Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Up in the sky!

Jeeze, what I wouldn’t do to get a good observatory constructed here in Samoa. I’m known for a lot of strange tendencies in my village, but I think one of the weirdest is when I lay out on my fence/wall (there’s a low rock wall surrounding my yard) and look up at the stars. Who does that? Only the crazy palagi. The night sky here is both breathtaking and baffling. When it’s not cloudy and I’m not directly in the glare of streetlights, everything is crystal clear. But everything is also upside down and unfamiliar. The only constellations I can find on a regular basis are Orion and the Southern Cross, which is disappointing considering I used to be able to point out at least 20 when I worked at the planetarium. I’ve asked many times why the constellations are upside down from how they look in the northern hemisphere, but I never really understand, much less remember, the explanation. I’ve had to settle for more of an admiring role rather than an enthusiast role when it comes to astronomy in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still beautiful.

I’ve found a way to work it into my life here, though. Term 3 is not quite so serious in school, so in my last term as a teacher in Samoa, I thought “enough with trying to make the past tense engaging, let’s talk about something really interesting!” and started teaching astronomy. That feels a little more familiar. Astronomy hits the primary science curriculum in Year 7, but I’m not really sure how much they cover or what the students already know, so I started from scratch, with a basic overview of the solar system.

“How many planets are there?”
“Are they all the same?”

I talked about Earth first. What is the difference between a day and a year. How long is a day and a year. The Earth is tilted. I tried to explain the seasons, but that didn’t really work. “Why do some places have winter but other places have summer?” “Because there’s lots of sun here and lots of shade there!” “Sure, we’ll go with that.” I don’t think I can simplify it enough to clarify that it’s the amount of direct sunlight that causes the change in seasons and not just light and shade that makes it different. So I tried it with Year 8 and left it out with all my other classes. The most important thing to cover with Earth though is what makes it special. “What does Earth have? [I show them a picture of Earth.] What is that blue stuff?” “The sky?” “Not quite, it’s on Earth.” “Water!” “Right! And what’s the green thing?” “Plants!” “So what does Earth have? Living things, right? Does any other planet have living things?” “Yes!” “Really?” “No!”

Then we talked about the moon. Is the moon a planet? No. Is the moon a star? No. What is it? The moon! How long is a day and a year for the moon, what the moon orbits around. I drew pictures of the phases, but forget about explaining the tides. Does the moon have living things? Yes! Really? No! I learned this great thing at the planetarium that we called “body astronomy,” so I tried to show them how the moon orbits the Earth at the same time the Earth orbits the sun. “You stand there and be the sun. Then you walk in a circle around the sun because you’re the Earth. And I’ll walk in a circle around you while you’re walking in a circle around the sun because I’m the moon.” I don’t think that one quite came across.

A brief introduction to the planets. After thinking about it, I would demote Pluto from planet status, but it could still be an honorary planet in my book. These are the inner planets, why are they the inner planets? Because they’re in close to the sun? Do they have fast orbits or slow orbits? Fast! Do they have fast days or slow days? Slow! These are the outer planets because they’re out far away from the sun. They’re big and have lots of rings and moons. Do they have fast or slow orbits? Slow! Do they have fast or slow days? Fast! And this is Pluto, it’s really small and really far away. And of course, more body astronomy with almost every single student in the class walking around the sun, then spinning around to show the difference between a fast and a slow day.

And finally, a brief introduction to stars. How do stars make light? Do we turn them on and off like the light? No…Then how do they make light?....What do you know that is hot and makes light? Fire! Right, stars are big balls of fire! They’re really big, really hot, and really far away. What is the closest star to Earth?...What is the sun? The sun is the closest star to earth! Right!

I’m not sure if it’s coming through in my lessons, but I still find astronomy mind-boggling. Space is so big, and everything is so far away, but really it’s full of nothing, and Earth is only a tiny piece of everything in the universe. I’m trying to figure out the simplest way to explain everything, to get across the most vital information to get through without blowing their minds so much that they can’t remember anything. Hopefully they’ll remember something, even if it’s just that Earth is special because it has living things.

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