“Through the Classroom Window” is an opportunity for teachers to share the inspiring learning that takes place in their classrooms, giving others a glimpse into the heartbeat of the school. Today, we hear from Grade 8 teacher Yarden Bourlas, who shares about Heschel’s innovative Grade 8 astronomy unit Space and Time, with deep learning on the importance of scientific exploration and the moon.
In September, when the air outside grows crisp and the days gradually shorten, with darkness reclaiming its share of the diurnal cycle, I launch the Grade 8 astronomy unit Space and Time.
To begin, I ask that my students turn their attention toward the moon, a planet that has been with them each night since the day they were born.
Most students have never contemplated why the moon shapeshifts, waxing and waning throughout the month; however, they understand that, from a Jewish perspective, the moon is important for marking time.
At the beginning of the Jewish month (Rosh Chodesh), the moon is completely obscured by shadow; by the middle of the month, it is a bright glowing orb. What causes this to occur?
The Space and Time unit gives students the opportunity to answer this question. They use the scientific method to consider the moon’s relationship to the earth and sun. They explore how these celestial bodies interact, affecting the moon’s changing phases as well as our experience of day and night, summer and winter. What rotates around what? How fast and in what direction?
You might wonder how such explorations can be made by middle school students, who have never been to outer space. They also do not have access to satellite imagery, which captures the dynamics of the celestial spheres.
It is true that such imagery is a mere Google search away, but Heschel students learn that looking something up does not constitute the true practice of science.
Mathematician and educator Walter Warwick Sawyer writes: “To see clear, logical ideas gradually being disentangled from vagueness and confusion is vastly more instructive than simply starting with logical ideas.”
Thus, Grade 8 students take part in naked-eye astronomy. They design experiments that use tools like the simple clinometer (for measuring the moon’s altitude) and compass (for checking its azimuth along the horizon).
On Monday evening, we had our annual moon observation party, which is interspersed with games, poetry, and pizza. It was a clear night with a great view of the bright full moon—perfect for launching an experiment to explore its apparent westward journey across the sky. For three nights prior to the party, students collected moon-related observations and data; at the party, they noticed how the moon begins its nightly journey twelve degrees further to the east—a big discovery! The moon observation party is a Heschel event that students will remember for years to come!