Teaching How and When Lunar Eclipses Occur

Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth comes between the Sun and Moon. During a full moon, the Earth’s shadow falls over the Moon. This phenomenon can be viewed from anywhere on Earth that is experiencing night. To teach this astronomical event, first ask kids to build a model. Next, formalize learning with informational text and videos. Finally, they can view the celestial event from their homes.

Ms. Sneed How and When Lunar Eclipses Occur

Our favorite fourth grade teacher prepared the lunar eclipse materials she needed. First, she purchased some paper plates and metal fasteners. Second, she printed a page with the Earth, Moon and connectors on tagboard. Additionally, she printed a little eclipse booklet back-to-back and folded it. That would give her kids reading material and questions. Finally, she shared some video links on Google Classroom.

Students Build Models

After her students filed in the next day, Ms. Sneed began. “In last week’s space science activities, we learned about the Moon and its phases. Now we’ll move on to lunar eclipses. As we’ve discussed before, scientific models help us understand things that are too big to observe in the classroom.”

As the teacher distributed materials, she continued. “After you take out your scissors, build the model. Follow the directions on the page.”

Quickly, Ms. Sneed finished handing everything out. Then she circulated to help kids follow the directions:

  • First, cut out the center section of a paper plate. Color, if desired. This is the Sun.
  • Second, cut out the Earth.
  • Third, cut out the half-shaded circle. This is the Moon.
  • Fourth, cut out the two strips.
  • Fifth, using a metal fastener, connect one end of the longer strip to the center-back of the Sun.
  • Sixth, using a second metal fastener, connect one end of the shorter strip to the center-back of the Moon.
  • Finally using a third metal fastener, connect the opposite ends of both strips to the center-back of the Earth. The shorter strip and Moon should be closest to the back of the Earth.

“If you’d like to color your Earth-Sun-Moon system, go right ahead,” said Ms. Sneed.

To conceptualize lunar eclipses, ask students to build models that simulate how and when they occur.
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Students Manipulate Models to Illustrate Lunar Eclipses

When everyone was finished, Ms. Sneed continued. “Lunar eclipses,” she said, “occur when the Earth’s shadow casts a shadow over the Moon. Manipulate your model to show this.”

As the teacher circulated, she noticed that most students had placed the Earth between the Sun and Moon. “Good job!” she said.

For those who struggled, she provided guidance.

“Can anyone tell me when a lunar eclipse can happen?” Dozens of hands shot up. Ms. Sneed pointed to a student in the back row.

“Well, it occurs when the Earth blocks the Sun’s light to the Moon.”

Ms. Sneed nodded. But a few hands remained in the air. “Yes?” she said, pointing to a child in the middle of the classroom.

“And it has to happen during a full moon.”

That slow teacher smile spread across the teacher’s face. After all, she loved it when a plan came together.

Ms. Sneed Explains When Lunar Eclipses Occur

“Every time the Earth is between the Sun and Moon,” Ms. Sneed said, “we experience a full moon. Go ahead and move your models to show this.”

As her students manipulated their models, the teacher moved around the classroom. “This occurs about once a month, taking just over 27 days.

“Surprisingly,” she continued, “lunar eclipses don’t occur every time the Moon is full.” Several students looked up at her and frowned.

“You see, the orbit of the Moon around Earth is slightly tilted. Pull the Moon up – off of your desk – just a bit to show this. See how the Sun’s light can shine through the space?”

Students Read About Lunar Eclipses

The next day, Ms. Sneed distributed eclipse booklets. “Today, you will answer questions about the Moon, phases, and lunar eclipses,” she said. “Save the other pages for when we study solar eclipses.”

Without a beat, the kids got busy.

When studying lunar eclipses, ask kids to read informational texts and answer questions.

Students Watch Videos About Lunar Eclipses

The following day, Ms. Sneed reviewed the reading assignment with her students. Then she played a video on lunar eclipses.

Students View Actual Lunar Eclipses

When the video ended, Ms. Sneed again stood in front of her class. “Now, for the main event,” she said. Smiling, she displayed a list of upcoming lunar eclipses:

  • October 28-29, 2023 (partial) – best seen in eastern North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia
  • March 24-25, 2024 (penumbral) – best seen from western Europe and Africa, North and South America, and eastern Asia and Australia
  • September 17-18, 2024 (partial) – best seen from North and South America, Europe, Africa, and western Asia
  • March 13-14, 2025 (total) – best seen from Europe, northern Asia, northwest Africa, North America, and northern South America
  • September 7-8, 2025 (total) – best seen from Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, western North America, and eastern South America

“As you can see, lunar eclipses occur several times each year. Total and partial are easy to view. In a penumbral lunar eclipse, however, only the Earth’s outer shadow hits the Moon. Therefore, they’re not very obvious. In any case, I hope you’ll watch one at home. It’s a great way to connect what you’re learning in science with real-life stuff!”

Challenge your students to view lunar eclipses at home.

Enjoy Teaching

As her students discussed the next lunar eclipse, Ms. Sneed stood back and watched. When her kids became excited about science, she enjoyed teaching even more.

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