Kim Lochner, BHP Teacher
When my husband collected me from the airport, he warned me that I might get a shock when I got home. Although I’d been away only two weeks, we were experiencing an oppressive Australian summer. There had been scorching temperatures and no rain; everything had turned brown and crisp. Two hours later, we turned onto our driveway and I grinned. Where he saw a sunburnt farm, I saw my beautiful home, with my pets running to greet me. My mind zoomed out and I realized the effect of different perspectives on how we see the exact same circumstance.
The truth is, the Big History Project has given me the vocabulary to examine everything—from a trip home to origin stories—from a deeper, more enriching level. Vocabulary is the key to this process and an integral part of my teaching practice. Language is the tool that equips all of us, students included, with the verbal tools to dive deeper. Language drives our intellectual development.
Many years ago, while I was training to become a teacher, I worked with a student who was profoundly deaf. He taught me the link between words and thought. Due to a childhood of illness, he hadn’t had the opportunity to learn many words. His communication with the world was limited to a small collection of essential Auslan (Australian Sign Language) signs. Working with John (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy) opened my eyes to the power of language. Until then, I hadn’t realised the vital connection between words and thought. At the time, I had just learnt about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and noted how John’s language matched his needs. As a young man with cerebral palsy, mobility issues, profound deafness, visual impairment, and needing a feeding tube, his language was predominantly focused on survival and safety; the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid. As we worked together, he began to trust me and gained confidence that I could meet his survival needs. It was then that we had the opportunity to expand his vocabulary to learn new words about love, belonging, and esteem.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, by Factoryjoe, CC BY-SA 3.0.
It started with stick figures. First, we drew pictures. Next, I used a combination of charades and pictures to help me introduce new Auslan signs to John. Through repetition, new signs became part of his vocabulary. New words were like seeds that enabled new ideas to take root in his consciousness and grow to new dimensions. Signs (words) were the gatekeepers that opened his mind to new ways of thinking. Family, for example, was a word John was very familiar with. So, we started by drawing a family tree and giving names to the branches of this tree. He knew words like ‘aunt, uncle, and grandparent but didn’t know cousin. That simple activity led us to discuss the fact that John’s father died when John was young. I was able to tell him that my father had also died when I was a child. From there, we introduced a new word – grief. Vocabulary was not only the tool with which we communicated, but the tool with which we connected. Connection facilitated more in-depth discussion, which led to new insights and deeper connections, both in our relationship, and John’s awareness of himself.
Language is the key to connecting with our students. It is so important that we immerse our students in the language of each subject so they can dive deeper. We can then sit next to our students and engage in meaningful dialogue that inspires passion and facilitates understanding in the classroom. We can also sit next to them and more fully understand who they are as individuals. So, if you need a reason why it’s important to use those vocabulary exercises in the Big History Project course, this is it! Also, if you’d like to learn more about incorporating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into your classroom, there are many articles on the internet. Here are a couple I found useful:
About the author: Kim began teaching Big History in 2016. She teaches the course as a year 9/10 elective over a two-year period, with students meeting twice a week for 70 minutes per class.