Fighting the Sun for my Students’ Attention

Few events get your students as excited as natural phenomena. A crazy hail storm in the spring, the first snow of the season, or a high magnitude earthquake could all potentially disrupt your lesson. Many of these super charged events cannot be planned for, but luckily I could plan for today’s solar eclipse.

The day started with many warnings.  Don’t look at the sun! It won’t happen for another 70 years, but you still can’t look at it! In a kid’s mind, I’m sure our warning made no sense.  In their entire lives, no one ever told them “Don’t look at the sun.”  Why would they look at the sun?  It hurts.  But when there is an eclipse, all you want to do is look at sun.

If the students were going to be in class, we need not have worried about their sensitive eyes. Unfortunately (or fortunately) our morning recess was going to happen at the same time as the peak of the eclipse.

At 10:20 the light began to change. By 10:30, our recess, the light was dimmer, like an orange smoky twilight. Some of our students got out their special protective eye wear. Some wore goggles, some wore something like 3-D movie glasses, and some used a special A4 sized square with a small viewing window. Some even attempted the low tech pin hole method with 2 sheets of paper.  The eclipse peaked at 10:39 and then at 10:50 it was time to go back to class.

What is a teacher to do at this point? Do I say, “Alright, time to forget about what you just saw….Back to work!” Or do I somehow stop and acknowledge that they just got to witness something that happens for most people only once in a lifetime?

Luckily my 6th graders had just started a unit on mythology.  And what is more mythological than stories about crazy natural phenomena?

I like to use the SOLE method of inquiry from time to time and this was the perfect moment to incorporate it into my unit.  Our inquiry question for today was, “What stories did people in ancient cultures create to explain a solar eclipse?”

Students researching myths about solar eclipses.

Students researching myths about solar eclipses.

For 40 solid minutes my students surfed the internet, compared their compiled research with each other, and wrote down their findings. They used both English and their own native languages to read about myths from around the world. My students discovered that Vietnam, Mexico, Japan, China, Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, Korea, Indigenous America, and Scandinavia all have myths about eclipses.

In the process of the lesson, students learned something new about their own cultures as well as the cultures of their classmates. During the debriefing of their research, my students also began to see some interesting connections between their cultures. Some students pointed out that the Viking myth about Wolves stealing the sun was very much like the Korean myth about the Fire Dogs stealing the sun. Others saw the connection between the Chinese Dragon and the Hindu monster Rahu who both ate the sun and then let it go.

So the next time you know your lesson is about to be disrupted by an act of mother nature, why not roll with it? Incorporate the present with your teachings of the past.

Have you seen an eclipse of the sun? What is your favorite myth explaining a natural phenomenon?

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