The Universe in the Classroom

The Story of Astronomy

Learning Astronomy Through Storytelling

That children at different stages of development will derive different meanings from the same story is obvious but worth mentioning. This message is crucial to the planning of age-appropriate curricular content. Suppose, as an example, you choose to tell a story about the phases of the Moon such as Baloo the Moon (Moroney). If you teach K-2, the central message of the story that you want students to understand is simply that the Moon's shape, as they see it in the sky, varies. More advanced or keener children might work with a parent at home in the evening to draw the Moon once a week or so, or you might show slides of the Moon (see resource list) in its different phases and have children draw them as they see them.

For grades 3-5, the same story is used to introduce the same basic concept, but the idea should be extended to allow students to discover that there is a recurring pattern or order to those shapes, and that each segment of the pattern has a name. Expectations about students' learning of the names for the Moon's phases should vary.

Using the same story, middle school students in grades 6-8 should quickly learn the ideas introduced in the earlier grades if they do not already know them. Students can then begin to work on understanding why there are phases of the Moon. Further, students may be interested in how the Moon has been used historically for navigation or as a determinant for cultural/religious festivals that are based on its cyclical nature.

A similar pattern may be followed if you choose a constellation story such as How the Stars Came To Be, or The Seven Dancing Brothers (Moroney). Very young children may simply marvel at the idea that the stars make pictures. They will enjoy making those pictures themselves mentally and on paper. Children in middle childhood can begin to find some of the more salient constellations, and to learn about the different mythological and cultural origins of them. Older children will be able to learn more about the stars themselves, the theories behind their creation, demise, and positions in the sky. Such scientific knowledge can then be compared to the abundance of "star stories" that have sought to connect the positions of the stars in some fantastic way in order to fulfill a perennial need to understand celestial phenomena.

A final comment regarding the adaptation of the story to your students' stages of development. Children learn that a story has a plot, a setting, characters, a main problem, a crisis point, and a solution. The expected depth of understanding for younger children with respect to the characters, problem, and solution should be differentiated from that of older students. For example, if you choose to use a Greek myth, the setting, characters, problem, and solution for young children will be only those that have been made explicit in the story. For older children, however, these may be explored on the explicit and implicit levels. That is, implicitly, behind the scenes of the story is a whole other cast of characters, problems, and solutions which motivated the derivation of the story. In Greek mythology, the setting is ancient Greece with ancient Greek astronomers and scientists as the characters. Their problem was how to explain what they saw in the day and night sky, the story of the sky's creation, and the apparent regularities and irregularities in the motions of some celestial bodies. The stories we hear over and over again today were used by ancient Greeks to explain what they saw.

In the activities section, we will guide you through specific stories and introduce you to active learning about astronomy through the magic of story. In addition, you will find professional tips for learning and telling stories about anything under the Sun. For, when it comes to the power of the story-the sky's the limit!

Oh yes. Did Galileo catch the elusive ghost of the universe that night five centuries ago? The men on top of the first hill uncovered the lantern; immediately, they spotted the light from the second lantern. Light had traveled so quickly that it appeared instantaneous, which is what everyone believed. Galileo still believed it traveled at a certain speed, but all he knew now was that, whatever speed it was, it was very fast! He had failed to catch the ghost of the universe.

It was a third of a century later that a Danish astronomer named Roemer was studying the moons of Jupiter (which Galileo had discovered using an early telescope). By observing changes in the times of their eclipses, Roemer calculated the speed of light with amazing accuracy. Today we know that, if light could travel in circles, it could go around the Earth seven and a half times in one second! Now that's fast.

And it was in this century that Einstein, the genius with the bad hairday and mismatched socks, stated that the speed of light was the limiting speed. Nothing in the universe can go faster than light.

The ghost of the universe has been caught.

as told by Lorne Brown

light traveling around Earth

MINDY KALCHMAN is a Ph.D. student in Human Development and Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. She is currently on leave from the Peterborough County Board of Education in Ontario, Canada where she is an elementary-level teacher. As part of her doctoral work, she designs and develops mathematics and science curriculum that is based in traditions of developmental and cognitive psychology. Her email address is

LORNE BROWN, a retired science teacher and elementary school principal, is a "singer of old songs and a teller of old tales." He is a co-founder of The Storytellers' School of Toronto and is editor-in-chief of Appleseed Quarterly: The Canadian Journal of Storytelling. His email address is

The authors would like to thank Dr. John Percy and Marylyn Peringer for their contributions to the resource lists. Unless otherwise noted, illustrations in this edition of "The Universe in the Classroom" are by Kristine Harrington.

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