The Sky Has No Limits

Diligence.  Patience.  Perseverance.  Every teacher and parent wants children to develop these qualities.  Aside from urging students to complete their work, just how is it done?

Consider parent William Mitchell, a father of ten. He loved astronomy and expected his children to assist him—as part of their education—as he observed the sky at night.  He showed them how to use a telescope to sweep the sky, observe, take notes, and record measurements.  As a result, two of his children, Maria and Henry, developed interests in science.  Henry went on to a career as a hydrographer and helped found the National Geographic Society.

And Maria? She discovered a comet at age twenty-nine, became the first American Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College, and is acknowledged as the first professional woman astronomer in the United States.

Maria Mitchell thrived in a home in which parents prized learning.  It took years of diligent study of math and patient observation of the sky until she discovered Comet Mitchell.  Later in life, she wrote that she never forgot the one-on-one time with her father on the roof walk as they observed the sky together.

Children thrive when their parents share their interests, spend time with them, and teach them.  Parents don’t need to have all the answers, either; for example, when William Mitchell had taught Maria all the math that he could, he found her a more advanced teacher.

We don’t need to be experts in astronomy to learn from the sky, nor must we expect our children to make fantastic discoveries.  But observing the night sky often is a terrific, family-friendly field trip. It teaches our children that there are infinite worlds for exploration and discovery.

Worms Conquer! Science Teaching For Us All

This year, Sam’s school hired a science specialist.  Every Tuesday she rolls her supply-stocked cart from room to room and teaches the science content students must know by spring.  Sam’s class’s 40-minute slot begins at 10:20.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m relieved,” he said. “It’ll free me up to focus on my kids’ literacy and math. Divide and conquer, I guess.”

Conquer science?  Yes.  Divide the responsibility? No—share the responsibility.

While Sam’s school made good use of a grant to address science learning, Sam and I talked about how to incorporate science into the life of the classroom.  It’s our job to help tomorrow’s scientists—who are in front of us today—learn to wonder, question, experiment and imagine.

Also, to boost my case, I mentioned that if worms could talk they’d suggest that Sam start a worm farm.

Worms are the perfect classroom companions and they teach while they work.  I shared my experiences creating worm farms from scratch:  kids bring in the materials, create the farm, add the worms, and by this point they’ve already learned a lot.  Sam wrote down a supply list:

  • A clear container, like an old aquarium
  • Dirt, worms, and leaves–students bring it all in
  • Dark paper or a paper bag to tape around the aquarium, so worms think they’re underground.

Let the students do everything, I advised, and leave plenty of time to touch and examine everything.  Then:

  1. Layer dirt and leaves in aquarium.
  2. Place the worms on top.
  3. Tape dark paper around the sides so the worms could do their work in peace and quiet.

My students decided to give the worms a couple weeks of peace before peeking behind the paper to see the magic.  Worms in tunnels!  Vacant tunnels!  Leaves munched!  Castings left behind!

The students’ curiosity exploded. They talked, listened, read, wrote, drew, measured, questioned, problem solved, researched and wondered about worms. The best assessment of their learning?  Overhearing students talk about worms with each other in casual conversation.

At times, no one gave the worms a thought and we focused on other science topics.  Then someone would wander over to the worms, pull away the paper and discover there was plenty more to observe and discover.

Of course, this isn’t just about worms.  It’s about creating interdisciplinary learning in science that works because it’s hands-on and fun. It’s naturally differentiated and inspires. It’s available to every student, all day and all year. Sam pointed out that it meets practically every goal in the Common Core standards, too.

Faster than you can say oligochaetologist, Sam was on board.  He also remembered reading a poem by Edgar Allan Poe in college–so here is “The Conquering Worm” for you to appreciate in all its gothic splendor.  Have some fun reading it before you invite your worms to school.