Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: The Pluto Files (Science Title for Secondary)

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
By Neil deGrasse Tyson
ISBN: 9780393065206
January 2009
194 pages

Bibliographic Information
deGrasse Tyson, N. (2009). The Pluto files: The rise and fall of America's favorite planet. New York: W. W. Norton.

Plot Description
The Pluto Files, written by the now popularly famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson details the evolving understanding of Pluto, from its initial discovery in 1930 to its present day classification as a dwarf planet. Although deGrasse Tyson has a highly technical background, he skillfully presents information in an interesting and accessible way, mixing scientific details within historical and social contexts. Readers may enjoy getting a behind-the-scenes look at what was going on in the midst of the controversy, including following discussions among the astrophysicist community, as well as reading angry letters that deGrasse Tyson received from everyday, devout Pluto-philes. In the end, readers will walk away with a comprehensive and multifaceted understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed not only through discovery, but also collaborative social processes and conversation.

Quantitative Reading Level
Lexile: NC1300L

Qualitative Reading Analysis (High for Grades 10-12)
The quantitative reading level of the book is relatively complex, and in recognition of this, the Lexile value is prefaced with a Non-Conforming (NC) code since the measure is "markedly higher than is typical for the publisher's intended audience or designated developmental level of the book" (source). From a qualitative standpoint, there are features that help make the text more accessible for a high school audience. For instance, there are engaging graphics included throughout the text, the text structure itself is straightforward, and the author utilizes conversational language and humor that is easy to relate to. Still, for the average high school reader, the knowledge demands are high due to the discipline-specific vocabulary and subject matter knowledge related to science, as well as history. Thus, it may be necessary for teachers to scaffold reading of the book with additional resources and discussion points.

Content Areas
  • Science (astronomy, classification systems)
  • History-Social Science (knowledge construction)
  • English Language Arts (categorization, power of language)

Content Area Standards

Curriculum Suggestions
  • Curriculum Guide - Science educator Mrs. Barnett Dreyfuss has shared this high quality online curriculum resource, which includes presentation slides to support various book chapters, vocabulary lists, and links to many more related activities.
  • Debate - Students may time travel to 2006 and immerse themselves in the controversy regarding Pluto's planethood. Teams may prepare arguments and counterarguments to inform a re-enactment of the International Astronomical Union's decision process.
  • Historical Perspective - Students may be divided into groups, and each group may be assigned a different time period. Depending on the time period, students may create an informational report or presentation about Pluto based on the accepted scientific understanding of that particular era. Comparison between the different representations will reflect the way that knowledge is constructed and evolves.

Subjects and Themes
  • Astronomy, solar system, and planets
  • Classification systems
  • Knowledge construction


Links to Supporting Digital Content

Personal Thoughts
I was inspired to read this secondary level book related to astronomy as an interesting pairing with my recent review of the elementary-level Professor Astro Cat's Frontiers of Space. In my own school library, most of the astronomy books all pre-date the reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. Thus, while my budget prevents me from purchasing a large quantity of newer books for this section, at least investing in this title can address the curiosity of students who want to learn more current information about Pluto in particular and beyond what is simply available for free on the Internet. I enjoyed the interesting mix of science, history, and social commentary. Plus, I think this is a great read since it challenges students to think about how our understanding of the universe can change over time, which can prompt some powerful discussions about the construction of knowledge and the importance of ongoing inquiry and discovery.

Reviewed in conjunction with San Jose State University's School of Information Fall 2015 INFO 237-10 School Library Media Materials course. Fulfills "science title for high school (narrative non-fiction, or appropriate title)" for Subject Area Blog Assignment.

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