The Universe in the Classroom

Storytelling Activities

The next story is a Greek myth about the Big Dipper. The lore of the Big Dipper and other asterisms and larger constellations runs deep and diverse. Collections of folktales from around the world or myths from different ancient cultures that include such tales are abundant and available in every library and bookstore.

Star Story

Big Dipper

Once upon a time there was a beautiful maiden named Callisto. She tied her hair with white ribbons and pinned her tunic with a brooch. She loved Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and she joined her hunting party.

One afternoon, after Artemis and Callisto had been hunting, Callisto put down her bow and rested in a shady grove. Zeus, the king of the gods, looked down from his home on Parnassus, and saw Callisto. She was so beautiful he was smitten.

Zeus was often smitten by pretty maidens and beautiful goddesses. Since he had great powers, he could change his shape and appearance when he was courting some new and unsuspecting maiden. Knowing that Callisto had promised Artemis that she would never marry, Zeus cunningly took on the appearance of Artemis, and woke Callisto from her sleep.

Later, when Artemis found out that Callisto was pregnant, she was furious. She banished Callisto from her sight. She was not the only furious one. Zeus's wife was named Hera, and she was getting used to her husband's various love affairs. When Callisto gave birth to her son Arcturus, Hera turned her into a bear. Instead of the beautiful maiden Zeus had fallen in love with, she was a great bear, covered with fur, and growling. Once a hunter, she was now hunted.

One day, her son Arcturus came upon her. She recognized him, and advanced toward him in what she thought was a friendly, even motherly, fashion. But Arcturus saw only a great bear approaching. Not knowing it was his mother, he tried to spear it.

Zeus saw all this, and quickly intervened. He sent them both up into the sky, Callisto to become the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which we call the big dipper. Arcturus became the Herdsman, forever guarding the bear, forever protecting his mother.

And there they are to this very day. Go outside tonight and look at the northern sky and you will see them.

as told by Lorne Brown


Knowledge Objectives:
  • that the stars are in fixed formations in space called constellations
  • adults have grouped stars and given those groupings names
Story setting:
  • a long time ago near a forest
Characters:(the names may be changed, of course, for younger children to remember)
  • the pretty maiden Callisto, who is also the Bear
  • Artemis (the goddess of hunting)
  • Zeus (the king of the gods)
  • Hera (Zeus's wife)
  • Arcturus (son of Callisto and Zeus)
  • a young, beautiful maiden loved a hunter
  • that maiden was loved by Zeus, the all-powerful god of gods
  • Zeus changed himself into the hunter whom the young maiden loved and fooled her into loving him
  • the beautiful young maiden had a son with Zeus, and Zeus's wife was so furious that she turned the maiden into a furry, growling bear
  • the maiden's son came upon her as a growling bear
  • the son did not know it was his mother and tried to kill the bear
  • Zeus saw this and sent them both into the sky where they would be together and the maiden, now a bear, would be protected from other hunters
  • How will Zeus save Callisto, who is now a bear, from being hunted and killed by their son?
  • Zeus sent them both up into the sky where Callisto became the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Arcturus became the Herdsman, who forever guards the bear and thus protects his mother
Activities:(It is may be difficult for young children to see the shapes and patterns in the sky, but...)
  • have children make a personal map of the sky, and group stars to make a picture of (1) how Callisto and her son appear in the sky, and (2) how a creature or person of their choice (themselves, perhaps) would look as a constellation
  • have children retell the story to the best of their ability
  • when children retell the story in their own words, they can better transmit the idea that the stars are mapped out in such a way that someone might think that a group of them looks like a bear

Grades 3-5

Knowledge Objectives:
  • there are seven major stars that comprise the big dipper
  • those seven stars are configured in the pattern of a "dipper"
  • the big dipper is also called Ursa Major, meaning Great Bear
  • each constellation, including the big dipper, has been interpreted by different cultures as being a number of different things
Story setting:
  • a long time ago near a forest (ancient Greece)
Explicit Characters:
  • same as above
Implicit Characters:
  • ancient Greek civilization
  • same as above
Explicit Problem:
  • same as above
Implicit Problem:
  • how to explain the fixed star formations in the night sky
Explicit Solution:
  • same as above
Implicit Solution:
  • create a story or myth to explain inexplicable scientific phenomena
  • have children make a personal map of the sky, and group stars to make a picture of (1) how Callisto and her son appeared in the sky, and (2) how a creature or person of their choice (themselves, perhaps) would look as a constellation
  • give students a map of the big dipper and have them determine the following: what the formation of stars represents to them personally; how the group of stars might represent a bear; and why the group of stars is also known as the big dipper
  • have children retell the story
  • children come to know that the constellations are naturally occurring phenomena that have been grouped and labeled by people in attempts to explain their existence

Grades 6-8

Knowledge Objectives:
  • we see seven major stars that comprise the big dipper:
    1. what is their configuration in the sky?
    2. why can't we see all the stars in this constellation (effect of distance on visibility of stars)?
  • star patterns can be used as a "celestial compass"; for example, the last two stars in the bowl of the big dipper invariably point to the pole star Polaris
  • there is a pattern or cycle of change with respect to the positions of stars in the sky: the relative positions of the stars do not change, yet the celestial sphere as a whole appears to move, and consequently, constellations are not always seen in the same place in the sky-a phenomenon which is most apparent when charting constellations according to seasons
All story components are the same as for grades 3-5
  • have students do the first activities from grades 3-5
  • have children experiment with light to determine how a star's distance affects our ability to see it (see references for classroom activities of this sort)
  • assign research projects about how ancient mariners used stars for navigational purposes or how slaves escaping from pre-abolition southern states followed the "drinking gourd" toward Canada for freedom
  • have students work with monthly star charts to see the changing position of the big dipper in the sky and then to predict where the constellation (and others) will be at different times of the year (see references for publications that include star charts)
  • have students compare the constellations of the northern and southern hemispheres and decide:
    1. If ancient Greek civilization was in the southern hemisphere, would the story of Callisto change? If so, how?
    2. Which of our constellations in the northern hemisphere are unique to us? Which are unique to the southern hemisphere? Are any seen in both hemispheres? Have students explain how this is possible.
  • have students write a biography on Callisto and Arcturus as sky figures explaining their seasonal travels and adventures
  • have students retell the story
  • children come to know that constellations are naturally occurring phenomena that have been grouped and labeled by people
  • such organizations were made to explain the stable existence of groupings of stars and to create a systematic and organized way of finding our way through the labyrinth of stars which we know and those we have yet to know

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