Today marks the beginning of our Winter Term — Orion Term — here in the River Houses. Orion Term runs from December through February.
We put great stock in the educational value of the calendar in the River Houses. The calendar is the framework on which we human beings hang a great many of the facts we know about the world: historical events, natural phenomena, personal reminiscences, the seasons, the sun and moon, the planets, the stars. A key part of every student’s educational development is the development of “calendar sense” — a sense of time and history.
Our annual River Houses calendar divides the homeschool year into four three-month terms (quarters) that roughly correspond to the seasons, and these terms are named after prominent seasonal constellations of the northern hemisphere:
- ✦ Fall or Cygnus Term (September–November)
- ✦ Winter or Orion Term (December–February)
- ✦ Spring or Leo Term (March–May)
- ✦ Summer or Hercules Term (June–August)
This calendrical division is a new and an open-ended idea that we think has a great deal of educational potential. We’re looking forward to its development as time goes on.
As you think about your own homeschool year, think about how different parts of it — curricular, co-curricular, social, or recreational — might be informally arranged into these four terms. You could have different astronomical decorating themes in your classroom, for example, or you could schedule a regular trip to a particularly special place at the beginning of each term to see how the seasons change. You could group your curricular work by term, or set goals for your students to meet each term, or have your students write achievement reports at each term’s end. With a little imagination you may be able to come up with a clever and comfortable arrangement and a new way to think about the structure of your educational year.
Today is the first day of Orion Term (December–February), named for the Great Hunter of the Heavens who is rising now in the east each evening about 8:00 p.m. and who will be passing overhead throughout the winter.
If you want to make a special astronomical study this term, your River Houses reference library (riverhouses.org/books) includes a handy set of sky maps and a planisphere that will show you the location of Orion and its most prominent stars:
“Orion is generally considered to be the most beautiful and imposing constellation in the heavens. It is easily recognized; the four bright stars forming a large rectangle and the three second magnitude stars, equally spaced and forming a straight line (the Belt of Orion) enclosed by the rectangle, are a delight to the eye. No other constellation has so many bright stars. Compare the colors of Betelgeuse, a giant red star, and Rigel, a brilliant blue-white star. Rigel has a magnitude of 0.18 and is the 7th brightest star in the sky. Betelgeuse has a magnitude of 0.45 and ranks 10th in brightness. Orion is in a portion of the sky that contains seven of the 30 brightest stars in the heavens; these are to be found in Orion, Auriga, Gemini, Taurus, Canis Major and Canis Minor. There are two famous nebulae in Orion; one, the [Great] Orion Nebula, is visible to the naked eye. It is the prototype of the diffuse nebulae; a great cloud of cosmic dust and gases many light years in diameter and 1,500 light years away. θ [theta] Orionis marks the center of the Great Nebula; viewed through binoculars, the star seems to be enveloped in a hazy field that marks the nebula’s presence. Even in a small telescope, the Great Nebula is an awe-inspiring sight. The other famous nebula is the so-called ‘Horse’s Head’ Nebula, a dark nebula silhouetted against a glowing cloud of cosmic dust in the shape of a horse’s head. This remarkable object is not visible to the naked eye; long photographic exposures are required to show its details. The darkness of this cosmic cloud is due to the fact that there are no nearby stars to illuminate it. σ [sigma], θ [theta], and ι [iota] Orionis mark the Sword of Orion. δ [delta] Orionis, the northernmost star in the Belt of Orion, lies almost exactly on the celestial equator. The Belt stars serve as valuable pointers; the line through them extended to the southeast points to Sirius and to the northwest, to Aldebaran in Taurus.“ (Celestron Sky Maps, pages 18–19)
Why not spend a little time out after dark this term with your students and locate the Great Hunter as he makes his nightly passage to the west. Once you learn to spot him, you’ll have a friend for life.
What educational adventures do you have planned for this Orion Term? 😊
❡ Quarter days and cross-quarter days: Dividing the year into quarters is an ancient and natural practice: the annual movement of the sun across the sky automatically gives us two equinoxes, two solstices, and four seasons. Our four terms are just a simple modification of that natural system so that our River Houses calendar will align more conveniently with the ordinary months and with the more-or-less customary American school year. In many traditional calendrical systems, going back into the Middle Ages, the first day of each quarter is called a quarter day and the midpoint of each quarter is called a cross-quarter day. That means the quarter days of the River Houses year are 1 September, 1 December, 1 March, and 1 June, and the cross-quarter days are 15 October, 15 January, 15 April, and 15 July. (Fun fact: a vestige of the old system of quarter and cross-quarter days is Groundhog Day, also known as Candlemas on the Christian calendar: it’s the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.) Quarter days have for centuries been the traditional days on which school terms began, so homeschoolers who follow our River Houses calendar are participating in a very ancient tradition. 😊
❡ Watchers of the skies: Teaching your students to recognize the constellations is one of the simplest and most enduring gifts you can give them. The planisphere on the front of your River Houses star atlas (riverhouses.org/books) will let you dial up the northern hemisphere sky for any night of the year, and the descriptions and maps of each constellation will point out the highlights. Find a dark-sky spot near you this month and spend some quality homeschool time beneath the starry vault. 🔭