BHP’s Impact On My Classroom Communication and Attitudes

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

Greetings from the great white North! I’m sure this could describe many places right now, but it currently describes the view outside of my window. I thought I would take some time to discuss how my students communicate—due in part to the type of educator I have become through BHP, and how the curriculum strengthens and supports my role.

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To refresh readers of my blog entries, I approach the Big History Project from the lens of an unconventional educator. I teach in a blended learning program that targets at-risk students. We run BHP as a traditional class that meets 3 hours per week but we also follow up and meet with individual students to push them through the course objectives and assignments.

BHP’s interdisciplinary approach to history means diving into subject areas that, I must admit, I lack full conceptual understanding. It’s been refreshing to share moments of confusion, curiosity, and wondering with my students. Anecdotally I have found that my students are much more candid about what they are struggling and confused about when I also share that I am not an expert in all the fields that Big History touches. My students are used to feeling disenfranchised by school so when they feel empowered by the topics and ideas discussed in BHP, it leads to greater connections. In unit 5, we didn’t just talk the evolution of humans, we talked about where humans could evolve too, which led to a discussion about technology and its role in our biological evolution—sophisticated talking points!

For example, let me share with you the story of Jacob. Jacob (not his real name) is a student who should have graduated last year. He has been homeless at times, struggled to attend school, lacked a family support system, and blamed school for failing him. He was a reluctant add to our Big History program and at first he wasn’t coming regularly. But then, as we like to say, the light bulb of learning popped on! First, he started waking up early before BHP workshop began. Then he made sure that he was doing the work on days he wasn’t at BHP. He also began participating in class and drawing his own conclusions about the investigations. He shared with me that participating in BHP has been the first time he has felt like he is making connections and creating new knowledge. He feels invested in what he is learning.

Communication should be a foundation of any classroom, and BHP is opening up communication avenues to students that I did not anticipate.

To die like an Egyptian: A quick anecdote of BHP’s impact on one of my IEP students

Andrea Wilford
Big History Teacher, 9th Grade
Muscatine, IA

Unit 7 uses a “Ways of Knowing” activity called “Social Status, Power and Human Burials” to introduce students to the impact of farming on creating wealth, human hierarchies and divisions of labor.  Students examine the pictures below to make inferences, as a historian would, as to what these burials reveal about that past society. Our classes choose to do a case study on the first picture, the un-mummified Egyptian.

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After a short introduction to the hierarchies of ancient Egypt and their burial beliefs and practices, we engaged in a simulation called “To Die Like an Egyptian”.  The purpose of the game was to obtain the proper goods and burial needed to ensure a good afterlife, regardless of your class status.  Each student was given a role, from peasant to Pharaoh, and a set of goods or services each could provide.  Given a limited time to barter their goods and services to obtain what they need for a proper burial and afterlife, they attempt to gain extra points for extra wealth acquired. Though I have used this simulation in the past in a regular history course, Big History added this accolade:  Below is a student assessment of the activity—this is from a freshmen student, Z, who has an IEP for writing.  At the beginning of the year, Z’s first 5-paragraph essay consisted of 6 sentences.  For this activity I asked for a brief summary of their role in the game and what they learned.  Z submitted his answer below.  This is what the Big History Project has done for my students—they have grown in their reading, writing and reasoning skills, and it is measurable!

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To Die Like An Egyptian Summary                   By Student Z

In this game I was a scribe.  I wasn’t rich or poor—I was middle class.  One positive thing about my role is that since I didn’t start off with all the goods that I needed it gave me a chance to be able to trade with all different classes of people and see how all the other different classes of people lived.  A negative thing about my role was that it could be hard to get some of my goods that were needed by the end of the game because I didn’t start off with things of enough value that upper class people would want to trade goods.  The more valuable goods you had would make you have a more powerful social status.

The advantages of bartering to trade over currency like we use today is if you have something worth a high value and someone else has something of a lower value but you both want to trade then it works better because you both traded without having to sell or buy something new and you both got what you wanted out of the trade.  A disadvantage of bartering to trade is there is no proof of your trading.  If there is a problem with the item your fellow trader traded you for then you lost your good for another that doesn’t even work and you can’t do anything about it.  There is also no guarantee warranty when you’re trading unlike if you bought something from the store.

Ancient Egypt believed they needed to have certain things and be rich before they died to have a good afterlife.  Ancient Egyptians were buried with all their goods they acquired over their lifetime.  In modern America our beliefs of how to have a good afterlife vary from person to person.  Some people believe in a religion and pray to their god to have a good afterlife.  Other people believe after you die there is no afterlife.  One way Ancient Egypt and modern America differ is because in America we aren’t typically buried with a lot of valuable stuff just something simple usually, like some flowers.  Valuable things like jewelry are usually passed down to their kids and grandkids.

Intersections, Crossroads, Linkages: Ways to Connect Big History

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

As 2015 dawned, it also marked a turning point in my school’s participation in the Big History Project—we reached the halfway point in the thresholds of the world! That is an accomplishment for my students. Because I work with 100% at-risk youth, many of them doubted their capabilities and stamina to work with material like this.  One way we have been extremely successful with our students and increasing their capacity for rigorous work like BHP has been to introduce interdisciplinary connections consistently. In this posting I want to give some concrete examples of ways in which BHP incorporates other disciplines and ways that we have also added connections.

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First, some background on how our program works. We use standards-based grading and we break down our standards into learning targets that students can accumulate. We challenge ourselves as staff and as students to work in interdisciplinary connections because our students can work on multiple courses at the same time. For Big History, we have integrated connections to English Language Arts, technology, Biology, Earth & Physical Sciences, and World History.  That may seem like an exhaustive list! But we arrived at a simple conclusion: Big History is too great of a concept to be “silo”ed into just one course. The breadth & depth of the world requires connections to be made regardless of whether or not you are confined by traditional scheduling requirements. You may not have a school program as unique as mine, but BHP has connections for multiple disciplines whether you label it as one or many.

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For example, for the unit 5 Life threshold we spent time analyzing BHP articles using the Three Close Reads reading strategy, more commonly found in English classes. We interpret the text, draw conclusions, and using graphic organizers to organize our thoughts. In this unit, just like others, we often add supplemental texts. The BHP Yammer community is a GREAT source for this type of material. There are always teachers adding articles of interest to supplement every unit.  We also took creative liberties with an assignment that asked students to think of challenges for living on the edge of the biosphere—asking students to write a short story about a character who lives in one of these two environments and what environmental disaster might have caused them to land there. These were fascinating stories, plus rich discussion!

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Another example from this unit was the biology connections we could make. Although it may seem obvious with a threshold labeled “Life”, BHP provided many avenues to deepen the historical science connections. In discussing evolutionary characteristics of species we had students take the graphic organizer about their species and analyze gender-based differences & evolution between species historically. We also spent time debating Darwin and his ideas.  The possibilities are always there!

Don’t feel overwhelmed if you do not know how you can cram in interdisciplinary extensions when you are feeling pressed by the curriculum—the opportunities presented for our school have been organic based on the outcome & input of my students. I look forward to hearing what your students can extend BHP into—the connections are endless!