Cambridge, MA, is an unusual place. It houses the oldest college in America and also some of the oldest factories. The public schools reflect that heritage — they include plenty of professors' kids and a fair number of children whose parents are illiterate. A quarter of my daughter's classmates speak a foreign language at home, some children of graduate students, some economic refugees, and everything in between.
I've been quite busy with the Cambridge Public Schools over the last couple of weeks. Last Friday I gave a talk on astronomy to a class of 3rd and 4th graders, and last night I manned a telescope at a star party for another school. Both events were whopping successes. It sounds corny to say so, but astronomy's appeal is universal.
I know Casey, the 3/4 teacher, because my wife was her full-time assistant for two years. Casey told me that some of her students have trouble staying focused, so I picked a topic that's sure to grab anybody's attention: collisions in the solar system. Most of the kids knew that the craters on the Moon are caused by meteors, they offered many creative suggestions when I asked why there aren't craters on Earth, and they were suitably impressed when I showed them a photo of Arizona's Meteor Crater — especially when I told them that I'd visited it with Carla (my wife and their former teacher) and Rajani (my daughter, and buddy to many of them). Don Davis's painting of the Chicxulub collision (from The New Solar System) proved surprisingly fruitful. I'd thought of it mostly as window dressing, but the children asked lots of perceptive questions about the phenomena that it shows. If I hadn't cut off discussion, I'd probably still be there right now.
The star party last night was great too. The weather could hardly have been more cooperative; the clouds parted just after sunset and covered the sky again just when the event was scheduled to end. Most of the kids there were from the Amigos school, which offers a dual-language immersion program, alternating between Spanish and English on a weekly basis. It attracts Hispanic immigrants and well-educated Anglos who are eager for their children to learn a second language. The air was filled with cries of "Mira — la luna." Saturn, of course, was the biggest hit, and Venus and Mizar were also popular.
As I know well from the stories my wife tells, teaching children is always exhausting and often frustrating. But when all is said and done, it's the most worthwhile activity that anyone can engage in.