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 this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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 the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

future of work

How Chicago schools are using cool classes like aviation and game design to repopulate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Students in a pre-law class at Chicago's Mather High fill out college applications on Sept. 19, 2018. The class is one of the school's career technical education offerings that it hopes will attract more students to enroll in the school.

Vocational education used to mean machine shops and sewing classes, programs aimed at students who weren’t headed for college. But career education has changed to fit the tastes of today’s students and the needs of the 21st-century job market, and now encompasses courses ranging from game design and aviation to architecture and digital media.

And Chicago schools are expanding their array of career-prep courses in hopes of enticing students back to languishing neighborhood high schools.

A tour of Mather High on Wednesday demonstrated how Chicago schools are viewing career education differently. It’s a means of both attracting students with training in popular subjects and using those practical classes to teach fundamental concepts — all very much aimed at sending some career-track students to college.

For example, Mather’s pre-law curriculum includes a criminology course where students learn about psychology, as well as a mock-trial element where they learn classical principles of rhetoric and argument. The pre-law program also dedicates time to helping its students submit college applications — hardly the focus of traditional trade-school curricula.

At Mather in West Ridge, second-year Principal Peter Auffant reversed a five-year slide in enrollment after expanding career-related classes. About a third of Mather’s 1,500 students are enrolled in one of its four career-education tracks, including a brand-new pre-engineering curriculum. A digital media track is slated to begin next fall. Besides more than three dozen classes, career-related offerings also include internships, such as stint working in city council members’ offices or at downtown law firms.  

“CTE allows us to provide very unique programming that students can’t get anywhere else,” Auffant said, referring to the commonly used shorthand for career technical education. “We leverage that to create stable enrollments.”

Mather senior William Doan is a case study. Three years ago, the West Ridge resident was looking at high schools outside his neighborhood — selective-enrollment schools as well as those offering the rigorous, college-preparatory International Baccalaureate curriculum, but ultimate chose to stay close to home because Mather’s pre-law program aligned with his interest in law enforcement.

“It kind of just drew me in,” Doan said. “You get a taste for the law and how it really is in the real world.”

Doan’s experience reflects a trend that’s shaping curricular decisions in Chicago and around the country. Congress this summer approved $1.1 billion to expand career education. Such offerings are among Chicago Public Schools’ most popular, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  

Some of those programs focus on traditional vocational education, such as the building trades program at Prosser High in Belmont Cragin that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this month would be funded with a $12 million investment. Others like those at Mather include non-traditional offerings, described as “21st century CTE” by Jarrod Nagurka. He is advocacy and public affairs manager for the Alexandria, Virginia-based Association for Career & Technical Education, which sponsored Wednesday’s school tour.

Nearly every Chicago high school has at least one career offering, though access to the most popular programs varies across the city, as does the breadth of the programming at each school. One factor among mid-sized schools such as Mather is the administrative burden of supporting extensive career programming alongside other elective programs such as International Baccalaureate.

“To do both (IB and career education) really well you have to be larger,” Auffant said.

So Mather is pursuing a hybrid strategy that uses career-education classes to teach college-prep concepts. Teachers use real-world vocational settings to explore the academic concepts that undergird them.

“The foundation of curriculum design is backward design,” said Sarah Rudofsky, the school district’s manager of curriculum and instruction for CTE. That means consulting with industry partners about the skills graduates need, then building curricula to suit. In a pre-law course, for example, those core skills are destined to overlap with traditional college-prep coursework, but geared to a practical application.

“It’s important to us to change the conversation from ‘CTE is for students who don’t want to go to college’ to ‘This program is for any young person who wants to have some employability skills before they graduate from high school’ — applied math, applied science and applied literacy,” Rudofsky said.