Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories.
Learning through stories is different than learning by memorizing facts or individual ideas. Stories provide a context for information and, if well-written, create an emotional connection, helping our brains understand and retain specific facts and ideas much more easily. Robbie Shell has done just that with her new book Bees on the Roof, created a compelling story that also does a wonderful job of educating us about an important environmental issue: our diminishing number of honeybees.
Written for an upper-level elementary school and middle school audience, the story centers on a group of four friends who attend a science-focused junior high school in New York City. Sam, a seventh-grade student, is new to the city, having moved there with his dad who has been hired as a pastry chef at one of the city’s nicest restaurants. When he learns that all students at his school are required to form teams and design a science fair project, it doesn’t take long for Sam and his friends to land on the topic of honeybees. As the story moves along and the main characters begin developing questions and conducting research, the reader learns right beside them about bee colonies and how they produce honey, along with the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder and its potentially-catastrophic consequences. Because of how the information is woven into the story of these four kids as they confront common family and social challenges over a series of months, younger readers are unlikely to experience a sense of information overload and, in fact, will truly enjoy learning about the important role honeybees play in all of our lives.
The book also addresses the themes of teamwork and bullying, which are relevant with readers of this age group. However, from my perspective as the mother of a seventh grader, I found some of the bullying scenes to be a bit rougher than they needed to be, including one incident where a boy suffered broken ribs and another where a girl was forced into a closet with an older boy—nothing terrible happened, but it was still an unsettling scene. I also found some of the dialogue among the main characters to be a bit stilted and a somewhat mature at times for kids of this age, but the story was interesting enough to pull me through these sections.
Overall, the storytelling elements of Bees on the Roof are strong, with solid character development of the kids, an engaging plot, and a good balance of scientific information and story-related action. The approach of teaching through story makes it likely that young readers will remember a lot of what they learn about bees and our environment after reading this book, and I look forward to reading future books from this author.
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Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university directing the career development program and serving as adjunct faculty member. Since 2010, she has been homeschooling her two sons, in addition to researching and writing about education and parenting issues. Lori is currently working on a book about college admissions for homeschoolers that will be published by GHF Press in 2017. You can find her at www.teachyourown.org.