TSE2017 & education in the U.S.

Michael mentioned in the postscript to my first blog entry that I am a science teacher on sabbatical this school year, dedicated to generating awareness and knowledge of the 2017 eclipse. This is true, but as I visit different school districts, I am realizing that there is so much more to be addressed: I also need to assess and learn how students, teachers, administrators, parents and even local governments and communities can work together to improve the state of education in the U.S.

Being a professional educator for almost 20 years (and a student before that), I have seen the curriculum pendulum make many arcs, never staying in place too long because there is always something “better” on the way, at least in the minds of education departments, state governors and in Washington. And with each new paradigm shift (as they say in education) comes its own jargon, buzzwords, and learning strategies that are presumed to be superior to what came before. “No Child Left Behind,” “IDEA ’97,” “STEM,” and “Common Core” are but a few of the terms to describe our nation’s continuing urge to find the best way for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

But what I’m finding instead is growing frustration among all parties involved--teachers are confused about what is required of them; our students are performing poorly compared to other countries; administrators are coming down hard on teachers; parents are angry at the entire system; and the government thinks this can all be remedied with new and different learning straegies and increased teacher accountability.

The fundamental problem I’m encountering is a lack of foundation of the basics among both students and teachers. And by “basics,” I really mean just that: Where does the sun go when it sets? Why do the Sun, Moon and stars seem to move across the sky? Why does the Moon change shape every day? Why do we sometimes see the Moon during the day and sometimes not at night? What causes solar and lunar eclipses? And that’s just astronomy--now apply that across all content areas, and you begin to see what we are up against.

Yet, ironically, much of the public does want to learn more about science. I see it all the time when I host outdoor astronomy sessions with a telescope. The oohs and aahs and questions last all evening, and many times, it’s the adults who are most intrigued and astonished by what they’re looking at, more so than the students, and I have an idea why (but that’s for another entry).

Another irony: the seeming paradox of having the most information available to us, at any hour of the day, delivered virtually instantaneously to our eyes, yet we seemingly know less about the outside world and its workings than our forebears did at the turn of the last century. I have been reading the wonderful publications found on this site from this and other centuries’ authors, and what a great working knowledge they had of the celestial mechanics involved with the occurrences and predictions of eclipses. And the writing! Descriptive and flowing and so much better than anything anyone is writing today about eclipses. I got chills reading James Fenimore Cooper’s account of the 1806 total eclipse that he and his fellow villagers observed together.

It is my hope that the schools I visit this year want to learn more about what will happen less than three years from now, even though TSE 2017 will most likely not be a specific addition to their curricula. And it is also my hope that these same schools will allow their students to watch it where they should be watching it from: outside of the classroom.