Intimidation, Failure, and Success – Big History in a 1:1 Classroom

Sarah Giddings
Big History Teacher, 9th – 12th Grade
Ann Arbor, MI

When you first hear of the concept of a “Big History” approach to learning, even as a National Board certified teacher in history, it sounds intimidating. I have always felt that world history is one of the toughest subjects to teach because you are attempting to cover the birth of the Earth until the present… but I never actually started with the Earth’s birth as an educator. Really, who did? The Big History Project is the first curriculum I have encountered that has been organically shaped by educational minds with educator input about these topics. The Big History approach teaches students to critically think and explain the cohesive nature of world events through an interdisciplinary and investigative lens.

Starting this summer I am embarking on a journey to reshape my own practice and pedagogy as a Big History thinker. I am also attempting to teach Big History in a non-traditional interdisciplinary format and I hope to document my successes and failings this year through these blog posts. There is definitely going to be a learning curve so I hope you bear with me through this year and learn from the trail I am blazing!

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I want to explain how my school program works because I will be referring to how it fits with the goals of BHP throughout the year. Currently I serve students in a multi-school public alternative blended-learning program called the WAVE program. Participating public schools in our country range from the top ten in the state to schools designated as “failing” by NCLB standards. Students from all of these area schools come to complete their high school requirements in a non-traditional flexible learning environment and many are behind in credits. Currently I serve as the curriculum coordinator as well as a social studies and ELA teacher. We use a competency-based model where students have to demonstrate their proficiency and mastery of national and state standards. Student projects are designed to be interdisciplinary and students can earn credits in multiple areas with the same project at their own individualized pace.

Due in part to these roles I am always on the lookout for interdisciplinary project ideas that will challenge our students and push them to develop curiosity, logic, and reasoning. I am adopting BHP to our individualized paced format where our students will be earning credit in multiple areas – science, social studies, English, and technology. Therefore, I will be talking about BHP through the teaching of all of these subjects. Since our program is self-paced, students will be required to do more of their learning on their own, however we will have thrice-weekly workshops for delivery of more challenging instructional content, group discussions, and 1:1 support. We will be heavily utilizing the Khan Academy partnership BHP has developed. Throughout this year I will talk about the successes and challenges of teaching in this environment.

Learn with me, grow with me, and follow along with me as I chart a course BHP-style through the school year!

Why Big History?

Alex Maduena
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Los Angeles, CA

Towards the end of March of the last school year, I kept hearing one variation of this quote or another: “Alright, teacher, so I get the individual time periods, but honestly, I still don’t get how they all just fit together!

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If I could summarize the popular sentiment of most of my sophomore AP World History students last year in one quote, it would be this one. Sure, students were perfectly adept at developing an understanding of individual time periods and regions, and could do so quite well. Looking at detailed results from last school year’s APWH results, many of our students were represented the top 25% of national scores in two of the six time periods in the course. Their understanding of individual time is then quite impressive, but their ability to bring all together into a coherent understanding of world history was clearly lacking, and held some students back from succeeding in the course.

Indeed, many students seemed a bit shocked, if not upset, that they were expected to understand history in a unified sense! Perhaps it was the mistake of a first year AP teacher to constantly remind them how all the pieces “just fit together,” but I get the feeling that this is a much larger problem. I suspect that student expectations about what truly constitutes historical knowledge is only a reflection of a larger attitude fostered by traditional school curriculums, which present bodies of knowledge and disparate and unrelated. After all, one goes from Period 1 Mathematics, and then goes to Period 2 English, and never shall the twain meet! There they are, bodies of knowledge wrapped up into neat, one-hour segments.

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But that’s not how knowledge works in the real world, is it? Nor should history, as a study of that very world that we are preparing students for, be limited to itself. Indeed, true historical knowledge requires that one be comfortably familiar with concepts in economics, science, statistical mathematics, and bodies of world literatures.

So the question arises: How do we prepare students to bring together their knowledge into a coherent narrative of the world? At our school site, we are attempting to close that gap with Big History.

This will be our first year with the program, but already I am excited to see what happens when we allow students to see history as not a series of disparate events and disjointed subjects, but in a larger sense—as “big history.”

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From an immediate perspective, the Big History curriculum, with its series of investigations and inclusion of multiple fields should allow students to be better prepared for their higher level history courses, especially as it should give them a coherent sense of history. From a broader perspective, collective learning is futile unless our students are able to synthesize the learning of previous generations as a coherent whole. Without being able to do so, our students are destined to keep confusing disparate, rote knowledge for authentic understanding.

History, Faith, and Science

Bridgette O’Connor
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Covington, LA

Many of you are about to embark on an incredible journey with your students this fall as you begin teaching the Big History course. One challenging issue you might face will be answering questions from both students and parents about how the historical and scientific facts presented in the course correlate with the teachings of the Bible. Most of you probably teach at public schools where technically you can quite easily present the Big History story without referencing faith; however, many of your students will probably struggle with these issues. Some students will voice their opinions and frustrations while others will remain silent, and many teachers will try to avoid answering these questions because they fear that the topic might be too controversial or because they might offend someone’s faith. Students should be taught that science, history, and faith do not have to be at war with each other and, in fact, these disciplines can have a harmonious relationship. Craig Benjamin echoed this sentiment when he wrote about his own experiences teaching Big History in 2009.

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I am ignoring my obligation to these students if I ignore their faith, if I try and pretend that it isn’t the elephant sitting in the room. If I am genuinely committed to the task of fusing intellectual development with character and ethical development, surely a central goal of the great liberal education tradition of the United States, I need to concentrate on all of the functions in my students and help them make the connections. And a core function for most of them is their faith.

As a teacher at a Catholic high school in the South where over 80% of our student body population identify as Catholic, it is my duty to present the Big History story from a Catholic perspective, while also helping those students who aren’t Catholic make sense of the story in their own ways. If the Big History course is taught in a faith-based setting then you have at your disposal numerous resources from St. Augustine to Pope Benedict XVI to use in the classroom in order to illustrate the complimentary relationship between history, faith, and science.

In fact, these disciplines along with many others should compliment one another in the Big History course, as one of the core learning objectives is the focus on the interdisciplinary nature of telling the history of the Universe. David Christian comments upon this in the video What Is Big History? when he explains how scholars from a variety of disciplines have asked questions about the origins of the Universe and the nature of humans, but what this course attempts to do is synthesize the work of all of these disciplines in order to create a modern scientific origin story. The aim and purpose of the course is for students to see the Universe as a whole and not divided into what appears to be distinct and unrelated disciplines. It is for students to understand the connections between specialized fields of study by using all available scientific, historical, and philosophical research to create as complete of a story as we can form with all available knowledge.