Here are some common misconceptions I’ve heard from students.
1. You can only see the moon at night.
2. The shape of the moon changes.
3. The moon does not rotate.
My Massive Fail
Who has sent home the moon calendar where students are supposed to draw what the moon looks like every night? Who has ever had 1/4 of their students complete it? I would have been thrilled at 1/4. I tried my first two years teaching and I think maybe 2 out of 120 students did it. The third year, I made it optional for extra credit (the ONLY time I’ve done extra credit). One student took me up on that.
So clearly, students wouldn’t be making these observations on their own at home and joyfully bringing in their observation sheets with their expert analysis to discuss. Fine. So, I took a new approach the next years.
A Different Approach
1. StarDate Website
This website will flat out show you the moon phases for each date: http://stardate.org/nightsky/moon. You can use the site to make observations and analyze patterns.
2. Oreo Vocabulary Introduction
To introduce the names of the phases, I love the Oreo activity. Be sure that students correctly have “Light start on the right” and label “waxing” and “waning” correctly. I have additional information in Hands-On Science Vocabulary Instruction (on TPT) about introducing new terms.
3. Moon PowerPoint and Styrofoam Ball Model
I love this Moon PowerPoint and Activity from TpT. This is an old-school activity, but it sticks around because it’s a good one. You go through some basic information about phases of the moon and observe changes using a model (styrofoam ball on a pencil).
4. Visual Interactive Notebook Explanation
I love this notebook activity from Grade 5 NGSS Interactive Science Notebook Activities on TpT. These illustrations show two things: the part of the moon that is lit by the sun at any given time AND how the moon appears from Earth. Students need to understand that half of the moon is always lit, we just can’t always see that half.
Students need to understand that once the moon goes through the phases once, it begins again. This cut and paste activity from Super Science Test Prep Lessons on TPT is great. You can also just have students draw circles in their notebooks to show the changes in the appearance of the moon.
6. Making Predictions
7. Clock Approach
So in the middle of an evaluation lesson my third year teaching, we were using styrofoam balls to look at a model of the lunar cycle, and a student asked, “Why is it called first quarter when we see half of it?” Legit question, bro. By some miracle, I was quick on my feet that day (while sweat beads dripped down my neck). I drew a clock and showed them why we might refer to phases as “first quarter” and “third quarter” or “last quarter”.
Note: Be careful with this because you don’t want to confuse students as to which direction the moon revolves around Earth. It’s just an explanation as to why some phases are called “quarters”.
I hope these activities help you and your students in your study of the lunar cycle!