A Teacher Driven Curriculum – Reflections on Developing Big History

Tammy Shreiner
Big History Teacher, 10th – 12th Grade
Ann Arbor, MI

I remember the conversation as if it happened yesterday: Early one Saturday morning, I sat at a café table with Bob Bain, my former professor and advisor at the University of Michigan. We were meeting for breakfast to catch up on our work and busy lives over the time that had passed since I graduated from U of M and began teaching at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor. Bob had just come out of conversations with David Christian and others who were in the early stages of discussions about designing a high school course in Big History—launching what would come to be known as the Big History Project (BHP).

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The Big History story was already familiar to me. As a world history teacher, I already knew David Christian’s work and his contributions to the field of world history, including his work on another major curriculum project called World History for Us All. I’d read his book, Maps of Time, shortly after it was published, and had been successfully using a brief history of the Universe as a context for my world history course. So when Bob asked if I would be interested in teaching Big History, I did not hesitate to say “yes.” At the time, I had no idea that I’d just agreed to become a part of one of the most challenging, invigorating, and rewarding projects of my professional career.

Only several months later, I found myself being flown out to Seattle along with several other teachers, greeted by my own personal driver at the airport, and accompanied to the conference room outside the personal office of Bill Gates himself. The movie star treatment I received felt like something out of a dream. And it didn’t stop there. It was easy to see, sitting in that conference room, how important my fellow teachers and I were to this project. There I sat with a group of brilliant, accomplished people—including David Christian—thinking through what a high school Big History course would look like. We had no resources other than our combined decades of teaching experience, and books like Maps of Time to guide us. The rest of the course was ours to create.

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Or, more accurately, the course was ours and our students’ to create. From the moment they walked through our classroom doors in the fall of 2011, students were driving instruction and instructional resources for BHP. If they were confused by a concept, we developed new resources to explain it. If they found a unit too long, we shortened and modified it. If they found an activity exciting and compelling, we celebrated it and shared it with others. We surveyed them, interviewed them, pored over their assessments, and collected feedback from parents and administrators—all in the name of making this a course students would love, and love to learn from.

But sometimes what worked for our students didn’t work for other students—not when there were thousands more, from different backgrounds, different states, and even different countries. As BHP invited new teachers to collaborate on the course with the original pilot teachers, we realized there were lessons we needed to tweak, new scaffolds to provide, and a new batch of brilliant lesson ideas from some really devoted and talented teachers. Everyone involved, inside and outside the classroom, was determined to make this course the right course—the course that would help students learn the Big History story and use it as a framework for learning in other classes.

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What made it so right though was the way in which it was designed to work for so many. In its second, third, and fourth iteration, the BHP course was not exactly like the one I had helped to create from practically nothing in the pilot’s first year, but it was still my course. My course because it provided a wealth of resources for me to design a curriculum that would fit my students’ needs in my particular context. Of course it mattered that they were learning the core Big History story, but I could teach them Big History for Greenhills students in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while my colleagues in New York, California, or Australia could teach the Big History their students needed. Big History is about everything, but BHP and all the teachers, students, website designers, and content experts who have collaborated on the course, have tried to make it for everyone. And I have no doubt that the work will continue until that happens—as with everything else in the Universe, there is always a new threshold to cross.

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