Kiana Hernandez is a young woman who opted out of a standardized test last spring. She had her reasons, as the Mother Jones article about her details, but that’s not what interests me about her story. What grabbed me is the reading instruction she received—or endured:

She’d failed the Florida reading test every year since sixth grade and had been placed in remedial classes where she was drilled on basic skills, like reading paragraphs to find the topic sentence and then filling in the right bubbles on a practice test. She didn’t get to read whole books like her peers in the regular class or practice her writing, analysis, and debating—skills she would need for the political science degree she dreamed of, or for the school board candidacy that she envisioned.

I am not against testing—I think it is critical to closing the achievement gap. But I am opposed to the stakes being so high that otherwise-reasonable people put kids’ scores above their education. And I’m opposed to expecting students to take tests for which they have not been prepared. Hernandez has been cheated, as have millions of other needy students.

As one teacher quoted in the article put it, giving low-income students “random passages” to “practice picking the correct multiple-choice” answer is “very separate and unequal.”

This is the Core Knowledge blog, so you know what students need. Let’s jump to a great new resource.

A terrific author for the middle grades, Joy Hakim, has just published an eBook: Reading Science Stories. It’s a marvelous resource for English, history, and science teachers looking for narrative nonfiction—or perhaps a starting place for collaborating on an interdisciplinary project.

Here’s the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, “A Boy with Something on His Mind”:

Fifteen-year-old Albert Einstein is miserable. He is trying to finish high school in Germany, but he hates the school; it’s a strict, rigid place. To make things worse, his parents have moved to Italy. They think he should stay behind until his schooling is completed. It isn’t long, though, before he is on his way over the Alps, heading south to join them. Why does he leave Germany? Today, no one is quite sure, but a letter from the school offers a powerful clue: “Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students.”

What are the Einsteins to do with their son? He is a high school dropout who has arrived without warning.

In Milan, Italy, Albert’s father owns a factory that builds parts for machines—called dynamos—which take energy from coal, oil, or mountain streams and convert it into electrical power. A dynamo can turn the lights on in a village. It is 1895, and electric lights are a new thing—and so is all the electrical technology that is fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Albert is going to take the world way beyond the Industrial Revolution. He will bring about a new scientific age. But no one knows that now. His parents keep urging him to get serious about school. Hanging around the factory may be fun and a terrific way to learn about the exciting electrical machinery, but it isn’t enough in the fast-changing world at the end of the nineteenth century. His father suggests that Albert forget his “philosophical nonsense.” He needs a degree.

While everyone in the family is worrying about his future, young Einstein’s mind is somewhere else. There is a question that won’t leave his head. “What would the world look like if I could sit on a beam of light?” he keeps asking himself.

It becomes an obsession, trying to hang on to the light beam. And, because light travels through space at 299,792.5 kilometers per second (or 186,282 miles per second), it also means that in less than a second, Albert will leave the Earth and its atmosphere. What are time and space and matter like out in the vastness of the universe? No one can help him answer that, because no one knows what happens at the speed of light.

Einstein may not realize it, but he is thinking about the scientific question of his age: Why does light—which is electromagnetic radiation—behave the way it does? Light doesn’t seem to follow the same laws of motion—Isaac Newton’s laws—that guide a baseball when you pitch it. Most people at the end of the nineteenth century don’t know that this incompatibility is creating a kind of crisis in scientific thinking. Newton’s laws of motion work wonderfully well in our everyday world. Electromagnetic laws, established by James Clerk Maxwell, work wonderfully well, too. But electromagnetism is leading science beyond the everyday. It is opening the whole universe to consideration. And physicists have found that where there is an overlap between Newton’s science and electromagnetic science, there seems to be an incongruity. Isaac Newton’s laws and James Clerk Maxwell’s laws can’t both be right—at least not completely right. Hardly anyone is bothered by this, except for a few physicists and a 15-year-old thinker.

Hungry for more? Hakim has all of chapter one, “Take a Number,” and ordering information on her website.


Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)
Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


3 comments on “Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging”

  1. 1
    Miss Friday on August 30, 2015

    A couple of mostly rhetorical questions/pleas:
    1) Why is it that homeschoolers get all the interesting resources? Textbooks like Hakim’s “History of Science” (the original origin of the excerpt you cite) series are commonly known in the homeschool world. And she’s just the tip of the iceberg. Look up Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts series, or Art of Problem Solving’s “Beast Academy” math series, or Susan Wise Bauer’s “Story of the World”. These are amazing, dare I say, magical books that only in the most unusual cases, make it into a classroom.

    2) <a href=""How can a British television show articulate the purpose, the raison d'etre of education, better than any so-called "education expert?" I discovered the television show nearly 10 years ago, but have only recently tried to teach with their premise: That everything is interesting if looked at in the right way. The kids are instantly hooked when I go off on QI-esque tangents. Yes, even the ESL and low-SES ones. It’s the reason why I, a music teacher and the only native English speaker in the room that morning, ended up fielding 2nd graders questions about the Roman Empire.

  2. 2
    Janice on August 30, 2015

    Before E.D. Hirsch’s “Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” I have always been a proponent of Core Curriculum, and wrote a paper on it in my sociology class. When the book came out, I said, “Finally, a voice of reason.” It took decades before it was picked up by 40 states but of course ignorant people are fighting it took and nail.

    Yes, those curriculum books you buy in book stores that flit from one subject to the next, the standardized tests that don’t test a child’s knowledge, have made a mockery of what they call “education.”

    If all our children are educated in this manner, where would we find scholars who could write books and such articles as the one printed in this blog? How long will it be before most of our students won’t appreciate such scholarly endeavor? As a matter of fact, who will write those Spark Notes for the kids who would read them than the actual book? The next generation does not read books any more; they read summaries and analyses, and, truth be told from personal experience, do not understand them that well, either. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say again here: Shakespeare had to know “things” before he could be creative and write his plays. He had to read histories, the bible, mythology, even books on botany and zoology before he could write his plays and poems. I think this says volumes about the need for Core Knowledge Curriculum.

  3. 3
    Jenny on September 20, 2015

    I am a middle school math teacher and can connect with the situation that Kiana Hernandez is in. I see this in my school and district all of the time. Students that seem on the outside like they need to step back and learn concepts that they have missed are then, in turn, asked to miss other concepts that are truly important in their current grade level. Why do we automatically assume that because they may not be at the same reading and writing levels as their peers, they are incapable of doing anything else? I have gotten quite a bit of critical thinking out of my students by handing them a calculator and asking them to use that to get passed the small skills that they have missed so they can learn the eighth grade skills with us. Maybe I am wrong for doing this, but I feel that if they miss out on the eighth grade learning in math because I am asking them to do a worksheet of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing just because they may have a gap in their learning, I would be doing them a disservice. I want my students to feel like they are part of the classroom community. In terms of the content and the way that we are learning, these students need to be put in situations where they are forced to learn the concepts in order to complete the tasks. If I assign a project that asks them to use many different skills they do not have, they will be forced to learn how to perform these things in order for their project to be complete. This is what we do in life. Keeping these projects relevant to the students and of interest to them is key in keeping their interests and motivation to keep their thinking at that higher level. Albert Einstein is a perfect example of this project based learning style and we need to strive as educators to create these meaningful opportunities for our students.

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