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How Ms. Wellings creates the universe

It's a sensitive subject, the origin of everything, but an elementary school gifted teacher finds a way to spark imagination, not controversy.

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published August 26, 2005


LARGO - Driving to work, Ms. Jeanne Wellings likes to listen to NPR. Lately she has heard there is controversy in Kansas about the teaching of creation. The big bang. The Hand of God. President Bush has endorsed the teaching of intelligent design theory, where an all-knowing creator set the universe in motion.

Ms. Wellings isn't up on the specifics. She wonders why the controversy has come up now. She has been teaching the big-bang theory to 8-year-olds for 15 years.

It's not part of standard third-grade curriculum. School boards and governments debate what kids must learn. Ms. Wellings, in the gifted program at Ridgecrest Elementary, has to teach space and planets and critical thinking. She can add what she likes.

She added the big-bang theory because she loves it. It is a vast idea. She loves that word, vast. Uses it in class.

The lesson makes the kids ask questions. It gets families talking. It's low tech. No PowerPoint or video. They have so much of that already.

Just 20 minutes on a hot August Friday, pondering the mysteries of creation, the vast expanse of a child's imagination.

She taught the lesson last week. Listen in if you want.

Just don't sit next to someone you are tempted to talk to, as Ms. Wellings would say, because this is a listening lesson.

True believers

"Today's lesson is called the big-bang theory," Ms. Wellings says.

The boys and girls are sitting on a carpet, and on the carpet is a map of the world. In front of them is Ms. Wellings, and behind Ms. Wellings is the chalkboard. On the chalkboard are taped construction-paper posters from their last lesson, about creation myths. Ms. Wellings reminds them how, when ancient people couldn't figure out where they came from, they made up stories using what they saw. Some American Indians imagined that the world formed on the back of a turtle.

Ms. Wellings tells them today's story is told by scientists, and it is based on what they see.

"No one, not even scientists, can prove if it is true," she says. "You should not choose to believe this just because some scientists believe it and just because I'm telling it to you."

This is important, because 8-year-olds tend to believe whatever the teacher says, just like they often believe whatever mom and dad say. Ms. Wellings doesn't want them to have to take sides.

"You should decide with the people who love you the most," she says. "Your parents. Your parents might have some really clear ideas about how the world started."

She tells them that when her son learned this theory in school he came home and talked to her about it. She won't tell the class what they talked about, but it was a great discussion because he was learning to be a critical thinker like a scientist.

"Were any of us here when the universe began?"

The kids all shake their heads.

"Noooooooooooooooooooooo!"

"Since none of us were here, we all have to decide what we believe. None of us have a right to tell each other what they should believe. Respect is what makes our classroom a happy place.

"So now I'm going to tell you the story.

"Close your eyes."

Alien nation

She knows it's controversial. She won't say whether she believes the big bang happened. She always sends a letter home offering parents an alternate lesson. In 15 years no one has taken her up on it. No one has complained.

Often kids tell her it was their favorite lesson. Near the end of last school year, a parent told her the topic returned again and again to the dinner table.

She doesn't mention God, although she definitely has kids who believe the world was made in seven days. She's pretty sure she has kids in her class with relatives from five continents, so their beliefs about how the universe began might be more diverse than she even imagines. She doesn't assume. She allows questions but it never turns into wide-open debate. Third-graders are more likely to sneak up to her a couple days later and whisper a question. Sometimes they say Ms. Wellings, maybe aliens started the universe. And she says What an interesting idea, maybe they did.

She reads to them from Stephen Hawking, from the most esteemed and accomplished minds. And then she always tells them they'll have to decide for themselves. Just because it's in a book doesn't mean it's so.

How many things does an 8-year-old get to decide about?

How about where all life began?

She likes the lesson because it is empowering.

The Little Bang

"I want you to close your eyes and think back to when you were very young, maybe when you were in kindergarten, maybe when you were a baby and you were crying. Imagine back to when your parents were children, and then imagine farther back, to when the first people lived here, and back, way back, to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and back to a time when the earth was young and it was hot and there was no life here.

"And then I want you to go back farther, to a time when there was just a few stars and dust, and farther, to a time when there were no Earth, no galaxies, no stars, no nebulas, no nothing but nothingness.

"Then imagine, in the middle of this nothingness, a something. A singularity."

Now Ms. Wellings has the children push their hands together as hard as they can until they shake. Most of them still have their eyes closed. Some of them look like they are praying.

"This singularity is a hot, infinitely dense ... something. Let's call this singularity a "Cosmic Egg.' No one knows where the Cosmic Egg came from. The scientists aren't explaining that part."

Now Ms. Wellings has sneaked away from the circle, which is holding little hands tightly together and squeezing little eyes, more or less, tightly shut. She picks up one of those meter sticks that all teachers seem to possess. She points it at a black balloon, hanging, unnoticed until now, from the ceiling tiles above their heads.

She tells them the Cosmic Egg is extremely small, and extremely hot, and extremely dense, and under enormous pressure, and inside it are all the parts ...

Pop!

All the little bits of Ms. Wellings' imaginary universe shoot out of the cosmic egg balloon and float down from the ceiling, silver and gold glittery stars and planets, all over the carpet of the world and over her third-grade class, eyes wide open now, hands reaching and grabbing and scooping up galaxies.

"Ooooh I knew it!"

"Oh, I get it!"

"... that would some day become the stars," Ms. Wellings says.

On the carpet the heavens are scraped and divided into territories, and then as Ms. Wellings restores order, the third-graders begin to clap.

- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com