Teaching How and How Often Solar Eclipses Happen

Solar eclipses occur when the Moon comes between the Sun and Earth. During a new moon, the Moon blocks the Sun’s rays. This phenomenon can only be viewed by people on a narrow swath of the Earth. Therefore, the experience is rare. To teach this astronomical event, first ask kids to build a model. Next, formalize learning with informational text and videos. If the timing is right, you can even watch an eclipse with your class!

Ms. Sneed Plans to Teach Solar Eclipses

Our favorite fourth grade teacher prepared the solar 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.

Yes, connecting learning experiences with the upcoming solar eclipse was going to be a blast.

Students Use Models

After her students filed in the next day, Ms. Sneed began. “This week, we’ll prepare for the solar eclipse. As we’ve discussed before, scientific models help us understand things that are too big to observe in the classroom. Therefore, you will build your own Earth-Moon-Sun system.”

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 help kids conceptualize solar eclipses, build models.
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Students Manipulate Models to Illustrate Solar Eclipses

When everyone was finished, Ms. Sneed continued. “Solar eclipses,” she said, “happen when the Moon blocks the Sun’s rays. Manipulate your model to show this.”

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

For those who struggled, she provided help.

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

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

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 new moon.”

That slow teacher smile spread across the teacher’s face. “Aha!” she said. “You remembered our lessons about lunar phases. Good job! Before we move on, can you illustrate a lunar eclipse with your model?”

In no time, the kids had it. They simply placed the Earth between the Sun and Moon. Then Ms. Sneed returned to instruction on eclipses of the Sun.

Ms. Sneed Explains When Solar Eclipses Occur

“Every time the Moon is between the Sun and Earth,” Ms. Sneed continued, “we experience a new 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, “solar eclipses don’t occur every time we have a new moon.” 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 Solar Eclipses

The next day, Ms. Sneed distributed eclipse booklets. “Today, you will answer questions about the Sun and solar eclipses,” she said.

Without a beat, the kids got busy.

To formalize learning about solar eclipses, students read and answer questions.

Students Watch Videos About Solar Eclipses

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

How Often Solar Eclipses Happen

When the video ended, Ms. Sneed again stood in front of her class. “You may be wondering how often solar eclipses happen,” she said. Quickly, she displayed a list of upcoming solar eclipses:

  • April 8, 2024 (total) – can be observed from western Europe, North America, and northern South America
  • October 2, 2024 (annular) – can be observed from southern South America
  • March 29, 2025 (partial) – can be observed from Europe, northern Asia, northwest Africa, and North America
  • September 21, 2025 (partial) – can be observed from southern Australia

“As you can see, solar eclipses occur several times each year. However, they can only be seen by a portion of people on Earth. That makes them rare. Where we live, for example, a solar eclipse won’t be visible until 2024.”

Next, Ms. Sneed held up a pair of cardboard sunglasses. “Since it’s never safe to look directly at the Sun, people use special glasses. That way, they can protect their eyes from the Sun’s strong rays.”

To observe a solar eclipse, you must wear protective glasses. It's never safe to look directly at the Sun.

Enjoy Teaching

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

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