Writing in Big History

Bob Regan
Big History Project Team

BHP-TeachingWriting

In far too many history classes out there, students are faced with a parade of civilizations without context. We cover the Greeks, we cover the Romans, but we rarely explain how they are connected to each other (not to mention any of the other civilizations out there). Students are forced to consume mass quantities of content and ultimately end up disengaged. Learning suffers. It doesn’t have to be this way.

More than just “one damn civilization after another,” Bob Bain emphasizes the need for students to think of history that happens at multiple levels at the same time, both large and abstract as well as individual. By thinking about the really big and really small in terms of both time and space, students are able to string together coherent narratives of history. These narratives not only help generate a deeper understanding of history, but also mirrors what historians actually do.

In Big History, much of the way we push students to create these connections and narratives is through their writing. In both high stakes and low stakes activities, students are encouraged to use writing as a means of reflecting on and articulating these narratives of history. There is a decent summary of the approach to writing that includes a list of these activities here, so I won’t repeat them here. However, it is important to know that the Big History Project curriculum is designed to use writing as a tool in service of understanding history, but also as a means of helping students to understand the practice of history itself. Using major themes of the course such as Claim Testing, scale and origin stories, the students are pushed to make these connections and express them through their writing.

The University of Michigan studies the development of student writing over the year, and the results are pretty amazing. If you haven’t already, check out the research summary available here, or just look at the table below. The sample below includes a small group of private school students (10%), a larger group of public schools (45%) and another group of public schools designated as Title I (45%). Perhaps it is not surprising that so many of the students fare poorly at the start of the year with more than 80% scoring in below grade level and nearly half more than two years behind. Over the year, these figures drop dramatically.

total-tba-baseline-to-final-800

Now, Big History has not invented a magic solution to improving student writing. The secret has been known to good writing teachers for years. It turns out to get better at writing, students need to write more and they need to clearly understand what good writing is. While the Big History Project has a wealth of resources to help teachers, the most important resource is our teachers themselves. If you haven’t already, check out Jenny Holloway’s post describing how she and her colleagues at Mt. Si High School teach the investigations in Big History. Of particular importance here are their modifications to the writing rubric and sample student work. Every good teacher makes changes to their curriculum based on their experience, but too often the insights are lost. This is a huge issue as we believe the very best insights come from the classroom. We actively encourage teachers to share their experience through our online community and through our blog.

Supporting teachers in improving student writing is one of the things we here at Big History are MOST proud of these past five years. We are always interesting in hearing from others. How do you support students in your classroom?

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