Astronomy: A Doodle, a Song, a Reading List

Google Doodle marks scientist's birthday.
Google Doodle marks a noteworthy astronomer’s birthday today. Big Universe supports the sciences 24/7 with 1000-plus online math and science books for children.

Did you see the Google Doodle today? It’s awesome and animated. I sincerely love it when the beauty of science and the accomplishments of scientists and researchers are lauded. Thank you, Google.

Although I’m a writer by trade, I’m a science enthusiast to the core of my being. Big Universe does a great  job of supporting science literacy. We have more than a thousand math and science books for kids online – at all reading levels. The website’s search tools make it easy to find what you are looking for.

Today’s Google Doodle marks the 540th birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy. Back in his day, the rest of humanity thought the Earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus, however, insisted that the Earth revolved around the sun along with the planets. His idea was not well received. Years later, Galileo and his trusty telescope confirmed Copernicus’ theory.

Big Universe’s “Rourke’s World of Science Encyclopedia, Volume 7” is an excellent place to start exploring the topic of space. The book’s whole focus is astronomy. Or click this link to the Planets page on Big Universe Learning for other leveled-reading options.

One more thing.  I have a song to pass along. Please tell your students that it’s a late valentine from me to them. It’s an educational song on Youtube that’s sure to get stuck in their heads. It’ll help your kids memorize the planets in our solar system. Who can resist a catchy song, right?

Here’s the link for Planet Jive and the lyrics:


Mercury now is the one closest to the shining sun.

Venus, Earth and then comes Mars orbiting that burning star.

Jupiter is next to them, largest in the solar system.

Saturn keeps on orbiting, see how the rings keep circling.

Uranus looks blue and green. It’s cold, at minus 353 degrees.

Neptune is the bluish one, its atmosphere is hydrogen.

Pluto is the furthest out, the smallest planet there’s no doubt.

Nine planets orbiting the sun make up our solar system.


*Note: Interested in reading more about using music in the classroom? Click the following links to articles by Big Universe blogger Elizabeth Peterson: “Music in Our Schools”  or “The Arts and Literacy: Part Two”.


Music to Read By

Music is a powerful tool for so many things.  It can be something we use in our schools to help motivate our students as well as set the tone for our classroom.

Listening to music is a great way to bring music into your day, but what I find from other teachers is that they don’t know where to start when it comes to picking out just the right music.  Depending on what you do and teach will affect what type of music you wish to use.

Let’s focus on reading.  Some people love reading to music, others do not.  You may want to test the waters in your classroom to see what your students prefer or ask them their opinion on the matter.

Of course you need to consider what type of reading your students may be doing.  If they are free reading for enjoyment, they may welcome music more readily than if they are reading a selection on which they will be tested.  Others may need some music in the background to help them focus in a testing situation.

Here are some options of music and sound you can consider when choosing to play music while reading.

1. Instrumental Music – If you choose music, the best type to consider is instrumental, or music without lyrics.  The words that make up lyrics can get in the way as your mind will wander between the words you read and the words you hear.

There is a multitude of instrumental music you can use from classical pieces to popular songs.  Don’t assume just any instrumental piece will do, though.  You must consider the tempo (speed) and dynamics (volume) of the piece.  Usually, a slower, peaceful piece will suit a quiet reader’s needs more so than something more intense, loud or fast.  So, stay away from rocking guitar solos and intense Beethoven symphonies.  You may search your own music collection or a variety of playlists online for titles that are collected to soothe, relax and create a peaceful atmosphere.

2. White noise is another option for sound while reading.  It doesn’t have the potential distract-ability that music does as it does not have a melody or other layers of instrumentation.  Sometimes I find that even instrumental music can be distracting for people who are attuned to music and have a good ear to listen actively.

White noise can be helpful in situations where there may be random noises outside your classroom or office that tend to break your concentration.  I work in an open concept school and white noise or a variation of it can be helpful to drown out the unpredictable noise from the hall.

3. Soundscapes are another way to create an isolated atmosphere without melodious music.  These can be anything from a soundtrack of an ocean’s crashing waves to the sounds recorded in nature to the constant sound of children playing and laughing.

4.  Silence is always a great alternative.  Although hard to come by, it is a great way to produce an area where readers can focus on reading.

Of course the objective in bringing sound (or the absence of it) to a classroom or small group of readers is to help them focus.  Each group and each individual student may need something different.  Have fun experimenting with a variety of musical genres and other sounds as well as silence and have students start to identify what may help them to read.


photo credit

The Countdown to Winter Holiday – Keeping them Learning

kids on playground

Just before the Thanksgiving break, the principal at my daughter’s elementary school sent a note to parents saying they were “already seeing” the pre-holiday increase in the students’ energy.

It was a kind but specific plea asking us to create / maintain an environment where the kids could still learn … get them a good night’s rest, breakfast, keep a routine, and give them opportunities to burn their energy in other ways.

It is that last point that is both the easiest and the hardest. Easy, because there are plenty of things to do. In OT they call it heavy work: getting the kids to use their big muscles to recenter that energy.  It is why daily recess is so important.

Hardest because with so much preparation and activity, the routine can’t help but be disrupted. And since the activities lead up to something important to the kids, well, it just adds to the excitement.

So how DO you make it all work?

I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. Not just in helping my fifth grader retain her focus, but also in my role as Executive Director of the Reading Tub. Our goal at The Tub is to “bring reading home for families,” and I am always looking for / thinking about / sharing ideas that integrate literacy and learning into daily life. These are a few of my recent suggestions that will also work in a classroom.

Go Hollywood!
age group: 9 and Up

kids make videos
family photo

Whether you supervise little ones or let the teens take charge, let the kids spend the afternoon with a video camera (or just a camera) and make a holiday flick or slideshow.  Here are some starter ideas for themes

  • Newsreel with major events from around the world, school, or home
  • autobiography of their three favorite things about the year
  • biography with the things they like most about a sibling, friend, or relative
  • an original skit / movie
  • music video of their favorite song / holiday song
  • letters to / lists for Santa

This would be a fun project for small group projects or siblings to do together, too.

Go Top Chef!
age group: 3 to 8

preschool craft ideaWell, not exactly … but it does involve cookie cutters. There are no limits to what you can create with cookie cutters. Iin addition to sorting by shape, size, and color, they make great props for pretend play and art projects, too.

  • The kids can trace them on card stock, cut out the shape, and use pieces of tissue paper to make them like stained glass windows.
  • Cut out the various shapes to make a collage or puzzle.

Go American Idol!
age group: 3 and Up

Kids love to sing – and its a great way to get those lungs working and their brains cranking.

  • Combine this idea with the recording idea above.
  • Let them pick their favorite tune and rewrite the lyrics to fit a theme you select. The 12 Days of Christmas by Straight No Chaser is a fun example of this idea.

classic Jan Brett picture bookFor elementary students, check out Mrs. Jones Room. She has lots of Sing-along Songs that start with the classic Alphabet song through the 44 President Rap.

If you’re a fan of Jan Brett’s The Mitten, then you’ll want to check out The Mitten in the Snow Song (where the kids sing the order of the animals) or The Mitten Phonemic Awareness Song (that helps the kids practice the beginning sounds of animals that climb in the mitten).

What are your ideas? I could still use some in my house over the next 14 days … not to mention Winter Break.


Book Review: Christmas Music For Reading & Sharing

interior image - Twin Sisters bookAs a first grader, I thought I knew every Christmas song there was in the world. I was wrong!

Miss McNally taught us “The Friendly Beasts” for our Christmas concert, and I have never forgotten it. I can still recite every verse (*cough*) 40-odd (*cough*) years later. It is still one of my all-time favorite holiday songs, probably made more special by the fact that it isn’t on every holiday album and isn’t in every book of piano music, either.

Now, I can re-live the music and the memories with The Friendly Beasts by sisters Kim Mitzo Thompson and Karen Mitzo Hilderbrand. It is a welcome addition to our holiday bookshelf!

As I started looking for other Twin Sisters Productions‘ seasonal titles on I got very excited. With titles like Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Angels We Have Heard On High we have instant books-on-tape! Cool, don’t you think?

It is no news to you that we learn with our ears first. We know the word “mama” and can say it before we recognize it on the page. If there are ways to mix the two together, well that’s just awesome.  Enter: Twin Sisters Productions and holiday music.

Their catalog contains lots of songs in book form, as well as some wonderful seasonal titles that are books you share with toddlers before the “story” stage.  Complementing the songs with images and text that can help kids learn to read is a “teaching moment” extraordinaire!

These are books that are wonderful to share with toddlers and preschoolers with a teacher or Mom and Dad reading. In the min-reviews below, though, I offer some ideas on how I would use them with developing readers.

We Three Kings, illustrated by Jackie Binder

picture book holiday musicI recommend for Kindergarten and First Grade

  • There is lots of white space, with just 4 – 5 lines of verse / page. 
  • The illustrations are bright but simple (i.e., don’t distract the reader). 
  • Orient, yonder, wonder, and sacrifice are among the words that expand the reader’s vocabulary.
  • The rhyme has great variety for introducing different word families. Examples: are, afar, star; plain, again, reign.

similar: Angels We Have Heard on High, Jolly Old Saint Nicholas


The Friendly Beasts, illustrated by  Tara Larsen Chang

music picture book for preschoolersI recommend for Preschool, Kindergarten and First Grade

    • The lyrics are presented in three styles of text, with different sizes and colors.
    • Word rhymes for each verse stay within a word family.
    • There is plenty of word repetition, including kind, Him, cow, good.
    • The hardest word “Emmanuel”  is last … at the point where the reader has already gained their confidence. 

Similar: Up on the Housetop, Away in the Manger


The First Noel, illustrated by Jackie Binder

Christmas music bookI recommend for First Grade and Second Grade

  • The lyrics offer lots of repetition perfect for a newer reader.
  • The density of the pages requires a more confident / seasoned reader (text-heavy with 8-10 lines / page).
  • The last page is a Bible verse and has no images.
  • Lyrical words expand the readers’ vocabulary bank: intent, Israel, country.
The airwaves are filled with music that kids love to sing and music teachers everywhere are teaching the kids holiday songs. So why not take advantage of the moment? These are music storybooks with a broad audience: you can share them with your child on your lap, in your classroom or Sunday school gathering, or add to your music room as “sheet music.”

Stories in Music

When searching for great stories to share with your students, make sure music is in your list of resources.  So many songs can tell a great story!  And this is a great way to integrate Music in Our Schools Month with Literacy month all March.

There are some songs that not only capture our interest, feed our emotions and get us motivated, some have all the makings of a well told story.  This week, I want to share a playlist with you that you can use with your students to teach some of these things.  For example, these songs have a beginning, middle and end.  Their beginnings draw you in by setting a scene, introducing a character and/or grabbing your attention.  They then go on to develop the story by giving details and showing a sequence of events.  The listeners need to visualize the actions and draw inferences.  This is real literary practice!


Songs that Tell Stories by Elizabeth Peterson on Grooveshark

I do this type of work with my students all the time and it always amazes me to see how many students love the activities of using their reading strategies with listening to music.  It also allows me to see some struggling readers shine.  Without the words to get in the way, I can tell that they are capable of visualization and drawing conclusions.

When I ask students to listen to music, we listen to one song multiple times.  Just as you get more out of a story if you read it more than once, the same is true with music.  And listening repetitively to music reinforces the importance of reading texts again and again.  When you give students the opportunity to do it with music, they grasp that concept more readily.

For more on how to bring listening experiences into the classroom, go HERE.

Enjoy the playlist and happy listening!  I hope you are able to share these songs and stories with your students.


Music in Our Schools

This month, as well as being Literacy Month, it is Music in Our Schools Month!  March is a great time to bring music into your classroom through listening, performing, creating it.  Of course you can also read about it, and Big Universe has some resources that you will find to be a great addition to your bookshelf.

  • Music Around the World – This is a book that describes various instruments from different countries while also touching on the concept of patterns.
  • Add some more math into the mix of music with Pythagoras and the Ratios as readers discover how the Greek contributed to the way in which we tune and play a variety of instruments.
  • Power Chord – This chapter book is a good read for middle school students.  The main character decides to start a band (to get the girls) and ends up facing a moral dilemma.
  • Why not add in some biographical reading with The Beatles Graphic Biography.  As far as I’m concerned, every kid should learn about these guys!
  • For a listing of all the books in the Big Universe about music, go HERE.

Dig through your own books and those in your school or local library.  You will find lyrics or books about song, theory books and song books, composer biographies and beautiful picture books whose theme is the power of music.  Displaying a small (or large) collection of music books in your classroom is a great way to get students thinking and excited about music in their lives.




Reading and Music Ability Linked, New Study Shows

Musicality and reading ability are linked, report scientists in a recent neuroscience study.

If I had a do-over, I might like to have studied neuroscience. The brain is an amazingly complex and marvelous wonderland. So much has been discovered about how it functions, and yet there is so much more to explore and understand.

 That’s why the ANI article “Musical Ability Biologically Linked to Reading Ability” caught my eye. It detailed a study published recently in BioMed Central’s Behavioral and Brain Functions journal, which correlated reading proficiency and musical skill.

Researchers from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Chicago tested children’s ability to hear and remember words. These findings were compared to reading ability and musical aptitude.

“Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem,” said research team leader Dr. Nina Kraus*. “These results add weight to the argument that music and reading are related via common neural and cognitive mechanisms and suggests a mechanism for the improvements in literacy seen with musical training.”

Children in the study listened to a sequence of numbers and then were asked to repeat them in reverse order. Electrical activity in their brains was measured during this auditory testing. Researchers found that “poor readers” had reduced brainwave response to auditory stimulation as compared to “good readers.” Musical rhythm aptitude appeared to reflect these findings as well.

I’m sure these biological findings come as no surprise to Big Universe blogger Elizabeth Peterson, who is an advocate for arts integration in the classroom. Her Oct. 12th post, “The Connections Between Music and Reading,” does a good job of explaining how motivating music can be to an emerging reader. You can also read about Active Listening Snack Time in her post “Using Music to Help Teach Visualization Strategies.” She is the author of the book “Inspired by Listening.”

Other Articles You May Like:

Big Universe Books for the Budding Neuroscientist

  • The Brain, (Teacher Created Materials Publishing), Interest Age: 6-12.
  • The Nervous System, (Bellwether Publishing) Interest Age: 9-12.

 Note: Dr. Nina Kraus is a Northwestern University professor of neurobiology, physiology and otolaryngology. She investigates the neurobiology underlying speech and music perception and learning-associated brain plasticity. Dr. Kraus studies normal listeners throughout the lifespan, clinical populations (poor readers, autism, hearing loss), musicians and animal models. Her method of assessing the brain’s encoding of sounds has been adapted as BioMARK (biological marker of auditory processing), a commercial product that helps educators and clinicians better diagnose learning disabilities.