A chili pepper, a banana in the sky and a ripe watermelon tinted smoky hues of orange.

That’s how Downtown Elementary School third-graders described the once-in-a-lifetime full solar eclipse that passed over Bakersfield skies Monday morning.

Even as most Kern County schools were on a virtual lockdown as a precaution for keeping kids' eyes safe from the sun, teachers planned lessons that took advantage of the rare celestial event both inside and outside classrooms for all age levels.

Younger kindergarteners stayed indoors, learning about the movement of the earth around the sun, and how the moon casts a shadow on Earth.

Older students in third and eighth grade got first-hand lessons in astronomy just by stepping out of their classrooms and gazing toward the sun, protecting their vision with welding masks, solar glasses and pinhole projectors crafted out of tin foil and white paper.

‘Here’s how the magic is going to happen’

In Karen Nguyen and Allison Dolan’s kindergarten classroom, squirming students sat on a rug and watched as Nguyen unveiled the mysteries of the universe with nothing more than a few planetary plush toys and a flashlight.

“I’m going to teach you the intricacies of the solar system so that when you get to [seventh and eighth grade] they’ll be astonished with your knowledge of astronomy,” Nguyen told them.

Students had been learning about the event on paper for days, but Monday was the big event, even though they were kept inside.

They plotted their existing knowledge about the sun, moon and Earth on a yellow sheet of paper displayed in the room. They knew the sun could burn their eyes, that it’s a bright “yellow, red, orange” star and it stays still. That the moon orbits around the earth like a satellite and its visible at night. That people live on Earth, and that it's made up mostly of land and water.

Out of the class’ 21 students, 14 were excited for the eclipse, three were scared, and four just couldn’t make up their minds about how to feel.

By noon Monday, after the eclipse, the students had a little more perspective about how to feel.

Does the sun move, Nguyen asked, holding the plush sun above her head.

The kids responded with a resounding “no!”

She passed it off to a student to hold. Then she grabbed planet Earth and handed it to a little boy who was sporting a paper “Total Eclipse 2017” headband, like the rest of the students in Nguyen and Dolan’s class.

She had Earth make a couple of orbital passes around the sun, then broke out the flashlight and a plush moon.

“Here’s how the magic is going to happen,” she told her students.

She aligned the celestial bodies, then flicked on the flashlight, casting light on Earth, then passed the moon into the light’s path. It cast a shadow over Earth, and led to a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” from the kids.

“This is the solar eclipse,” Dolan told them.

‘I can see the sun and the moon!’

Across the street, at the junior high campus, students filed out of portable classrooms toting hand-made pinhole projectors, lugging welding masks and pulling solar glasses out of their pockets.

“Oh my gosh, that’s so flippin’ cool!” Jenner Hutson, a seventh-grade student, said as he slipped on a pair of solar glasses and tilted his head toward the sky.

Moments later, another student made the mistake of gazing upward with the glasses, but took them off without first looking away. He yelped in pain and shouted “my eyes!”

He was quickly chided by his teacher.

Other kids cast tiny shadows onto the ground with pinhole projectors, mesmerized by crescent outlines moving across pavement.

“That dark spot isn’t your finger – it’s the moon,” their teacher, Brenda Mayer, told them.

“I can see the sun and the moon,” a little girl shouted.

And it wasn’t just “flippin’ cool.” It was educational. Before the hype of the anticipated eclipse, Hutson said he didn’t know there was such a thing as a full or partial eclipse.

His classmate Daniel Meyer said he didn’t know how rare they were, coming around just once every few decades.

They also said they didn’t know that their teacher, Mayer, had seen the last total eclipse when the moon, sun and Earth aligned in 1979.

‘It’s like a banana in the sky’

Across the street at the elementary school campus, Pamela Tarango’s third-grade class had been observing the eclipse every 20 minutes or so with solar glasses since before 9 a.m.

They’d watched the shadow of the moon begin to crest the sun until it waxed over more than half the sun’s surface — the peak of the totality experienced in Kern County.

“You never get to look at the sun, but today we can to see what the sun is doing with the moon,” Downtown Elementary School Principal Noreen Barthelmes told Tarango’s students as they sky-gazed.

"It's like a banana in the sky," one boy shouted as he looked up. 

‘Natural science in action’

Yards away, David and Ingrid James sat in a near-desolate play yard at lunch tables with their daughters, Hanna and Olivia.

Neither one had teachers who planned lessons that involved viewing the eclipse outside, so the James’ took time off work, headed to school and pulled their kids out of class for a half hour to watch the eclipse at its peak.

Grandma provided the solar glasses, David said.

It’s an experience they couldn’t allow their daughters to miss, said David, who described it as “natural science in action.”

If teachers didn’t plan outside events and get their lessons pre-approved with the district, they were relegated to their classrooms, watching live-streams of the eclipse on the internet provided by NASA.

“I’m sure NASA has some amazing shots, but you can’t match watching it yourself,” Ingrid said, her daughter beside her. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don’t know where they’re going to be the next time it comes around.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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