On Friday, June 20, 2014, my middle school held its annual 8th grade formal, the last school dance of the year before graduation. As some readers may recall, an impromptu star party occurred on the front lawn at the conclusion of last year’s event. I made the decision soon after that night that at the next formal I would bring my telescope.
In some ways, I may have been priming my students for this night over the course of the entire year. I mean, I talk about astronomy a pretty good deal to my kids… and I’m a music teacher. I’ve shown them my astrophotos, I randomly dropped facts or explained concepts. I helped when they had astronomy questions from their Earth Science class. And all the while, I was excited. I was passionate. There was no hint of self-consciousness. There were no worries of it being nerdy, uncool, whatever. There was only unbridled enthusiasm. I know it’s awesome… and I think that feeling becomes a little contagious.
Kids, especially at the middle school/high school age, can be very self-conscious. They want to feel the acceptance of their peers, they don’t want to feel like outcasts. They’re trying to figure out who they are and that fits into the scheme of things. So with fields of science such as astronomy, one might meet a little resistance, some walls that need to be chipped away at over time. One of the most important lessons I try to teach to my students is: Be who you are. Own it. Is there something about yourself your self-conscious about? Turn it around, make that self-perceived “weakness” a strength. (I have one specific story about that I’ll attach at the end of this post). I sometimes joke to my kids: I’m a grown, married man; I have no one to impress anymore! I’m free to be me. Of course, as adults we still long for acceptance – from family, from our coworkers, etc; it’s part of being a social animal. But at school, I aim to lead by example. I try to be the best me for the students. Are my ears a little pointy? I own it. I’m part elf/vampire/whatever. Can I be a little effeminate at times? Gurl, I own it [Insert self-deprecating joke about being a male chorus teacher here].
Related, another important lesson I try to impart by example is: don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Don not believe you aren’t allowed to like one thing because you also like something else. I get asked by students all the time, “How do you know this stuff? You’re a music teacher!” or “Why don’t you teach science?” (I think this may come from the compartmentalized fashion in which education occurs; you have your English class for English, Social Studies class for history and civics, etc). Yep, I love music and am lucky I get to teach music.I also love science, particularly astronomy. And I play hockey. And I have a dog. And I eat Oreos. I’m what is called a person, a person with a variety of interests. And I want these future adults to be people too, not just walking singular interests by which they are defined.
I swear, there is a point to these last three seemingly-overly-tangential paragraphs. Part of this meandering stems from not being a writer, and part is it just being the end of the school year, at time in which I get very reflective. In the end, however, to paraphrase Eric Cartman: It’s my blog, I do what I want. As I was saying, I had primed them over the entire year to astronomy being awesome. Then recently, I lit the match: I told them I was bringing my telescope to the dance and that we would see Saturn. They were very excited. All we needed now was for the weather to cooperate.
The big day came but my ScopeNights app told me the conditions for that night would poor! The whole day I kept glancing out windows seeing what the situation was. It was a bright sunny day, but the cloud was just strewn with cirrus and altostratus clouds, particularly along the ecliptic of all possible places! My heart was beginning to feel heavy, but there was still time for conditions to clear up.
At around 7:10, I was able to momentarily forget about the sky as the kids started to arrive. They all looked amazing. The handsome young men were much more dressed up than last year with ties, a plethora of vests, a few tuxes, and hats were big this year for some reason. The beautiful young ladies wore a variety of sparkly dresses and gowns, hair all done, mani/pedis, fancy shoes that looked impossible to dance in (and ultimately were – lots of bare feet on the floor!). I was getting a little verklempt seeing these kids who I’ve watched grow for 3 years all gussied up, looking like the young adults they are becoming. Man, if I get this misty with my students, what kind of sopping mess of a parent will I be with my own children?!
Similar to last year, I boogied on the floor nearly the whole night and most likely worked off all the food I ate that week. Periodically, though, I would step outside just to see what there was to see. Although there were some clouds and haze, I clearly saw Mars, Spica, and Saturn all lined up. “This is going to happen,” I thought excitedly. The dance drew to a close with the lights turning on and one last song being played (“Let It Go” from Frozen). When the song concluded, the students made their way to the door to meet their waiting parents, and I went to the closet where I stashed my equipment. I quickly put everything together and brought it outside on to the lawn.
I was aware that it was late (the dance ended at 10pm) and parents wanted to leave. I quickly got Saturn “centered” in my 9mm EP, but then out of haste and worry that adults were eager to leave, I immediately threw in the 3x Barlow – a dramatic increase in zoom. I lost sight of the ringed planet and could not find it. Eventually I decided to cut my losses and (regrettably, for me at least) show them this wonder of the Solar System through the 9mm. I was sad, and also a little worried – would they be unimpressed or disappointed at this tiny gem in the eyepiece? I have a short-tube wide-field refractor; it’s really not very powerful. With the optical tube having only 400mm of focal length, the 9mm EP gives only 44.4x magnification, whereas throwing in the Barlow would have increased it to 133.3x – it is a very significant difference! But, looking at the positive, you could still clearly see space between the ring system and the globe. It was not just a little sphere with “ears” as Galileo saw in 1610. And the kids? They were ecstatic. Oos and Ahs and Wows and Holys.
Their parents, and even school administrators, looked too. Another teacher and I pointed out other objects in the night sky: That red one over there, that’s Mars. The bright star right next to it, Spica. Straight up overhead, insanely bright Arcturus. You can find it by using the handle of the Big Dipper as a guide, or “following the arc to Arcturus.” Kids recited that the angle of Polaris is equal to your latitude, which they had learned in Earth Science class. One young lady excitedly told me that she started watching Cosmos with her father and they have watched 3 episodes so far. She was excited to continue. (This point touched my heart because it was something that she looked forward to as a thing she shared with her father… oh boy, when I have kids, let me tell you…) Shortly after, the group went their separate ways. I was about to pack up when I heard a voice say (somewhat mockingly, I might add), “What’s he looking at, space?” I looked to find a group of students waiting for rides home on the steps of the school who were trying to play it cool and disinterested. I called out, “Yeah, I’m looking at Saturn. Want a look?” The motley crew came running over and vied for who was first, who was next. A few shook my hand after they had their turn and disappeared into the night.
At first I thought I finally got to let them into my world. It was more than just talk and photos. It was real, seeing this lonely little planet suspended in the the inky black of space. But I actually let them into their world. I opened up a window for them to see more of the universe that they inhabit. I made it a little bit more accessible. The sky belongs to all of us if you want it. You just have to look.
@UrbanAstroNYC But they thought it was amazing. And one girl told me how she’s watching Cosmos w her dad and loving it. SCIENCE IS *COOL* 😎
— Justin Starr (@UrbanAstroNYC) June 21, 2014
Further Reading on the matter of Owning It:
A few of my students are in a tight-knit group of friends, and one of them is not a student of mine as she takes band instead of chorus (Boo! Hiss!). She would often come by room with my students and I would always encourage her to sing. And she always refused, claiming she was not a singer, couldn’t sing, didn’t like her voice, etc. There was no doubt, given her instrumental skills, that she was a great musician but she was adamant about not singing. This young lady did not like her voice and had zero confidence in it. Because it was low. It was deep. Girl could hit a D-flat below middle-C. That’s some serious contra-contralto notes right there! I always told her, “You know who else has a deep voice? Christina Perri. She often sings E-flats below middle-C”. She recently told me that she used to sing in chorus in elementary school but stopped because the teacher gave her a hard time for not being able to sing higher notes. I told her, “OK, you’ve got a deep voice. You’ve got to OWN it. Check this out.” I went to iPod which is perpetually plugged into the stereo in my classroom and turned on Nina Simone singing Feelin’ Good. The young lady asked me, “Is this a guy?” I said no, it’s a lady named Nina Simone. She’s got a seriously deep voice and it’s awesome. She seemed impress. Maybe in high school she’ll give that singin’ thing a try again…