Educators view eclipse as teachable moment

This story was written by Haley Smith, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

Monday, Aug. 21 will be the first day of schools for Jackson County students, and educators couldn’t be happier about the coinciding solar eclipse.

Superintendent Mike Murray, who has a background in science, has helped push all-things science in local schools.

“I’m excited to death about this, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our kids,” he said. “What better way to celebrate the mountains?”

Murray said he never considered canceling school on that day.

“As educators, we should look for teachable moments, and this is one of them,” he said. “It would be a shame if kids were home that day, sitting in front of a TV and not participating in this once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Murray said school administrators are considering delaying the start of kindergarten until Tuesday, Aug. 22. The first day of school is stressful for many of these young first-time students, he said, without the added commotion of an eclipse.

Schools will likely stagger release times to account for additional tourist traffic on the roads.

“It’s a very hard thing to predict, because we’ve never done this before,” Murray said. “We’re going to release students as close to 3 p.m. as possible, and I want to apologize to parents in advance if their kids get home a little late that day, but safety is the priority.”


The “diamond ring” appears just before the beginning of totality, when a single bright point of sunlight. Photo by Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel.

Jackson County Schools’ Eclipse Planning Committee is working to make the solar eclipse a memorable and educational event for local students.

There are 12 teachers, principals and other instructors on the volunteer committee, representing all of the county’s schools.

Angie Dills, the director of career, technical, middle and secondary education, is head of the committee. She said group members are gathering information from teachers and vetting appropriate lessons and activities for them to use on the day of the eclipse.

“We have a webpage started that will be the host site for all of the instructional activities that teachers can choose from that day – chunked into elementary, middle and high school lessons,” Dills said.

The committee is planning to make students and teachers more aware of the eclipse after end-of-grade testing by incorporating it into the curriculum of all subjects.

Starting in mid-April, the committee has partnered with Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute to bring an AdventureDome to local schools.

PARI’s AdventureDome is a portable, inflatable planetarium that includes curricula-appropriate programming taught by an astronomer or educator from PARI in Transylvania County.

It can be brought to schools, teacher workshops, campus and other programs in certain North Carolina and South Carolina counties. The dome accommodates groups of 30 people.

“Teachers are very excited to share all of the educational pieces with their students,” Dills said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we want students to remember the first day of school with fondness.”

In the classroom

Kirsten Morgan, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairview Elementary, said the kids who have started learning about the eclipse are already excited.

“It will be the only time in their lifetimes that they will see a total solar eclipse,” she said. “There won’t be anything like it.”

Morgan said she wants to help students understand what happens during an eclipse, such as the way shadows will move across the ground as totality approaches.

“There are all of these things happening at once, and that’s what I want the kids to be prepared for. There’s a lot that you can miss,” she said.

Morgan expects kids will get more excited as the event gets closer. “Once the adults get excited, it’s contagious and the kids get excited, too,” she said.

The eclipse committee purchased 5,000 pairs of special solar-eclipse glasses, more than enough to outfit every student, teacher and administrator in the Jackson County school system.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching also partnered with PARI to offer “Total Solar Eclipse Training,” April 10-13, to 30 K-6 educators from across the state.

Topics covered during the program include common mythology, misconceptions and general misnomers related to solar eclipses.

Each team of educators will be provided with a Total Solar Eclipse kit to take back and share with their schools.

Western Carolina University

The eclipse also takes place on the first day of classes for WCU students.

Freshman will move in Friday, Aug. 18. The campus’ annual welcome back celebration, Valley Ballyhoo, is scheduled for the following day.

WCU officials have designed a communication plan to inform new and returning students about the eclipse’s impact on traffic and accommodations.

“We are advising parents to either book their motel room early for move-in weekend to avoid the disappointment of finding no vacancies later or, even better, to make plans to bring their student to move-in weekend and enjoy the experience as members of the university community welcome their student to their new home-away-from-home. And then kiss their student goodbye and head back home that Friday before the anticipated onslaught of eclipse-viewers hits town,” WCU spokesman Bill Studenc said.

A campus committee is planning events for students. These events will not be promoted to the public because of campus-parking limitations.

“We are discussing the possibility of postponing classes for a portion of that afternoon to allow students to experience this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and the possibility of giving non-essential staff members time away from their offices or duty stations to observe the eclipse,” Studenc said.

Southwestern Community College

SCC classes will start on Aug. 14. Classes will still be held on the day of the eclipse, according to Executive Director of Institutional Development Lynda Parlett.

“We will be holding a fall fest on the evening of Aug. 21. We’ll have subject-matter experts, food and telescopes,” she said. “We’re not canceling classes, but we’ll have that out there for students who can participate.”

SCC secured a $1.5 million NASA cooperative agreement to promote safe and educational viewing of the solar eclipse. The college participates in monthly teleconferences with NASA and people over the world in preparation for the event.

SCC will hold a panel discussion that weekend with astronomy experts from around the state and at NASA.

“We hope to have NASA scientists and maybe an astronaut at the panel discussion and at other viewing locations around the county,” Parlett said. “We’ve been working on this for the last year. It’s going to be really big.”

Related stories:

Getting ready for the solar eclipse

What is an eclipse?