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.

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

More in Detroit story booth

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”