Autumn Astronomy Activities for Middle School

Have you ever looked at the night sky and been amazed by all the stars? Though the nights are cool, I love stargazing in autumn. There are tremendous opportunities for night science activities throughout the fall months.

Misconceptions creep into the science of astronomy perhaps more than any other science. Would you believe that many college graduates have wildly incorrect ideas about the phases of the moon or the cause of the seasons?

You can help dispel these misconceptions by reading quality non-fiction materials and providing opportunities to engage in hands-on experiments or demonstrations designed to test hypotheses. With the help of DK Publishing, I’ve created an in-depth unit study around our autumn night skies utilizing two DK books as my spine. I hope to release the complete curriculum by years end.

Autumn Astronomy: Activities for Middle School @EvaVarga.netMany thanks to DK Publishing for providing these books to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.

Most objects you can see in the night sky are within our own spiral, disc-shaped galaxy. Did you know that when you’re looking at the Milky Way, you’re looking into the heart of the galaxy from Earth’s position on the outer fringes of one of the spiral arms? The Milky Way is at least 100,000 light years across, and contains perhaps 200 billion stars. The milky band you see in the sky is a layer of dust, gas and stars that is closer to the “galactic center”. The dust is so thick, no one has seen beyond it to the dark side of the galaxy. There’s probably a humungous Black Hole at the heart of the Milky Way, but astronomers can’t be 100 percent sure. Turns out we know more about deep space objects than we do about the center of our own little spiral, disc-shaped galaxy.

The Practical Astronomer takes you on a step-by-step journey from the basics of what can be seen with the naked eye, to how you can view more distant objects such as the planets of the solar system, and even galaxies far, far away-all in your own backyard. It is the perfect spine for a homeschool astronomy study. It provides maps of the constellations and detailed information on the planets and stars of our own galaxy.

With this book as a guide, you will be able to find planets, identify stars, track movements, find constellations, and even begin star hopping from one constellation to another. The first part of the book explains the kinds of objects you will be looking for such as planets, stars, and nebulae. Additionally, with a spherical shape in mind, it details how to navigate around the night sky. The second part of the book provides practical information regarding telescopes and keeping a log of your observations.

During the course of the year, our view of the night sky changes from month to month. Some constellations are always in the sky, while others appear and disappear over different regions.  The Night Sky Month by Month by Will Gater and Giles Sparrow shows the sky as it is seen around the world in both the northern and southern hemispheres. It is the perfect guide for amateur astronomers – the illustrated pictures and monthly sky guides will help you recognize patterns and track changes in the each hemisphere.

Astronomical Events 2015

A brilliant double planet: October 26

For the second time in 2015, Venus and Jupiter will engage in a close conjunction, this time separated by just over 1 degree, Venus passing to the southwest (lower right) of Jupiter and shining more than 10 times brighter than the huge gas giant.

  • Full Moon, Supermoon: October 27

    The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 12:05 UTC. This full moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Full Hunters Moon because at this time of year the leaves are falling and the game is fat and ready to hunt. This moon has also been known as the Travel Moon and the Blood Moon. This is also the last of three supermoons for 2015. The Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual.

  • Conjunction of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter: October 28

    A rare, 3-planet conjunction will be visible on the morning of October 28. The planets Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will all form a triangle in the early morning sky. Jupiter and Venus will be only one degree apart with Mars just a few degrees to the east. Look to the east just before sunrise for this spectacular event.

  • Taurid meteor shower ‘fireballs’: October & November

    The Taurid meteors, sometimes called the “Halloween fireballs,” show up each year between mid-October and mid-November. The shower should peak from Nov. 5 to Nov. 12 in 2015. Meteor expert David Asher has also discovered that Earth can periodically encounter swarms of larger particles, which can produce fireball meteors in certain years, and 2015 is predicted to be one of those years.

  • Geminid meteor shower: December 13-14

    If there is one meteor display guaranteed to put on a very entertaining show it is the Geminids. Considered by most meteor experts to be at the top of the list, surpassing in brilliance and reliability even the August Perseids. The moon will be a narrow crescent and will set early in the evening, leaving the sky dark all through the rest of the night – perfect conditions for watching shooting stars.

Autumn Astronomy: Activities for Middle School @EvaVarga.net

Expand Your Horizons

Hands-on activities encourage children to explore astronomy concepts in a way that is fun, yet meaningful, and to broaden their awareness of astronomy as they develop and apply new skills in other subject areas. Carefully selected demonstrations are one way of helping students overcome misconceptions, and there are a variety of resources available.

Check out the many activities and lesson plans provided by the University of Texas McDonald Observatory to get started.

Approximate the relative size of the earth and the moon with my free, Balloon Moon activity

Explore how misconceptions creep into the science of astronomy 

Take part in the Global Moon Project and learn how the moon and tides are interlinked

Gather with fellow astronomy enthusiasts for the Annular Lunar Eclipse, the Perseid Meteor Shower, or a Super Moon Viewing Party

Get to know the autumn night sky in the northern hemisphere with stargazing tips from BBC’s Sir Patrick Moore and his guests on The Sky at Night.

Focus your study around the contributions of Women in Space 

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books

From fly tying and whips to architecture and Lego, passion projects don’t just provide educational value, they fuel students to take control of their education.

Passion Projects, or how we have come to refer to the independent study projects that my children have pursued over the years, are an excellent opportunity for middle and high school students to invest in themselves.

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books @EvaVarga.net Many thanks to DK Publishing for providing these books to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.

Passion Projects build a sense of ownership, improve communication skills, help develop research skills, and encourage entrepreneurship. It is not unusual for children to also have a variety of interests.

My son, for example, is passionate about Lego, Minecraft, aeronautics (as well as container ships and trains), and music. Some weeks he will devote his leisure time solely to music theory and composition. The following week, he’ll move on to Lego and spend hours building models and redesigning his Lego city.

This summer, I wanted to find a book for each of my children that not only complemented their interests but also really inspired them to take their passion projects to the next level. DK Books provides a wonderful selection of books providing inspiration to middle and high school students.

Lego Architecture: The Visual Guide

For my son, I selected LEGO Architecture: the Visual Guide by Philip Wilkinson. The book comes in an extremely durable slipcover with glossy matte finish and Lego artwork.

Each of the twenty-two offerings in the Lego Architecture line get their own section. Each also includes interesting information about the design and  many photographs of the complete piece, each from different angles. Footnotes provide additional tidbits about the design process.

You also get photos of the real architectural structure the Lego set was patterned after. There is a side by side comparison of the real thing with the Lego version, and also a history of the building and its chief designer(s).

My son has poured over this book for hours on multiple occasions. He shared, “Mom, this book is really cool. It helps me get an idea for how I want to design my Lego city buildings.”

Sketch Book for the Artist

For my daughter, I selected Sketch Book for the Artist by Sarah Simblet. My daughter has always been interested in art and in recent months has devoted considerable time to improving her drawing skills. She has watched video tutorials on YouTube, taken online illustration classes, and worked diligently in her own sketch books.

She has been delighted with Sketch Book for the Artist. The book shows many of the author’s works and is also beautifully illustrated with inspirational and exemplary works by significant artists from the Reniassance to the current era.

A variety of mediums including pencil (graphite), pen and ink, chalk, etc. are well represented. The reproductions are great and help create new ideas and directions. The author also gives tips as well as suggested exercises for improving your own skills.

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books @EvaVarga.netGetting Started

Passion Projects work well in a public or private school classroom as well. Here, students are asked to complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice and are given an hour each school day to work on their projects. This hour is sometimes referred to as the Genius Hour. Because the topics are selected by the students, they truly enjoy the research process and presenting their findings.

Getting started is easy. Ask your children or students about the passions they already have:

  • What do you want to know more about or learn how to do?
  • How does that passion inspire you when things are tough?
  • In what ways can your passion inspire others? Who do you want to help?
  • Can you be inspired to learn more about another’s passion?

Encouraging Student Passions with DK Books

Whatever topic your child chooses to pursue, you’ll surely find resources and books from DK Publishing. Whether their interests are related to art, cooking, or super heroes, you’ll surely find something for everyone.

Timelines of History & Science

When we first started homeschooling,a Book of Centuries was one of the first things we implemented in our curriculum. We love the concept so much – we still use them today!

I have learned a few things along the way. I share these insights with you in hopes you’ll benefit from my past experience.

Timelines of History & Science @EvaVarga.netA Book of Centuries is basically a timeline in a book. A timeline allows the reader to compare advances and discoveries in different cultures relative to each other in time.

I first discovered them when I was researching Charlotte Mason’s teaching. Charlotte recommended that history be taught in chronological order, which makes sense since so much of what happened was based on cause and effect. Essentially, as we learn about people and events in history – either through readings or documentaries – we record them on the appropriate pages in our Book of Centuries.

When we add a person to a page that already contains someone or something that occurred in the same century, our brain makes a connection. “Oh! Beatrix Potter lived at the same time as Theodore Roosevelt. The Boer War and Boxer Rebellion were happening at the same time!” A Book of Centuries is the perfect tool to make those mental connections. Making these connections for ourself has a deeper impression and last longer.

Getting Started with a Book of Centuries

When we first started, the kids and I each had our own Book of Centuries. I downloaded the Basic Book of Centuries template from the Simply Charlotte Mason website and we set up our timelines in a 3-ring binder.

As we read about different events and people through history, I printed images onto sticker paper and we sat down together to adhere them to the appropriate pages. I would then ask that they write a short sentence or two summarizing the event or accomplishments of the historical figure. We would also color code each event by outlining each image – a different color for each continent.

While my daughter was as engaged as I, my son was too young. He managed putting the stickers in his book but would soon become distracted and would fail to write the sentence as instructed. Additionally, we would often struggle to stay current with our history reading. After we completed the four volume series of Story of the World, we slowly began to drift away from our Book of Centuries.

Recently, I opened my Book of Centuries and began to revisit the people and events that I had documented over the years. My daughter came to sit beside me and she expressed interest in revisiting this process. Our books had become a great companion and record of the fascinating people we had met through our texts, living history books, and documentaries.

Looking back, I should have compiled a family Book of Centuries when the kids were younger. I have since learned that Charlotte’s students didn’t receive their own until they were about ten years old. During the younger years, we should have collaborated together and it would not have been so overwhelming to my son.

Timelines of History & Science @EvaVarga.netTimelines Resources

As we have begun to revisit our timeline books, I was delighted to get the opportunity to review Dorling Kindersley’s (DK) Timelines of History and Timelines of Science. Produced in association with the Smithsonian Institution, these excellent timeline reference books are filled with striking photography, infographics, and illustrations. Each edition is a fabulous addition to a home library.

Timelines of History is by far one of the best books that DK has published thus far. It is a stunning visual chronology of the events and people that have defined our history, providing a clear picture of our human past and the events that have changed our world. For anyone who is fascinated with history, this is a must-have. It is a great reference for students and teachers alike with a passion for understanding the past.

Timelines of History is over 500 pages long with full color on every page. I love the timeline at the bottom of each page; a great quick-reference tool that allows us to more accurately place events and historical figures on our own Book of Centuries.

DK’s companion text, Timelines of Science, is another excellent reference book. However, as scientific discoveries are shown chronologically, unrelated topics are sometimes presented together. This can be confusing to some readers if they are not accustomed to this approach.

The book is organized in six main sections based on the era of scientific discovery,

  • Before Science Began (including advances made by Greek medicine);
  • European and Islamic Renaissance;
  • Age of Discovery;
  • Age of Revolutions (including Faraday’s experiments);
  • Atomic Age; and finally
  • Information Age (including a discussion of global warming).

Like its companion, the main component of  Timelines of Science is the timeline that runs along the bottom of each page. The upper part of each page contains related pictures and illustrations as well as brief descriptions of the advances noted on the timeline.

Cogswheels & Gear Trains: Career Education Activities for Middle School

A cogwheel is a rotating machine part having teeth, or cogs, which mesh with another toothed part to transmit torque. Two or more gears working in a sequence (train) are called a gear train or, in many cases, a transmission. Gear arrangements as described, can produce a mechanical advantage through a gear ratio and thus may be considered a simple machine.

I know what you are thinking,

What does all this have to do with career education?

Career Education for Middle School @EvaVarga.netAs parents of students in middle school, one of our roles is to help our kids understand how their current educational and personal choices will affect their future life roles. In particular, their choices for a career.

In many ways, you can think of the variety of careers as a cogwheel. Each cogwheel is a career option and the individual teeth or cogs are the skill sets required for success in that given field.

Over the years, we have taken advantage of numerous opportunities to explore career options as a family. We’ve reached out to our friends and family members – encouraging the kids to ask questions to learn more about their chosen fields of work.

We talk regularly about their dad’s role as a hospital administrator and their uncles’ careers as a pharmacist and microbiologist. Coincidentally, though their career choices differ (the cogwheel), they all work in health care (the gear train).

Each cogwheel works closely with one another in a larger system – the gear train. Together, the system has an advantage.

Youth are more likely to think about their future careers, and believe that they have a variety of career options, when they have families that help them learn about career choices and support their efforts to prepare for a career. Given an opportunity to evaluate career information and compare and contrast a variety of careers is also important.

Exploring the many varied career options when students are in middle school will help assure they have a greater grasp of what skills they will need as an adult.

One of our newest additions to our library is Careers: The Graphic Guide to Finding the Perfect Job for You. We have had a great time investigating the careers the kids are interested in with this resource guide.

{Many thanks to DK Publishing for providing the book to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.}

More than 400 career options are described in this book, color coded and divided into fifteen categories (or gear trains): health and medicine; arts, crafts, & design; and science & research are just a few.

Each job has a career path journey graphically laid out with important aspects including what actions one would have to take to be successful in this career as far as personality, interests, type and quality of education and the life/work balance you’d like to achieve among other criteria.

Career Education for Middle School @EvaVarga.netThe Role of Parents of Middle School Students

You can encourage middle school children to plan for a career in several ways:

  • Talk to your children about your own work, and/or the jobs of friends and relatives, so they will learn about several work alternatives.
  • Ask your children what they like to do and help them look for ways that their interests can be reflected in a career choice.
  • Help your children get information about middle and high school courses they can take to better prepare them for college or a post-secondary training program.
  • Plan a “career day” for your homeschool co-op and invite guest speakers (or parents).
  • Take a trip to local employer and employment agencies.

Exploring Options

I have written a few posts describing how we’ve used the interests of our children as a guide to explore career options. I will be adding more in the future.
Hydrology
Entomology
Private Pilot

What interests and passions do your children have? What careers are they likely to pursue as a result? Take time to sit down with your kids and begin exploring the many career options available to them today.

Much Ado About Shakespeare +Giveaway

I  have always enjoyed classic literature – especially historical fiction. However, as a child I didn’t have the opportunity to study Shakespeare. The school counselors – in their infinite wisdom – hadn’t set me on the college tract. I thereby listened in envy to my peers talk about the Shakespeare play they were learning about in Honors English.

When I began homeschooling, I knew that I wanted to make Shakespeare accessible to my children. I wanted them to be familiar with his works – regardless of what they chose to do in later life.

As I began to sprinkle Shakespeare into our studies, was a little apprehensive. I had to admit I didn’t know much about this man of many words, but for their sake I was determined to figure it out. We have tried a number of activities and strategies over the years. Essentially, building a middle school Shakespeare unit takes just five steps.

Admin Note: This photo is from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado About Nothing”. We will be seeing this play next month. 

Much Ado About Shakespeare @EvaVarga.net1. Introduce the Play

First, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the plot and story line. You can then freely enjoy the details without having to keep track of who is who. One of our newest additions to our library is The Shakespeare Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained).  {Many thanks to DK Publishing for providing the book to us for review. Please see my full Disclosure Policy for more details.}

What a valuable resource! This easy to use but very comprehensive book offers background on the characters, a timeline of events throughout the performance, themes, and plot summary, along with an overview of the legacy of each show.

There is also a nice biography of Shakespeare’s life in the beginning of the book and a timeline of each play written during the various phases of his career: when he was a freelance writer, as a shareholder in Lord’s Chamberlain’s theater company, and when his company was given a royal patent by by King James. Throughout the book, you really get to know Shakespeare as well as his plays. I know we will be referencing this book for many years to come.

Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy of this book for yourself. 

Biographies

If you haven’t studied Shakespeare in the past, it is a good idea to begin with a biography. There are many to choose from – for all levels of readers.

A few that we have enjoyed in the past are:

Biographies by Diane Stanley are sooo wonderful they transport you; Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare is no exception. The information is concise and clear yet is not watered down. This is someone that really understands writing books for children that adults can enjoy using as teachers or parents.  The text provides a great picture of who Shakespeare was and how the political and popular culture of his day reacted to his plays.

The “Who Was” series of books are wonderful. They are very informative and include a few illustrations which make learning about historical characters, scientists, writers, etc. fun for kids. Who Was William Shakespeare? even includes a great vocabulary list, which I appreciated for our homeschool lessons.  Mannis creates many interesting asides in this short book, including words and phrases that were coined by the Bard, an explanation of blank verse, what school was like, the politics of the time, big city London, and how the Globe Theatre came about.

Picture Books

To introduce the basics of the plot, I begin by reading aloud from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb or Shakespeare’s Stories for Young Readers by Edith Nesbit.

Other favorites include:

2. Learn Some Lines

Copywork is the practice of copying someone else’s writing in your own hand. We keep a notebook specifically for copying noteworthy poems, prose, and quotes. When we are studying Shakespeare, we select lines of personal interest. I also utilize these same excerpts for dictation.

Shakespeare Monologues is the perfect site to find longer selections for memory work. Actors use this site to find selections for auditions. You can search for women’s or men’s monologues and then by play title.

Another great site for Shakespeare quotes is Absolute Shakespeare.

3. Watch the Play

We know that Shakespeare wrote drama to be performed in a theater not “literature” to be analyzed during language arts lessons. So reading his plays doesn’t achieve the same effect as watching a performance.

Enjoy a Movie

Many of the bard’s plays have also been adapted for film. This is a great way to prepare children for a live production – allowing them to see the full story as it unfolds on the television screen.

TIP :: Violence, profanity, and even nudity are all issues in many Shakespeare plays. Be sure to preview the movies yourself to decide if it is appropriate – and enjoyable – for your family.

Film adaptations we have enjoyed include:

Find a Live Production

The play we study in our homeschool is based on what will be performed locally – this year, we will see Much Ado About Nothing as well as Antony & Cleopatra – both are family productions (reduced price) at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. High schools, local theaters, and area acting companies are all likely places to find the occasional Shakespeare play. Ask around and see if there are groups you don’t know about yet.

If you attend plays regularly, you might be interested in Shakespeare Passport, a virtual ticket that gives you access to events and museums all over the world. It’s easy to use your mobile device as a virtual ticket or discount coupon. The website lists numerous venues all over the world where Shakespeare’s plays are staged.

Here are few highly esteemed venues in California and Oregon:

TIP :: You might inquire about volunteering as ushers in exchange for tickets. This is a great way to attend theater if the ticket price is not in your budget.

Scripts allow actors the opportunity to interpret their characters and reflect on different facets of humanity as they do so. Shakespeare’s plays and themes are complex, as life and people are. I absolutely love to watch multiple versions of a play and see how differences of inflection, of setting, and of context put completely different spins on the lines. This is the beauty of Shakespeare.

One of my favorite productions was Romeo & Juliet performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several years ago.  During the preface, the director stated that because Romeo & Juliet was a play of contrasts, he chose to highlight the contrasts.  The most evident way he accomplished this was in his choice of costuming.  The  older generation – the parents and their employed – wore Elizabethan costumes whereas the young generation – the young lovers and their friends – wore modern day apparel including school team uniforms.  He further emphasized the contrasts with their speech – taking liberty with the prose originally penned by Shakespeare for the youth.

A few years later we enjoyed another OSF production of Romeo & Juliet. This time, it was set in Northern California in the mid-17th century – a vibrant and conflicted time in our history.  Romeo and Juliet – the son and daughter of two landed families (one Mexican & the other Spanish) locked in an old feud. Spanish was woven into the tapestry of the Victorian English much to my delight!

4. Read the Script

Though Shakespeare wrote to be performed, there is still great value in reading his plays with their beautiful use of English. However, there’s more than one way to read a text.

A great way to read Shakespeare is to give each student a copy and play an audiobook version while you all follow along. Hearing someone who knows how the lines flow read them aloud helps immensely with comprehension.

5. Perform the Play (optional)

You can actually bring the theater home by acting out Shakespearean plays in your living room. Dress up and be actors, or use puppets instead.

Although it would be valuable, you don’t have to have costuming and rehearsals in order to give your children the chance to act out Shakespeare. Here are some other low-key, low-commitment ways to add performance to your homeschool:

  • Create a LEGO iStop motion of your favorite scene complete with your own voices
  • Illustrate a graphic novel or comic book of selected scenes
  • Memorize a monologues and deliver it as though you are auditioning
  • Take a Shakespeare theater class – many of the venues I listed above have camps and workshops for children of all ages

Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a fun comedy about two couples—one in a “merry war” of words. It is one of two plays we will be seeing performed live this year. Below you will find a variety of free resources to help you put together a unit study on this delightful comedy.

Much Ado Quotes ~ With this worksheet, your teen will translate Shakespeare’s words into modern language, match up characters with their descriptions, and assign quotes from the play to who said them.

Call me Shakespeare ~ Review the hijinks of one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies with song (accompanying worksheet on characterization is included).

Jimmie Lanley has a great collection of Hands-on Shakespeare activities on HubPages.

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