As in many “At Risk” or Title 1 schools, my school (with the exception of a few teachers) stopped teaching Science and Social Studies and made art only something you do on special occasions like Christmas or Valentines Day – to focus entirely on “Literacy” and math. This was pretty much universally true in the primary grades (and mostly still is).
This week we kicked off our study of the solar system and space by using Wednesday’s lunar eclipse as a reason to go out at night and look at the sky. We learned about eclipses and then my students received a homework assignment to observe the eclipse at different times, write down some observations, and write a blog post about their experience. I gave each one of them a copy of a chart put out by NASA showing the timing and phases of the event.
Wednesday after school my classroom was used by our after school program for the third graders. As I was putting things away one of the teachers saw some of our eclipse pages and commented aloud, “Oh yeah, the eclipse is tonight. That should be cool to see.”
There was silence for a moment and then a young voice asked, “An eclipse … what’s that?”
The teacher tried to find the words but then nodded in my direction and wondered aloud, “Maybe Mr. Crosby can explain it.”
So I gave a brief explanation that the Earth would move between the Sun and the Moon and its shadow would cover the Moon. As soon as the last words left my mouth the 3rd graders in the room raised their hands to their mouths and began to stomp their feet and say, “We’re all gonna die!!!” and some put their faces down on the tabletops.
At first I thought they were just being silly … but no, they were scared.
I asked incredulously, “What does the Earth’s shadow covering the Moon have to do with dying? How would that cause anyone to die?”
And the teachers-aide added, “Guys, I’ve seen eclipses before and I’m still alive. Nothing’s going to happen.”
This seemed to mollify the kids and they got back to doing homework immediately like nothing had happened.
Less than a minute later a student wondered, “So if that’s all an eclipse is … what’s so cool about them?”
I answered, “Good question. Well during a lunar eclipse the Earth blocks most of the light from getting to the Moon, but the red light bends around the Moon and makes the Moon take on a reddish color because…” and before I could finish hands were covering mouths again and feet were stomping and students were moaning and talking about dying again. It was just eerie and not at all what you would expect as a reaction from 8 year olds.
I again asked what about what I had said made them think they were going to die? Just asking that got them to quiet and sit up. No one said it, but the looks on their faces said, “You mean it doesn’t mean that?” And now everything was OK again. I looked up and the other 2 adults were shaking their heads with the most puzzled looks on their faces … they didn’t get this reaction either – and one of them announced, “OK no more talk about the eclipse … let’s get some of our homework done.” That ended the conversation.