A Taste of SkyBY JANN GALLAGHER
WHEN I learned about the goal of a nonprofit educational foundation called For Spacious Skies —– namely, to foster awareness of the beauty and wonder of our skies - I thought,
"Who better than a poet to instill such an appreciation?"
I approached the poet Terry Hermsen, and together we designed a sky-awareness project for gifted seventh- and eighth-graders at CIoverleaf Junior High School in Seville, Ohio. For Spacious Skies provided the funding.
Although the project would culminate in a three-day program of poetry-writing sessions with Hermsen, he and I agreed that the students would write better poetry about the sky if they had studied the subject intensively beforehand. The interdisciplinary program we devised embraced science, art, and literature.
The keystone of the project was direct observation of the sky. The students began each school day by going outside, looking up, and silently contemplating the sky. In addition to participating in these morning viewings, the students observed the sky and made journal entries at home in the evenings. In his journal Aaron Hunyady recorded, "Low thunderclouds moving swiftly to the northeast. The clouds are hit with the light in such a way that it appears that they are negatives of the clouds" Shannon McMillin contemplated the sky and wrote, "I gaze into the sky and see cold, distant sorrows that captivate me." The students were not requireded to write poetry in their journals, but Lisa Halasy composed the following entry:
A black wool blanket
differing in color
but provides no warmth
because I possess none
For blankets withhold
all that is in them
So the Sky is today
like a black, wool blanket.
Hermsen and I believed that a combination of personal observation and library research would bring the students more complete knowledge and understanding of their subject. But the experience of observing and recording also gave them a common reference point for discussions. I often overheard them comparing their observations. It was thrilling to hear them talk about a track meet at which a group of athletes lay on the grass and looked up at the clouds after the race.
The "sky journals" captured the students' imaginations and inspired them to engage in research. The seventh-graders brainstormed to come up with possible research topics associated with the sky. Each student chose a topic from the brain-stormed list and prepared an oral report and a poster on that topic.
Creating the posters became an exercise in problem solving. Students struggled to answer the question, How much information can be balanced with artwork to make a great poster? Funds from the For Spacious Skies grant provided the students with ample materials - paints and brushes, markers, glue, glitter, sequins, and foil papers. We believed that exciting materials would lead to exciting products. And that was indeed the case. After the students had presented their reports, they taped the posters to the classroom walls, and we sat surrounded and bedazzled by the combination of research and art.
The eighth-grade research projects took a slightly different direction. The students brainstormed, just as the seventh-graders had, but then they selected six topics and assigned each one to a team of students. In addition to giving oral presentations of their research, the eighth-graders prepared visual displays using umbrellas. After all, the sky is a dome, so why not present the research on a dome shape?
Again, the students had to exercise problem-solving skills to meet the challenges presented by the unusual format. In addition, the fact that they were working in teams meant that they had to draw on their skills of listening, cooperating, and compromising. The students used felt, sequins, paints, gold and silver markers, glitter, and beads to create the most beautiful research projects I have ever seen. After the groups gave their reports, they suspended the umbrellas from the ceiling. What a treat it was to teach in that classroom! Throughout the rest of the year seven other classes enjoyed the beauty of those umbrellas and no doubt learned something from the research that was presented on them. I hated to take them down at the end of the year.
The research on the sky fulfilled the school district's research requirement, and the oral presentations fulfilled the speech requirement. However, the study of the sky was truly interdisciplinary and not limited to my English class. Science and English classes joined in a field trip to the planetarium. In science, the eighth-grade students studied constellations, and the seventh-graders studied wind currents and weather patterns. Combining art and science, the seventh-graders designed and built kites. On a bright May day they launched their beautiful~ creations on the warm spring winds. In art classes students studied great works of art that had been inspired by the sky. They used pastels and watercolors to create their own skyscapes, and I noticed that the artwork on the kites reflected a great deal of the information they had learned.
At last the students were ready for three days of guided poetry experiences. Hermsen read them great poetry that contained images of the sky and asked them to locate such images themselves. It seemed that the more they looked, the more references to the sky they found. When I read poetry now, I cannot help but find still more.
The students wrote poems based on their research and on their journals, but they were not restricted to writing about previous experiences. Hermsen introduced~ new activities, too.
He took the students outdoors to write poetry under a cloud-filled sky. He also led a nighttime hike on wooded lake property that be-longed to the social studies teacher. We sat around the lake watching night come to the woods. We hiked - and when we rested, we wrote poetry. The night hike lasted until '0:30. It rained the entire time we were out, but nothing could have dampened our spirits. The students were doubly excited; they told us that they were seldom allowed to be out late on a school night and that they were never ever allowed to be out in the rain. Parents were invited to experience the night sky and to write poetry with us, and as many parents as students attended the outing.
Even though there were no stars, the sky was present, and we could feel it moving within us. As 14-yea-old Tom Howell wrote:
It is dark
I am blinded by the absence of light
But I must think
No, I am not blind
I feel the sky with my hands
I can hear the sky with my ears
I can taste the sky with my mouth.
At the end of our time together, Hermsen wrote, "I believe they will take the experience with them. It will carry profound weight for them in future years. It will grow in small ways that will ripple outward." And I believe it, too, because I have been changed by it myself.
This article originally appeared in
Phi Delta Kappan, Prototypes column
Jann Gallagher teaches English at Cloverleaf
Junior High School in Seville, Ohio