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11 Alternative Ways to Learn Your ABCs

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Most teachers use the typical associations to teach the alphabet: A is for apple, B is for bear, C is for cat, and so on. (Z is usually Zebra.) But if you prefer walking off the beaten path, there is a wealth of alternative alphabets available to teach your children the ABCs.

1. The Hidden Alphabet by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

In her lift-the-flap picture book (and book trailer, above), Seeger not only uses less traditional associations, but she also hides the items within the shapes of the letters. A is for Arrowhead, the triangle in the A; P is for Partridge, the hollow in the P; and Q is for Quotation Mark, the center of the Q.

2. The Muppet Alphabet by Mike Boon


Boon, a graphic designer, created an alphabet in which the letters are formed from The Muppet Show characters. B is for Bunsen and Beaker, F is for Fozzie, and X is for Xomfey (a "Pink Stalk" from the show's pilot episode, "Sex and Violence"). You can purchase a T-shirt (from Threadless) or a poster (mini through gallery size at society6) featuring the alphabet.

3. SuperHero ABC by Bob McLeod



As an illustrator and artist for both Marvel Comics and DC Comics, McLeod has his fair share of experience with superheroes. His children's picture book, SuperHero ABC, was named one of School Library Journal's "Best Books of the Year." It features Astro-Man, who's "always alert for an alien attack;" Bubble-Man, who "blows big bubbles at bullies" (as well as being a bald man who wears boots); and The Volcano, who "vomits on villains." His web site features SuperHero ABC activity pages as well as links to purchase T-shirts, posters, and other related merch.

4. The Alphabet of Geekdom by Nana Leonti


The "geekdom" alphabet by artist Nana Leonti features letters from the logos of popular geek brands/franchises, which Leonti hand-drew. M is for Magic: The Gathering, V is for V for Vendetta, and W is for Wonder Woman. You can purchase T-shirts and prints through redbubble.

5. The ABCs of Rock by Melissa Duke Mooney and Print Mafia



If you're too cool for the Alphabet of Geekdom, perhaps The ABCs of Rock is more your style. When Mooney, whose husband is in a band, couldn't find a suitable rock 'n' roll alphabet book for her daughters, she decided to create one herself. Near the end of the process, Mooney passed away unexpectedly from meningitis, but her husband and others finished the project in her honor. Associations from the rockin' picture book include B for Bowie (David, that is), F for Fleetwood Mac, and W for White Stripes.

6. The Official Fart Alphabet by Ralph Masiello and Stephanie Brockway


Masiello and Brockway's fart-centric alphabet features such gems as "Left Cheek Squeak," "Noxious," and "Silent But Deadly," and the letters are green gassy clouds.

7. Nerdy Baby ABCs by Tiffany Ard


The Nerdy Baby ABC flash cards feature associations such as A for Atom, B for Binary Code, and C for Cell Membrane, all beautifully drawn by children's artist Tiffany Ard. You can pick up a set in the mental_floss store.

8. My Foodie ABC by Puck and Violet Lemay



Puck's board book for "gastronomes in training" teaches both the alphabet as well as the foodie terms, with pronunciation guides and descriptions for all the terms and colorful illustrations by Lemay. P is for Pomegranate, Q is for Quinoa, and R is for Radicchio.

9. A is for Ackbar by Emma & Brandon Peat


The Peats initially designed this Star Wars-themed alphabet as wall hangings for their baby's bedroom. They later printed it up in book form to show family members and distribute as a thank you to those who contributed to their baby's college fund. Now, it just lives on Brandon's web site. C is for Chewie and C-3PO, E is for Ewoks, and L is for Luke and Leia. (There's also an official Star Wars ABC board book, but it's not nearly as adorable.)

10. The Alphabet 2 by n9ve

Independent design studio n9ve created this alphabet video experiment in which each letter visually represents the meaning of its word. B is a B-shaped biscuit, C is for Cell Animation, and the D, which explodes, is for Destruction. Check out their behind-the-scenes photos from the shoot, as well as their first alphabet video, in which each letter correlates to a font.

11. XYZ Blocks by Christian Northeast



These fun wooden alphabet blocks from Fred are "the alternative to ABC," with non-boring associations like K for Karate, T for Trailer, and U for Underpants. You can pick up a set in the mental_floss store.

11 alternative alphabets not enough for you? Don't worry, we're not stopping the fun. Head over to our "Alternative ABCs" board on Pinterest for more alphabety goodness. And if you've seen a good one, let us know in the comments and we'll add it to the board.

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science
Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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This Russian Kindergarten Looks Just Like a Castle
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YouTube

A group of lucky kindergarteners in Russia don’t have to wear poufy dresses or plastic crowns to pretend they’re royalty. As Atlas Obscura reports, all they have to do is go to school.

In a rural area of Russia's Leninsky District sits a massive, pastel-colored schoolhouse that was built to resemble Germany's famed Neuschwanstein Castle. It has turrets and gingerbread-like moldings—and instead of a moat, the school offers its 150 students multiple playgrounds, a soccer field, a garden, and playhouses.

Tuition is 21,800 rubles (about $360) a month, but the Russian government subsidizes it to make it less expensive for parents. As for the curriculum: it’s designed to promote social optimism, and each month’s lesson plan is themed. (September, for example, will be career-focused.)

Take a video tour of the school below, or learn more on the school’s website.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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