SOMETHING HAD TO CHANGE

Michael Cromie, BHP Teacher
California, USA

I’m a seventh-grade social studies and ELA teacher at a technology magnet middle school in Ventura, California. I’ve been with the district since 2006, but have recently returned to the classroom after a stint as a technology integration specialist at a technology magnet elementary school.

Stepping back into the classroom was very exciting at first since our students are all issued their own netbooks and we learn in a 1:1 environment. However, after a few weeks I was very disappointed with the availability of district-adopted digital curricula and found myself trying to adapt outdated traditional textbook and workbook materials. This process was very time-consuming and was not producing very good results. I was desperate for something to turn the year around. Enter Big History Project.

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One of the sixth-grade teachers at my school showed me how she was using some material from Unit 7 of the Big History Project course to supplement her ancient civilizations course, and I was immediately drawn to the multiple Lexile levels available for each article. I teach a mix of readers—from GATE students reading at a 12+ grade level, to general and remedial students reading at a 2nd-grade reading level. I was intrigued and decided to research the BHP course for supplemental reading material.

I quickly saw that BHP is much more than leveled articles and supplemental material—it’s an interdisciplinary and unified approach to teaching history. I decided I would do the “Teaching Big History” training over our fall break so that I could come back and teach the course over the remaining three quarters of our school year.

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During the training, I joined a number of very supportive BHP Online Teacher Community groups on Yammer. Our district uses Google’s G Suite for Education so I was specifically interested in the Google Docs group and some wonderful people there who were willing to share their resources. Once I started implementing the course, I realized that I needed to really differentiate for the wide variety of learners I teach. I was able to take the resources on the BHP site, combine them with what I was getting from the teacher community, and cobble together unit after unit with very little time spent outside of the work day. Here we are in Unit 8 already (which aligns nicely with our state content standards) and I’m confident that we will make it through most of the material even though we began in the second quarter.

The best part of BHP has been the cohesiveness of the units and the recurring activity types and routines, such as Three Close Reads, Driving Questions, Claim Testing, and Investigations. I love how the course reinvigorated my teaching, allowing me the opportunity to learn about topics like the Big Bang alongside my students. I also found the various course planners especially helpful. My school is on a block schedule so the one from Bridgette O’Connor was great because it gave me an idea of what was essential, what was necessary, and what could be considered optional.

All in all, I am so thankful that I found this course! It has been very enjoyable to become a “lead learner” with my students as we studied how we are all made from elements that were created from supernova explosions billions of years ago and have been increasing in our complexity and interconnectivity ever since.

About the author: Michael teaches social studies and language arts at the DeAnza Academy of Technology and the Arts – a middle school in Ventura, California. His Big History sections are on a block schedule with 100-minute periods. He started teaching Big History partway through the 2016-17 school year.  

 

BIG HISTORY: A THRILLING RIDE!

Fizza Kachwala, Big History Teacher
Mumbai, India

Dear New-to-BHP Teacher,

Your first year facilitating Big History can be much like a roller coaster ride. I know: I write this blog post as I round out my own first year teaching the course. You’ll have your doubts about making it through the ride and you’ll worry about how prepared you are for what’s in store for you. It is exciting, thrilling, even scary at times. But all you need to do is gather yourself and embark on the ride. Then you’ll see and enjoy multiple views of the track you’re on. And as you speed through this joyride, you’ll be glad you decided to be on it in the first place.

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Roller coaster ride. CC0 Public domain.

Gearing Up for the Ride

The first thing you should tell yourself is to be open-minded. This means having the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. It means being accepting of views, although not always agreeing with them. Accepting multiple perspectives will allow you to question your own thinking; you’ll find yourself liberated by the metamorphosis of thought.

You might be worried about having to don many academic hats—an understandable concern. The first half of the course can feel science-heavy, but keep in mind that those first units aren’t about the mechanics of science, but rather about how our evolving understanding of science informs our understanding of our past. Moving out of your comfort zone will be easier with the incredible support system found in the BHP Online Teacher Community. You’ll find it your “go-to” place, the place where teachers share their ideas and where veteran teachers will help you make BHP a success in your classroom, whatever the set-up.

I personally found it helpful to plan my coursework in advance and personally attempt the activities I was asking students to do. So, my planning was always two weeks ahead of what I was executing in class. This way, I knew exactly what was in store, and could help steer discussions or successfully clarify doubts—and keep the coherence of the course narrative in mind. Doing the activities myself before teaching them in class also helped me know what modifications I’d need to make for my students’ varying skill levels and interests.

Three …Two…One…Blast Off!!

Once the course takes off, a good way to keep on top of the latest news and discoveries is to connect with the Big History Project on Twitter. The posts are relevant and informative. Using Twitter will also help you connect to your social-media savvy students.

Another liberating exercise is to invite experts from the school community into your Big History class. We’ve had a geography expert talk to students about plate tectonics and an English expert take them through the BHP Writing Rubric. Not only does it ease your anxiety of handling areas where you have limited expertise, but it provides the additional benefits of bringing to life the interdisciplinary nature of the BH course, and letting students know that hat one person does not have to have all the answers.

End of the Ride

Just as happens on a roller coaster, when the ride is about to end, you will feel a mixed bag of emotions: pride about what you just got through successfully; mild sadness that it is over; and, if you did it right (and a reminder here that there are many “right” approaches!), excitement to embark on the ride again with a fresh perspective.

I am confident that not only will you be a new person by the end of the course, you will find it rewarding when you see the skills and principles translate into your students’ work and thinking. I recommend at this stage (when you’re looking ahead to your second year teaching Big History) revisiting your coursework plan and highlighting everything that worked and anything that needs to be modified. That way, you will be better prepared for your next turn on this adventurous ride.

Oh–always try to squeeze in a small celebration to bring in the school community and allow students to present their learning. You could do this at the end of every unit or midway through the course.

I think you’ll agree with me that facilitating Big History turned out to be the most envious opportunity that any school teacher could ask for–one that fills you with a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

Best of luck!

Fizza Kachwala

About the author: Fizza has taught high school biology and middle school math and science at the Bombay International School in Mumbai, India, since 2008. The 2016/17 school year marked her first teaching Big History, which was offered to Grade 7 (12- and 13-year-old) students. Her class follows the 80-hour (semester) course plan

THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT THE FUTURE

Todd Nussen, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

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Milky Way, lightning, airglow—Kiribati, central Pacific Ocean. Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center. Public domain.

From preparing for the potential impact of a changing climate, to working out methods to feed a quickly growing population, it certainly seems that we’re concerned about our future. As history teachers, we feel obligated to make sure our students understand their world today. Don’t we also have a duty to teach our students how they can help sculpt the future?

Kurt Vonnegut once suggested we create a new presidential cabinet position—Secretary of the Future. He believed it would behoove the leaders of the free world to have someone who would advise policy makers on how to plan for the future we want and avoid the future we don’t. This seems natural since we—like other organisms—have an innate drive to have our genes live on in future generations. Humans are unique in that we also possess the remarkable ability to pass on not only our genes, but also information that future generations can use and build on. Humans, unlike any other organism, can actually plan for and even shape the future. If we’re “programmed” to secure a safe environment for our descendants, why not have a qualified adviser to protect our future as a community, a country, or, for that matter, as a species?

The Big History curriculum is designed to allow students to use ideas from the past to explore what the future might be like. It asks students to hypothesize what the future might hold for our planet and our species in one thousand years, one million years, even one billion years. In our Big History/World History course, we allot adequate time for examining current political, economic, and environmental issues in order to address a more immediate future. We ask students to think about a future they’ll be around for—one in the year 2050, for example. This is a future that our students can quite possibly influence, if they think critically and plan appropriately.

The activities in BHP Unit 10 ask students to do things like assemble teams of experts to help plan for a future millions or billions of years from now. Students might call on physicists and astronomers to devise a way for our species to survive in a sunless future, or recommend that botanists figure out how to cultivate crops on Mars. Activities like this are excellent ways to utilize Big History skills and are also a fun way to end the course; however, Big History/World History can also ask students to take part in molding the future they’ll be living in just decades from now.

To do this, students must first answer some daunting questions:

  • What are the most significant threats to maintaining our way of life?
  • Do we want to maintain our current way of living or change it?
  • How are we beginning to solve these problems?
  • How can we begin to influence the future, starting today?

An excellent place for students to look for answers to these questions is the BHP website itself. Gapminder.org and un.org are two of many other websites that I encourage my students to use to find out more about current issues that different regions and groups are facing.

Once the problem has been identified and researched, students choose a course of action to help rectify the problem by answering another set of questions:

  • Does money need to be raised?
  • Do more people need to be aware of this issue?
  • Will creating a petition show policy makers that this is an issue that many agree needs attention?
  • How can I construct a letter that demonstrates my concerns? Whom do I send it to?

If we want them not only to think critically about the near future, but also to shape it, students need to learn how to take action. MoveOn.org and millenium-project.org are two websites that teach students how to take action on issues they feel passionately about. These organizations help students distribute petitions, create charity fundraisers, and even show them how to write letters to policy makers. Not only does taking action allow students to use the Big History skills of supporting claims, using texts, constructing arguments, and thinking across disciplines, it also teaches them about the democratic process as well.

Abraham Lincoln said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” If we encourage our students to think about the future and how they can shape it, we might just have an entire generation qualified to serve as Secretary of the Future.

About the author: Todd Nussen has been teaching world history for more than 10 years at Oceanside High School in New York. His schedule includes two ninth-grade BHP classes. Each 40-minute class has about 30 students.