Thursday, December 4, 2014

Preparing for the Winter Solstice

It's December, and here in coastal New Hampshire we got about six inches of heavy snow the day before Thanksgiving. For years, I hated the darkening hours of late autumn. But my feelings towards this seasonal change have shifted. Knowing and understanding the science behind the changing daylight hours, and knowing and understanding the many ways that people have responded to the dark in the past is a comfort to me; I feel a connection to the earth's natural rhythms and to the millions of people who have lived on this planet before me. How do you and your students feel about the seasonal darkness? How do you use children's fiction and nonfiction to shape children's understanding of the winter solstice? 

One book that is particularly useful is the fictional picture book Dear Rebecca, Winter is Here, written by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Loretta Krupinski. The book begins with an author's note detailing the solstices for the northern hemisphere. The narrative takes place in the epistolary fashion, with a grandmother writing a letter to her granddaughter Rebecca. Each two-page spread details a particular activity within the natural world. The book concludes with the promise of the summer solstice, since "[o]n the 22nd of December, little hands of light begin to push back the edges of darkness minute by minute." This book would be a wonderful introduction in early December to the seasonal shift taking place as the natural world prepares for winter. 

Another great introduction to the idea of the solstice and winter in the natural world is Marion
Dane Bauer's fictional picture book The Longest Night, illustrated by Ted Lewin. The end page watercolor illustrations evoke John Schoenherr's illustrations for Jane Yolen's Owl Moon. Over the course of the book, we are taken through the "longest night," the night of the winter solstice. Each animal boasts that it is the one to bring back the sun, but the wind sighs and tells them all, "'Not you." Only the morning chickadee has the power to bring back the sun; "with the song/ of one small bird/ and the sun's answering smile/ the journey toward spring/ begins." The illustrations in the book were vetted by experts from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

For a more scientific and historical examination of the winter solstice and the ushering in of winter, I recommend Wendy Pfeffer's The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice, illustrated by Jess Reisch, one of four nonfiction picture books in a series that details the four seasons. This book was also vetted by experts, in this case in the field of physics, astronomy, and history. The book begins with a description of what happens in late autumn, as the sun rises later and lower in the sky and sets earlier, and then defines the solstice as the point at which the sun "reaches its lowest point on the horizon." The next section of the book grounds readers in a historical understanding of the ways in which the darkening hours have been interpreted by people over time in various parts of the world. The book concludes with additional information and graphics about the earth's tilt, rotation, and revolution around the sun and some wonderful activities that teachers can do tracking the sunrise and sunset leading up to the solstice, measuring shadows on the solstice, and finding the sun's northernmost and southernmost points during different points in the year, and solstice celebrations for humans and birds.

On January 6th, I will follow-up with a post on nonfiction books that are ideal for exploring the natural world in winter with your students. 

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