by Ellen Airgood

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Apple Science

In this week's book, Sierra got in big trouble when she brought her mom's lunch bag by mistake because there was a knife in it. The knife was probably there so Sierra's mom could cut her apple right before she ate it so it wouldn't go brown. Do you agree? Let's see if we can come up with another way that Sierra's mom could keep her apple fresh!

  • apple slices
  • lemon or lime juice (sugar water works too, but for different reasons)
  • plastic wrap
  • fridge and freezer

Cut the apple into slices and decide what you're going to do with each one. We kept one just on the counter (as the control in our experiment.) We put one in the fridge, one in the freezer, and one outside. Then we wrapped one in plastic wrap and coated another in lime juice. The rest of the apple slices were part of our taste test program--and they tasted great. :)

Then all we had to do was wait and observe! We took pictures of our apples after 24 hours:

And after 48 hours:

After two days, the only one that still looked edible was the frozen apple slice. (The plastic wrap one was close.) It didn't take days to see a difference, though--we definitely started to notice changes in our apples after just a couple of hours! But why? What was happening?

Cutting the apple actually damages the cells on the surfaces where you slice it. That damages the cells on the surface and exposes some of the enzymes, and these enzymes react with the oxygen in the air. These reactions slow down in cold temperatures like in the fridge or especially the freezer. And they should slow down when there's lemon juice on the surface because it has antioxidants (chemicals like citric acid and ascorbic acid that slow down oxidation reactions like the ones happening on the apple.) Plastic wrap keeps most of the oxygen away from the apple too. (Check out this article for more information, or visit this site.)

You can try your own ideas for keeping apples fresh too, or try the experiment with other fruits or vegetables. Have fun!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills

From Goodreads: Seventh-grader Sierra Shepard has always been the perfect student, so when she sees that she accidentally brought her mother's lunch bag to school, including a paring knife, she immediately turns in the knife at the school office. Much to her surprise, her beloved principal places her in in-school suspension and sets a hearing for her expulsion, citing the school's ironclad no weapons policy. While there, Sierra spends time with Luke, a boy who's known as a troublemaker, and discovers that he's not the person she assumed he would be--and that the lines between good and bad aren't as clear as she once thought.

My Two Cents: Claudia Mills is a master of chapter book school stories, and this middle grade novel was just as good. This book is filled with relatable, real characters, especially Sierra herself. Middle grade readers will really root for not only her triumph, but her growth as well. Such an important look at rules and justice, but also tolerance and compassion. (Parental warning: There's a little mild language here, but it's really relevant to the story and to the character development.)

Grade Level: 5-8

Additional Resources:
  • Sierra misses out on dissecting an earthworm with her science class. You can dissect a virtual worm (still gross, but not as gross) right here!
  • Sierra has to study for a French quiz. You can learn to say the alphabet in French with this (cute? slightly terrifying?) frog!
  • Learn more about Mayan culture (like Sierra does) by checking out this site by the authors of the Jaguar Stones series.
  • Sierra is interviewed by lots of reporters for both TV and newspapers. If you're interested in journalism, check out this great list of journalism resources for students.
  • One of the characters in this story wants to go to Kenya. Find out more about this cool African country here.

More to Read:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The World-Famous Mentos Geyser

In this week's book, Alvin Ho isn't afraid of explosions and loves things that go up in the air. So I thought we'd do a classic science trick that Alvin would probably love--The World-Famous Mentos Geyser! Okay, it's not technically an explosion (or a geyser), but it's the closest thing I can safely encourage kids to try. :)

  • 2 Liter bottle of soda (diet will make the mess a little less sticky, and it works a little better if it's left at room temperature instead of cold)
  • 1 roll of Mentos candy
  • paper, index card (we used a used-up gift card), and tape
  • large, flat outdoor surface
  • microscope (optional)
  1. Unwrap your candy. Roll and tape your paper so it's just the right size to slide the Mentos inside (but not to tight that they won't slide out easily when you're ready.) Use an index card to keep the Mentos from falling out the bottom.
  2. Open the lid of the soda and place it out in the open.
  3. Put the tube of candy over the mouth of the bottle, then quickly remove the card so the candies fall into the bottle.
  4. Stand back and watch the geyser!
(Note: My assistant does have shorts on under her dress. But no, we're not very ladylike. :)
How it works:

The bubbles in your soda are carbon dioxide, and they want to escape. But the carbon dioxide molecules have to find each other and form bubbles before they can float to the surface. To do this, they need a nucleation site. That's a big term and you'll sound smart when you say it, but it's basically just a spot where a bubble can form. It's pretty hard for bubbles to form in a smooth plastic bottle or the side of a glass. (Which is good--otherwise your soda would lose its fizz!)

The great thing about Mentos is that they're not as smooth as they look. If you study them under a microscope, you'll see that they actually have tons of tiny craters, almost like the moon. And every one of these craters can be a nucleation site where bubbles form.

When the candy drops in all at once, the bubbles begin to form in all those tiny craters. And when they all try to escape from the bottom of the bottle, it's a race to get out and a geyser forms!

For more information, check out this MythBusters video and this chemistry site. And if you're feeling really smart, check out this Mentos and Diet Coke article from the American Journal of Physics. (Seriously!)

Good luck! If you try this one, I'd love to hear about it. What soda works best? What happens if you add a little dish soap to the soda right before? I have a theory about this one... :)

And just for your viewing pleasure, here's one more successful geyser and a couple of outtakes:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look

From Goodreads: ALVIN HO is an Asian American second grader who is afraid of everything—elevators, tunnels, girls, and, most of all, school. He’s so afraid of school that, while he’s there, he never, ever, says a word. But at home he’s a very loud superhero named Firecracker Man, a brother to Calvin and Anibelly, and a gentleman-in-training, so he can be just like his dad.

My Two Cents: Alvin Ho is hilarious and a great chapter book choice for reluctant readers. This book is absolutely unique in almost every aspect--especially the characters and the voice--yet it's totally relatable too. Kids will absolutely identify with and root for Alvin, partly because he makes them laugh so much.

Grade Level: 1-4

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Lenore Look's blog.
  • Alvin lives in a very historic part of the country! Learn more about some of the things and people he mentions, like the Revolutionary War, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott.
  • Calvin tells Alvin that "stewardesses" is the longest word you can type with just the left hand. Is he right? What's the longest word you can type with just the right hand? Click here for some other opinions.
  • Flea says Alvin has expressive eyes and draws them lots of different ways. Learn how to draw eyes (and cheeks, and faces in general) to show lots of emotions here.
  • Alvin's family is Chinese American, and he talks about cool Chinese things like Feng Shui and Chinese New Year. Learn a little more about Chinese culture here.
  • Alvin gets in a little trouble for using Shakespearean curses. Make up some of your own, or generate some at this handy site. But don't use them on anybody! :)

More to Read:
  • Another book about a kid who finds the courage to speak up: A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean
  • Another school story about a boy who means well but gets himself into a little trouble: Roscoe Riley Rules (series) by Katherine Applegate
  • Another funny, feel-good series with great school and family themes: Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker
  • Another shy kid who's nervous about starting school and in need of a friend: Hound Dog True by Linda Urban

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Liquid Chromatography: Separating Plant Pigments

In this week's book, Gianna had to identify lots of leaves for a school project. We're going to learn about leaves too with this awesome chromatography experiment by ecologist Heather Hawke. Take it away, Heather!

Have you ever wondered why leaves turn color in the fall? They don’t really switch colors – some of those yellows and oranges are there all along!

Plants need food just like we do, only thing is, they make their own. They use a type of molecule, pigments, to capture sunlight. The plants can then use that energy to make sugar from carbon dioxide and water (photosynthesis).

Each kind of pigment works best at certain wavelengths (the different colors in a rainbow). The most common pigment group, chlorophyll, is really good at using most of the spectrum, except green. Then why are leaves green? That’s because chlorophylls soak up all the other colors. The green light bounces off, hits your eyes, and you see green.

Some pigments are better at absorbing other parts of the spectrum. The carotenoids give plants such as carrots or bananas bright yellows and oranges. The anthocyanins appear red to blue and are mostly present in flower petals and fruits such as cranberries or cherries. The uncommon betalains are found in only a few plants, but are responsible for red beets and colorful bougainvillea! Plants use a mixture of pigments in their leaves to capture as much of the energy in sunlight as possible.
In the fall, as the days get shorter, plants slowly stop making the chlorophylls and eventually their green fades away. Once the carotenoids are not swamped out anymore, their colors are finally revealed! Some plants will make anthocyanins as the days get shorter, and so will turn red.
In this experiment, you will try to find out how many pigments are in different leaves. You will separate the pigments using filter paper and rubbing alcohol, a solvent.
  • Filter paper (coffee filter paper works though high-quality filter paper gives the crispest results), cut into long rectangular strips
  • Rubbing alcohol Supervise young children! Rubbing alcohol is toxic if ingested!
  • A pencil
  • Tape
  • A quarter
  • A small, clear glass
  • Leaves – choose some you know will turn color in the Fall
1. Tape top of paper strip to a pencil. Balance pencil on top of glass. Trim bottom of strip so it is close to, but not touching the bottom of the glass.
2. Lay paper strip on flat surface. Place leaf near bottom of strip and rub a dark line onto the paper, parallel to the bottom of the strip (see photo). The neater and darker your line, the better your results will be.
3. Replace pencil on glass. Make sure the paper is hanging straight down. Carefully pour in the rubbing alcohol until it just touches the bottom of the paper, but does not cover your pigment line. Try not to splash the paper.
4. Observe over the next hour as the alcohol reaches the top of the strip. Remove the strip and lay flat to dry.
As the rubbing alcohol moves up the paper (by capillary action), it carries the pigment molecules. Some of the pigments are larger than others. The smallest ones travel fastest so are nearer the top. The bigger ones are closer to the bottom.
This chromatography strip is from a beet leaf. Notice the purple betalain pigment at the top.


1. How many pigments do you see (there can be different shades of the same type of pigment – for instance, “chlorophyll a” is almost teal-colored as compared to the darker “chlorophyll b.”

2. Which of your pigments are the largest?

3. Did you get different results from different types of leaves?

4. If you repeated this experiment every couple of weeks until the leaves drop, what would you expect to see?

5. If plants did not have pigments, and so could not make sugar, what would you eat? Think this one through.

*Fun tip. Plant pigments are important for us humans! For instance, the carotinoids are powerful antioxidants and help your eyes stay healthy (eat your carrots and tomatoes!).
Thank you so much, Heather! I can't wait to try this with my kids. And if you're looking for more fun science from Heather, check out this awesome Rainbow of Ants activity!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

From Goodreads: Gianna Z has less than one week to collect, identify, and creatively display 25 leaves for her science project—or else she won’t be able to compete in the upcoming cross-country race. As the deadline for her leaf project draws near, life keeps getting in the way. Some things are within Gee’s control, like her own procrastination, but others aren’t, like Bianca Rinaldi’s attempts at sabotage and Nonna’s declining health. If it weren’t for her best friend Zig, Gee wouldn’t have a chance at finishing. His knowledge of trees and leaves in their rural Vermont town comes in very handy, as does his loyalty to Gee. But when Nonna disappears one afternoon, things like leaves and cross-country meets suddenly seem less important.

My Two Cents: This lovely contemporary story won an E.B. White Read Aloud Award, and it's not hard to see why. Messner weaves together the ligher themes of school projects and cross country with deeper issues like the aging and loss of loved ones. The characters are memorable and relatable, especially Gianna and Nonna. It's a gentle, well-told story with touches of humor and a lot of heart.

Grade Level: 4-6

Additional Resources:
  • Visit Kate Messner's website
  • Download the book's discussion and study guide
  • Go on your own leaf hunt, then identify the leaves using a guide like What Tree Is That?
  • Get outside and run like Gianna! Find some tips and ideas for getting started at
  • Make some of Nonna's funeral cookies with this official recipe
  • Gianna and her family are worried about Alzheimer's disease, but she knows there are ways to help. Get involved with a Walk to End Alzheimer's (Gianna would probably run!), sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association.
More to Read:
  • A high-adventure book (part of a series) by Gianna's author: Capture the Flag by Kate Messner
  • Another book about a girl who gets behind in school when things are tricky at home: Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
  • Another very likeable girl whose relationship with her best friend is changing: Shug by Jenny Han
  • Another nice contemporary story (in spite of the title :) about a New England boy and girl: Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face by Paul Acampora
Check back Thursday for a great leaf activity by ecologist Heather Hawke!