After days of trepidation and expectation, the third-graders at Woodlawn Elementary in Baton Rouge finally donned their solar viewing glasses just after noon Monday, tilted back their heads and stared straight into the sun.
“Whoa!” burst from their mouths in an excited chorus.
The reliably round orb of the sun was notably smaller than it had been just 10 minutes before and slowly shrinking.
“You see that little part? That’s the moon,” a teacher pointed out. “The moon is sailing across the sun.”
“That’s so cool,” one boy yelled out.
“Oh my God!” screamed a girl.
The children each had a slightly different way of describing what they were seeing.
“The sun looked a cookie someone had taken a bite out of,” said Yasmin Ibrahim, 8.
“It’s like the moon, but it’s like a crescent sun,” said Caleb Hagan, 8.
“It looked like it was an orange smile without eyes,” suggested Madeline Alexis Trantham, 8.
Ascension Parish residents Ben and Ashley Toman should be in Casper, Wyoming, or possibly at…
Cindy McMaster, a gifted resource teacher at the public elementary school, said one group of students after another stepped outside for the entirety of the eclipse’s three-hour journey across the sky, but student interest never flagged.
“The last group was just as excited as the first group,” McMaster said.
Woodlawn was one of many local schools that used the rare event as a teaching tool, though many others opted to do nothing out of fear of what might happen if the students dared to take an unprotected gaze at the phenomenon.
Susan Stevens, academic dean at Woodlawn Elementary, brought her older son Cody, 12, to Woodlawn to see the eclipse. The boy’s middle school barely mentioned the big event.
“They just said, ‘Don’t look at the sun or it will blind you,’” he said.
McMaster was not about to let her school miss out. She said she’d known the eclipse was coming, but it was a week-long training session in July put on by NASA and held at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi where she learned all the teaching possibilities associated with the eclipse. NASA also provided her with a classroom set of solar glasses, which she later supplemented.
Woodlawn Elementary Principal Janice Lindsey proved an easy sell. She said she could sense the excitement of McMaster and other teachers involved. Lindsey did have parents fill out permission slips, but otherwise let the teachers proceed as planned.
She recalled being a child herself in Avoyelles Parish and seeing an eclipse, without incident.
“I was in the school in the '70s. We all went out there,” she said. “I didn’t die.”
McMaster said she too had seen a partial eclipse years ago, but Monday’s eclipse, which blocked about 75 percent of the sun at its Baton Rouge peak, proved a much more intense experience.
“Seeing it on a picture is one thing, but being out there and putting on those glasses and seeing it, that was something else,” McMaster said.
Even so, Woodlawn didn’t let all its students outside, only those in third to fifth grades. The children in the lower grades stayed inside to watch live streaming video of the eclipse provided by NASA.
McMaster said she restricted the viewing to the older kids partially out of fear of the younger kids forgetting to be safe, but also because they had not studied the subject as much in school and didn’t have as strong a background knowledge as the older students.
Even so, teachers still had to do plenty of preparation to get those older students to understand what they were about to witness.
“A couple of them knew a little bit about it, but I had to really explain it to them,” said Sierra Stridiron, a third-grade teacher.
The adults’ repeated admonitions about safe viewing clearly had been taken to heart.
“I want to look at the sun so bad right now!” exclaimed a concerned Caiden Kemp, 8, but he knew what would happen.
“I don’t want to be blind. I don’t want to be like Helen Keller!” he cried.
Solar viewing glasses were not the only way the students observed the eclipse.
For extra credit, most of the students made pinhole projectors at home out of cereal boxes and the like and tried those out during the eclipse. Later, they took two sheets of paper and let the light beam through a hole in one and cast a shadow on the other. Each method allowed you to see the eclipsing sun, though the results from the indirect methods were less dramatic.
“It don’t look like the sun. It looks like a diamond,” said a disappointed Kemp at one point.
The eclipse reached its peak just before 1:30 p.m. Fully three quarters of the sun was blackened by the passing moon at that point, as viewed from Baton Rouge. While the temperature dropped slightly, the sunlight didn’t dim much.
“It’s interesting to see how unbelievably bright our sun is even with 75 percent coverage. I was thinking it might be a little bit darker,” said Jessica Potter, a paraprofessional with two children attending the elementary school.
With the eclipse over, the third-through-fifth graders plan to study what they’ve seen and explore things like the relative distances of the sun, moon and earth. And several teachers are planning to have students write at length about what they saw.
“It’s a perfect science experiment, and you don’t have to do anything,” McMaster said. “You just have to have the right equipment and watch it happen.”