Histories and Languages

Big History
Japanese I  
 Japanese II
Big History Introduction
     Teaching English for three years in Japan's public elementary and middle schools after finishing an M.A. in History offered a unique background for my classes, and I knew enough Japanese language so I could understand kids' questions about the world. I quickly found that the biggest impression they had was that Japan is a "little country surrounded by much bigger ones;" and, that they had little affinity for non-Japanese people in the grander scale of human history. For example, some imaginative second and third graders even asked "whether foreigners came from a different planet than Japanese." I felt that if these kids were ever going to ever feel a real part of the world at large and be confident speaking with foreigners, they would need to see themselves as a part of the bigger history of humanity. I believed, and still believe, that without a common grounding in a global history of humanity, our often mutually-exclusive national identities could easily nurture the type of xenophobia that led to Fascism during Great Depression and the Second World War. 
     So with the help of a like-minded Japanese elementary school teacher and illustrator, we created a curriculum that introduced simple English words and phrases into a story of our planet in space, our common origins in Africa, migrations around the planet and the effects of different environments on skin pigment changes in the process. We created and taught the curriculum, and a Japanese pedagogical journal published a follow-up study a year later that attempted to measure the content the kids retained. We found that the curriculum succeeded in instilling in second and third graders an affinity with common human origins in Africa, migrations around the planet, and they could still describe the relationship between changing skin color and the new lands where early humans settled.
     After three years teaching English and global studies in Japan, I returned to my home in northern Georgia, U.S.A., and noticed similar gaps in southern Appalachian students' understanding of their relationship to peoples in other parts of the world. Like the Japanese kids who wondered where foreigners came from, kids in northern Georgia were largely in the dark about foreigners and their "other" cultures and religions. An American-inspired curriculum would develop out of the bedtime stories and related discussions my wife and I had with our three children growing up in the "Bible Belt," where many people see everything in the world as having a connection to the Bible. My kids questions put the Bible in proper context.
     My children's concept of religion was affected by their mother who is from Japan where religion is a much more private affair, and a person's religious beliefs are usually not mutually-exclusive toward other religions. At home, my kids learned Bible stories along with stories from other cultures; and, they understandably wondered why the Bible did not include more stories about animals like some of their favorite Japanese and Cherokee stories.  The kids understood that the Hebrews did not have access to information about Japan and the Cherokee because their world was centered on the land in between Mesopotamia and Egypt (the Fertile Crescent). They learned that the climate in the Biblical lands during last few thousand years was (and still is) drying up, and losing its forests and wild animals, so people had to learn to graze sheep and farm more and more. The lands of the Cherokee in the Southeastern U.S., on the other hand, remained largely forested and filled with wild animals during the same time-frame. My kids found that Japan had other conditions worth considering too, and they wondered what the Bible would be like if the Hebrews could see as much of the world as we can today. They were only in second or third grade then, that same inquisitive age that the kids were in Japan who were asking me bold questions about the world.
     Between my experiences teaching in Japan and teaching my own children from the formative elementary years; as well as teaching secondary school and college history (Chinese, World, and U.S.) in Georgia, I became convinced that students were capable of working with a number of global contexts from the early elementary years through junior college. And rather than study the disciplines separately, a multidisciplinary approach to history using Astronomy, Geology, Paleontology, Biology, Anthropology, could, over time, enable students of all ages to begin to understand and analyze the world more globally.  Cross-regional comparisons would also be essential to understanding the similarities and differences of cultures as the world became more and more globalized. For example, studying the Han Chinese empire along with the Roman empire simultaneously and the related spread of Christianity and Buddhism, to understand how religion changes over time and often gets tangled-up with politics.
     Learning other languages is the icing on the cake, by helping us see culturally unique possibilities for meaning and expression. When you get into your studies and use of a foreign language deeply enough, you're bound to discover words and phrases that may express your feelings in ways that are really unique to that language and may even help give you clues to questions of universal significance. We focus on Spanish and Japanese here, but there are many more possibilities, especially if have a chance to go to a country to live and experience the rich nuances of other languages and cultures.
     Following in the tradition of using a different language to learn about the stars and the earth, as we used English as a second language in Japan, the curriculum project that follows incorporates some introductory Japanese and Spanish that you are encouraged to study along with a multi-disciplinary approach to the history of the universe for ninth and tenth graders, especially those who want to take the AP World History course. And if this multi-disciplinary approach intrigues you enough to want to learn more, you ought to explore the bighistoryproject.com and consider taking their course as well. If you'd like some coaching with the course, you can schedule an individual or group meeting here or work with us through a series of Skype sessions to discuss the contents and possibilities for science, language arts, and social studies classes to meet your academic needs regardless of your age or grade level.

     Imagine a warm spring night in June, in an overgrown field, as dusk turns to darkness, surrounded by hundreds of fireflies lighting-up all around you as you sit around a crackling bonfire with your family. As you look up into the sky, the sparks from the fire seem to blend together with the stars and the fireflies. A small child looks up at the stars too, and starts to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. 

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
    How I wonder what you are!
    Up above the world so high,
    Like a diamond in the sky.   

This song has different versions in other parts of the world that are worth exploring! In the Japanese language, inanimate objects, like the sun, moon, and stars are often personified with the honorific, Mister (Sama). In this Japanese version, Mister Star blinks like a person for the people looking at him or her (it seems genderless!). The Spanish version has more verses and must be rich with different nuances too. 

Here are a few more verses of the song from when the English version of the song was written over a hundred years ago.

When the blazing sun is gone,
    When he nothing shines upon,
    Then you show your little light,
    Twinkle, twinkle, all the night

Then the traveler in the dark,
    Thanks you for your tiny sparks;
    He could not see which way to go,
    If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
    And often through my curtains peep,
    For you never shut your eye
    'Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
    Lights the traveler in the dark,
    Though I know not what you are.
     Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
    We have always used our eyes to wonder about the stars and the sun, which we now know is our closest star. From the perspective of our eyes, though, the sun appears to rise in the east and set in the west, and the arc of it pathway, rises higher in the sky in the summer and lower in the winter. At night, the stars appear to revolve around the earth and their pathways change with the seasons too. From the perspective of astronomy, we now know that it is the earth's rotation and annual orbit around the sun that make the stars look like they move. Our physical senses, especially our eyes, regarding the stars, still determine how many people think about and interact with the stars. There are people in the Appalachian mountains who plant according to the position of the constellations in the sky on a given week; and similarly, other peoples in the world have built their cultures around the stories they saw coming to life in the stars. Before the rise of city lights, people noticed the sky alive with changing shapes that could very well be representing the dreams, stories, and heroes of the viewer. Make sure to keep observations of the night sky a part of your Earth and Sky program journal and include some follow-up research on some constellations. Here's some more background on Orion as we move toward exploring more of the scientific story of the origins of the universe:

     30,000 years ago, the Aurignacian people living in what we now call Europe carved the pattern of stars we now call Orion into a mammoth ivory tusk, and peoples the world over saw different characters in the Orion pattern of stars: the Babylonians saw the True Shepherd; in Egypt, it was associated with Osiris and the earliest progenitors of the gods of which the pharaohs hoped to become in their afterlife; the Greeks called him the Mighty Hunter, and the Muslims called him al-jabbar, the giant with a sword; the Rig Veda of South Asia calls the stars, the deer large and small who are hunted by dogs and a hunter; the Malay called the the three stars of Orion's belt, the Three Brothers; other European peoples have called it the archer and the reaper; and in the Americas, the Lakota people have called the Bison; and to the Ojibwa, the bringer of winter; the Spanish have called it the Three Marys, or the Three Wise Men. 
Telescopes have revealed that the star representing the sword on Orion's belt is a nebulae, the remains of a dying star's supernova explosion from which new stars are born. Hover your mouse over the eyepiece on the telescope to have a look at it yourself.
     Only in recent centuries have we been able to make the scientific observations and measurements to peer close enough into these lights in the night sky to discover nebula like the one in Orion's sword. Massive telescopes have even found whole galaxies in the light that we once thought was a mere star. And we now know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is only one of billions of galaxies in our known universe. Astronomy, the science of mapping space and time, has proven that our sun, the earth and the other planets of our solar system are 4.7 billion years old and their creation took another 9 billion years before that before rare elements like gold formed from numerous supernovae explosions of stars that had reached the end of their life cycles when the nuclear fusion burning of hydrogen and helium collapses. The resulting implosions of the stars spent their energy source created as much heat and light as a whole galaxies that we can see if we're lucky enough. Astronomy follows a trail of evidence spanning 13.8 billion years going back to a moment when everything was unified by unimaginable gravity and heat before a cooling and expansion began known as the Big Bang!
     As you explore more of the details of the origin story science tell us, think about how these perspectives are different from traditional origin stories of the stars, the planets, and life on earth. Is it possible to find ways to combine features of the two types of stories into one that makes you feel more of a part of it? Choose the details that you could include in a story that you might even dare to share with your family on a June evening sitting together around a fire under the stars surrounded by fireflies!

1. The Great Mystery of Origin: from the "Big Crunch" to the "Big Bang" to the first particles and the four forces
What does it mean that everything that ever was, and will be, is compressed into something the size of the pin-point that is more dense and hot than anything that has ever been since, a combined plasma state of matter and energy so dense that even light could not escape the gravity. Many Astronomers call this state just before the Big Bang, the "Grand Unification," when everything was one in the hottest temperature ever -- 1032 C°, or 100 nonillion degrees F°, or "Absolute Hot." Astronomers have used other words like "Big Crunch" and "Great Singularity," to describe the heat of the plasma conditions. This discovery must beg many questions in your mind, like "How long was it like this?" or Could time even exist at this point if everything was combined?" What clues, if any, might it give us about the nature of our existence?
     No one knows what came before or what caused such conditions to arise, or how long it lasted, but we know that the story of our existence is what unfolded as the "Grand Unification" flared-forth into the universe that we know today. It's no wonder that people have used capitalized, reverential words in attempt to describe the edge of our understanding. The ancient Hebrews believed that there was no single word that was adequate to describe the Great Mystery of everything, so they wrote it in unutterable consonants, the combinations of which, they believed, should not even be written in the same place.
     Whether it's the age before telescopes when we only had the physical senses we were born with to perceive the universe, or after the rise of space-based telescopes when we could probe the depths of the Big Bang, the point of the ultimate origin of the universe will always remain a Great Mystery. Traditional origin stories may link the purpose of human existence to the Great Mystery, but science only focuses on the measurable motions of the universe after the "Grand Unification" when the "Absolute Hot" began to cool down enough for the four forces to arise: 1) gravity; 2) the strong nuclear force; 3) electromagnetism; and 4), the weak nuclear force. These fundamental forces that remain operating today, began affecting the arrangement of quarks, the smallest measurable particles, allowing them to organize into the the first protons and electrons which would eventually make up the nucleuses of the first atoms of hydrogen and helium, the fuel that would light up the first stars 380,000 years later. 
     Compare that with the Greek version of the universe being born out of primordial Chaos which then first gave birth to the Gods of the Earth (Gaea), Love (Eros), and the Underworld (Tartarus). Or the Chinese story of creation in which the Universe was born from a great Cosmic Egg of Yin (dark female), and Yang (light, male) forces that would remain the fundamental dynamic of existence everywhere. Maybe there are still some emotional truths we can gain from traditional origin stories, as well as the scientific. Create a chart that compares the scientific story with four or five traditional stories that you research on your own. Who or what is given credit for originating the universe in each? How long ago did it take place? What were the fundamental parts or players in each? You may discover some other categories you want to include, and don't forget that story that combines parts of each that you're going to tell around the campfire some night!
2. First generation stars light up and carbon is born
   380,000 years after the Big Bang and the first hydrogen, helium, and lithium began to form around their nucleuses, and the new atoms began to accumulate and heat-up, com protons fusing to light up the first stars due to the unequal distribution of the atoms in the expanding universe. Because the elements were grouped more thickly in some parts of the universe than others, the proximity caused a combined gravity to attract more into the center, and the new gravitational centers eventually started nuclear fusion among the hydrogen atoms which, in effect, lit-up, projecting the first photons (light) which we see as the stars to this day. Some of the photons from those first stars on the other side of the universe are only now reaching us to see them light up. What we call time is only a term that describes the passing of photons across the universe and many of the calculations regarding the movement of the stars and the galaxies depend on the calculations of the movement of photons on the color spectrum. 
   For the next billion years, these "first generation" stars burned on hydrogen fusion until it ran out and gravity pulled everything together forcefully enough for protons in helium to fuse and cast starlight even brighter than before, and in the process, create another basic element: carbon. And so burned the first generation of stars for about a billion years, until the helium ran out. What would happen when it all collapsed on itself after the fusion finished?

3. Supernovae and Galaxies
     The intense gravity that resulted from the end of helium fusion in the first generation of stars created such immense heat that an explosion of immense proportion, a supernovae, resulted. From a supernovae explosion, new elements like iron that would be essential for the planets in new solar systems. For at least billions of years, supernovae explosions of new elements spewed out into nebulae clouds and the variety of distribution and related  created new star systems, or solar systems.  The gravity of numerous supernovae and its interstellar debris have created the conditions for groups of stars to gather in common gravitational pull toward new centers to the present day. The Orion nebulae, pictured in the telescope above, is one of the younger nebulae and even visible without a telescope from earth and it has been giving birth to new stars for the last 30 million years. Collections of nebulae and their resulting stars formed the galaxies, the centers of which hold the gravity that causes rotation pull toward and around the center, which is often so powerful that photons can not even escape, hence the name, black hole. Luckily, for us, in the Milky Way galaxy, our solar system, is just far enough away from the center not to be sucked in, and close enough to be a part of the spinning motion of the whole galaxy around the center, for us, once every 230 million years, travelling at 828,000 km per hour! Astronomical calculations verify the details of this story, but that's certainly not to say that that's all there is to the story! There are a lot more intriguing details and questions that may speak to you enough to want to include in a better telling of the story, if you are so inclined! How do some planets like earth, with just the right distance from the sun, and just the right combination of elements spring forth life?

"365 Days of Language Project" for Japanese, Spanish, and French language students (created by students at I.A.A.) 
Click "full screen" and use to review verbs and usage.