Chimpanzees and Xanax=Moment of The Year

Photo: Alessandro Tramonti

Photo: Alessandro Tramonti

Educational gold was unearthed last week by a chimpanzee, Xanax, and a face-transplant.

I have this thing I do to encourage good question asking--Good, Better, Best. I give the kids some piece of stimulus like a YouTube video, article, or picture, then give them a set amount of time to write down as many questions as they can about the subject. I then have them chose their best ones to share, then rank them out loud according to good questions, better ones, and the best ones. 

I hand out the "best" sparingly. Those are the questions that reveal the student sees a few layers into the issue. Those are the ones that get at the problems that aren't easily recognizable, like power-struggles, unseen actors, and universal implications. Big picture things. The goods and betters are just the questions that aren't there yet. "Good" is for questions that sit on the surface and usually deal with basic facts that either aren't directly answered in the thing I show them or that they just missed because they weren't paying attention. "Better" is for questions approaching "Best."

So I was browsing the internet and came across an article about this woman being released from a study involving a face transplant because her body began to reject the face. I read on. Turns out she was the lady in the news a few years ago that was mauled beyond recognition by her boss' chimpanzee. She lost her eyes, nose, lips, ears, and hands. This chimpanzee named Travis had been a model citizen for fourteen years of it's life, a "town icon," another article noted, then just went nuts one day. 

Travis the chimp had been "rambunctious" the day of the event. At one point took his owner's keys off the counter, unlocked the front door, and walked around tapping on car doors, apparently indicating that he wanted a ride. My kids wondered about the word "rambunctious," though as I explained, they practiced it very well. Travis' owner then gave him "tea laced with Xanax," but to no avail. The owner then calls her friend/employee over to help, but when she steps out of the car, Travis goes nuts and mauls her.  His owner proceeded to grab a knife from the kitchen and stab the chimpanzee to get him off her friend, but he just kept attacking. The owner later described him looking up at her like, "Mom? What are you doing?" After a while, he leaves her for a police car that just pulled up, goes over to the driver door, opens it, and then is shot by the officer fearing for his safety. Travis runs off into the woods, then later returns to his nest in the house where he dies. 

This heartbreaking story had a lot going on. A lot of problems, issues, feelings, and conflicts. I knew I had to bring this to my class. I was worried because the facts were graphic and the story could evoke strong emotions, but this was the world they were citizens of. These were issues and the news of the world they occupied and have to learn to exist in. It was one of those teacher moments when you weigh things based on their developmental ability to cope and in this case, it seemed within their ability. I have to admit though, I was mostly driven by wanting to see what questions they would come up with.

I read them the article, played them an audio clip of the 911 call, then showed them an interview with the victim after a visit to Congress where she argued for stricter laws regarding keeping wild animals as pets. Needless to say, they were riveted. And the questions--they were gold.

  • "Why is she allowed to keep a wild animal as a pet?"
  • "Did the owner get her money back?" This question still intrigues me: did it come from the idea that a customer should be reimbursed for the loss of goods (Travis being shot), or because the owner was sold a "bad" chimpanzee?
  • "How was the owner able to transport Travis through states (from Missouri where she bought him to Connecticut where she lived) where it wasn't legal to keep chimpanzees as pets?"
  • "Has the victim laughed after the accident?"
  • "What did they do with Travis after he died?"

Then, someone asked this question, and the whole lesson transformed:

  • "What if the drugs affected him?"

It was something that hadn't crossed my mind in the slightest. What if the Xanax that the owner had given Travis to calm him down somehow had a negative reaction? Once that question was asked, like I said, the whole lesson transformed into a discussion between the students. A passionate discussion where they looked each other in the eyes, where they listened to each others ideas and built upon them. It felt like the holy grail of education. It was one of those moments that reminds you why you committed to this thing.

They started talking with each other about how drugs negatively affect people and how thats what could have happened with Travis. They brought up the point that these were drugs for humans and maybe hadn't been tested on animals. 

The discussion suddenly evolved into a debate. It became a question of who was at fault: the owner, the friend (she had gotten a new haircut), Travis, or the drugs (One student added in the drug company for not putting a warning label on the Xanax). Students were standing up out of their seats to counter another student's thoughts. At one point, I stopped them all to jot down their claim (who they thought was responsible) and any support they could think of for their claim. This was so they would have some ammunition for continuing the debate and to incorporate the few students that hadn't found a foot-hold yet. They identified all sorts of possible problems within this. Did the owner know this would happen? Is it irresponsible to give someone something to eat or drink without knowing the effects it may have? One quiet student came up to me and asked in his broken English, "Don't humans and chimpanzees have, like, a relationship?" I struggled for a moment to understand what he was trying to say, and then momentously realized he was referring to the genetic similarity primates have to humans as an argument for why the drugs could have not been the cause. The debate went back and forth for longer than I could have hoped until I had to cut it off with fifteen hands still in the air.  I had students raising their voices, trying to get their thoughts heard. As they cleaned up for the day, they splintered off into little groups to continue the discussion.

It was pure magic.

I realized that these moments are what I want to go after. They are defined by engrossment, multi-dimensional thinking, and deep questions. Questions feel the most important. If I can teach a student to ask good questions, I can leave them feeling confident they're on a path to life-long learning. When they can see deeply into a problem or a topic and ask questions that get to the heart of the thing, Im pretty sure they leave with better understanding. And better understanding leads to better connections with other information and ultimately, more questions that encourage more seeking out of answers. It becomes a viciously beautiful cycle that drives (and pulls) a person forward into learning.

I think this lesson was effective thanks to the novelty and seriousness of the topic and because it turned into a debate that required them to chose a side. Turns out they love real and serious things--and choice.