Patterns of the Moon

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SWBAT explain why the moon seems to change every night.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students obtain and evaluate information on the moon phases using multiple resources, including a moon phase calendar, video, online text, and a hands-on model.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students begin by studying the location of the Earth in the Universe. Then, students learn about the brightness of stars through investigations and research. At the end of this unit, students explore the patterns on Earth, such as day/night and the length of shadows. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by defining and graphing the phases of the moon. Students then explore the phases of the moon and how the moon appears to change at night by watching a video and researching an online source. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the moon phases creating a model and constructing an evidence-based argument. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-ESS1-2.  Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky.

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Students will obtain and evaluate information on the moon phases using multiple resources, including a moon phase calendar, video, online text, and a hands-on model. After students have obtained information on the moon phases, they will construct an evidence-based argument using their research. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models 

Students examine the Earth, sun, and moon system and how each component of this system interacts with the other components in order to create the apparent phases of the moon. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS1.B:  Earth and the Solar System

The orbits of Earth around the sun and of the moon around Earth, together with the rotation of Earth about an axis between its North and South poles, cause observable patterns. These include day and night; daily changes in the length and direction of shadows; and different positions of the sun, moon, and stars at different times of the day, month, and year. (5-ESS1-2)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources to locate key information involving the moon's phases. In addition, this lesson supports CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. After researching why the moon seems to change each night, students write an informative paragraph to convey their ideas. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


30 minutes

Teacher Note: This lesson is quite lengthy! It could easily be split into two shorter lessons! 

Partners & Computers

During today's lesson, students will be working in teams of two students (elbow partners). Each team of students will have one laptop computer to share. While we have enough computers for all students, I have found that partners are more successful collaborators when they are sharing one device. 

Envelope Book

For the Sun and Earth's Patterns Unit, students are creating an envelope book to help organize new information and to support an inquiry approach during the learning process. Prior to the unit, I used a plastic comb binding machine (pictured below) to create envelope books using 10 envelopes for each student's book: Envelope Books. During today's lesson, students will be working with the ninth envelope in their books. 

Vocabulary Cards

For each envelope, students are provided with up to 3 vocabulary cards: Vocabulary Cards (I copied these onto green card stock paper & cut each page into 10 cards): Vocabulary Cards. For easy distribution, I placed these cards into ziplock baggies so that each group of students could easily take cards out as needed: Vocabulary Cards in Bags. As an opening to the lesson, I write the following vocabulary words on the board: crescent moon, gibbous moon, waxing moon, and waning moon.  

Students work together with their partners to discover the meaning of each word, using their computers and/or dictionaries as resources. As students are ready, they share definitions out loud with the rest of the class. We discuss student findings and then I construct a student-friendly definition (using student input) for all students to record on their cards. This process is important for two reasons: (1) sometimes students record definitions that are difficult to understand due to complex language and (2) this also allows students to see how important it is to use multiple sources when conducting research. 

Here's an example of student vocabulary cards: Student Vocabulary Cards, Waxing & Waning and Student Vocabulary Cards, Crescent & Gibbous.

Teacher Note: When differentiating between waning and waxing, I point out that the word "weakening" includes the word, waning. We discuss how the moon's light seems to be weakening when the moon is waning. On the other hand, the moon's light is strengthening when the moon is waxing. I share how my mom used to always wax the floors when I was growing up to help protect and add strength to the flooring. Also, the floors were also shinier and brighter after a fresh coat of wax.  

Developing a Guiding Question 

To support an inquiry-based learning model and Science & Engineering Practice 1 (Asking Questions and Defining Problems), I explain: Today, you will be learning about the moon. First, let's talk about the questions you have about the moon. What guiding question do you think we should research today? Student questions include:

  • Why does the moon wax and wane? 
  • Why does the moon go through this process? 
  • Why does the moon change? 
  • Why doe the phases of the moon change throughout the year? 
  • Why does the moon have a crescent moon and gibbous moon? 


As students share their thinking, I'm hoping that with some teacher guidance, students will reflect upon the vocabulary words and ask, "Why does the moon seem to change every night?" Sure enough, students begin asking about the changing moon and one student asks, "Why does the moon change throughout the nights?" I then ask students: Does the moon really change? The student then modifies his response to, "Why does the moon SEEM to change each night?"

Here's a video of this question-development process in action: Students Developing the Guiding Question.

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

Now that students have helped develop a guiding question, I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain why the moon seems to change every night. 

Envelope Cover 

I continue on by passing out an envelope picture to each student: Envelope 9 Pictures. Pictures add an element of excitement to learning and they provide support for students who learn best using visual aids. 

Teacher Note: We label the envelope picture to remember the difference between the waxing and waning phases of the moon: Labeling Diagram with Waxing & Waning.

On the front cover of the ninth envelope in student envelope books, I model how to paste the picture and write the investigative question for today's lesson: Why does the moon seem to change every night? (Student Envelope Example).

Fact-Based Argument Cards

For each envelope, students are provided with a Fact-Based Argument Card: Fact-Based Argument Cards (I copied these onto yellow card stock paper & cut each paper into 3 cards: Argument Cards). As I pass this card out to each student, I explain: At the end of today's lesson, you will each have the opportunity to construct a fact-based argument, explaining why the moon seems to change every night. Remember, as scientists, it is important to make sure that your arguments and explanations are based on evidence and research findings! 

Teacher Note: By asking students to develop explanations based upon evidence and research findings, I am supporting Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

Graphing Moon Phase Data

I want to provide students with the opportunity to represent moon data in graphical displays to align with NGSS Standard 5-ESS1-2 (Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky). 

I provide each student with a Phases of the Moon Graph (cut into half sheets) and I email all students the following link: Moon Calendar. For today's lesson, we refer to the next lunar month that is about to start, January 21, 2015 to February 18, 2015. 

This graphing process is complicated, so I choose to model how to construct the graph (Teacher Graph) while students share their thinking and complete their own graphs at their desks (Phases of the Moon Student Graph). 

I begin by asking students to determine when one moon cycle ends (on day 29) and where another begins (on day 1). We then count and graph the number of each moon phase within one lunar month (29 days).

According to this moon calendar, how many nights will we have a New Moon during this lunar month? (1 night) We place one "x" in the New Moon column for now and we will add another "x" later as another New Moon will occur on the 29th day of the lunar month.

How many nights during this lunar month will we see a Waxing Crescent Moon? (4 nights)

During this time, many students caught on quickly and began working ahead of the rest of the class. As students finish, I ask partners to begin discussing what they notice. I also challenge students to determine the number of "x's" (or boxes colored in) altogether. Here's an example of a student adding the boxes up along the side of her paper: Phases of the Moon Student Graph 2. When graphing, it's important for students to realize that the total number of "x's" or boxes always equals the total number in the data set, such as 29 days in a lunar month. After some time, I ask students to share their observations out loud: 

  • "The Waning Gibbous is higher than the other moon phases." (We then determine as a class that the phases of the moon do not happen equally.
  • "The Waxing Crescent, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, and Waning Crescent all happen equally." (The class then agrees that some moon phases happen the same number of times.)
  • "The New Moon happens the least." (I ask students: Do you think this is always the case? What could we do to figure out if that's always the case? A student suggests that they could look at other lunar months and I encourage them to do so! Later on, students share that there are 3 New Moon nights in the next two lunar phases, instead of 2 New Moon Nights. Students then decide that the number of moons per phase in each lunar month could change throughout the year.)


Overall, I feel that this graphing activity encourages students to begin thinking deeply about the moon phases. It also inspires students to classify the phases of a lunar month and to begin drawing conclusions about the patterns of the moon in the sky. 


60 minutes

Two Main Idea Graphic Organizers

Prior to this lesson, I make a class set of this Main Idea Wheel Graphic Organizer, printed on both sides of the paper. This way, each student will have two main idea wheels. One main idea wheel will be completed as a class while we watch a video clip on the 8 moon phases: Moon Phases Student Notes 1 and Moon Phases Student Notes 2. Students will use the other main idea wheel to record facts that help answer today's guiding question, Why does the moon seem to change every night? (using both the video and an online text): Moon Research Student Notes Example 1 and Moon Research Student Notes Example 2

At this time, I pass out a double-sided copy of the Main Idea Wheel Graphic Organizer to each student. I also start off by using a new double-sided graphic organizer myself for modeling purposes so that I can easily provide step-by-step instruction. 

Main Idea Wheel # 1: The Moon Phases

On one side of the graphic organizer, I show students how to a create the Sun in the top lefthand corner and an Earth in the middle.  During the video below, the students and I will take notes on each of the moon's phases. Here's what my model looks like at the end of the video: Teacher Model of Moon Phases.

Main Idea Wheel # 2: Research Notes

We then write today's guiding question in the center of the graphic organizer on the backside: Why does the moon seem to change every night? Later on, students will complete the majority of this side by gathering facts from an online source. However, students will begin by collecting a few facts from the video. As we discuss each fact as a class, I model how to complete this main idea wheel as well. Here's what my model looks like at the end of the video: Teacher Model of Research Notes


I chose to show this video in particular today as I want students to be able to visualize the phases of the moon. A video will often assist students with the conceptualization of an abstract concept (such as the phases of the moon), in a way that reading information and looking at pictures cannot.

I pause throughout the video so the class and I can discuss each phase of the moon and record notes. 


Main Idea Wheel #1: The Moon Phases 

I model how to draw a picture of the New Moon in the graphic organizer space between the Earth and Sun. We shade the moon in completely and take note, "not visible from the Earth." The class and I discuss how the moon is still reflecting light from the sun, however, the lit up side of the moon is facing away from Earth. 

The class then watches the video a bit further. Each time we pause, we discuss, draw, and record notes on the next moon phase in a similar manner. To help bring this graphic organizer to life, students use a yellow marker to color the sun and the apparent lit portion of each moon phase as seen from Earth. 

Teacher Note: We work our way around the graphic organizer in a counter-clockwise direction as this is the same direction the moon revolves around the Earth.

Main Idea Wheel #2: Research Notes

Also during the video, the class determines that the following facts help answer today's guiding question (Why does the moon seem to change every night?). So, we begin to take notes on this side of the graphic organizer handout as well: 

  • Half to the moon is always lit up.
  • The moon will look different to us, depending on where it is in orbit. 
  • The moon orbits around the Earth in 29 days. This is called a lunar month.


Student Research

Following the video, I ask students to continue their research with their partners at their desks. I email the following link to student: Positions of the Sun and Moon Affect Earth p. 723-726

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

  1. What question are you researching? 
  2. What patterns have you noticed? 
  3. Why do you suppose ____? 
  4. What have you found so far? 
  5. Has your thinking changed? 
  6. What evidence do you have? 
  7. How did you decide _____?
  8. What conclusion can you draw about ____?

Student Conferences

During this conference, Students Researching, the student explain why the moon seems to change in the night sky. I love listening to them use their research and prior knowledge to construct their own theories. One student explains why the moon's appearance changes due to the orbit of the moon around the Earth. The other student knows that the Earth's distance from the sun varies as it orbits due to its elliptical orbit. He also remembers that some lunar months have more New Moons than others. He uses this evidence to explain how the phases of the moon could change some due to the revolution of the Earth around the sun as well. 

Student Work

Here's a few examples of student notes during this time: 

Reflect & Apply

40 minutes

Before students reflect and apply on today's findings in writing, I want students to apply their understanding of the moon's phases by 1) watching a class demonstration (student volunteers use a styrofoam ball and flashlight to demonstrate the phases of the moon) and by 2) working in teams of three to investigate the phases of the moon by recreating the class demonstration.

Class Demonstration

Prior to this class demonstration, I created ten Moon Sticks using skewers and styrofoam balls. I also set out a Bin of Flashlights

At this time, I invite one group of three students to the front of the classroom to model how the phases of the moon change. First, I ask the three students to represent one of the following: the moon, the sun, and the Earth. I hand a "moon stick" to the student representing the moon and a flashlight to the student representing the sun. Then, I show students how demonstrate how the phases of the moon are caused by the revolution of the moon around the Earth (the third student): Teacher & Student Demonstration

Teacher Note: Instead of demonstrating all eight phases of the moon, I ask students to focus on the four main phases (New Moon, First Quarter, Full Moon, and Third Quarter). This is because the in-between phases (such as the waning gibbous) are more difficult to represent. As student groups try this demonstration on their own, they naturally begin discussing all eight phases as they are ready. 

Student Investigation

I want to provide students with the opportunity to recreate the demonstration using their own tools. At this time, I ask students to work in groups of three. I invite one student from each group to grab a flashlight and another student to grab a moon stick. Students excitedly begin investigating the moon phases with these materials: Students Demonstrating the Moon Phases. I love watching the abstract idea of moon phases become more understandable and concrete for students! 

While conferencing with this group, Examining the Moon from the Sun's Perspective, I am reminded of how hands-on manipulatives can provide students with the opportunity to evaluate a scientific concept on a deeper level, such as examining the moon from the sun's perspective! 

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to apply their findings. For this reason, I invite students to use their research to answer the guiding question, "Why does the moon seem to change every night?" by writing a fact-based argument on one of their Fact-Based Argument Cards

I remind students once more: Remember, as scientists, it is important to make sure that your arguments and explanations are always based on evidence and research findings! 

To get students started, I provide the following writing prompt: The moon seems to change every night.


As students begin to finish, I ask volunteers to share their arguments aloud. I also invite others to respectfully agree or disagree with other students' arguments as it is important for students to provide and receive critique from peers and to differentiate between arguments based on reasoned judgement and arguments based on research findings (Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence). 

Here's an example of a student using his notes to construct and share his explanation: Student Sharing Explanation.

Student Work

Here's an example of Fact-Based Argument Cards during this time: Student Example of an Evidence-Based Arguments.


At the end of this lesson, students place the following items in today's envelope: