lesson planets

Syzygies and sun funnels: How 5 teachers along the path of totality are taking on the Great American Eclipse

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

The moment will last no more than two minutes, 40 seconds.

But educators across the country have spent months preparing for next week’s “Great American Eclipse.”

On August 21, the moon will obscure the sun’s light during the first total solar eclipse to pass through the continental U.S. in 99 years. It will be most dramatic along the so-called path of totality, which will cut directly from Oregon to South Carolina.

Chalkbeat asked teachers along that path about how they’re planning to handle the rare event. From launching balloons to constructing “sun funnels,” here’s how some of the nation’s science teachers are going to handle the plunge into darkness.

Lisa Buckner

Third-grade teacher and STEM coach at Linden Elementary School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the moon will cover 100 percent of the sun. (Thanks to Vox for these calculations!)

Students at Linden Elementary try on their eclipse glasses.

I’m excited about the eclipse because … After reading that this would be the first total solar eclipse viewable in North America since 1979, the first since 1776 only visible in the U.S., and then also reading about the 1878 eclipse that caused so many Americans to flock to the wild, wild, west — I knew I had to make this event meaningful.

A local company provided us with a $1,000 grant for supplies, and Roane State Community College will open their facilities for us to use for free, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is helping us excite students by bringing amazing instruments to make our data collection possible, and best of all — all our teachers, administrators, and staff are as excited as I am!

Eclipse fun fact: A syzygy in astronomy is a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies.

Heidi Heubscher

Fifth-grade teacher at Meadow Point Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, where the moon will cover 92.1 percent of the sun.

On the day of the eclipse … We’re going to be reading some legends from different cultures from the past to see what different people thought about the eclipse at one point. We’ll also be releasing a balloon with two GoPro cameras attached.

Cindy Hepp and Cheryl Lodge

Fifth-grade science teacher and P.E. and health teacher, respectively, at Trico Elementary School in Campbell Hill, Illinois, where the moon will cover 100 percent of the sun.

Students at Trico Elementary try out their eclipse glasses.

Our students are excited … about the two minutes and 32.6 seconds of totality that we will experience. They are also curious about how it will affect the temperature and insects. After viewing footage from other total eclipses, they became super excited about seeing the Diamond Ring phase and Baily’s Beads.

I’m excited because … Our hope is that what they will experience during the eclipse will pique their interest in space science careers. We would love to see some of our students go into the field of astronomical physics or develop a lifelong interest in the night sky.

Eclipse fun fact: We are in an area that will experience two total eclipses within seven years. In 2024, another total solar eclipse will cross our area!

Angela Bergman

Earth and space science teacher at Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska, where the moon will cover 98.4 percent of the sun.

On the day of the eclipse … Students will be observing the incoming light using UV beads, as well as looking at animal behaviors. Every member of our school district, both students and staff, will get a pair of eclipse glasses.

I’m excited because … This solar eclipse we can see from our school or backyard. We get to share in this experience as a community, and we don’t have to travel to do it. It is also unique because it goes across the entire nation. How cool for us as a nation!

Eclipse fun fact: The moon is moving ever so slowly away from us. Eventually, we won’t get to see total solar eclipses! So, if you have the opportunity to travel to where there will be a total eclipse, you should go.

Ronak Shah

Seventh-grade science teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the moon will cover 91 percent of the sun.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Ronak Shah
Ronak Shah teaching at KIPP Indy.

I’ve been preparing by … giving my students little teasers, like video clips and photos. Thanks to “Thor: The Dark World” and the “Twilight” series, my students are familiar with eclipses and how they look, but they are less familiar with why they occur, and few knew that one will be visible to us so soon!

My students are excited because … As you might imagine, the eclipse — as well as the upcoming Perseids meteor shower — have been figuring heavily into current events.

I’m excited because … I’m building a sun funnel for my entire class to be able to see a projection of the eclipse safely. I’m really excited to be able to provide a way for them to experience the event as a group, especially since we don’t have the resources to purchase solar glasses for all of our students.

That said, I’m a bit nervous that a student may be tempted to look at the eclipse directly with their naked eyes. I’ve been sure to give students plenty of priming information as to why this is an awful idea, including some pretty gross videos, but when something so amazing and rare takes place, there’s always the chance that one of my students will want to sneak a peek.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”