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Doug Chadwick, wildlife biologist and author, spoke last night at the Patagonia store in Westport CT, sharing excerpts from his new book, Tracking Gobi Grizzlies. I enjoyed Doug’s last book, The Wolverine Way, which I wrote about in 2010. I was excited to hear about his work with the Gobi Bear Project, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the Gobi Grizzlies, what he calls “the dustiest, thirstiest, and rarest bears in the world.”

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Theirs is an improbably existence, in a wind-swept rocky and mountainous desert that ranges from -40 in the winter to about 120° F in the summer. There may be as few as 35-40 of these bears in the world, and they are the only bears that live exclusively in deserts. The Gobi Grizzly is the same species as the North American Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos, but a smaller subspecies, called Ursus arctos gobiensis.

The study and conservation work takes place in southern Mongolia, and efforts are focused (not surprisingly) on minimizing conflicts with humans and livestock, and reducing both competition for water resources and impact of land development and mining operations. The bears’ current range is contained within the “Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area”, which is about 5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Efforts of biologists from the project are focused on learning more about the bears, protecting the ones left, and protecting wildlife corridors for the bears to move back into habitat that may have been in their historical range, but is now separated by land that may be developed for mining. This is similar to work that Doug has been promoting for some time now, with the Freedom to Roam and the Yellowstone to Yukon initiatives.

I enjoy Doug’s writing voice, and it was nice to hear his storytelling voice as well. He’s a self described optimist, and while he recognizes the obstacles and hard work ahead, he has hope for conservation efforts to support biodiversity in the long run. Doug heads back West soon with upcoming talks in Dillon, Montana and Seattle, Washington, and if that’s your neighborhood, it’s worth popping in to say hi and give a listen. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

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Jessica Lahey wrote an interesting piece last spring about encouraging teenagers to read. She shares her experience in getting her sons to pick up reading again, a voluntary activity that can sometimes flag as reading for academics and extracurricular commitments swell through middle and high school. She has a number of great suggestions, including “seeding” her son’s room with “literary bait” gathered from the non-YA section of the bookstore. Getting kids to follow their own interests (and to make choices on their own) can play a big part in instilling a lifelong love of reading. While her article was largely related to what kids read in their free time, much of what she wrote resonated with me as a classroom teacher who also wants his students to read.

I didn’t see Jessica’s article until just this week when she Tweeted Encouraging Teens to Read Nonfiction (With Cunning, Guile, & a Bit of Luck),” along with a link and a photo of a stack of books. (The books totally caught my eye, and I’m putting the ones I haven’t read on my ever-growing list to check out.)

So here’s why it resonated with me: This year I decided to pilot a non-fiction book project with my ninth grade biology class, and I’m excited about how it went. Students chose books from a long list of titles, and they each read a different book. It was my goal to engage their interest in a wide range of topics related to biology, including medicine, DNA and genetics, sports, natural history, zoology, evolution, endangered species, food and nutrition, the brain, music, and conservation. And really, I also wanted to expose them to good non-fiction writing and to see if they’d liked it. I didn’t make it optional, but I did give them choice and a good deal of time.

Here’s what they read:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot)
  • Spillover (Quammen)
  • A Primate’s Memoir (Sapolsky)
  • Inside of a Dog (Horowitz)
  • Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Sapolsky)
  • The Wolverine Way (Chadwick)
  • The Violinist’s Thumb (Kean)
  • The Sports Gene (Epstein)
  • The Making of the Fittest (Carroll)
  • Devil’s Teeth (Casey)
  • Monster of God (Quammen)
  • Song of the Dodo (Quammen)
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan)
  • Incognito (Eagleman)
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons (Kean)
  • My Stroke of Insight (Bolte-Taylor)
  • Your Brain on Music (Levitin)
  • The World Without Us (Weisman)

Some books they didn’t pick that I think would still be good choices: A Sting in the Tale (Goulson), The Botany of Desire (Pollan), Four Fish (Greenberg), Cod (Kurlansky), On the Origin of Species (Darwin), Song for the Blue Ocean (Safina), On the Wing (Tennant), The Sixth Extinction (Kolbert), What to Eat (Nestle), Musicophilia (Sacks), Silent Spring (Carson), The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck). Let me know in the COMMENTS section if you have suggestions for other books you think might work. I’d love to have a longer list for students to choose from in September.

One of the challenges of adding this on top of any course is that our students are already plenty busy. They’re reading The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, etc. in English, plus history homework and papers, Spanish projects, math, and also my own assignments for Biology, reading both current articles and textbook chapters. So I spread this project out over the first two trimesters. I didn’t want them to have to cram to finish their books as they were prepping for final exams, for example. I kept the assignments simple, but I found that I did need to assign them something. They weren’t about to just read them on their own. Assignment 1 was a 50-pages-in tell me about the book, plus a quick explanation of the author’s goal/thesis, and a notable quote (this was in a round table format, explained to the rest of the class). Assignment 2 was a middle-of-the-book written explanation of a longer excerpt, a what-I’ve-learned-so-far about this topic check-in. And finally, Assignment 3 was a larger book review; a summary, notable excerpt, and a conclusion on whether they thought I should keep the book in the hopper for next year’s class.

My takeaways: the students generally liked this project, and were interested in what they found in the books. They weren’t terribly excited that I plopped this on top of their plates, but their topics did work their way into class discussions throughout the year (The Sports Gene, The Violinist’s Thumb, The Making of the Fittest, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came up on multiple occasions when their readers were happy to chime in with something they had just read related to the class topic).

Favorite outcome by far: my students are now working through the human body systems by working backwards from diseases, and Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight” has made its way from the girl who read it for the book project to the girl that’s researching stroke. She says, “Oh, ___, you should read the first section of my book. It explains everything you need to know. I’ll bring it tomorrow.” And she did.

 

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Image: W. W. Norton & Company

So, there IS a new David Quammen book! This one deals with the crossover of infectious disease into humans; a fascinating, terrifying, and all-too-common process called zoonosis. Diseases such as bubonic plague, swine flu, HIV, and Ebola fall into this category. It’s important to note that transmission by an organism doesn’t make a disease zoonotic; rather, zoonoses involve a “jump” of a species-specific pathogen to a new species (in this case humans). Swine flu is a good example. Normally, we don’t catch the flu that pigs catch — the virus is great at infecting pig cells, not ours. But when that influenza virus mutates (which it does often), some of those mutated versions may be able to infect us (note: some of those mutations might also be harmless to us; some mutations will render the virus ineffective entirely — but we don’t hear about those versions. This is natural selection, of course.). This situation can be especially problematic because that recently mutated virus, in addition to being “new” to the world, is also totally “new” to our immune systems (advantage: virus). Throw in the fact that we’re putting ourselves in contact with more and more potential “new” pathogens all over the world (travel, exploration, destruction of rain forests, etc.) and we end up with a lot more potential diseases to combat. My seventh graders do a project on infectious diseases after studying bacteria and viruses, and the subject of this book ties in nicely with that project. So, in addition to new books this fall from Chabon, Helprin, McEwan, Ruhlman, and Kean, now I’m looking forward to finding some time to read Quammen’s “Spillover.”

Here’s the trailer for the book from the publisher, W. W. Norton:

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A quick post to say that the Learning & the Brain conference (Web-Connected Minds) last weekend in Arlington VA was terrific. A whole lot to think about. And in order for me to process all the information, I’m going to start working through my notes and get some stuff out here over the next week.

First, I was happy to meet some new colleagues in the field. Conversations and emails swapped during individual sessions, new connections made through the Twitter (search hashtag #LB32 for the stream of tweets from the conference), and a face-to-face “tweet up” on Saturday night made the experience all the richer. A tangible benefit of the workshops, keynotes, and conversations is that my stack of books-to-read has grown tremendously. I started an open Google Doc to get all the recommendations down in one place, and I got plenty of input from presenters and other teachers at the conference. Please take a look, add your own suggestions, or comment on the ones that are there (or write in the Comments section below). I haven’t read all of these books, but I’ll try to work through some of them this summer. I’m going to start with Play by Stuart Brown, and Brain Rules by John Medina. I’m also interested to read Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It after her fascinating talk on Sunday morning.

Thanks to @fitzwits, @plugusin, @reyjunco, @tobyfischer, @kjongtech, @henesss, @bradfountain, @mSchlemko, @raviniareading, @jennifercottle, @snbeach, @CathyNDavidson, @tkraz, @AVIDbrian, @lottascales, @rfmoll, and @learningandtheb for book recs, thought provoking tweets, talks, and great ideas.

Also, Maureen Devlin (@lookforsun) writes the blog Teach Children Well and she put out a tweet this morning, looking for teacher summer reading suggestions. Feel free to chime in there as well.

So, what’s on your reading list?

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Hungry Monkey

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Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton


Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa over at Ideas in Food turned me on to this book Hungry Monkey with their review a few weeks ago.  And when my sister-in-law read the cover and subtitle, she laughed and asked if it had been written for me.  A Food Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater?  Yup.  I really enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to making several of the recipes for the kid at some point.  Author Matthew Amster-Burton has an easygoing voice, and he writes with wit, self awareness, and humor.  He explains how parental anxiety about baby food can be overwhelming, and that the research out there on allergens, the timing of food introductions, and food philosophy (if you can call it that) varies hugely.  Then you realize that over the course of recorded history (and before that too, I’m sure) parents have, after breastfeeding, been feeding kids adult food in some form, with developmentally appropriate degrees of mush, chunks, and spice.  And it’s likely that over that span of time there have been kids that have been picky eaters.  It’s not a new phenomenon.

So it was refreshing to read Amster-Burton’s book, which finds a kind of middle ground (leaning towards the adventurous) on what to feed your kids.  He’s not overly cautious, but not reckless either.  The other thing I appreciated is that he seems to be realistic.  There’s only so much you can do as a parent to steer the tastes of your children.  (It’s possible that you can’t do anything.)  You can control what comes into the house and where you choose to eat out, but beyond that, it’s a total crap shoot.  Being adventurous eating parents does not necessarily beget an adventurous eater (supertasting and nontasting genes notwithstanding).  His daughter doesn’t like vegetables, or cheese, for example, and that’s okay.  (Apparently having your kids help in the kitchen is not a surefire way to get them to eat vegetables.)  Maybe she’ll grow out of it.  What comes across clearly in the book, is that he and his daughter share an appreciation for cooking and food, while recognizing the quirkiness of individual taste.  I enjoy cooking, and I’m at the beginning of this whole feeding a kid thing at home.  So the timing of this book, for me, was perfect.  And it’s a hilarious read.  If you’ve got kids, or have some on the way, and you think about food ever, it’s worth checking out.

By the way, Chapter 12 – The Monkey and the Meat Grinder: hysterical.

Amster-Burton’s blog is called Roots and Grubs, and you can get the book lots of places.

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With summer break here, I’m looking forward to reading several books that have been in the stack for a while.  Just before school ended, I got several recommendations on books to read, and I’d like to get through some of those (see Books page for the complete list, ever evolving).  I’m sure I’ll add more to the pile before I’m through it.  Please leave suggestions in Comments if there’s a book you think I should read.  I’m always happy to have new recommendations.

I’m also planning on doing some reading on gardening, starting with the Michael Pollan book.  If I’m feeling adventurous, I might build a planter or two to see what vegetables I can grow in our small back yard, beyond the standard chives, basil, and parsley that we have going so far.  There are several reasons for wanting to do this, and most of them have to do with moving myself along the continuum from completely dependent, to only somewhat independent of traditional food systems.  This might be just an idealistic drop in the bucket, in the grand scheme of things, but I’m okay with that.  I came across this idea in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Cookbook, and it makes a lot of sense to me.  Another reason to garden is that it’s an extension of the reason that we bake our own bread, cure our own bacon, or do anything from scratch.  We get creative control, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from seeing a project through start-to-finish.  I imagine that might be an order of magnitude greater for someone who builds a house from the ground up.  Since I’m definitely not going to build a house, I think I’ll stick with growing vegetables.  I think I could be a good gardener, you know.  Another reason is that I’m going to enter Ruhlman’s BLT-from-scratch Summertime challenge, which I can totally win.

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To complicate matters — clearly going against the plan of simplifying and shortening the book pile — I just got back from the book store.  I got the Pollan gardening book, Second Nature (see link above); The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen; and The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, which I’ve been reading a lot about.  (I’m considering keeping tabs on the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge, where folks are working through the book one recipe at a time; details at the blog Pinch My Salt.  That’s a lot of food challenges for one post, so I might just observe this one, learn a bit, and pick up the baking in the fall when it’s a little cooler out.)  Lastly, I had the Helprin book Digital Barbarism in my hand, but I didn’t get it.  I really like Helprin’s novels — a topic to fill a post of its own — but I’m going to hold off on this one for a while, until I really get the itch to read about copyright law in the age of the blog.

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“The foreseeable outcome is that in the year 2150, when human population peaks at around eleven billion, alpha predators will have ceased to exist — except behind chain-link fencing, high-strength glass, and steel bars.  After that time, as memory recedes and the zoo populations become ever more genetically attenuated, ever more conveniently docile, ever more distantly derivative from the real thing, people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity.  Adults, except a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted.  Children will be startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world.”

– David Quammen, Monster of God (2003).

This passage has been bouncing around in my head in some way or another since I read Monster of God a few years ago.  It certainly hooked me into the book.  The idea that animals we know now could be/will be remembered or mythologized after their disappearance is a powerful one, of course, for a biology teacher or anyone concerned about these things.  Wolves coursed through these forests; buffalo roamed these plains.

This morning I Googled “once there were lions,” to see what else was out there, to see if I’d have to choose another blog title.  I think it would also make a good album name, by the way, perhaps for a solo project.  More on that later.  Anyway, Quammen’s passage from MOG showed up online through Google Books.  You can preview most of the chapter here.  Other references to O.T.W.L online included an article in SWARA by Lawrence G. Frank with the same title.  But the most interesting connection I found was that Richard Louv cited the Quammen passage in an article called The Nature-Child Reunion (published in “National Wildlife” Magazine, June/July 2006, by The National Wildlife Federation, http://www.nwf.org. ©National Wildlife Federation.)  I’ve been meaning to read Louv’s Last Child in the Woods for about a year now, and I’d already moved it up on the “to read” pile for this summer.  This strikes home for me as an educator and a father, now, since raising a child has moved from the purely theoretical to practical reality.  We want to make sure he plays outside, in the woods, in the dirt, and with the dog.

So the plan isn’t to limit myself to writing about ecology, teaching, or child rearing, or to lament the disappearance of alpha predators.  Those will be part of the blog because I care about those things.  But I’d also like to keep track of anything I’m reading, playing, listening to, and thinking about.  It’s time to gather these ideas all together in the same place, disparate as they are, because people might be interested.  Even if they’re not, that’s okay.  It’s certainly a broader outlet than Facebook status updates or Twitter tweets.

Thanks for reading.

Scott Lilley, June 2009

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