ON an overcast spring day, Elaine Messias's fifth-graders at the Mitchell Elementary School in Needham, Mass., file out their classroom door clutching chairs, notebooks, and pens. In a grassy yard they scatter like wildflowers across a meadow, as they plop their chairs down in different spots. Soon, the chattering stops as they begin what has become a ritual: observing the sky and writing what they see in their ``sky journals.''
After 15 to 20 minutes of pensive silence, they return to the classroom to share their poems and verse.
``The clouds look like a white sheet on a bed,'' Melissa Volpe says. ``There are gray spots on the sheet. When the gray clouds fade away, it's like a sheet that has been washed.''
``It's like a gray arena, motionless, lifeless,'' one boy writes.
For these children, looking up is an integral part of their curriculum. Whether it is creating cloud charts for science, finding sky references in literature, or observing the kind of skies that provide background in Van Gogh or Monet paintings, the sky is woven into nearly every activity or lesson.
This particular writing exercise ``gives students time to really reflect on their own, to be still,'' says Mrs. Messias, who has integrated the sky in her teaching for the past 10 years. She is one of thousands of teachers across the United States and in other countries who are bringing the sky into their classrooms. Outside of schools, youth groups, Scout troops, and Sunday School classes are also involved in teaching about the atmosphere above.
They were turned on to the sky by the self-described ``Head Cloud,'' Jack Borden. Mr. Borden is founder and president of For Spacious Skies, a Lexington, Mass.-based nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to fostering sky awareness.
Borden, a one-man crusader of the benefits that come from observing the heavens, started his organization in the late 1970s after he had a revelation. The revelation occurred when he woke up from a nap in a meadow near his home during an outing.
``I opened my eyes, and ... the thing that struck me more than anything else was [that] I was becoming aware of my previous unawareness of the sky. I was so overwhelmed by all this, it blew me away,'' Borden says.
Shortly after this experience, Borden, who at that time worked as a reporter for a Boston television station, conducted a series of person-on-the-street interviews. It was a June day with cumulus clouds. He put his hand visor-style in front of peoples' eyes and asked them to describe the appearance of the sky.
``I interviewed 25 people in a row,'' he says. ``Not a single person gave an answer indicating they really knew what the sky looked like.''
He then established For Spacious Skies with funding from groups such as the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. He devised an activity guide and map for teachers to use in schools.
Why focus on the sky?
``It's available to everybody, everywhere, and it's always free,'' Borden says simply. ``In many respects it's the availability of the sky that makes us unaware of it.''
Kids who become attuned to the sky become more environmentally and visually sensitive, he contends. ``A kid who appreciates what Ralph Waldo Emerson called `the ultimate art gallery above' does not mug Cumberland Farms cashiers ... or shoot people in Dorchester [a neighborhood of Boston]. It gives new eyes to children.''
Marlene Darron, a second-grade teacher at the Hillsboro Primary School in Hillsboro, Mo., has been bringing the sky into science, art, music, and other subjects since 1985. ``I've noticed an improvement in skills, especially in language arts,'' she says. ``In the two years I was really [measuring] it ... I noticed as much as a 200 percent gain in just their vocabulary'' scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
At the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, researchers in 1985 and 1986 tested elementary students in Needham who had participated in For Spacious Skies program with those who had not. They concluded that kids who were exposed to the program scored 37 percent higher in music appreciation, 13 percent higher in literary skills, and 5 percent higher in visual arts skills.
Despite studies and praise from some teachers, being sky aware is not something the general population is catching on to very quickly.
``It's very far from critical mass, and I've often described it as climbing a glass mountain in Vaseline shoes,'' Borden says. ``You're relying mainly upon teachers, and teachers, like anyone else, are unaware of the sky.''
Borden hopes National Sky Awareness Week (April 24-30) will encourage more people to look up. National Sky Awareness Week is now celebrated in 28 states.
* For more information on For Spacious Skies or to receive the $7.50 activity guide, write: For Spacious Skies, 54 Webb St., Lexington, MA 02173, or call (617) 862-4289.