Curiosity Leads to Change: Executive Director Reflections

Common Ground had the great pleasure of hosting a visit this week from Curt Ellis, who spoke to staff and students about the journey that led him from eating donuts to becoming a nationally recognized film maker and food advocate. Curt told the story of how he and his room-mate in college would scavenge a garbage bag of day-old donuts outside Dunkin’ Donuts every Friday at 10 pm and spend the rest of the weekend consuming them. One day he picked up a stale glazed donut, and saw it in a different light. He was compelled to ask the question, “What IS this thing?” This was the beginning of a journey that led him to co-create the award winning documentary King Corn, and to found FoodCorps, a newly created national AmeriCorps service program focused on school gardens and nutrition education.

The trajectory of Curt’s life clearly illustrates how a lively curiosity can be life changing, and highlights the importance of questioning even the most obvious and mundane things. Children and young people seem to be naturally curious about the world – something of which we take advantage without compunction here at Common Ground. We work hard to ensure this sense of wonder continues to be encouraged and nurtured in our high school students, recognizing that it is the basis for life-long learning. My experience is that as we mature we tend to become more cynical (is it just me?), which makes it harder to maintain that almost-naïve sense of wonder that if pursued with passion can lead to “wonder”ful things. It gives me great joy to watch the young people with whom I have the privilege of associating (including my own kids!) question the world. But I will also admit I have to very conscientiously keep myself from playing the role of cynic or know-it-all when exposed to the curiosity of youth.

While I am not a teacher, I know from my colleagues at Common Ground that building knowledge without “giving” the answer is one of the most important skills that a good educator must master. The questions we ask in pursuing understanding are perhaps even more important than the answers we find – because the questions characterize how you are thinking about an issue, and it is thinking about things that leads to real understanding, not simply looking for “the answer”. This is why students at Common Ground begin every new area of study by developing a list of “essential questions” that define an approach and describe what it is important to know in order to understand the challenge at hand. Hearing the questions these students asked of Curt Ellis this week, I was reminded that

When Curt Ellis asked: “What IS this thing?” about the donut he was eating, the first thing he came up with was a list of ingredients. But then he went on to ask “What are these ingredients and where do they come from?” and the answer to that question generated a cascade of essential questions that – fortunately for us – began a journey that led to the creation of King Corn (a movie that students in our Food and Environment class watch each year) and the creation of the FoodCorps (one of whom we hope will be working here at Common Ground next year – please Congress, fully fund the program), and that finally led Curt here to Common Ground to share his story with us last week. And for me personally, his story caused me to reflect on the importance of curiosity and led me to a renewed commitment to be less cynical, and to make sure I think about the essential questions that I need to be asking about every challenge I face. So thank you, Curt Ellis, for telling your story, and inspiring me to aspire to be less cynical. I invite all cynical adults out there to join me. I have to admit, I feel younger already!


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