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School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Multicultural Science Education: Myths, Legends, and Moon Phases

by Andrea B. Freed

In the preface of Teaching Science for All Children, the authors indicate that our mission as science teachers is to find effective ways to help learners construct their own understandings by incorporating their ideas into a fabric of concepts, skills and attitudes that carries meaning for them both academically and personally (Martin, Sexton, Wagner & Gerlovich, 1997). An important aspect of this idea is that teachers need to be aware of the diversity within their classrooms and facilitate the learning of all students, many with cultural backgrounds that differ from the mainstream.

In an effort to meet the requirements laid out by the National Science Education Standards (NSES, 1996), teachers need to recognize and respond to student diversity and encourage all students to fully participate in science learning (Teaching Standard B). In an effort to develop a community of science learners, teachers must display and demand respect for the diverse ideas, skills and experiences of all students (Teaching Standard E). Kober (1994) indicates that effective science programs should incorporate course content and activities that are relevant to the daily lives and out-of-school experiences of students of color. However, many science teachers are not prepared to be successful in some classrooms because they have limited knowledge about the culture and history of their students (Atwater, 1994). In order to maximize the opportunities for all students in science classrooms, teachers must be alert to biases in their curriculum materials (Atwater, 1993).

Allen and Seumptewa (1988) support that Native American students should be taught in the forms of story situations to help them interpret abstract science concepts. In an effort to help preservice elementary science teachers acknowledge and honor the Native American culture of some students, they were asked to develop a lesson plan about a scientific phenomenon by finding a legend, myth or folktale that describes or explains a natural phenomenon. These preservice elementary teachers were then asked to compare the myth or legend with how scientists describe that phenomenon. Finally, they were required to develop a lesson plan that incorporated the legend into a science activity. Following is an example of a lesson that was developed by a student in an elementary science methods class. This lesson focuses on the phases of the moon as a starting point for an ongoing unit about astronomy.

Looking at the Moon -- Myth and Science

This lesson is geared for upper elementary or middle school students in a self-contained multi-age classroom that provides the luxury of integrating subject areas. Hence, the teacher can blend science, language arts, literature and social studies. The lesson is introduced with a short inquiry-based discussion with the students. This occurs to determine what students already know about the moon. A large piece of butcher paper hung at the front of the room is used to list the brainstormed ideas from students. Their existing knowledge is determined by the information gleaned from the brainstorming session.

The teacher then engages the students in a discussion about what separates "fact from fiction" and introduces the idea of a myth. Again, there is a discussion to determine the students' existing knowledge about what constitutes a myth. The teacher could then read from Joseph Campbell's book, The Power of Myth. After reading some excerpts, the book could be passed around or left in a "center" for the class to peruse later. Next, the teacher asks students if they know of any myths or legends that explain a "natural phenomenon" and spend some time sharing ideas as a large group. After this sharing of ideas, the teacher questions students about how we believe these "natural phenomenon" myths were born and how they compare with scientific explanations. Finally, students would be asked to gather around to listen to a myth from the Inuit people of Greenland:

The Story of Annigan

Annigan is the name of the moon god of some of the Inuit people who live in Greenland. The word "Inuit" means people.

Annigan continually chases his sister, Malina, the Sun goddess across the sky. During this chase, forgets to eat and he gets much thinner. This is symbolic of the phases of the moon, particularly the crescent. To satisfy his hunger, he disappears for three days each month (new moon) and then returns full (gibbous) to chase his sister all over again. Malina wants to stay far away from her bad brother. That is why the sun and moon rise at different times.

After hearing the story, students could write, with partners or individually, their own myths or legends explaining the phenomenon of the moon phases. The teacher can later engage students in a discussion about what in the Inuit story (and their own stories) they believe correspond to scientific "facts" about the moon. Again, lists would be generated based on student input. The students would then be provided with reference materials about the moon. In small groups, they would generate facts about the moon that correspond with information in the story. Teacher background information follows:

The earth's one natural satellite, the moon, is more than one quarter the size of earth itself (3456-Km diameter), making the earth-moon system virtually a double-planet. Because of its smaller size, the moon's gravity is one-sixth of the earth's gravity, as we saw demonstrated by the gigantic leaps of the Apollo astronauts.

When the moon appears smaller than a quarter, we call it a crescent. When the moon appears larger than a quarter, we call it gibbous. When the moon is getting bigger (phases New to Full) it is waxing. When it is getting smaller (phases Full to New), it is waning. For example, if today the moon were a waxing crescent, then tomorrow the crescent shape would continue to grow larger, approaching first quarter. After first quarter, the Moon would be a waxing gibbous, and continue growing until it reached full. The moon would then begin to shrink, becoming first a waning gibbous and eventually reaching third quarter. Following third quarter, it becomes a waning crescent, and continues to shrink until it becomes invisible at new moon. A helpful way to remember whether the moon is waxing or waning is the following: A crescent moon that looks like a "C" is shrinking (C for collapsing). If it looks like a "D", then it is growing. This is also true for a gibbous moon, but it is a bit trickier to see. If the edge of the moon (the real edge of the moon, not the edge of the night on the moon) is curved like a "C" the gibbous moon is shrinking. Another way to think of it is that the moon always grows or shrinks from right to left.

The class can do month-long moon observations, recording what they see during a 24 hour period, drawing the moon, noting where it is in the sky and its angle above the horizon. After a discussion of what they have learned about the moon and its phases, a lesson would be introduced.

Styrofoam Ball Simulation

Type of Lesson: Hands-on activity

Time needed: 1 hour (or one class period with follow-up the next day)

Science skills addressed:

- Describe, compare and explain the motions of the earth and the moon in the solar system.
- Describe and explain common observations of the day and night skies.
Summary of Lesson:

After completing this activity students should understand that the observed phase of the moon is determined by the moon's position relative to the earth and sun.

Materials: Light bulb (suspended from ceiling or on a stand) or overhead projector light Styrofoam balls 2-3 inches in diameter (have students work in pairs) Plenty of room for students to rotate! Helpful: At least one additional adult and/or high school student for assistance.


1. Turn on the model sun and turn off the other lights in the room. Have students stand. Tell them that in this system, the lamp is sun and their head is the earth. Their nose is their hometown on the surface of the earth.

2. Ask students to stand so that it is noon in their hometown (Their nose should point toward the sun). Have students turn (rotate) until it is midnight in their hometown. Counterclockwise rotation simulates the direction as seen from the North Pole. (Midnight is when their backs are to the "sun"). Students can also rotate to show dawn and dusk in their hometowns and get an idea why the sun appears to rise in the east and set in the west.

3. Hand out the Styrofoam "moons" and have students hold them at arm's length away from (and above) their heads. Allow students to figure out how to rotate to simulate the phases of the moon as they viewed them during the previous month-long observation. (If necessary, demonstrate how the moon orbits the earth in a counterclockwise direction (from right to left). As students watch their moons, they will see that it goes through phases similar to those of the real moon.

4. Allow students to work through the phases of the moon with partner (If necessary, go through the 8 major phases of the moon with students)
a. New Moon: moon is between sun and earth, students view shadowed side of "moon".
b. Waxing Crescent: rotating from a new moon towards a first quarter, a backward "C" shape will appear on "moon".
c. First Quarter: right half of the "moon" facing "earth" is lit (right shoulder is pointing towards the "sun")
d. Waxing Gibbous: rotating from a first quarter to full moon
e. Full Moon: earth is between the moon (be sure "moon" is held above "earth") and the sun, entire lit side of "moon" is visible. A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the earth's shadow. Have students simulate this event.
f. Waning Gibbous: rotating from a full moon to last quarter, less and less of the moon is lit each night.
g. Last Quarter: left half of side of "moon" facing the "earth" is lit (left shoulder is pointing to the "sun").
h. Waning Crescent: Rotating from a last quarter to a new moon, a "C" shape of light is seen on the left side of the "moon".


Name a moon phase and have students rotate until they are in the correct phase. Inclusion of eclipses (when the "earth" is in a direct line between the "sun" and the "moon") can also be demonstrated.

Extensions and Follow-up

This lesson can be a springboard for theme immersion with the students. They can do a mapping exercise in which they indicate areas of specific interest that they would like to explore as individuals or in small groups. One idea is to allow students to explore the origin of the myths and legends about the moon. This honors and validates the beliefs of non-mainstream cultures. Following this, having discussed the myths and legends, students could write their own myth or legend about the phases of the moon.


Allen, G.G & Seumptewa,O. (1988). The need for strengthening Native American science and mathematics education. Journal of College Science Teaching, 55,364-369.
Atwater, M. (1994). Research on cultural diversity in the classroom. In D. Gabel (Ed.) Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp.558-576). New York:Macmillan Publishing Company.

Atwater, M (1993). Multicultural Science Education: Assumptions and alternative views. The Science Teacher, 60(3), 32-38.

Kober, N. (1994). EDTALK: What We Know About Science Teaching and Learning. Washington, DC: Council for Educational Development and Research.

Martin, Sexton,Wagner & Gerlovich (1997). Teaching Science for All Children. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

National Research Council (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington. DC: National Academy Press .

About the Author

Andrea B. Freed, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Early Childhood / Elementary Education at the University of Maine at Farmington.

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