Kelp and Writing in Science


Having strong mentors is incredibly helpful when learning something new or advancing in a skill. Even the most accomplished writers turn to mentors, and so as fledgling writers we study published authors to learn new craft. A favorite type of science writing in our class is using a mentor text that has nothing to do with the topic we’re studying and applying this craft or style to a piece of writing filled with science facts. It scaffolds, or supports, the writing in science so students can focus on beautiful language and weaving in facts.

Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow provided us a “whole text” mentor rather than just studying one sentence. We first read the book as readers, enjoying her beautiful language explaining who lives under the snow in the winter. We then read it again as writers, focusing on her juxtapositions of what a dad-and-son team experience as they’re cross-country skiing in snow, versus what happens with the various little critters living below.

Messner writes, “Over the snow I climb, digging my edges so I don’t slide back down. Under the snow, voles scratch through slippery tunnels, searching for morsels from summer feasts.” When reading her work, it quickly becomes apparent to students that Kate Messner is a genius at weaving beautiful sensory language to eloquently paint a picture in the reader’s mind.










Kate Messner’s newest book, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt further provides a similar structure to help students understand they’re not beholden to the exact words of “over and under” to show juxtaposition and that comparing “up and down” or “inside and outside” work equally as well.

Towards the end of a science unit on the kelp forest, students took the structure of juxtaposition that they learned from Messner and wove in facts they had learned about this special ecosystem. In addition to learning from Messner’s structure, we also noticed that she used incredibly effective, vivacious verbs. After writing a first draft, students spent some time identifying the verbs they had chosen and revising with even more interesting verbs. As teachers, we love to see evidence of our teaching—and the mentors we study—in student writing. The idea of using mentor text to help scaffold writing is not just that it provides a one-hit wonder, but that the structure of the text becomes a “tool” we can add to our “writer’s tool box” for future use…

In lieu of posting all 43 students’s writing, here are a few examples. See if you think you can detect Kate Messner’s mentorship in these pieces…

 In the Kelp Forest

Over the kelp forest
seagulls are hungrily eating fish,
under the kelp forest sand crabs
are hiding in holdfasts.
On top of the canopy
sea snails are slithering,
under the canopy bat stars lie
on the rocky surface.
High in the forest
sea otters swim,
low in the forest,
eels are diving.

Eddie Cornell
1st Grade

Over and Under the Kelp Forest

Sea birds flap their wings over the kelp,
looking for tasty food for dinner,
while under the kelp the fish
try to find an escape from the sea birds.
Under the kelp, the sea lions hunt and play.
Over the kelp the sea otters
get wrapped up in seaweed
to keep from drifting while they eat.
Over the kelp the waves crash,
making crackling sounds,
while under the kelp
the sharks lick their lips
for the big hunt.

Emil Adame
2nd Grade

Up and Down in the Kelp Forest

Over the kelp forest, on the knotted canopy,
a sea otter prepares for a yummy meal
with roaring waves about,
on his belly table!
Under the waves,
a sea urchin chomps and gobbles at the holdfast,
until the tiniest crumbs are left of it.
Up on the canopy of the kelp forest,
a sea bird wades, and patiently waits.
Under the tangled canopy, a school of fish
spots big orange feet flowing in the sunlight
and they hastily swim away!
Under the slimy canopy, a shark lurks,
he spots a fish and past the kelp he glides,
swimming, swimming, speedy, speedy,
swimming, speedy, speedy!
Over the waves, on the greasy, rubbery kelp
a sea snail slurps and chomps
up a kelp leaf,
minding his own business on the canopy!

McKinley Blehm
3rd Grade

Another favorite strategy of ours is to pair art with writing in science. Luckily for us, Mrs. Candelaria, our science teacher, brought in mounds of kelp for observation. Touching, exploring, and answering questions about this rubbery marine plant helps our little learners to experience richer, deeper learning. After observing the kelp in science lab, we got out our iPads to take close-up photos of the kelp, and our sketch notebooks to try our hand (and pencil!) at capturing the fronds, stipes, holdfasts, veins and nuances of this prolific marine plant. And, hey, did you know, that marine plants provide 80% of our world’s oxygen? A pretty important plant, wouldn’t you say?

A few of our photos and sketches…

(Photo credits: Amelia – 1st Grade, Calvin – 2nd Grade, Diego – 3rd Grade)

(Sketch credits: Koa – 1st Grade, Dain – 3rd Grade, Aivry – 2nd Grade)

Amelia-kelp copy


Calvin-kelp copy Diego-kelp copyKoa-kelp copyDain-kelp copyAivry-kelp copy

Subtraction Strategies

Even though addition and subtraction are reciprocal operations, many students find subtraction to be more challenging than addition.  Counting backwards creates opportunities for mistakes…and drawing the number and crossing off the amount to be subtracted is simply not efficient!  Below you will find a few subtraction strategies explained along with a video.  The goal is to use strategies that are efficient and accurate…and to use them only as long as you need them as support.

The Golden Arches strategy:

This strategy works best for subtraction of numbers between 12 and 20.  It involves using 10 as an anchor number and taking two jumps to solve the problem.  The ultimate goal is to internalize these amounts and no longer depend on documenting the steps.

Number Line strategy:

While similar to the arches strategy, using a number line allows for multiple jumps and works well for subtracting numbers with large differences between them.  Larger differences might require more jumps at first, but taking lots of jumps is not the goal.

The importance of flexibility:

The strategies introduced above can be helpful when subtracting numbers, but there are many other strategies that work as well.  It’s important to be flexible rather than relying on a rote routine to solve math problems. Understanding amounts and their relationships to known “anchors” sometimes makes number lines unnecessary.  The video below shows three different approaches to a single problem.  It’s important to think about the amounts you are working with and to have an idea about the approximate answer before you begin!

In all cases, it is important to be thinking about the amounts and the difference between them rather than relying on a single procedure.  We want students to be able to do as much of this computation as they can in their heads, something that is possible when they understand the number amounts and can “see” them in different ways.

***A special thanks to our math/video helpers who made these videos to demonstrate the strategies.


Expressing Opinions Through Product Reviews

When we greeted our students on that first day back to school in early January after our winter break, stories of holiday celebrations, time with cousins and aunties (and other relatives), visits from Santa, and new special toys filled the air. Students were primed to start work on product reviews. They started by listing three favorite holiday gifts in their writer’s notebooks and then picking just one to recommend.

After hearing the special features of Mrs. Douillard’s monopod hiking stick (a favorite holiday gift of hers), they went back to their notebooks and began to describe the features that make their gift so special. From Rubik’s Cubes to Barbie’s Dream House, programmable robots to American Girl dolls, students were happily engaged writing about things that mattered to them.

With their work on book blurbs before the holidays, students were already familiar with recommending books.  They knew to start with an interesting lead, to include some details to help the reader know what the book is about, to make deliberate word choices to keep the writing interesting, and to say why the book is a worthy read.  Writing book blurbs was a perfect prelude to our longer product reviews.

But what exactly comprises a product review?  We took a close look at a few reviews to study and notice how they were composed and what choices the authors made.  First we studied a restaurant review written by a third grader a few years ago.  We also examined the book review that Ms. Boyesen had written of Lizi Boyd’s Big Bear, Little Chair.  Finally, we watched a video review of the 3D Viewmaster composed by some kindergarten students in a school not too far from here.  Students looked closely, noticing the details and then identified a list of parts to include in their own reviews.

For this project, we decided that instead of typical written reviews, students would use the app Explain Everything to screencast their reviews.  That meant they would need photos and maybe even a video of their product to use in their production.  So…the favorite homework assignment of the year was born! Students got to take their iPads home (on the rainiest day of the year) to take photos/video of their favorite gift…they couldn’t wait!

Successful digital projects require planning and in the case of product reviews, thoughtful writing and revision before even getting to the screencast.  Our students wrote drafts, first in their notebooks, taking the time to revise to make sure they were giving specific reasons why they liked their product.  They then had to consider the order of their photos and how they related to the words they wrote.  This offered yet another opportunity for revision–maybe another detail needed to be added to the writing. Before students were ready to record their screencast, they decided which words would be paired with which photos, writing them on large index cards. The last step before recording was taking the time to practice speaking their review out loud, thinking about keeping their volume up and using expression in the recorded review.

Eventually, student’s reviews will appear on their blogs for everyone to see. For now, here a few as a preview of what’s to come!