Ideas for an astronomy main lesson

For many Waldorf homeschoolers, the astronomy main lesson can be a bit of a hit or miss experience. Some of us take to the stars and can really understand their movements and are able easily to find constellations in the sky. Such people also seem able to explain the movement of the planets and the earth and be able to readily present their child with understandable lessons.

Others of us struggled….some of us mightily! For me, this was the Dread Main Lesson – the one that I hoped would be able to be absorbed by someone else or could disappear into exciting night-time star observations during a trip to somewhere with an extraordinarily dark sky. As for explaining the relationship of the earth to the rest of the visible cosmos….sigh….I found it very challenging.

As I have often said over the years, one of the reasons I am so good at my work, at what I’ve done over the past 11 years with Christopherus, is because of all the mistakes I made while I homeschooled my sons! Well – I of course there were also many memorable lessons (my now 21 year old younger son just the other day was telling me he was going to teach his girlfriend how to knit and started to repeat the verse ‘In through the front door, run ’round the back…’ which he remembered from his own knitting lessons!) but not everything went to plan. And I didn’t have a curriculum to help me on my way.

Anyway….astronomy. At CHR we strongly suggest that this main lesson be taught in 7th grade (see our 6th and 7th grade Rough Guides for more on this) and that it be scheduled for the winter – ot whenever the sky is at its best for naked eye observation in your location.

This is key – naked eye observation. Although it is tempting (and a lot of fun) to use various gadgets on computers or to use a telescope, please, please try to use naked eye observation as the main way for your child to experience the night sky and what is happening above him. Gadgets and telescopes are cool and they definitely have their place, but the purpose of science in Waldorf middle grades is to use the senses, to have sensorially rich experiences and not to take that step away from the phenomena at hand which is what happens as soon as one uses any sort of tool, electronic or not. To lay on one’s back in a snow bank marvelling at the shimmering stars above is one of the most precious and magnificent experiences one can give one’s child. This is about being immersed in the phenomena.

So observation is what is most important here. Observing the phases of the moon (this can be extended past the time allotted for the main lesson so as to be most effective), sunrises and sun sets, the movement of the stars and planets – this is what is key. (Do refer to our science book From Nature Stories to Natural Science for more on the very special way that science is approached in Waldorf education in all grades).

As much as is practical and appropriate, try to be silent as you and your child observe the stars (or other sky phenomena). Prepare before you go out and read up on what you might see and find and point things out to your child or ask him to find things. Use as few words as possible and emphasize simply soaking up what you are seeing.

Then the next morning, during main lesson time, re-visit what you and your child experienced and through narrative, build up a picture of what was observed. Then and only then, move onto main lesson book work.

Your child’s book can be a cross between a beautifully artistic presentation of the phenomena observed and a star journal (again, especially if your child really gets inspired by this main lesson, don’t stop this once your allotted three or so weeks are up. If she wants to continue watching the progress of a planet across the sky or noting the phases of the moon, by all means encourage her to do so!).

If the mlb has black or dark blue pages – construction paper could work – then the constellations and other drawings can be done in white or gold pen or pencil which could look very effective. On other pages, your child can write short explanations or summaries of the phenomena observed.

To help you with this block, you will need a good guide book or two. In our science book I recommend Chet Raymo’s 365 Starry Nights as well as the somewhat more eccentric but very user-friendly The Stars by H.A.Rey. A new addition to my list of favorites is Astronomy for Young and Old: A Beginner’s Guide to the Visible Sky by Walter Kraul, the same author who brings us the wonderful Earth, Water, Fire and Air available from the Christopherus bookshop.

Kraul’s new book is absolutely wonderful. It really is. Simply and clearly written, with beautiful colour illustrations and many useful explanatory notes, this is a book I wish I had had 10 years ago when I first taught this main lesson! The other two books also explain the phenomena but this book is much more thorough and does not assume any prior knowledge. And…whereas the other two books are based on the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere, this book also refers to what is happening in the sky from the perspective of the Southern Hemisphere, making it even more valuable.

To finish, I also want to point out that if you do astronomy in 7th grade, you can also weave in 7th grade geography and history lessons as seems best, either reviewing or previewing or combining. Discussions on how the Europeans, Arabs and Chinese navigated and used and designed various instruments and also discussions about longitude and latitude could tie in. But again, wait until your child has had a good amount of naked eye observation before discussing (and better yet, creating – there are internet resources for making old fashioned navigational instruments) such things.

And don’t forget to remind your child about stories she has heard from various cultures about the figures in the sky. Native American, Ancient Greek, Indian and many other myths could be re-told (or told anew if you are just beginning with Waldorf). But….again, remember, this is a science main lesson, so don’t get too carried away with cultural links and stories! This isn’t to say that linking science and story isn’t incredibly important – it is! – but to say that observation of phenomena and accurate written work are top priority in this main lesson. Again, see our science book (above) and the Rough Guides (also above) for more on this.

Posted on October 29, 2014 in Waldorf Curriculum

  • Brooke says:

    Such a helpful post, thank you! I was just puzzling how to squeeze this block in to 6th grade. I am getting that Kraul book. His other book is one of our most useful homeschooling books on the shelf.

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