• Artistic moon journal
  • Lots of words moon journal
  • Open face moon journal
  • Moon like a sun

Follow Erica Katz's fifth graders as they seek to answer the question: "Why does the moon look different on different days?"

Overview of Moon Phases Unit
Boys with moonball

Erica spent a few months exploring phases of the moon with her fifth grade students. She adapted lessons from Lawrence Hall of Science’s GEMS in order to give her students lots of opportunities to answer the Essential Question: Why does the moon look different on different days? Erica’s students used their science notebooks to record observations of the moon, formulate initial ideas about moon phases, and revise their thinking after developing a kinesthetic model.


Read on to see how several notebook strategies worked together to help students build their science ideas. To view examples of student work and to download the complete unit plan, click the links below.

1. Moon Journals - Investigation
Gallery walk with moon journals

Erica’s students took their science notebooks home so that they could keep track of the moon over the course of four weeks. Keeping daily moon journals helped the students notice and get curious about the changing appearance of the moon.


In their science notebooks, students noted the time and date of each observation, sketched the moon if they could see it, and recorded as many details as they could about the sky. They also wrote down any questions that came to mind, such as “Why were there no stars tonight?”


Twice during this month, Erica’s students shared their moon journals with classmates through a gallery walk, so they could draw inspiration from their peers and continue honing their scientific observation skills.

2. Drawing On Prior Knowledge - Notes
Girls making meaning

In order to elicit students’ prior knowledge, Erica administered a formative assessment probe from the NSTA series Uncovering Student Ideas in Science. The probe offered two possible explanations for why, on some days, we see only part of the moon.


Students selected the explanation with which they most agreed, and explained their reasoning. Students kept their answers in their notebook as a record of their initial understanding.


They returned to these probes again at the end of the unit, to see if the investigation either changed or confirmed their thinking.






3. Modeling Moon Phases - Investigation
Students lined up for moonballs

Primed with curiosity after a month of observing the sky, Erica’s students were itching to make some sense out of the changing appearance of the moon. Erica reserved a room in her school’s basement so she could create completely dark conditions. She gave each group of four students an inflatable globe (representing the earth), a flashlight (representing the sun), and an orange, covered with a white balloon, and positioned on the end of a pencil (the orange represented the moon).


Erica allowed students to decide how to set up their models. She simply instructed them to see what they could figure out about the phases of the moon, using these materials, in the dark room.


After an hour of exploration and discussion, students returned to their notebooks to capture their current understanding of what causes the moon to look different on different days.

4. Question Sorting - Investigation
questions to test

After this first experience with the kinesthetic model, students returned to the questions they had captured during the month of keeping moon journals.


They wrote all their questions on post-its and sorted them onto four class posters: Questions to Test (we can figure it out with our model); Questions to Research (we can find the answer in a book or online); Questions to Ponder (nobody knows the answer); and Questions Already Answered (during this investigation).


Erica gave them another class period with the kinesthetic model so that they could explore some of their Questions to Test, and continue refining their understanding of the phases of the moon.

5. Tracking Our Learning - Reflection
Why do we see the moon as different shapes

After a month of keeping a moon journal, and several class periods spent exploring and discussing the kinesthetic model, Erica taught a few scientific terms related to the phases of the moon, including New Moon, Crescent Moon, Quarter Moon, Gibbous Moon, Full Moon, Waxing, and Waning.


She then asked students to use these terms as they reflected on their learning, guided by the prompt: “How have the activities we’ve done helped you to understand the phases of the moon?”

About the Teacher
Erica with beakers

Erica Katz teaches fifth grade at the French American International school in San Francisco, CA. She is an alumna of the California Academy of Sciences' Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability. She finds that "science notebooks get all the students involved and interested in science. Whether they like to write, or like to draw, or like asking questions, there is an entry point for all of them."

Appropriate for: 5th Grade - 8th Grade
Standards for: 6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade
Prep Time: 60 minutes
Activity Time: 450 minutes
Subjects: Developing & Using Models, Earth & Space Science, Patterns, Science Notebooking