The Power of Essential Questions

One thing that I love about our curriculum design is the prompting of "essential questions" which link to curricular standards but provide some interesting topics to discuss as a class and write about. With each student having their own Google doc, each student can answer their essential questions in a way that makes sense to them.

Yesterday, we observed microscopic protists in a drop of pond water. When the students were finished, they washed their samples down the drain. I asked students how they felt about "killing" thousands of life forms. Many of them laughed. I went further to ask "How many of you have stepped on an insect on purpose?" Everyone raised their hand. This brought us to our essential question:

Why are some living things worth "saving" more than others? For example, why do we want to save a polar bear from extinction rather than a pathogen or AIDS virus?

Students frantically wrote answers. Here are some notables from my 11 year old sixth graders:

I think one of the reason’s why we don’t care about bacteria, pathogen, aids virus, and others, since they are small. And so most people can’t see it or don’t know about it. And I also think aids, pathogen, and other virus and bacteria can reproduce and spread much faster than our animals now. And the animals we have now are more rare, then they have of bacteria, aids, virus and much. Since the population of a bacteria, aids, and virus are huge, we are not afraid it will die off soon.

Bacteria can be a decomposer so it very little of them but for a ant we don’t care if we kill it because it reproduce foaster so it has more population and the big things reproduce slowly.

For little organisms, people think that they won’t extinct because usually many little things reproduce many of them at once or they reproduce very fast. Also, we care about things that we can see, the ones that they are easily seen. 

I think it is because that there are a lot of  AIDS virus . Like there is a tons of virus in one room. But like a polar bear it is instinct. And bacteria reproduce quickly but humans and animals can’t reproduce quickly.

Following our group share and discussion I left the class thinking about whether or not it is human nature to protect or destroy. Perhaps its in our own nature to do one or the other. However, since we so callously destroy life that is small and insignificant and don't bat an eye, perhaps this explains why the poor are marginalized in society, the weak students are bullied, and we discredit the accomplishments of the smallest things. My students walked out of class a little quieter than usual, not doubt pondering such dilemmas and knowing that the choice of course was each of theirs. The lesson connected science to their own humanity and allowed to reflect on empathy, respect and tolerance. Can a standardized test measure that?

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