Clouds and Constellations

On a warm, lovely day, it might be nice to lay out on the grass and gaze up at the clouds. While many clouds have a rather nebulous shape, some will seem to take on a more distinctive shape. You decide that this one looks like a rabbit, that one looks like a sailboat, and that one looks oddly like your Uncle Ernie. Your friend lying next to you agrees with the sailboat and your uncle, but is convinced that the rabbit looks more like a duck. It’s interesting how different people can notice different features, or interpret the same features in different ways.

If you have the opportunity to cloud-gaze with your class, I encourage you to take it.

At night, you might stare up at the stars and connect the dots to find more shapes. You see how one cluster looks like an archer, one looks like a bull, and one looks like a crab. Constellations have designated names, but different cultures have different sets of constellations. Take Sirius for example: where most Westerners see a dog, the indigenous tribes of Australia see an eagle. And where most Westerners see a large bear (Ursa Major), Romanians see a chariot.

If your students know constellations from their native cultures, take some time to compare them to the constellations you know.

Choose one: Clouds, or Constellations. Then find some images (perhaps ten or so) of interesting-looking clouds or star clusters (in the case of stars, find images where without lines drawn between them). Try googling “cloud shapes” or “constellations no lines”. Then print out several copies for each individual or pair of students.

Students should then try to find shapes in their images. It’s perfectly okay for different students to see different shapes in the same image. Also, students are allowed to ignore some of the stars or connected chunks of the cloud.

Is this a dog or a skunk?

The English practice comes in when they have to explain what they see. “The curved, thin part to the right is the elephant’s trunk.” “No, I think the thin curved part is the lion’s tail.” Students will get to use vocabulary for body parts, not that every shape needs to be an animal. Perhaps they’ll use more mechanical terminology in the shapes they find. Also, they can not simply point to a specific part of their image; when you point to something in the sky, others next to you don’t know exactly what you’re pointing at. Therefore, students need to use location and direction descriptors.

Finish the project with a discussion. After one student expresses what shape they see and why the different features of the cloud or constellation have led them to that conclusion, other students should chime in to support that idea or to propose a different shape, defending their own stance.

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