I recently read an article about the importance of experiencing awe in your life and how that affects us and improves our lives. I was so happy to hear that the impact of genuine wonder at the world around us is validated by science.
Psychologists interviewed for the article defined awe as “the emotion we feel in response to something vast that defies our existing frame of reference in one area or another, and leads us to change our perception of that frame of reference.”
Awe changes us by making us realize that we are a part of something bigger. There are many things in life that cause us to experience this emotion — big things like the ocean or mountains, a supermoon or an eclipse, magnificent structures; creative things like the theater, a symphony, or a piece of art; and new things and experiences, like travel.
I strive to live my life finding the awe in the everyday. As director of the Middle School Global Studies program at Morgan Park Academy, I want to pass this important emotion on to our students.
The world is filled with amazing things that make you feel small and almost insignificant when you think about them. This is good. It is the consequence of that feeling that makes you feel more connected with others. When you are filled with awe, you feel humbled. Your perception is altered and you are acutely aware that, as great as you are, you are not even close to being the center of the universe. This sense of insignificance inspires us to be more altruistic and communal, something today’s world could benefit from. Also good.
So how do we get our students to stop and think about the amazing things in this world? Global answer: You expose them to the world!
In Middle School, this year we increased our students’ exposure to their world by offering international language trips to China, France, and Panama. Students who didn’t participate in these optional trips participated in local language immersion trips for all three languages. These experiences produced no small amount of awe.
Dr. Zhao and I led a group of 10 students to China, including five students who had never left the country before. Imagine how exciting this was for them!
Our first moment of awe took place on our flight. Stop and think about how incredible this was: We left Chicago and 12 hours later we were in China! Flying to China, when you think about it, should make you feel small. We flew 7,000 miles over the Arctic Circle, through Russia, to get there. And the miracle of flight was aided by the miracle of technology which allowed us to watch our flight path, height, and speed on a computer screen the entire time. So much about the experience of flight is amazing and incredible if you stop and think about it.
Many things on this trip had the unintended effect of inspiring awe in all of us. Here are 6 more:
1. Climbing the Great Wall. The sheer size of this structure made us all feel tiny. We were climbing a 2,200-year-old wall that was built to keep out invaders, an ancient wall built during Emperor Qin’s rule, the only man-made structure that can be seen from space! A wall 13,000 miles long that 400,000 people died to build. Climbing this, whether you made it to the top of the small section where we were on or not, made each of us realize how small each of us is in time and space.
2. Walking through the Forbidden City. This complex, which has 9,999.5 rooms (under 10,000 because heaven was thought to have 10,000 rooms and the emperor couldn’t have more than heaven) and covers 72 hectares, was built in just 16 years with the help of 1 million laborers and 100,000 artisans! Those numbers are outstanding! They beg so many follow-up questions that generated discussions about government systems and maintaining rule. This complex was built to protect one guy. The artistic nature of these buildings got us thinking about how talented human beings can be.
3. Seeing the Temple of Heaven. This gorgeous temple — constructed without any nails or screws; what? — was built to connect the emperor to heaven. Structurally amazing, as well as artistically outstanding. I concluded that everyone is more talented than me and human creativity can be so amazing.
4. Riding the Bullet Train. This train took us from Beijing to Xi’an in 4 hours 15 minutes without a stop. We traveled close to 200 mph! A traditional train would have taken us over 13 hours. And we stopped to let passengers off and on! Traveling across China at this speed was hard to fathom. Put into perspective, this was the equivalent of going from Chicago to New York in that time. Thinking about how humans designed and executed this idea so successfully and how it moves so many people across China was also quite mind-blowing.
5. Visiting the Terra-Cotta Warriors. Words will never do this place justice. The size of this discovery, how it was discovered, how these soldiers were built, how many there were and still are — all are mind-blowing questions! The Terra-Cotta Warriors were accidentally discovered in 1974 when a farmer was digging a pit for a well. This discovery yielded over 8,000 life-size terra-cotta warriors and horses, a couple of chariots, and a plethora of other artifacts, including weapons, all crushed from the earth roof of the room they were placed in! It also yielded the tomb of Emperor Qin, which has not been unearthed, and an entire tomb complex. It is no wonder it is called the 8th Wonder of the World. To make things even more unreal, we learned that since its discovery 44 years ago, only 1,000 of these warriors have been pieced back together and only one (the lucky archer) was found entirely intact. It really gives you a feel for how tedious and time-consuming the work of history is and how incredible human creativity and ingenuity and man power can be too!
6. Bicycling on the ancient city walls of Xi’an. The most complete city wall in China surrounds the city of Xi’an. It is an ancient military defense system complete with fortresses, parapets, and ancient weapons used on invaders! The wall is 40 feet high, 46 feet thick, and almost nine miles around. There are four giant gates which lead into the city itself. Exploring this crazy structure that was built during the Ming Dynasty on top by bicycle was pretty amazing! It gave us a unique perspective of the construction of the wall, its size, its history and purpose, and of the geography of Xi’an.
I also read an article about a short documentary where this guy went around Los Angeles with a crazy large telescope on wheels, inviting people to look up at the moon. Believe it or not, some people were seeing the moon for the first time. These people experienced that powerful emotion of awe. They were confronted by their meager place in this world. They couldn’t avoid the fact that we all share this planet. And with this small action, looking up, they remembered that we are part of a larger universe.
Global Studies is more than just getting kids out of the classroom. It is more than a field trip. It is more than time away from school. Beyond the language exposure and practice, the February language immersion experience in Middle School encouraged students to connect to their world, to be amazed by it, and feel a part of it and want to act on that feeling. The experiences our students gained on our trip to China could not possibly be replicated in the traditional classroom. Our students’ world is changing; our classrooms should too.
Seeing oneself as a global citizen is important in today’s world, where students are more connected to people everywhere than at any other time in all of human history. When we experience looking up, which is what we do by travel, we are reminded of how small we are and how much we need each other. And that is a good thing for all of us.
By Colleen Amberg
Mrs. Amberg teaches sixth-grade English and social studies, leads development of our social studies curriculum, and directs our Global Studies program for Middle School.