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The Pluto Files

The Pluto Files
A few years ago a colleague and I bought several class sets of The Pluto Files by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson through a grant from our Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). We used the book as part of our curriculum for Astronomy in our Conceptual Physics classes and then expanded it to the Physics classes. Our textbook foes not have a unit on the basics of our Solar System so we use this textbook to supplement our curriculum.

Several activities were created by us, although they relied heavily on the material from the book. Students would read a bit of the book each night and then the following day in class we would review what was read and the celestial objects that were discussed. The author discusses many times that discussing and grouping celestial objects by similar properties is much more enlightening than knowing them in order from the sun. We took that approach with our lessons as well, with an overarching theme of the changing nature of science. I've tried to include notes below that help explain each activity.

I highly enjoyed the book The Pluto Files as a science teacher because it:
  • is entertaining, light reading with jokes, comics and several cultural references
  • details many historical and scientific facts about astronomy
  • outlines the classification system of astronomy and how it has changed over time

The book was an excellent source for information about the planets that supplemented our lectures in class. But more importantly it discussed the changes to what man knew over time. Students have difficulties accepting that ancient man was "dumb" enough to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe. I like to use a quote from the movie Men in Black by Agent K to describe the change in human understanding:

1500 years ago, everyone knew that the sun revolved around the earth. 500 years ago, everyone knew the world was flat. Yesterday you knew that we were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll learn tomorrow.

Several students took the book home the first night they were given it and read the whole thing! Even the students that waited to read it in pace with the curriculum enjoyed the book. Overall it received a high rating and they seemed to get the main points we wanted to get across.

Reading in class:
We purchased a copy of the audio book, which can also be played while students follow along in their books. Depending on the level of difficulty of the Chapter we used a few different strategies when students read chapters:
  • Students can read silently to themselves in class or at home.
  • Students can take turns reading "popcorn" style although I would suggest that the teacher choose the next student to read. I always gave my students a "pass" if they didn't want to read and made sure that I made the passages shorter for students that were struggling with English or were having difficulties.
  • Students can listen to the teacher read the chapter in class. Although time consuming, and potentially repetitive for the teacher, it was the most helpful in the beginning of the book when there was a lot of information I wanted to touch on.
  • Students can listen to audio recording in class. You still have the ability to stop the recording whenever you like. Although I was very disappointed that the author did not record the audio book himself, the reader is quite clear and presents the material well. The pace is a little slow and I might consider speeding up the recording next time. His pronunciation of French, Italian, Latin, etc. names throughout the book was great; I know mine isn't that good!
When a chapter was read in class, I used a Pluto Files powerpoint that highlighted content in the Chapters. Sometimes it was the comics included, other times it was graphs, data or pictures of the people involved. When a chapter was assigned as homework to read, I would briefly review the chapter with the class using the powerpoint the next day.

Guided Reading:
In this class we employ a reading strategy called Guided Reading, which is a worksheet with questions students are to answer or complete based on their reading. Students are encouraged to answer the questions as they read. Some questions are fill-in-the-blank and follow the text of the book, while others require students to find the answer to the question or summarize the reading. Guided reading worksheets were often combined front to back for multiple chapters. Some chapters were longer than others and the worksheets were assigned over multiple days. Below the Guided Reading was broken up in to several sheets but I have since found that reducing it slightly and making it one large packet (pdf or google doc) has been easier to manage.
The vocabulary of the textbook presented some difficulty for students. Some words were scientific in nature and were important vocabulary words for students to understand because they appeared frequently. For example, heliocentric, perturbation and celestial. Some words needed to be explained to students, but were not necessary to understanding the science. In order to identify words that might cause my students to stumble, I reread the book making note of multisyllabic words I thought might be above a low level freshmen reading level.

This document is the list of all the vocabulary words that I thought might be difficult for my students. I chose ten that were frequently used and important to the content of the book to make a vocabulary bookmark for my students. If it is printed double sided, students will have five vocabulary words with a definition on each side of the bookmark. This will require some adjustment so that it is lined up correctly when printed.

Early in the unit, students were given this vocabulary bookmark and asked to write a science appropriate sentence using the word. Since they were provided the definition we thought this would be easy. The activity was not very successful. For example, students used the word perennial to describe our sun. The word celestial was often referred to things in our atmosphere like clouds. Many students applied heliocentric to the sun's actual core, as in "we know the core of the sun is 'heliocentric.'" The term mnemonic had a slightly higher success rate, but still had a few like this above.

When reading the book in class, I tried to help students pronounce difficult words while reading "popcorn" style, or stopped the audio book if we were listening along.

Comics & Cartoons:
Dr. Tyson includes several cartoons and comics relating to Pluto throughout his book. As he mentions in the later chapters, comics are very telling about culture and perception. During the reading of each Chapter, I included the comics in the presentations I made (detailed below) and we emphasized each one together as a class as we came across it. Each time we read a cartoon together I asked students to identify two things:
  1. What is the "kernel of truth" portrayed in this comic?
  2. What is funny about the comic? (Hint: What background information must the reader have to "get the joke"?)
The comics often emphasized some real traits about Pluto and the science behind its reclassification. At the end of our reading students analyzed the 14 comics in the book using this outline called "Pluto Related Comics." The outline is in a half-sheet format although we ended up expanding it to a full page to give them space to write on the back of their last Guided Reading.

I found many more comics, cartoons and edited pictures that were related to Pluto. I hope to expand the activity in the future to include the ones not originally included in the book. Since we discussed each cartoon in the book as we came across it, technically students have heard the answers to the two analysis questions before. Unfortunately, not all students were able to analyze the comics as I would have liked on their own at the end of the book.

Pluto Related Comics

Additional Articles & Materials:
The author was very helpful and included the full text of most of the articles, songs, legislature, data, etc. that he references in the appendix. When a song was used to explain the cultural sentiment at the time I tried to find either an audio file or YouTube video of it. I would play the song or video while students read the full lyrics in the back. Many of the songs included are quite fact heavy and not simple rhythms so having the music helped. I did find the entire text of two additional articles that I tried to reformat so that it was easy to copy for the classroom:

The second article is what started the whole "Pluto debate" in the public media so I was actually surprised it was not included in the appendix. The Google document version may require some tweaking to get it onto two pages.

I also found the cartoons that were referenced towards the beginning of the book that show Disney's cartoon dog Pluto in his first few appearances. I found "The Picnic" particularly helpful since the author refers to the cartoon and called Mickey Mouse horny. This can get high school students riled up so showing the cartoon, which only shows Mickey and Minnie Mouse dancing, helps diffuse that situation. These cartoons and other early Pluto the dog cartoons are easily found on YouTube.

Another thing I have not yet found, was a video of either the panel about Pluto that the Hayden Planetarium held before determining which celestial family to put Pluto in, or the "Planet Debate" between Dr. Tyson and Dr. Sykes.

I did find a fabulous role playing game by Tony Crider of Elon University which is outlined on his website here. The activity requires students to study multiple documents including The Pluto Files and is at a higher level. I did not have the time to adapt it to a high school level. I think I would have to provide additional information about each person since they would not have read the other materials. Although I highly recommend his materials, I was not able to use them with this particular class.

We found towards the end of the unit, which was at the end of the school year, that students had begin skimming the chapters or stopped reading altogether. We introduced a reading quiz for Chapter 5 but it could easily be done at the end of each Chapter. At the end of the entire book we had students answer a few basic questions, without the use of their book for a reflection. They were upset that it was a "test" and couldn't use the book. We tried to construct the questions so that if they really learned the main lessons of the book, they could answer the questions without it. The two versions of the reflection questions are available here, along with a rubric.

  • Detailed table of contents that we used to determine what students would read each night
  • A Celestial Names activity in which students research the names of planets, moons, etc. and look at the naming method and the reasoning behind the choice.
  • NOVA special on the book would make a good summary of the book