YOU DO YOU: MY FIRST YEAR TEACHING BIG HISTORY

Hajra Saeed, BHP Teacher
California, USA

Last August, I sat in a coffee shop with a teacher friend, stressing about what I had gotten myself into by switching from middle school to high school to teach a Big History pilot class for our district. She gave me the advice I needed to hear: “You do you.” That statement has carried me through my most exciting year of teaching in 16 years.

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“You do you,” came to mean a lot of things to me this past year. As we began our journey through Threshold 1 through Threshold 3, I realized that it’s okay not to know everything, and that it’s best to turn over discussions to my students when they’re the experts. I became comfortable with admitting that I didn’t need to be the expert of every discipline, and encouraged my students to investigate until they found articles and videos that enabled us to discover answers together. My friend’s advice meant that although I might not be the chief scientist in the room, I could certainly provide a critical historical lens. In a Lesson 2.2 video, my students and I learned from astrophysicist Jana Levin that even scientists don’t know the answers to everything, and we embarked together on a path of discovery.

When I didn’t understand how to implement an activity from the curriculum, I turned to the BHP Online Teacher Community on Yammer. I had discovered that “doing me” meant I didn’t fully understand how to best implement BHP that first year. The people on Yammer were amazing! When I posted questions, they immediately replied. When we reached the “Evolution and Faith” article in Unit 5, I posted on Yammer about some concerns I had with the article. Immediately, teachers offered up advice on how they delivered the lesson. One teacher even sent me a research paper on the topic that she had written. Here’s a link to our conversation.

Big History is not just a journey for the students; it is for the teacher as well. I have finally learned to appreciate science, including the study of rocks! I’ve learned to rekindle the lifelong learner in me, and in turn have been able to motivate my students to question and research. After all, isn’t that what school is all about?

About the author: Hajra Saeed teaches at Sato Academy of Math and Science, a STEM school focusing on biomedical science and engineering in Long Beach, CA. She’s been teaching for 16 years and has taught Big History since 2016. Hajra’s four sections (about 100 students) meet twice a week for 95 minutes and once a week for 45 minutes.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Brittney Morrissey, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

My journey with Big History began a year ago when I attended the Seattle cluster meeting. Not knowing what to expect, I was skeptical of this thing called Big History. What is Big History? How big is big? Is there going to be too much science stuff?

I’m now excited, although a little nervous—this upcoming school year, our entire ninth-grade team is teaching Big History as our world history course! I have a lot of homework to do.

Enter: Teaching Big History!

The Teaching Big History online training course was where I turned to start. It provides an overview of the BHP course content, activities, and resources. This course overview immediately highlights the fact that students will be analyzing science and scientific events through a historical lens. I feel reassured — my history class will not become a science class!

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Teaching Big History even includes BHP teacher tips, tricks, and planning guides! As part of my homework, I quickly pored over seasoned Big History teachers’ individual planning guides, noting how and where they alter specific units to meet their needs. I snuck a peek at Bridgette O’Connor’s Semester Course Plan, which helped me plan for a more world-history focused spin of the course. I realized I could pepper in my own extensions and material—like stuff focused on the Renaissance and Reformation—to meet local standards. Yay, flexibility!

Looking ahead, my team is working to plan, plan, and plan next school year. The online training has helped us realize just how many wonderful activities there are. Although these activities help students’ reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, we cannot possibly do them all! We’re currently digging into Unit 1 and evaluating what we’ll keep and what we’ll skip. We’re trying to maintain enough flexibility to allow for the inevitable assemblies, fire drills, holidays, snow days, and other unplanned and unforeseeable events that pop up during the school year.

I am truly excited to dive into Big History with my diverse group of learners. From what I’ve seen so far, Big History allows students to “do” the history—directing investigations, problem solving, and critically analyzing each other’s ideas. I am so excited to guide a classroom without “right” answers and to leave #snopocalypse 2016–2017 behind!

About the author: Brittney Morrissey has been teaching ninth grade world history for four years. The upcoming 2017/2018 school year will be her first year teaching Big History. She will teach Big History to four different classes, reaching about 120 ninth-grade students. She will meet with each class daily for 50 minutes.

TACKLING CAUSALITY

TACKLING CAUSALITY
Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Note: This blog post is featured in Session 5 of Teaching Big History, our online training course for new and returning teachers. You can delve even deeper into the topic of causality there!

The Big History Project is a course that looks and feels different from any traditional history course currently out there. Many of us who teach multiple social studies subjects are looking for ways to embed and develop those critical historical thinking skills in our students. Big Historians should be able to think critically and “outside the box”; they should get better at reading and writing skills; and they should also develop an interdisciplinary approach to learning. They should also be able to reason like historians and have skills in areas like causation. How do we challenge students to consider multiple causes of an event or process and reach substantive conclusions on the significance of each cause? How do we frame causation questions in Big History that engage students in the work of a historian: questioning the validity of a cause, considering the role of individuals in causation, and looking at the relationship between causes?

The course’s new lessons on causation help us make these skills explicit in our lessons. The Alphonse the Camel activity in Lesson 5.2 is a great way to engage students in “thinking like a historian.” They’re challenged to produce a multicausal explanation that creates a hierarchy of thinking: Which cause was most important? Which was the trigger? As Big Historians, what if we scale up and look at long-term factors, like the formation of mountain ranges and trade routes? My students used this approach to build causal diagrams of Alphonse’s death. They also made claims based on the importance of one cause over another: If not for the mountains, Frank, or trade, would Alphonse have survived?

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A one-humped camel, By Jjron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

At the end of this activity, students are keen to know the correct answer, and here is where the counterintuitive nature of our discipline comes in: there isn’t one! There are multiple valuable causal explanations. Although this can be frustrating for students, we can return to the claim testers and Bob Bain’s measure for causation to test the validity of their explanations.

These new lessons (you’ll find them in Unit 3, 4, 6, and 8) offer explicit opportunities to teach causation, but where can we offer more opportunities for students to learn these skills throughout the course? When telling a sweeping narrative like Big History, it’s critical that students understand the thresholds with their ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions. That’s where we have a great vehicle for developing their causation skills. Once they understand the threshold for a particular event, students can begin to analyze these and make their own claims. They can discriminate between the importance of ingredients or look for the most important Goldilocks Condition as the trigger. I encourage students to add new ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions to each threshold and to question the validity of a Goldilocks Condition. Students then begin to see that understanding causation is based on critical and creative thinking, rather than rote learning.

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The lessons on star causation provide opportunities for us to begin teaching this concept earlier in the course. One mistake I made during my first year teaching the course was to approach the prehuman units (Units 2 through 5) as more of a science course, and I concentrated on the rich content within. Instead, try to approach those early units wearing your “historian hat”—you’ll find opportunities for historical thinking throughout. For example, in Unit 4, have students look at the creation of the Earth, and then list all the causes from the Crash Course video: The Solar System & the Earth. Then, have them consider removing some of those causes. Would Earth have been created if not for the collision with an Earth-like planet? Other Big History teachers tell me they love to explore the counterfactual “what if” questions. How would life have been created without plate tectonics? How important was this cause for the creation of life? Do you have an idea regarding causation in Big History? Do you have some favorite counterfactual questions of your own? Post your ideas on Yammer and watch collective learning take hold!

About the author: Ben Tomlisson teaches Big History as a full-year ninth-grade elective at Mount Si High School, WA, where he has taught since 2005. Mr. Tomlisson hails from Manchester, England, and has taught in Japan. He loves that Big History provides the space where he and students can build relationships and ask meaningful questions.