Saturday, May 28, 2011

stones and stars

astronomy in the sixth grade

Five thousand years ago, neolithic people of Briton carved and moved 80 four-ton bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in South Wales to Wiltshire - a 250 mile distance. A 300 foot diameter moat was dug with antlers and encircled the stones. Nearly 1000 years later, massive 50 ton sarsen stones topped with lintels formed a circle around five trilithons and the Altar stone in the middle.

On the summer solstice, heelstones placed at the eastern edge of the moat bracket the first ray of morning sun, which pierce into the center of Stonehenge to the Altar stone. To a people who had shifted from a nomadic life to an agragrian society, the sun and its daily rhythm through the seasons was reliable, its life-giving power was to be revered and honored.

This is Stonehenge.

This is astronomy for the sixth grader.

To the ancients, the movement of the heavenly bodies was viewed from a geocentric perspective and with the naked eye. We studied the movement of the sun, its ecliptic, the solstices, and the equinoxes. We studied the moon and its phases. Then, we expanded outward to the celestial sphere, where we pointed to the north celestial pole and discovered Polaris, the North Star. It follows the axis of the earth and so has become invaluable in orienting navigators and stargazers to the constellations. From Polaris, we found the circumpolar stars such as the Big Dipper. From the Big Dipper, we "arced to Arcturus, and spiked to Spica." Then we discussed the band of animal signs, the Zodiac, that appeared like a belt around the ecliptic.

From geology to astronomy, I had taken the sixth grader through a journey of their personal development and my development as their teacher. As is true for much of Waldorf, there is a poetic underpinning to the things we do. For me, geology in the beginning of the year represented the firmness of the earth from which I needed to connect with the students. We needed grounding, and geology was the discipline that would do it. In the end of our year, after studying Roman and medieval history, economics, physics, and geometry, we needed a block that would represent the outward optimism of looking forward to the seventh grade. Astronomy, the study of the stars, was the perfect close to our year.

Geology to astronomy, stones to stars, earth to heaven.

In the beginning of the year, we visited Lassen Volcanic Park. Last week, we visited Cache Creek Regional Park in Yolo County. Lassen was meant to be instructive about geology. The Cache Creek trip was meant for the students to have fun - and if stars happened to be visible from the canyon floor and the students happened to pause and look up, then we got some astronomy too!

In the beginning of the year, I had a pre-formed image of the potential ideal of my students. Like a sculptor with a block of limestone, or a conductor with a musical score to an orchestra, I had worked towards that image. From my Renaissance nature, I would shape them through example as an artist, musician, philosopher, and scientist. From my personal being, I would guide them as a father who nurtures my own children. From Steiner's anthroposophical frame, it would be through "discipleship and authority." From a spiritual place, I would go about our day with reverence, order, and peacefulness.

At the end of the year, the students have grown in mind, body, and spirit. The kinetic reality of teaching and learning, of the individual personalities of the children, and of their dramatic age nature produced a sixth grader who far exceeded my idealized picture. In the heart of performing our concerto, it was the spontaneous, inspired accents, the nuanced colors of dynamics, the subtle, yet moving harmonies, and the unifying force of rhythm that the sixth graders concluded their performance with brilliance. Sure, a few misplaced notes here and there to jarring effect, but we kept on going!

What have the students become?

Pretend this is a plexer: a picture of a chunk of granite + a picture of a constellation.

Yes, you got it, ROCK STARS!


Meredith said...

Fantastic post! I love that you're a year ahead of me on this journey. Just when I'm starting to think about getting the next year all sorted out, you do it for me.

Linda said...

Wonderful blog post!

waldorfhmschlr said...

Beautiful, inspiring, and uplifting posts. Thank you for sharing. Your chalkboard drawings are the best I have seen.