Bridgette Byrd O’Conner
BHP Teacher, Louisiana, U.S.A.

About the author: The 2016/17 school year marks Bridgette Byrd O’Connor’s fifth year teaching BHP as a semester-long history course. She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches her 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.

easter-island-mysteryAllow me to state the obvious: the BHP course offers a ton of activities. I’ve now taught the course for four years and I’ve developed a select list of favorites. One of these is Lesson 1.0’s Easter Island Mystery. This activity is the perfect hook to begin a 13.8-billion-year journey.

Students are often uninterested in history because they think they’ll be learning the same old stuff and memorizing a bunch of facts. By opening with a mystery, students begin to see how scholars use a variety of information from multiple disciplines to construct claims about the past. It also gets them involved in trying to figure out the mystery itself, and they learn that even experts  don’t always have definitive answers, and that’s okay!

Here at Saint Scholastica Academy, we had our first day of school just a few days ago, and Easter Island Mystery was our first in-class assignment. As I was walking around, monitoring groups, I heard some amazing student hypotheses about what might have happened to the people of Easter Island. Did the population decline due to a war, famine, disease? Their minds were focused and working hard to figure out the mystery.

The conversations and questions I overheard while monitoring the groups of students and the palpable level of engagement and energy—there’s no question that this activity had once more helped me overcome that first hurdle of teaching history. These kids now knew they weren’t going to be learning the same old stuff and memorizing a bunch of facts. This was not going to be their parents’ history class. This activity is a keeper!


Gregory Dykhouse
BHP Teacher, Michigan, U.S.A


Video still from the BBC program, The Mystery of the Headless Romans.

Unit 1 of the BHP course kicks off with History as Mystery, an activity that includes a 50-minute BBC program, The Mystery of the Headless Romans. This program introduces many useful ideas—how historians investigate questions, how hypotheses may emerge into accepted theories, and how interdisciplinary skills are necessary for exploring the past. It even features 30 decapitated skeletons, which I would have thought would be great fuel for budding high school historians. However, as I taught the lesson in class, I was surprised to find it didn’t capture my students’ interest. Why?

I think the missing component was a connection between my students in twenty-first century west Michigan and the mystery itself, which centers on third-century York, England. I tried a number of techniques to give my students the context they might need to connect with the activity scenario, but had little success. I wondered if I could affect their level of engagement by adapting the activity to focus on a mystery closer to their own time and place. I thought I might be able to take advantage of something I’d observed over the years: Although most students don’t know much about local history, many of them feel like they should, so they’re open to filling that knowledge gap.

I decided to test my theory. The next time I taught BHP, I began the year with my “localized” adaptation of History as Mystery. I had my students investigate a number of images that involved places or things from west Michigan’s past.

What was the Hotel Ottawa? Why has it disappeared?

What was the Getz Zoo? What happened to it?


George Getz, Jr., rides Nancy the elephant. Courtesy Digital Commons @ Hope College.

What was the Jenison Amusement Park (which included a roller coaster with light bulbs from Thomas Edison)? Where did it go?


Roller Coaster at Jenison Park, Michigan, 1907, by Wystan. CC BY 2.0.

What was the lost city of Singapore? How did we lose it?

What’s the story with wooly mammoths? What wiped them out?

What happened to the white pine? Why did it go from abundant to nonexistent?

My students were excited by the images. What were these places and things? Why don’t they exist anymore?

The subject of each of these images became extinct for different reasons. I had students investigate an image following these steps:

  1. State a how/why question. For example, why did the white pine disappear?
  2. Conduct research.
  3. Formulate a position statement or thesis.
  4. Support the position statement with evidence.

I didn’t have excessively high expectations for these tasks. I simply wanted to introduce a process of historical inquiry. We then shared our findings and attempted to begin a narrative of west Michigan’s history. We ordered early life (both animals and plants), early industry (logging), and later industry (tourism). We attempted to explain the extinctions and determine what, if anything, moved into the niche they left behind. We speculated about which experts would be useful in helping us understand the past (biologists, architects, anthropologists). In support of a fuller narrative of Michigan’s history, which features physical history, biological history, early humans, rise of agriculture, revolutions of industry and society, we identified the constructs of time that we would use throughout the year.

The “mystery of our local past” led us to develop a history of Michigan, which became our model for the year. BHP encourages us to create our own versions of activities and to adapt the course to meet our students’ needs. My kids needed to start off their year with something they could relate to, and I’ve landed on this version of the opening activity. I think it still hits the important themes and concepts of the original. Try developing your own version of an activity that isn’t working for you by scaling it to your locale—and be sure to share it with us!


David Burzillo
BHP Teacher, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


The parallax method of measuring a star’s distance. Image: ESA/Medialab

I’ve now taught the BHP course enough times with enough students to be able to develop my own short list of favorite activities. Although it’s true that these activities do a great job of illustrating difficult concepts and generating great discussion, they also have this in common: I get a lot out of them—every time. I have to remind myself that because we—the BHP team working with us, the growing community of BHP teachers—are constantly adding new activities and tweaking old ones, this list will always be a work in progress.

burzillo-activityOne of my short-listers is Lesson 1.4’s Measuring Distance Using Parallax, in which I take my students out onto our school’s football field and ask them to calculate the distance from three or four “planets” (cones that I’ve set up) to a distant “star” (the school’s flagpole). My students are high-school juniors and seniors and they have a lot of math under their belts, so most of them have already learned something about parallax in a math class. Most of them, though, have only an academic knowledge of parallax and haven’t actually applied the technique. I really like this activity because it shows students (and reminds me) that there’s a real-world application of parallax.

What intrigues me about measuring big distances using parallax is a combination of the results themselves and what those results might have told people in the ancient world about their relationship to distant objects: Did the results make these objects seem closer or farther away, I wonder? But I think I am even more intrigued by the amazing creativity that the development of this technique required of our ancestors. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to identify who first used parallax to measure the distance from the Earth to a faraway object, but the technique is a testament to the incredible ingenuity of humans as problem solvers.

This parallax activity isn’t without its challenges. It’s not easy to create an accurate protractor to do the activity’s calculations, but ask around—you might have math colleagues who have ready-made protractors that they’re willing to lend. Also, based on my students’ experiences, the numbers won’t come out perfectly—students will likely struggle to get their baseline at a precise 90-degree angle to the line from the “planet” to the “star,” and they will also likely struggle to precisely measure the angle in their imaginary triangle. However, working around these issues will give them greater insight into the challenges that faced the early developers of the technique.

Measuring Distance Using Parallax illustrates the concept of parallax in a tangible way that kids will likely remember. Just as important, it highlights two of BHP’s big ideas: thinking across scales and collective learning.

Interested in discussing this Lesson 1.4 activity? Comment here or join the conversation in the Unit 1 group on Yammer.