How the Sun Makes Our Day

So, I’ve been excited to use this science unit with L – it deals with shadows, the sun’s movement, and is all wrapped up in a great scientific method. As of today, we have one lesson left.

It’s meant to be 13 lessons for high-ability K/1st grade kiddos, assuming they mean in a classroom (whether a pull-out gifted & talented room or otherwise). We used in in our home with one student (L) and two teachers (me most of the time and my hubby occasionally).

I recognize that these constraints are different than those the unit was designed for – and I want to be very clear: I think this is a GREAT unit! It’s content-rich. It brings in appropriate children’s literature. It’s hands-on. It requires kids think and design.

We did the first half of the unit two Fridays ago in 3 hours and the second half of the unit today in another 3 hours. Our final lesson should take about 15 minutes and I anticipate doing it tomorrow.

There will be another blog post in the not-so-distant future (I promise!) that deals with what I perceive to be the challenge (and I get that it’s also a blessing, I promise!) of having a kiddo that gallops through material, eagerly soaking it up and assimilating it all. It’s also kind of a nightmare. What do I do with that??

Anyway, here’s how our experience with the unit went. It’s organized by the sequence and activities suggested by the unit (in italics) and then what we did and why in regular text.

Preassessment – we didn’t do this. It’s a great pre-assessment, but I wasn’t interested in assessing the unit summatively. I wanted to experience it with her and adjust instruction on the fly.

Lesson one: What is a scientist? We ordered What is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn from amazon. When it arrived, we began the unit. Aside: I LOVE this book! Includes scientists from both genders (excepting for the moment the whole problem with viewing genders as binary), multiple races, and it’s written in a simple yet thoughtful manner. Fantastic! Anyway, we read the text and made a list as we went of what scientists do. The point of the lesson is to get kids thinking about themselves as scientists (ie, these are things you do, thus you are a scientist). L began the book with “I am a scientist!” So, while we tied each page back to things she’s done that are science things, she already bought the argument.

Lesson two: What is change? We viewed pictures of her and me as babies and talked about what changed. She was most interested in talking about the differences between herself now and then, so we went with that! We made a Venn diagram to talk about differences between big kid L and baby L.

Comparing and contrasting big kid and baby

Comparing and contrasting big kid and baby


We then talked about changes that occur in people, animals, and plants. Finally, we talked about changes as being:

  1. related to time
  2. everywhere
  3. natural or caused by people
  4. random or predictable

She listed a few changes and we identified the above traits where appropriate:

  • When the big tree fell in our backyard (natural, random)
  • “I was a baby, then I was a child, and then I will be a grown up” (natural, predictable)
  • Pluto was a planet and then it was a dwarf planet (caused by people, random)

Lesson three: What scientists do – observe, question, learn more – we went to the basement and held a ball between a flashlight and the wall. L moved the flashlight and observed how the shadow moved. I asked her to walk backwards and forwards with the light. She noticed how the shadow got larger and smaller. I asked her what the rule was about shadows and their size. Her rule was “If the light is close, the shadow is big. When the light is far away, the shadow is small.”

Lesson four: What is a shadow? We skipped the hands-on portion of this lesson as it recapped what we’d observed the lesson before. The idea was to move beyond the sole observation specified in lesson three, but I realized later that I’d allowed her to do so at the same time. We did read What Makes a Shadow? by Clyde Bulla. I was glad we’d borrowed it from the library. It was a great introduction, but didn’t contain the depth she wanted. We did a lot of googling to answer questions.

The next component of the lesson was to observe the shadow of a manmade and natural object at two different points during the day. We checked out the big tree in our backyard and the lamppost in front of the house at 12:30 and again at 5.

Charting the shadows

Charting the shadows

12:30 was the end of our first three-hour block of time. When I told her we were done for the day, she said, “Or we could just do more science!” I had to laugh and explain that I didn’t have any more science prepared for her…

After she made her 5:00 observations, we asked her about what caused the shadows to look different. Her reply included:

  1. the shadow is in a different spot
  2. the shadow looks like it’s in a different spot but it’s because the sun is in a different spot
  3. the sun looks like it’s in a different spot but the sun and move appear to be moving when it’s really the Earth rotating that makes the stars and sun appear to move

Yeah, that seemed like a pretty good set of take aways.

Ok, onto the second half of the unit. At this point, I’d decided to have all the materials on hand to just finish the unit if she was so inclined. She mostly was…

Lesson five: What scientists do – experiment, create meaning, tell others – We reviewed the concept of artificial and natural light as well as what a shadow was (the space left when an object blocks the light). I explained the experiment we were to do (stand 1, 2, and 3 feet from the light, hold the ball at those intervals, and measure the shadows. She told me that when you stood further away, the shadow would be smaller. I asked her why and she told me that the object took up less space of the light. We decided to move on to lesson six.

Lesson six: Shed a little light on me – We attempted this lesson. We started by reading Young Thomas Edison by Michael Dooling. I was even more glad that we borrowed this one from the library because she very quickly let me know she was not interested in this book. We skipped the “growing up” portion and moved to the end. She did appreciate that because he kept trying, Edison was able to invent lots of things. We then moved to the science portion where we were to talk about manmade and natural light. She explained that the sun made natural light while her flashlight and turtle light made artificial light. I asked about the differences in the shadows and she looked at me like I was the village idiot. She told me that light makes shadows – ALL light! Ok, then. onto lesson seven.

Lesson seven: The difference in day and night – We substituted in one of our favorite authors for the recommended text – we used Gail Gibbons’s The Reasons for Seasons (we ADORE her books – I was happy to purchase this one to add to our library!). L read the book aloud. I had previously located a great set of non-fiction organizers related to Gail Gibbons books (note – I certainly don’t think they’re all great, but they provide her with practice using the skills that will be assessed on standardized tests). I decided to use the one aligned with this book which required her to use to book to match 6 vocabulary words with their definitions. She did four and was left with summer solstice and winter solstice. Before she looked at the answers, she told me that the winter solstice was the shortest day of the year and was her favorite. Silly! We checked the information in the book and she finished the activity. I wrote down her favorite, asked her to tell me why, and then had her illustrate what she said:

L's snowman on the winter solstice

L’s snowman on the winter solstice

We used our inflatable globe to mimic the tilt of the Earth’s axis and walked around the sun, explaining again how the tilt caused the seasons.

Lesson eight: Me and my shadow. We skipped this lesson. L could already articulate the “take away” from this lesson, so it seemed to make more sense to move onto the next lesson which extended the ideas.

Lesson nine: Watching Shadows Grow! This was one of our favorites of the unit! We altered it a little from the unit guide (which involved measuring the shadows) and instead traced our feet and then traced our shadows at multiple points during the day:

Tracing our shadows

Tracing our shadows

This picture is from after our first two tracings – we ended up with five sets each, some of which we couldn’t do because the tree on the side of the driveway had moved its shadow over top of our foot markings! Great reinforcement of the sun’s motion.We talked about why the sun made our shadows look taller or shorter (the height of the sun in the sky).

L noted that if you stood in our foot markings, time moved on and our shadows looked like the hands of a clock. Nice! As she went to bed, she was asking to do this again tomorrow. We will – we’ll find a different spot on the pavement and repeat, looking at what shadows “erase” our shadows at different points during the day.

Lesson ten: Temperatures in sun and shade! Another big hit! We placed two thermometers in the grass – one in shade and one in sun. We made predictions about the temperatures: Would the shade be cooler, hotter, or the same than in the sun? L (correctly) predicted cooler. I decided to say they would be the same. L wanted me to know immediately that my prediction was going to be wrong… which it was! She was delighted to find the temperature of 72 degrees Farenheit in the shade and 80 in the sun. I asked her to explain why the temperatures were different. Her explanation was “Heat comes from sunlight so when there’s no sunlight, there is less heat. That makes the temperature lower.” True that, kiddo!

Bonus lesson. My husband had brought a radiometer home from work (he teaches 6th grade science). When he heard her debriefing the temperature, he decided to do another idea with her. Here is her account of what they did:

We used a radiometer to see how much energy comes from the sun. When the radiometer was in the sun, it went really fast. When the radiometer was in the shade, it went slow. Because the air particles were moving so slow. The particles were moving slow in the shade because there was less sunlight. Thermal energy is when particles go fast. It makes it a gas. When they go slow, it makes it a solid or a liquid.

She then spent the next three hours riding her bike. She would stop and ask what she was (we were to yell, “Solid!”), then move slowly (“Liquid!”) and then pedal as fast as she could (“Gas!”)! So funny! Aunt Sarah texted later and asked her if she could be plasma. We spoke briefly about needing to add energy to a gas to make a plasma… so she hiked her bike up the hill and pedaled down really fast (“Look! I added energy to my gas!!!”). Oh my…

Anyway, tomorrow we will do lesson eleven, which involves a thermometer in an upside-down glass jar and another thermometer next to it on the group. We will track the rising temperature inside the jar compared with the outside one. I am not going to do the final lesson on how to slow greenhouse gases. I am concerned that the “what to do” will be immediately seen by her as too small to make a difference (which, to be fair, it is) and she’ll become focused on fear relating to climate change. Instead, I’ll relate it back to a previous episode of Cosmos we watched in which Neil DeGrasse Tyson talked about Venus’s greenhouse gases and the Permian era as greenhouse-gas-heavy. We will talk about it as part of nature and talk about the science related to minimizing the greenhouse gases.

Lesson 13 in the unit is about shadow puppets. She already enjoys shadow puppets, so tomorrow I’m going to give her this Nighttime Nursery Rhymes shadow book – I think that since she reads in bed each night with a flashlight, this will be right up her alley. Voila! Since we’re not doing the post-test, that is the unit!

We bound all of her materials in a three-prong folder so she’ll have them to refer back to at a later point.

I think she enjoyed our explorations, but when I reflect on this unit, I wish I hadn’t spent $35 on the unit. Again, it’s great, but I think I could have pieced it together on my own. It was a good experience for me in how she works though. I have to figure out how to be ready to teach a kid who doesn’t cease exploring an issue until she’s mastered it. It’s very different than the piecemeal approach I take as an educator outside my home. My students (both middle grades and now adults) seem to do well with scaffolded experiences that gain in complexity but allow thought time for the ideas to marinate. L seems to despise that pacing.