Chris Steussy, BHP Teacher
Note from the BHP Team: What’s the best way to be sure you never miss timely, current events conversations with your students? Discussions with other BHP teachers on Yammer. Think out loud with your peers any time, any day about how to bring relevant-to-right-now into the classroom. Check out the Yammer conversation this blog sprang from to see what we mean!
On April 15, 2019, the cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire. As I drove to school that morning, I heard one news commentator say something to the effect that, “This is not just important for the people of France or for Catholics around the world, this is important for humanity!” Dang, I thought. That’s a pretty bold claim. Let’s do something with this.
When I arrived at school, I put together a quick, image-only slide show of ancient, modern, and in-between architecture in no particular order, ranging as best I could across the world zones, from the Taj Mahal to the Mercedes Benz stadium in Atlanta. With this resource in hand, I started the lesson by showing an image of Notre Dame taken before the fire. We talked about one of the reasons for its significance—the flying buttresses, which allow for the fantastic open space inside the cathedral. Several students knew about this architectural fact; a couple had even visited Notre Dame and seen the buttresses themselves.
Before I dove into the slide show of other architecture, I had students do a quick-write answering this question: “Why do we (or do we?) care about monumental architecture?” I explained before they started that it was hard to dispute humans care about monumental architecture. From Turkey’s Gobekli Tepe to the Great Wall of China, every civilization—and even some pre-civilization populations—have engaged in such constructions. The reason for the “or do we?” part of the prompt was to invite students to weigh in on whether they cared about monumental architecture or not.
As students responded to the quick-write, I flashed the eclectic collection of slide show images of monumental architecture on the board. I really didn’t know how this was going to go. Interestingly, though, students in both my classes were universally positive about monumental architecture, citing it as something that unites people and nations, and gives evidence of the imagination and ingenuity of humanity. A positive global bond, to say the least.
After the quick-write and discussion, I walked students through the slide show of architectural images, formally introducing them to the Guggenheim in Spain, the Guggenheim in NYC, the royal palace in Cambodia, and others, chatting about each one.
After my presentation, it was time for students to find their own monumental architecture images. I gave them the following instructions:
- In the next 15 minutes, choose one unique piece of monumental architecture (no two students can use the same) and get it approved by the teacher.
- Create a five-image slide show presentation with five unique images of your architecture selection and answer five simple questions:
- What is it?
- Where is it?
- What is the date (or dates) of construction?
- What is it made of?
- Finally, what contributes to its fame? Why is it important?
After 15 to 20 minutes, everyone had a topic and had started working on their presentation. I had estimated that presentations would take about half of next period (about 45 minutes).
I was wrong. Presentations took all of next period and then some. At the start of the next period, I wrote another quick-write prompt on the board: “To what extent does our study of monumental architecture help us understand Big History concepts?” I put the BHP “2×3” on the screen, to remind them:
Students who wanted extra credit for volunteering and who had chosen pre-twentieth-century examples of monumental architecture, went first. They ran through their quick presentations and we then discussed them. After those students were done, I asked for volunteers who had chosen twentieth- and twenty-first-century examples of architecture. We ran over into yet another class period.
We rounded out the lesson by coming back to the question I’d posed at the start of the presentations: “To what extent does our study of monumental architecture help us understand Big History concepts?” A quick-write and discussion brought responses that agreed studying monumental architecture exemplifies Big History in many ways. First, architecture like Notre Dame appears to be universal, not just across the four world zones, but across time, from ancient hunter-gatherers to today. Second, it is a topic that really benefits from using an interdisciplinary lens; that is, from looking not just at history but at art, sociology, economics, and psychology. Monumental architecture is clearly a great example of collective learning, as well: Many of the pieces we examined took centuries to build and all relied on the learning and experience that preceded them.
The biggest “aha moment” that was the result of bringing this current event—the burning of Notre Dame and the significance of monumental architecture—into the classroom was that it really matters. Kids really care about it. Students who had visited a piece of monumental architecture—the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, say, or the Tower of Pisa—were so proud to have had a moment with a great human achievement.
And in the spirit of human achievement, when we check in on Notre Dame to see what its latest state is, will we find that it’s better than it was before? Stronger? Like all lessons, this one will evolve and I’m excited to see what others do with it.
About the author: Chris teaches at San Diego High School of International Studies and is one of the original pilot teachers for BHP. He began working on the project in the fall of 2010. Chris teaches BHP as a year-long elective to around 35 ninth graders. San Diego High School is the oldest high school in San Diego and is a Title I public school.
Cover image: Notre Dame at night, © Nikada / Getty Images.