Chris Steussy
BHP Teacher, California, U.S.A.

“BIG HISTORY is where we get to ask BIG questions about LIFE, the UNIVERSE, and EVERYTHING.”

That quote is lifted straight off of my curriculum, which I share on the first day of class. But I don’t share it first thing. The first thing I do is say, “Come with me….” And we go outside.

We walk to the garden. Right now, it’s a rather sad garden.

The school garden

It’s surrounded by parking spots, isn’t near any classrooms, and as of this writing, is quite obviously neglected. It has some curious objects.

One of the curious objects

And still holds some beauty.

Beauty, even in winter

I stand on one of the tables, gather my students around me, and I invite them to wonder. Where did all of this come from? What is this place? What are any of the things in it and around it doing here? I ask the class to do a three-minute quick-write on where they think any one thing they see came from. They can write about the garden, or a flower, or a car, or a cloud—anything. The important thing is that they wonder.

Back in the classroom, we begin our discussion of their musings. One clever student might share that everything came from stardust and another might point out that the garden came from a local government grant. I point out that although these are both correct, the reason the answers are different is because they’re dealing with vastly different scales. Then I share this with them:

The circles of causality

When you shake a tree and the apples fall off, what causes them to fall? Is it the actual shaking of the tree, the ripeness of the fruit, or the planting of the tree several years ago? All three are, of course, correct; but they are approaching the question from different scales.

At this point, a clever student might say, “the bench came from a garden nursery in La Mesa.” When I ask how they know that, they may point to the evidence of the stamp they saw on the bench. Aha! Evidence! One of what we will call claim testers. And then, I introduce them to ALIE (an easy-to-remember acronym for authority, logic, intuition, and evidence), and point out that evidence is used in many different disciplines, such as history and archaeology, to help answer questions.

I might get a kid who asks if the trees came from the ground and the ground came from the Earth and the Earth came from the Big Bang. My reaction is, yeah kid, do you know that you’re describing the thresholds of increasing complexity? Think of it. A tree, by most standards, is more complex than dirt. Why? How does something complex come from something simple?

This is how I begin to invite the kids to ask some meaningful questions. I try to spark their curiosity every day. Where did school come from? Where did poodles come from? Why do we have the government that we have?

One of the biggest hurdles to this effort is that kids come into ninth grade “knowing” a lot of stuff. They “know” people once believed the world was flat (ask Bob Bain about that one). They “know” that some people deny Darwin’s theory of natural selection. They “know” that they have five senses and there are different races of humans. So every once in a while, you need to blow their minds with something like this:

And then invite them to wonder about other things that they “know.” Although I only show about 60 seconds of the video, it’s enough for a few priceless “what the heck?” moments.

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