One of the main misconceptions science teachers encounter in middle school is the reason for the seasons. Students will tell you, year after year, that the temperature variations between seasons is caused by the Earth moving closer to and further from the sun. While it’s true that the Earth is moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun, our closest point in our orbit to the sun, called the perihelion, actually occurs during winter in the northern hemisphere. And how, if the Earth is closer to the sun, could we have winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the southern hemisphere at the same time if our entire globe was closer to the sun? Wouldn’t the whole planet be warmer?
When these misconceptions pop up, it’s a great opening for a lesson. If you’re ready when students share these misconceptions, you’ll have a ball and a flashlight near by to show students the Earth’s tilt and how it creates seasonal changes.
Growing up in California, the changing seasons brought a change in temperatures and my classmates would wear jackets with their shorts. While it was cooler outside, the changing seasons weren’t as notable. As an avid reader, I longed to live in a place where the change in seasons was marked by the same sort of pomp and circumstance I read about in my favorite books. I wanted to see changing leaves, their colors painting the trees yellow and a fiery red. Cocoa on a snowy day and snow angels in the front yard; those were my dreams.
Throughout my teaching career, I’ve always lived in locations with snowy winters. Until I moved to Minnesota, I didn’t know that the study of the changes that mark the seasons actually had a name: phenology. Watching the animals develop thicker coats and plants losing their leaves isn’t just fodder for nature documentaries. You can observe these changes with your students in your own backyards!
Recently, I heard a report on our local news station about World Snow Day, which falls on January 17th. I was befuddled! How could this be a WORLD snow day when it is summer in the southern hemisphere?
Knowing common misconceptions and unpacking them with your students is a great way to support students in a strong foundation of science concepts. Additionally, there are many opportunities for cross-curricular teaching when teaching about the seasons! Here’s how I teach about the seasons in my science classroom:
- On the days of the equinoxes and solstices, I pull out the globe and a small bead. The bead represents the Earth, and the globe (ironically) represents the sun. In the past, I estimated the distance that the globe and the bead have to be apart to be accurate in terms of the scale of the solar system. We talk about the Earth’s tilt, and how direct sunlight impacts the seasons.
- I love integrating trade books into my science lessons! Two of my favorites are We Gather Together and The Shortest Day, both by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Linda Bleck. (Please note that these aren’t affiliate links-I just really love these books!) In both of these cross-curricular themed books, students learn about the science of the fall equinox and the winter solstice, as well as cultural rituals associated with these two days.
- Have an extended warm-up in your class that day with an interactive activity. I have created discussion cards that include common misconceptions about all four seasons (available HERE) and an interactive Pear Deck™ for use with Google Slides™ for Fall misconceptions (linked HERE).
- Bring in a guest speaker. Do you have any special traditions or festivals in your community that relate to the seasons? Or do animals in your community change with the seasons? Find an expert to bring excitement to the seasonal changes.
- Record the seasonal changes in your schoolyard. Even if you have only a few trees in your schoolyard, you can still find ways to observe the changes with your students. They can draw the different conditions in each season in a science notebook.
It’s easy to integrate a study of seasonal changes into your classroom. Engaging students with the excitement of the different seasons is a great hook for learning.
Keep students active and engaged with this interactive slide deck with a winter solstice theme. This resource is a slide deck compatible with Google Slides™. Assign as a center, as a virtual learning activity, or as a whole-class discussion.