Spotlight on professional learning: First grade teachers look to the stars!

District 58’s elementary classroom teachers immersed themselves in science during Monday’s professional learning session! It was an especially engaging session for first grade teachers. They gathered at the Longfellow Center board room, surrounding what appeared, at first glance, to be a giant inflatable gray igloo or a quirky FunFlatable.

But, alas, there was much more than meets the eye! The giant structure was, in fact, a StarLab!

“A StarLab is an inflatable, portable planetarium that allows students to study the stars, constellations, planets and more in an authentic simulation,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Justin Sisul. 

More than 15 years ago, some District 58 teachers rented a StarLab from the Regional Office of Education for various classroom science units. As science curricula evolved and grew more structured, teachers found there wasn’t quite a place for StarLab within the curriculum, and it was phased out. That is, until this year. 

First grade teachers Heather Richards and Laura Novotny serve on the District’s STEM Committee. As they delved into the District’s new science curriculum, TCI: Bringing Science Alive, they were delighted to discover that it incorporated a unit on stars and the planets. 

“I remember using StarLab years ago to support science, and it was a great experience!” said Mrs. Novotny. “StarLab aligns perfectly with the new first grade night sky unit standards, so Mrs. Richards and I recommended District 58 begin using it. We were thrilled to make this new connection to such a valuable resource that was already available in our district!”

During Monday’s professional learning session, first grade teachers reviewed a consistent StarLab lesson plan that they could all present to their students. The teachers then entered the StarLab for their own simulated star experience. They watched in awe, as Mrs. Richards and Mrs. Novotny led them on a tour of the constellations.

“It was fun to identify Orion, the Big Dipper, Polaris and other stars and constellations together,” Mrs. Richards said.

The teachers also problem-solved together. One teacher commented that in the complete darkness of the StarLab, it would be impossible for a teacher to read the lesson, and she was concerned that she might miss an important constellation or other teaching objective. Megan Ryder, an instructional coach, offered to create a sound recording of the lesson in advance that could be played during each StarLab session. This would ensure all first grade students would hear the same lesson, and allow first grade teachers to focus their attention on pointing out each constellation as it was introduced. Another teacher recommended teachers download and use the StarView app. With this app, users can point their phones at the stars and the phone will point out the constellations.

“We appreciated the opportunity to gather all first grade teachers together for the StarLab simulation,” Mrs. Richards said. “By working together, the teachers not only shared the same experience, they also brainstormed ways to enhance their StarLab lessons together. This collaboration yielded a lot of great ideas that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise!”

The StarLab will visit each District 58 elementary school for two days in January and February. Each first grade class will enjoy two half-hour lessons inside the StarLab. Enjoy!