On November 21st, I experienced everything a field trip should be! The sixth graders are completing a unit around the essential question “What does it mean to be human?” which is the same question asked in the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. So we ventured out to DC (Home of the Bison) to see how we could better answer the question that seems to drive not only our Humanities class during this unit, but scientists and social scientists around the world.  To prepare for this trip, we studied cave art and built our own cave, studied and acted out the evolution of early humans, compared sources to see what we are really being told about our early ancestors, had a guest speaker come in and tell us about her search for ancestors, made a list of what it means to be human according to early humans, and finally connected capabilities, traits, and needs of early humans to modern humans through a study of human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and made our own Bills of Human Rights). In Language Arts, we studied characters within stories, questioned their motivation, and determined if they were static or dynamic. But the greatest thing we did to prepare for this trip was explore the work of Brandon Stanton in his website “Humans of New York” to study how he connects to everyday people and strangers.  We then devised our own questions to ask others with whom we would be sharing the experience of exploring the museum.  The purpose of the questions was to get to know the individual on a level that exposes their humanity, even if only for the 60 seconds that the interaction would last.  So students were prompted to ask questions about what made the person with whom they were speaking dynamic, what motivates them, or simply what they’re like. And the questions were MIND-BLOWING! Some of my personal favorites were:

Do you feel like you have reached your full potential goals and needs?

What was an experience that changed your life?

Have you ever had a really close connection with someone?

If you could go back in time, what would you change?

Have you ever been heartbroken?

What keeps you going in life?

What is something that you are not proud of?

Did you ever do something that you regretted in the long run?

If you were able to do something good for the world, what would it be?

What age do you think was your best age? Do you think you would want to be that age again?

What was the most painful moment in your life?

Are you proud of yourself?

If you could have something back, what would it be?

What’s happening in the world that you are completely against?

I was very excited about what the students would explore in the museum. I was excited that instead of giving them a paper guide, students would be guided by their own curiosity (I used Remind 101 to text students while we were separated in the museum about what they should be looking for and they used their phones to take pictures of these things) and they could legitimately explore the museum. I was even excited that there would be a 3-D IMAX movie. But I was extremely hesitant about the idea of students going up to strangers asking them questions, personal questions at that. In fact, when introducing the task, I told my students that we would probably fail and fail miserably. But when I planned this trip, it wasn’t just important that students see early humans. I really wanted them to be able to better answer the questions “What does it mean to be human?” when they walked away from this trip. And when I thought about what was needed for this to happen, talking to strangers seemed to be a risk we could take.

At the museum, it was amazing to see my students come alive in front of exhibits, whether they had previous knowledge or not. It was even fun to explore along with students. We came across a cave with handprints that we recognized as signatures and we could put our hands there. I was even more interested in the way students interacted with the people with whom they asked questions. It was the most rewarding thing to see students able to talk with others.  I wonder if my students have learned as much from this unit as I have just from watching them on this trip.

When thinking about what it means to be fully human, to me, that means being able to live up your full potential. This trip definitely helped me better understand what that means by asking me and pushing my students to live it. It’s one thing to study how others are fully human; it’s another thing altogether to be pushed outside of a comfort zone. That is the only way we will really reach our full potential.

 

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