First-Graders Modeling Day and Night: Making Sense of a Phenomenon

As a first-grade teacher in Detroit with predominantly Latinx students and English language learners, I worked for several weeks at the end of last school year with a doctoral candidate in science education and former elementary teacher, Christa Haverly, and by extension, an associate professor in science education and expert in scientific modeling, Christina Schwarz (see our bios below). We co-planned a unit around the Space Systems standards for first grade: 1-ESS1-1 and 1-ESS1-2 (see the table at the end).

We started the unit with this phenomenon and driving question:

During the unit, students engaged in many science practices, but we are focusing this blog post on their scientific modeling. In the NGSS, the primary purpose of engaging students in modeling is for them to use models to determine relationships between objects so they can explain phenomena in the natural world. To this end, I had students construct, share, and revise their models of the observed phenomena related to our overarching driving question.

We also kept a class model that we continued to update and revise through the unit (pictured is an early version of the model). It seemed useful for my students to have a place to share their ideas and keep track of them during their discussions. In that way, their models were useful for helping them make sense of day and night, a better option than me giving them models of day and night so they could tell me the science facts. I also found that modeling was a useful formative assessment tool, giving me richer insight into student thinking than traditional written assessments.

After a couple of weeks, it became clear that my students were ready to consider an important question about how the day/night cycle happens. We started by reviewing timelines students constructed the week before that plotted daylight and darkness in 24-hour cycles. Students recalled patterns from their data, and we agreed that there is a cycle of light and dark, day and night.

Next, I split students into pairs to role-play Earth and Sun. I gave them a flashlight to represent the Sun, and a sticker to place on one of their foreheads to represent Detroit on Earth. Once in the gymnasium, students took turns being the Sun and the Earth, and explored what kind of movement might create a day/night cycle like we observed in our data. Students’ ideas included the Earth rotating (while the Sun stood still), the Sun moving around the Earth (while the Earth stood still), both co-occurring, and the flashlight turning on and off (both stood still while Sun turned off and on). Many students ultimately tried keeping the Sun still while the Earth spun in place, mimicking the movement of the globe in our classroom.

Back in class, we debriefed and had students share the different ways they made day and night “happen” in Detroit. Next, we watched a video of the Earth rotating, a phenomenon which can’t be observed from Earth. Students discussed their new ideas with their partners and shared them with the class. They observed the Earth slowly spinning, and they also noticed the area illuminated by the Sun was slowly shifting as the Earth spun. During the discussion, one of my students noticed the classroom globe was also partially lit by the sunlight coming through the windows. He walked over to it, and as he turned the globe, he and his classmates saw new parts of the globe becoming light and dark.

I concluded the activity by asking students to create models showing how day and night happen on Earth. What do you see in these two images? What do they tell you about student thinking?

I think the one on the top shows that the side of the Earth facing the Sun is lit, and the side of the Earth facing away from the Sun is in darkness. The one on the bottom shows that the movement of the Earth rotating in a circle has something to do with the day and night cycle. While several students shared these ideas, others were still including images from their bedrooms, more concretely connecting with our original phenomenon, while still others were showing the Sun moving around the Earth. I used about half of students’ models the following day in a gallery walk, representing a range of ideas, and afterward, students discussed what they observed in one another’s models. Throughout the unit, I continued providing students with new experiences, followed by class discussions about patterns based on new evidence, and students continued creating, sharing, and revising their models.

I loved using the models as a way for students to analyze their ideas about our phenomenon and communicate their ideas to one another and to me in ways that did not rely heavily on writing or vocabulary, and for me to learn about my students’ thinking. What are some ways that you use models in the science classroom? Or what are some of the challenges you’ve experienced? Please comment so we can learn with and from one another!


Kim Sedlmeyer graduated from Michigan State University (MSU) in 2011 with a degree in elementary education. Since 2012, she has taught at Escuela Avancemos! Academy, a first-year charter school in Detroit. The Academy is a Success for All school, and Sedlmeyer serves as Reading Roots Chair. Her other passion is dance, and she shares this passion with students every year by directing the school’s Nutcracker program and performances.

Christa Haverly is a doctoral candidate at MSU studying science teacher education, with an emphasis on urban elementary education. Her research centers on teachers’ pedagogical practices that are responsive to students’ science ideas and are socially just. Before beginning graduate school, she taught elementary school for a decade, working in three different urban elementary schools in Maryland and Illinois.


Christina Schwarz is an associate professor of teacher education at MSU. She is a co-editor and author of the NSTA Press book Helping Students Make Sense of the World Using Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices. She has served as subject-area leader in elementary science at MSU for more than a decade and enjoys working in classrooms with teachers and students. She hopes readers will be able to explore and enjoy modeling as much as she does.


This article was featured in the August issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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9 Responses to First-Graders Modeling Day and Night: Making Sense of a Phenomenon

  1. Julie DiMaio says:

    I wonder if you could tell me more about how you taught the kids to shine the flashlights on foreheads, but not in eyes. This is always a big problem when kids of any age are working with or using flashlights. I worry about lights damaging eyes. What helpful hints do you have for me?

    • Kim Sedlmeyer says:

      Absolutely! The stickers were placed on their foreheads, in the center of their eyes. We talked about how our heads are like the Earth, Detroit is the sticker – where our “third eye” would be, and that if our 2 real eyes can see the light (looking straight ahead!), then our “third eye” would see it too.
      Students who were the “Sun” were instructed to shine the light at their partners’ chests, NOT the eyes! For partners who were the “Earth,” I made sure to explain that accidents can happen, and to kindly remind their “Sun” to aim lower if it shined in their eyes.. the FIRST time! If it happened again, students were warned that the flashlights would be taken away, and that further discipline would occur.
      I did this lesson later in the year, and therefore had most of the school year to work on building trust and responsibility for this kind of activity. Our school also uses a WONDERFUL social-emotional curriculum that prepares students for the kind of active, cooperative learning seen in this lesson.
      Now that you mention the related concerns of having children shine flashlights at each other, I think I may have another solution! The dollar store had packs of the cutest star-shaped sunglasses! I think I may invest in those for this year as a way to ensure student safety and make things even more fun! Thanks for the idea! I hope this was helpful feedback! 🙂

  2. Peggy says:

    One thing I say to young children about eye safety is, “Don’t look directly at a light or at the sun because it will damage your eyes. I know you *could* look at them, but it will damage your eyes even if you don’t feel it and it doesn’t hurt right then.” I think this keeps them from needing to prove that they can look at the light because they are strong, or big, or not a baby.

  3. Natalie L. says:

    I work in a PreK classroom and we have used the idea of having one child be the sun and one the earth, but I haven’t used the flashlights for the same reason, concern for their eyes. I do however have them shine flashlights on the globe. I make the day, night into a transition game (before they go to wash hands). Ie: you be the sun, you be the earth. I ask one child to turn and the other to make twinkle hands for the sun and we sing day, night as the child is facing or not facing the sun. I ask “can you see the sun?” We use KWL charts in PreK and I find that the children have a hard time forming their own questions about phenomena. This year I plan on saying what do you wonder about… Instead of what do you want to know? Does anyone else have other ideas?

    • Kim Sedlmeyer says:

      For this unit, we used a KLEWs chart, which leaves the “W” section open for many things, such as:
      -What evidence are we missing?
      -What questions do we still have about the evidence?
      -What parts are still confusing to us?
      By tying the Evidence section into the “W” sections of the KLEWs chart, we draw student attention on patterns and evidence when considering what they “want to know” This helps to keep the focus on the end goal in sight, which is to answer the Driving/Central Question of the unit. It also helps stray students away from asking unrelated questions.
      I, too, have the same problems with KWL charts. They always feel like more of a visual display of what I am teaching, rather than a tool that helps students work through understanding new phenomena.
      Hope this was helpful! 🙂

  4. Peggy says:

    I agree that PreK children do not very easily verbalize the questions they have. By watching what they do, look at, and return to over and over, we can make educated guesses about what they are wondering by their behavior and sometimes gestures. Then we can ask them Natalie’s question, “What do you wonder about?” or even, “I’m wondering about ____. Do you wonder about that too?” They often have good ideas about how to find out!

  5. Natalie Lands says:

    Thank you for both of your responses. I think that I have a long way to go in being more supportive of my students’ inquiries. One thing I did last year to try and increase their ability to ask questions was begin the question. Do you want to know, “Who”, “What”, “When”, “Why” or “How”…? I had post it notes ready and added their comments to the one they chose. Peggy thank you for helping me reshape this discussion into the realm of the PreK audience. It is often in observing the children that we see what they are “Thinking” or “Wondering”. I like the idea of modeling by saying, “I’m wondering”. I appreciate the feedback.

  6. Peggy says:

    That is what I love about teaching, Natalie, growing through learning from my students and other educators.
    Some additional online communities:
    The NSTA Learning Center has supportive discussions about many areas of teaching, including an Early Childhood Forum. For NSTA members there are listservs, including general science and early childhood.
    The NAEYC has an online forum for members called “Hello” with threads on science topics, and the NAEYC Early Childhood Science Interest Forum (ECSIF) has a Facebook page.

  7. John says:

    Thanks for featuring this article.

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