GUEST BLOGGER BONNI GOLDBERG
The STEM Off the page: Critical thinking
The two activities that follow offer both STEM content and the opportunity to practice critical thinking skills for literature by considering what happens off the page to tell the story. If you’re unsure your students will understand the concept of what happens off the page in a story, I invite you to give it a try; you might be pleasantly surprised.
Doña Gracia Saved Worlds introduces this heroic Renaissance woman and secret Jew. Gracia takes daring actions to save her People. She runs an underground railroad to help other secret Jews escape danger. Like most stories about trailblazers and leaders a lot takes place behind the scenes — or in a book, off the page — for her to succeed.
An engineering challenge: Build a boat
Target Grade Range: K – 5th Grade and meets NGSS 3-5-ETS1-1; 3-5-ETS1-2; and 3-5-ETS1-3.
Through questions, discussion, or summary, remind students that Gracia used her spice ships to help secret Jews escape.
Together generate a partial list of the planning and organizing it must have taken to get people from Portugal to places like Istanbul. Creating the list helps students practice their critical thinking skills to consider what happens off the page. Show them the map spread in the book to encourage ideas. Next bring up that if her ships couldn’t hold the extra weight of secret passengers along with the cargo and the crew, Gracia couldn’t have helped people get away.
Challenge students to design and build a boat using hands-on materials that can hold weight and float. For younger students (1st grade and younger) you may want to complete this activity as a whole group together.
- White copy paper
- White cardstock
- For each student / group: Water, tub, 5 pennies, and building materials (i.e., playdough, tape, straws, foil, construction paper, popsicle sticks, etc.)
Step by step to-do list
- Decide student groups prior to this activity (up to 4 students works best).
- Make student copies of the Build a Boat activity page.
- Explain that the goal is to design and build a boat like the ones that Gracia trusted to hide secret Jews so they could escape.
- Explain that student boats must: float in the water, hold the weight of at least 5 pennies, and cannot sink.
- Distribute the Build a Boat activity sheet to students to work through the questions in their small group or individually.
- Give each group or student the materials needed and allow time to create.
- Ask students to reflect on the engineering experiment and to share with other groups.
Secrets and ciphers activity
To start or continue the discussion about the planning and organizing Gracia must have done that happened off the page ask students how they think those waiting to escape knew when to pack up and sneak to the ships. Help students use critical thinking skills to understand the need to send secret messages. Speculate that Gracia and her agents probably used ciphers to write secret messages.
Background on ciphers
Tell students that secret writing has been used for about as long as writing has existed. Ciphers were used throughout history whenever people needed to keep messages private.
A cipher rearranges letters or uses numbers to disguise the message. Before there were trains, cars or planes, people carried messages for miles on foot, riding an animal or by boat. Ciphers helped to protect a message if it was stolen or lost.
Copy and distribute the Cipher Activity page for each student or group of students[If you’re planning related lessons include: Today we protect the privacy of computer messages using very advanced types of ciphers, but the basic skill remains true to the old methods.]
Bonni Goldberg is an award-winning poet and author. She presents creative writing workshops internationally for all ages and has visited K-12 classrooms for over fifteen years. She loves living in Portland, Oregon with her family and eating dark chocolate every day. Bonni first learned about Doña Gracia as an adult in a mother-daughter bat mitzvah class. She believed children would like to know about Gracia too.