It's been said that poetry and physics are the same thing, so on today's Heinemann Podcast we're examining the poetry of science. Language and literature can work in the same way science does. Both literature and science have stability and change. Both also have cause and effect.
In their book; Sharing Books, Talking Science, this is what authors Valerie Bang-Jensen and Mark Lubkowitz call "crosscutting concepts". In today's conversation they're joined by author, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, poet and author of Poems Are Teachers. They've come together to explore how different lenses can help us to better understand complicated concepts.
Our journey to this conversation is an interesting one. We start the podcast by learning how these author's ideas intersected.
See below for a full transcript of the conversation.
Mark: So, the three of us met when we were at NCTE. Actually, Amy and Valerie already knew each other.
Amy: Because Valerie was my professor.
Valerie: Amy was my student.
Mark: I had never met Amy, but we went to her session on poetry and how to write poetry. She said something that really resonated with us, and she said one of the suggestions that she gives to kids is, when they're stuck, “make a list and add a twist." As a scientist, one of the things that we look for are stable patterns that then instantly move into change. And I thought, wow, the tension that she's building with that suggestion, is by creating a pattern. That's expected, and then by introducing something that's unexpected, you grab the reader's attention.
I thought, "Wow, there's stability and change," crosscutting concepts from science, being used as a writing craft in poetry.
Brett: Well, in both of your books, you each talk about reading like a writer, reading like a scientist. How are these kinds of reading similar, but how are they also different?
Amy: One thing I would say is, I'm married to a scientist, and read Katie Ray's Wondrous Words, several times, many, many years ago when it first came out. I read it several times because it took a while for me to be able to see writing in a different way. Someone could explain something to me about, this is a metaphor, and I would understand it. But this idea of reading like a writer, coming to see all writing as possibility for one's own writing, was a new idea.
Now, science, when I read Mark and Valerie's book, I don't think like a scientist. My husband does. I don't see the world as a scientist. But reading their book now twice, I still need to get that third and fourth time in, until I really feel like I'm truly understanding it, I am starting to hear the squeaky creak of my brain beginning to understand things in terms of ... systems, or patterns, or beyond writing.
It's interesting how somewhere in the book, they say that, "When you learn to see the world like a scientist, it's like having a different collection of eyeglasses." What struck me about that is the next part of what they wrote, which is that these lenses are not additive, but rather synergistic. That idea of the more you see things in a different way, the more everything is connected in a different way.
It's fascinating to me how much these things over years, my husband and I have said, "Wow, it's sort of like writing. Wow, it's sort of like science." Now reading this book, I kind of actually understand a little bit about what he meant by that.
Valerie: Like Amy, I don't have any training as a scientist. When I met Mark, I realized that he saw things differently, including literature. I kind of wanted to try on his lenses, or his glasses, in that way. The more that I did, the more I realized, these concepts are a lot like writer's craft moves. When you think about structure, and Amy writes about this so beautifully in her book, is what kind of poem does she want to write that day? And she has so many different examples. The structure that she chooses really is a craft move, and it helps her accomplish a certain function.
To place this conversation in time, we've just had that really horrific shooting at a Florida high school. I read many, many pieces, opinion pieces, and Amy wrote this powerful poem that I posted and shared, it's been shared and shared, from a child's perspective hiding in a classroom. And that structure that she chose achieved the function of communicating from a different perspective. Especially, we're hearing from high school students, but this was the perspective of an elementary child. So I thought, "Even though this is a science concept, her poem shows so beautifully how it applies, and how I can understand it in poetry."
Mark: Brett, you're asking about thinking and reading like a scientist. So, scientists follow a certain structure for communicating. In our conversation, we've come to this realization that when we communicate just as writers, we actually follow a similar structure, but the language is different. For example, as we talked about in our book, when we refer to cause and effect, we could also call that plot in a different context, right?
Or when we talk about systems or system models in science, we could just call that setting in a different context.
Amy: And we look at a piece of writing, writers do, and ask, "How is this working? How did the author make us feel this way? What is the structure that served the function of me feeling sad? What did the author do with words that caused me to have a new look at something old?”
I think what's interesting about that, in Poems Are Teachers, I talk about how you can look at a poem, it's short. A poem is on one page, so you can study it easily. Whereas what I think is interesting about the comparison to science is, some of these science things are not as immediately visible. So, we have an investigation. It's like a journey to figure out, "How does this system of the beehive work?"
It's not like you can just look at it and go, "Oh, there it is," but it's an interesting uncovering of structure, or an uncovering of how the cause creates the effect. It's fascinating how much alike it all is.
Brett: When we study writing, we're really looking at the structure and the system of writing in place. Mark, that's so similar to how we study science, right?
Mark: Yeah, I think so. I remember having this conversation this morning, and I was reading something that my 11 year old had written. He likes to start off with a stable system, as many authors do. This is his journal, like four page little short story. Then he throws that system into change, which is a very common technique of a lot of writers. But from an 11 year old's point of view, he blows up the system.
Valerie: Blows it into change.
Mark: They're all on an island, and then everybody dies. Then I'm like, "Wow, that's sort of how you can resolve this story," you know. It usually involves some science fiction and fantasy at that point. Then, if you read closely, what he does is, he brings in either new energy or matter, or magic. Which is a form of energy and matter, I guess you could argue. In some form, to then bring the system back to stability. It is very much like science. I've got a stable pattern, right? Then it gets disrupted by something ... causes it to be disrupted. It has to be energy or matter, so we brought in new characters. We did something, and now the system is stable, again.
Valerie: What I said to Mark, what that made me think about, in terms of the science concepts, is how writers automatically choose a scale on which this is happening. So Zander is zooming way out and compressing everybody on the island, and everybody blowing up, and everybody dying. Recently there's been a push in a lot of writer's workshops about helping children see how they can slow it down, and they talk about exploded moments. That's a way of changing scale as a writer's move. From something that happens start to finish, to really looking deeply into one moment.
So scale, which scientists use all the time. Is their system the universe, or is it a cell? Writers use that, too.
Amy: Will I write about a whole day, or will I write about…
Mark: No, a lifetime!
Amy: … putting the pepperoni slices on the pizza to help Grandma? But I was thinking about both of you yesterday, and the conversation we had before, about a piece of writing being a system. The question is, "Is a poem a system?" We were talking before about how, "there is a defined boundary, there are intersecting ... interacting components within it. These are words, these are phrases."
Then, as I was thinking about more, I wanted to ask you ... "Do you feel if a poem is a system ... is the reader's intent and background, when a reader comes to a poem, is that energy that flows through that system?" Because they say that a piece of writing isn't a piece of writing until there's a reader, right? And every piece of writing has a different reader, or any piece of writing can have many readers and different readers bring different energy to that system of the poem. So, what do you think about that?
Mark: That's a really great question. I mean, its a really profound question. You know, I think there's a couple different levels at which you could look at it, right? So, you as the writer have energy that you're trying to put into the system. I'm guessing you're trying to elicit a response in the reader. But you don't know who the reader is, and you don't know what they're bringing to the table, and what their lens is when they're reading it. I imagine that's part of the rewarding, and the beauty part of it, right? They then add to the experience.
So, what do you think Valerie?
Valerie: So, it makes me think of Louise Rosenblatt, and her theory about reading as a transaction, in her book, "The Reader, The Text, the Poem." Which is... she's using poem in a different sense. The reader's bringing something, the text is there, and together that transaction creates a poem. Literally, here, we're talking about your poetry.
I think that if you expand the idea of system from just the poem on the page, and make the boundary be that poem and include the reader, then there's that transaction. There's that energy going on, and they are the interacting components. Because like, the tree falling in the forest? If there's just text on paper without a reader, then there's no energy transfer. No interaction.
Mark: Here's where I'm getting stuck is, because I think metaphorically, absolutely yes. And literally, I'm trying to figure out what the form of energy that's moving from text to the reader. I'm in the brain right now thinking about neurons, and if electrical impulses are-
Valerie: You're going scale.
Mark: I'm going scale.
Mark: Metaphorically, absolutely, right? None of us are the same after we've read something powerful.
Brett: What about the energy that the writer's putting into the words? What about the energy that's coming out of that person, and the moment of the energy of the writer? What about that?
Mark: So I think there's energy that's transferred metaphorically, but not literally. When I'm speaking, there's energy that's being transferred literally coming into your ear drum, for example, and that's how you can hear. When I'm reading off of a text, I mean, I guess there's light energy coming in my eyes, but that didn't come from ...
Amy: But here's a question, okay. So I'm going to ask a question then. Okay, Mark, so on page 83 of your book ... you have at the bottom, there's a box that says, "Is it love, or is it chemistry?"
Mark: Oh, yeah.
Amy: It says, "Systems have what scientists call emergent properties. These are effects that cannot be predicted, even if we know the behaviors of the components in advance." Then it goes on. "For example, humans are made primarily of six elements. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous. We know a lot about these elements about they react. Can we use this understanding to predict how a system, the human, will function or behave? However, even understanding these six elements won't allow us to predict that seven-year-old Lars likes to skip at recess. Life itself is an emergent property because the behaviors and characteristics of organisms cannot be predicted from their interacting components, which means love is really more than chemistry."
Amy: I love that part of that book. I thought, "Oh my gosh, there's magic."
Mark: I would love to tell my class, my Bio class, I say more or less that. I say, "Okay, so we know a lot about carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur. None of that would ever allow you to predict, Lubkowitz!" You know? It's true. There's emergent properties that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Amy: But that's where the reader system poem writer interaction-
Mark: You can deconstruct, and probably I imagine, when you're reading something really closely, you can deconstruct it to a certain level, and still, there's more than that. You know? There's the ... I'm going to mispronounce it, the je ne sais quoi?
Amy: That's when there's ... I think you can have a piece of writing that's very technically perfect, yet doesn't have that je ne sais quoi quality. I always think of, if I read something like that, I think, "Okay, that's a verse." But when there's that little beyond love, chemistry, magic twinkle in it, then to me, that's where it advances the writing to poem. From verse to poem is in that nameless quality.
Valerie: Well, it stays with you long after you read it, like the poem I was describing. I think it's moving beyond poetry a little bit, but I think the whole what we would call postmodern picture books are trying to get at, is how to manipulate that je ne sais quoi a little bit. If you think about recent books like, "Press Here," where it invites a different kind of participation, like physical manipulation of things, to create an energy in that system, reader and book. I think what you do so powerfully in your book, is really offer readers and writers a way to look at ways of manipulating, or crafting experience, for whoever is going to be reading their poem.
Mark: We were looking at, in page 97 of your book, where you give a tip on, "Back and forth to compare and contrast."
Valerie: The poem's called See Saw, and that's a great visual image.
Mark: Yeah, See Saw.
Amy: Oh, like Heidi Mortar's, yeah.
Mark: Yeah, "I'm up, I grip my feet dangling. I'm down, I bump, my bones are jangling." So we read that, and Valerie and I thought, "Well, there's two ways, depending on scale, how you could look at that." So one is your system changing, oscillating back and forth between two states, right?
Or you could say, "This is just part of the dynamic equilibrium. This is what happens when you're see sawing. The seesaw goes up and down, up and down." But playing with that idea, either the system, the dynamic equilibrium, or changing system rapidly back and forth like a seesaw to generate... interest by the reader. And it's familiar. That's the other thing. It's so comforting because it's a familiar pattern.
Amy: That's just what I was going to say. This poem has absolutely a recognizable pattern. As soon as you read the first couple of stanzas that Heidi wrote, you know where you're going in the next couple. There is a comfort to that. Reading your chapter on pattern really made me think about, just books that I know. It made me think about books that I know in a different way, and about how ... just even something as simple as when you wrote that some patterns we know from physical characteristics. Just the question of, "How do you know this is a Lego, and not a button?" That's a question you ask and I think, "Wow, what an interesting question." Because you just know it's a Lego. My first thought is, "Well, you just know, it is a Lego. I know what Legos are." But then to go beyond that, to ask the question, now suddenly I have to say, "Oh, Legos are shaped like this, and they have these little circles on top." Suddenly now I'm identifying the characteristics of Lego in a way that I never have before. It made me think about how, as a teacher, one of the things I see that happens with writing is that ... sometimes writing is divided up into these little genres, and we do this for a few weeks, we do this for a few weeks, and we do this for a few weeks. But what gets lost, and what can get lost, is the bigger idea of how to notice these patterns. How to see how interlocking pieces of words work together in a text beyond genre, like transcending, flying over genre.
And reading your book, I felt, "That's the same." I have always thought of science as, "Oh, well these are the things you have to know about this, and this is what you have to know about dissecting an earthworm, and there are these little parts." But not these big ideas of science. As I read the book again, I thought, "A a teacher, I could help students understand these concepts and fly above ... the content serves this way of thinking, instead of just, 'learn this pile of stuff. Learn these terms. Learn what a metaphor is, learn what photosynthesis is." But a way of seeing, help me understand.
Then I thought, "Okay, so if I see the world like a writer, and you see the world like scientists, and we talk, then I can see the world a little more like you, and you can see a little like me, and we can go off and talk to artists and see how they see it, and pile on another lens. Then talk to historians." That whole idea of the lens being synergistic is ... enormously powerful, to think of the possibilities of how I can continue to learn.
Mark: We're playing with this idea, that the ways in which we see the world are really the same, and we just named them differently. That we see them very similarly, because that's just the way our brains are physically hard wired. That's why we keep trying to draw the parallels between the different lenses in saying, "Oh, maybe they really are the same lens, and depending upon what you call yourself professionally, you have different names for them, but really it's the same lens."
Valerie: The other thing we're playing around with, and this is stepping way, way back, is how knowing these different lenses gives you agency. We're moving into a really complex world, where we need problem solvers who can dip in and out of different fields, somehow they need to be able to share a framework. I think that's what made us so excited, when we were listening to you, is, you talk about things like pattern and structure in your book. These are foundational pieces that form a framework, but then allow you to have agency and create what you want. Once you have that in science, you can apply it anywhere else. Once you apply it in writing, you can apply it anywhere else. It gives you kind of a movable schema.
Mark: We were thinking this morning, what's a practical application for the classroom? So, going back to my son Zander, when you're struck writing, if you think of your writing as being a system, add in new energy or matter, or take energy or matter out. Which is another way of saying, "Put in a character, take out a character. Make the character do something different that's unexpected. Some new energy, and throw the system into change." So it's a shortcut into, "I don't really know what to do next," and then you pull back and you go, "Oh, I really only have limited choices. I can either make a stable or changing, and I can add something or take it away. Starting with that, what would I do?"
Valerie: So, Mark doesn't know, but he's just been speaking revision techniques, right?
Amy: Absolutely, or even just getting yourself started from nothing. Writers have to start from nothing, so there you are with a blank piece of paper asking yourself, "Okay, what am I going to do here?" Then say, "All right, I'll start with a pattern, or I'll start with a structure, or I'll start with something happening, and then I'll think about the cause of that thing happening, and it’ll be a cause effect." I think looking at these signs, one thing that got me excited on a completely separate note from just seeing where these two professional books overlap is, I made a list in my notebook from the different chapters in your book of all these picture books that I think would be so much fun to write.
I never really thought about trying to understand the world in this way, and it opened up, for me, in the same way, again. That Wondrous Words did. That was a transformational book for me, and this book in that same way I feel like will impact how I see things forever. I'm just very grateful for that.
Valerie: Mark and I are very careful to caution teachers not to grab a book and then immediately start looking for crosscutting concepts, because we really want to step out of the way the first time that a class hears one of your poems. Or, reads a book, and just let that transaction between the writers of the book and the children just happen. But there's so many opportunities to revisit books when you're talking more specifically about these concepts, or about writing.
Mark talks about how books either start with the system and change, or start with a stable system and then there's a change. I always think about Charlotte's Web, and the opening line is something like, "Where is papa going with that ax?" that's something different, and something is going to be thrown into change, because I'm sure that's not how every breakfast conversation starts. So I wouldn't talk about the first time I read that book, but if I wanted to introduce a new way to approach a piece of writing, I might revisit that with my class and say, "Let's see how EB White handled this."
Amy: I think that that's true in science as well. If I were bringing in a bag of fossils, or we were watching a caterpillar spin a chrysalis ... I don't know what the right verb is there, but I wouldn't want to deconstruct it moment by moment, but rather allow the child's wonder to just be present and unfurl, and then later to come back. Because there is something about being ... struck and moved by a text, or by a scientific process, that once you are able to experience ... I don't know, the only word I can think of right now is the sacredness, or the wonder, the beauty of whatever it is. Learning about how it works is more interesting to you.
Mark: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Authentic experience of life, really. Of the complete human in that ... I don't know. Just experiencing it for what it is.
Valerie: I also think going back to some of your poems, are so ... thoughtfully written. They all are, but it's because of the choices you've made, the sort of compression is a word I picked up from your session at NCTE. The way that you choose words, the structure, the pattern, the imagery. All of those choices that relate to the cross cutting concepts and writer's craft are why I come away with the really aesthetic response.
Mark: Can I give an example?
Mark: So, I have seven words that you wrote, Amy, that just fit with it. They're that profound. "Alive for an eye blink, forever dead calm."
Mark: Yeah, but really ... it makes you think. It almost makes me cry when I read it. I mean, it's that powerful.
Amy: Well, thank you. I feel very lucky. One of the interesting things for me with Poems Are Teachers book, was having all these poets in it, and having the opportunity to read all of these poems by contemporary 55 or whatever it is, contemporary poets, and to see how every one of them, and then the 100 children, how they ... do exactly what you're saying, Valerie, compress language so that in a small, a few words, you can be transported. That's the amazing ... the amazingness of writing.
It made me think about the chapter in your book on scale, proportion and quantity, and how you talk about the Goldilocks scale. The idea of something being, "Is it big, or little, or in the middle?" I was thinking a lot about children, how ... when you're little, there's a book by Charlotte Zolito called Over and Over, you may know it Valerie, about a child not understanding how the year goes. And says, "But what happens after Christmas?" "Oh, well after Christmas, we celebrate a brand new year, and we wear party hats, and we have noisemakers, and everybody stays up late," but it goes through the whole year. What happens after New Year's? What happens after Valentine's Day? And this idea of children not understanding yet, just because of their limited time on earth, how the year works.
But then in your book, it's the same about not understanding unit measurements. I have three miles of flour I'm putting in the cake I'm baking. When little children make up their own recipes, and they have 200,000 pounds of butter in the pie, or whatever. So reading that, when you said ... that fluency in measurements is a goal that we have for young scientists, that they have an innate feel for quantities and units. I think that's a lot true when we think about young writers, too. Children will learn what a metaphor is, or what repetition is, and they use it in this crazy way. They go way overboard with the metaphor, or you know, the repetition. It's just like everything repeats.
It's like an awkward use of something new, because they don't yet have the fluency in knowing, "Is this metaphor too big or too little, or is it just right?" They just don't have enough experience with these different craft techniques, so they go hog wild with them and then learn to pull back. I think it's the same, when I was reading your book, about measurements and kind of... You've got to measure a lot of things, all year long, to start to understand what a centimeter is. I've got to measure, measure, measure, measure, until it's sort of that scale settles into my mind.
Mark: It's interesting, my child used to say the word, "lava hot." That's how he would describe heat, "lava hot." When I would think back literally, I was like, first, well that's so hot. It's so over the top, but the point was well made. "It's really hot, Dad."
Amy: Yeah, and that whole idea about having comparisons, and you naming in the book, all these picture books where nonfiction authors use comparisons to help young readers understand how scientific concepts fit into the world. That you can compare it to something you already know.
Valerie: If I can move more toward the language that you started to refer to, and Mark did too with lava hot, and the metaphors. One of the things that's so much fun for us, now, is to recognize how the crosscutting concepts, whisper and shout, in our language. We were so excited, can you read that great fossil line again, Mark? We thought, "Wow, this shouts scale."
Mark: “Alive for an eye blink, forever dead calm.”
Valerie: You know, you chose those words so carefully to communicate scale of a fossil. What we also started to realize is how our daily use of language shouts cross cutting concepts, or whispers it. I was saying, one of my favorite things to realize, as I went into Mark's office, I was so mad about something. I said to him, "Mark, can I vent?"
Mark: I said, "Don't transfer your negative energy into this."
Valerie: Then we started just playing with it, and in our book we have a list in almost every chapter of some of our favorite examples, of how we can think about language using the crosscutting concept.
Amy: I read a lot of those to my husband, the scientist, last night. He was laughing so hard. Especially this one: "The word or phrase is, I need to lose weight. The reference to energy is, I need to get rid of potential energy." We just had a good laugh about that. But the whole list of those, it really ... those lists I think help somebody who doesn't already or naturally think in scientific terms say, "Oh, oh, I'm spinning my wheels, I'm wasting energy." I'm just looking at the chart here. "I'm procrastinating. I haven't found my activation energy." It's interesting to see how many of these cross cutting concepts do seep into our everyday language. We naturally do think this way, we just don't know that it's scientific.
Valerie: Well exactly, and I think as Mark said earlier, we all think this way, and different fields have come up with language to describe it. But really, we're all trying to describe the same thing.
Amy: That would be a good book. Every chapter could be, thinking like a scientist, reading the world like a writer, reading the world lie an artist, reading the world like an anthropologist, reading the world like a chef, reading the world like a ...
Valerie: Let's get on board.
Amy: So everybody could write a chapter, but it would be really interesting, because then you could see. And see, what are the crosscutting concepts of life?
Valerie Bang-Jensen is Professor of Education at Saint Michael’s College. She earned her A.B. at Smith College and MA, M.Ed., and Ed.D. degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University. Valerie has taught in K-6 classrooms and library programs in public and independent schools in the U.S. and Paris, and was the district elementary writing coordinator in Ithaca, New York. She serves as a consultant for museums, libraries, schools and gardens for children. Valerie’s areas of interest include children’s literature, nonfiction, and connections between literacy and first-hand experiences. Valerie can be found on Twitter at @VBangJensen.
Mark Lubkowitz is Professor of Biology at Saint Michael’s College, where he received the Joanne Rathgeb Teaching Award. He earned a B.S. in Biology at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He was a post-doctoral fellow in plant developmental genetics at the University of California, Berkeley. As a scientist, Mark studies the molecular mechanisms of transporters and the various roles they play in plants. When not in the lab, Mark can be found riding his bike or tending his garden.
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a former classroom teacher and author of children’s books including Forest Has a Song, Every Day Birds, and Read! Read! Read!. She is a graduate of Teachers College and co-author of Poetry: Big Thoughts in Small Packages, a part of the Calkins’ Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing series. Connect with Amy at her popular blog, The Poem Farm, at amyludwigvanderwater.com, or on Twitter @amylvpoemfarm.