Mini-Thresholds of Life!

David Dunkin
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Seattle, WA

In Unit 5 my class did a version of the Mini-Thresholds activity and groups came up with a new mini-threshold for life. Students first had to make up a threshold card with a quote from a reputable source. They had to defend the importance of their choice and include an MLA citation for the quote. Each team then briefly presented and defended their proposed mini-threshold. At the end, students voted with colored stickers for the mini-threshold they thought was the best. We promised we would post the winning proposal here for you all to see. I was surprised how intensely students wanted to be the selected team. The picture below is from our winning proposal.

New Mini Threshold

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Pacing Challenge is a Small Price to Pay for these Teaching Moments

Shawn Bean
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Chicago Heights, IL

We were warned.  This summer when we were preparing for the Big History Course, we were told several times to be careful not to get to bogged down on the first 5 units if we were doing the World History version of BHP.  And yet, it’s the middle of November and I’m several weeks behind my schedule.  It’s tough though when you are having teaching moments, so I’ll learn to live with not being on schedule.  So far, there have been some ups and downs, so here you go:


Since I’m an optimist, let’s begin with the positives.  There is no greater way to describe what my students are experiencing than to say that there levels of engagement are off the charts.  Every day I walk into my classroom for BH, I have several kids who ask me “so what are we going to learn today?”  It’s simple, but it leads to a bigger point, the students are seriously interested in the topics we talk about.  Another great example, I was observed the other day by my department chair.  My students were preparing for my unit 4 exam, so we were playing an interactive review game.  I couldn’t have been prouder than when several of my students didn’t even notice he was in the room, they were so involved in discussing Big History to make sure their group got the right answers.  Another example of a great positive has been the activities.  My students at first acted like they were too cool for the accretion activity, but once we were outside and they were running around me they really understood the process.  And the last highlight, for the first time my world history course is aligned with biology.  Currently we are working out the details for a small assignment where the students will use their BH background knowledge to come up with a plan to terraform either Mars or Venus for human settlement.  A few of my students were so excited they already started on their projects, and we haven’t even told them most of the details.


There have been some difficult obstacles though; I’m not all sunshine and rainbows.  One of the biggest obstacles has been transfer students.  As one could expect, it is quite difficult to join a course such as this in the middle of unit 4.  These students are forced to play catchup, and they quite naturally struggle at first.  Usually I make them take the quizzes as they will need to know that information, I just don’t count them as a grade.  The other problem that I have with is with a few of the readings.  I love the different Lexile levels that are available for the students, but some of the background information doesn’t seem relevant.  Not a big deal, we skip most of that.

Overall, it’s been a great experience, and I can’t wait to see how the year plays out.

My Work With CrashCourse – BHP Expert David Baker

David Baker
Big Historian

CrashCourse is a popular YouTube channel that gives a 10-15 minute breakdown of any concept or topic: from American history, to ecology, to English literature – and now Big History. As a lecturer in Big History at the University of Amsterdam, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a 10 episode series that surveyed 13.8 billion years, plus the deep future of trillions of years to the ‘end’ of the Universe. In the series, our hosts John and Hank Green explore some of the broad overarching trends that stretch across the entire cosmic story: from rising complexity, to collective learning, to various forms of biological and cultural evolution. They also find time for some philosophy: reflecting on how the grand narrative of 13.8 billion years forms a huge part of our identity, what it tells us about human society and the virtues and vices of the human character, and ultimately what it tells us about our brief flickering existence in a Universe headed toward Heat Death (as far as we know).  It was amazing to partner up with John Green and then forge a partnership with the Big History Project. I hope the videos are useful for getting your feet wet when you start (or review) any part of the course. I also hope they are useful for your contemplation of the cosmos when you lay awake at 2am pondering ‘life, the Universe, and everything’.

David Baker image

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