Jennifer Coogan
Chief Content Officer, Newsela

Levelled Big History reading

Levelled Big History Project reading

In 2014, the Newsela editorial team worked with the Big History Project to adapt its fascinating articles into multiple reading levels, just as we do with the news content we provide on Newsela.com every day.

All our editors agreed: working on this project made us smarter. Not only did we get to brush up on the last 13.8 billion years, but we also began thinking about the daily news stories we were publishing in a much grander context.

For instance, a recent article about college students trying to grow plants in Mars-like soil (inspired by Matt Damon in the film “The Martian”) made us recall what we learned in Unit 5 about the unique conditions that make Earth so hospitable. A report about modern-day slavery in the Southeast Asian seafood trade reminded us of what we learned about the Columbian exchange and how it drove inequality among peoples, and devastated Africa (Unit 8).

Big History Text Sets

Big History Project Text Sets

We decided to make our thinking visible and group together the Newsela articles that relate to the BHP units by using our Text Set feature. In May, we put together a suite of Big History Text Sets and they’ve grown and thrived since then.

One of the latest additions to our text set on Unit 7 Agriculture and Ancient Civilization asks: is Queen Nefertiti buried behind the tomb of King Tut? There is still so much to discover about our past, but new technologies are making it possible to solve ancient mysteries.


Big History Project Unit 10: The Future

And then we turn our eyes forward and wonder: What does the future hold for us? If the articles we’ve recently added to our text set on Unit 10: The Future are any indication, we may be shifting from the Anthropocene to an age when smart machines make humans obsolete.

Current events move fast and it doesn’t take long before the story of the day becomes… well, old news. Connecting these articles to these enduring themes greatly extends their so-called shelf life. Symbiotically, news articles can be a way to bring a sense of urgency and real world relevance to students as they seek to make sense of these massive themes.

We invite you, the educators who are deeply immersed in these themes and thresholds, to share with us the connections you see between Big History and the events that are unfolding in the world. If we have articles on these topics, we’ll add it to our text sets. If we haven’t covered them, drop us a line at editor@newsela.com, and we’ll publish them.

Together, Newsela and BHP hope to inspire students to think beyond their current situations, environments and cultures and think, for lack of a better word—bigger. Human history is microscopic when we compare it to the history of our Universe, but we are fortunate to be more connected than ever, and able to watch history’s slow progress through the news we deliver every day.


Damian Pawlowski
BHP Teacher, California, USA

Interconnection: The Riches of Real by E.A.

Interconnection: The Riches of Real by E.A.

Fred Spier begins his book Big History and the Future of Humanity with the story of how he was inspired at a young age by the famous Earthrise photograph. This stunning photo, taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, helped people around the world to see the beauty and fragility of our home planet. When Earthrise was first published in 1969, people saw planet Earth as what fellow astronaut James Lovell described as “a grand oasis in the big vastness of space.” Today this awesome image of Earth is considered to be one of the most influential photographs in history. Viewing Earth from this perspective has helped inspire the environmental movement and has generated an increased interest in interdisciplinary studies.

Threshold 2: Star Trails by F.W.

Threshold 2: Star Trails by F.W.

When I began teaching Big History, I put up a poster of Earthrise in the classroom to remind my students of the power of photographs. Throughout our studies I challenge my students to make connections between the image and the thresholds and themes of the course. As the students gain new knowledge about the history of the cosmos and humanity, we reflect back on the famous photo and apply what we have learned. From the light of the sun illuminating the Earth, to the shape of the continents and the complex civilizations that call the planet home, the connections the students make are fun and thoughtful. When we ponder the driving question of “Why individuals change their minds?” we consider how evidence in the form of a photograph can change our perspective and convince us to think differently.

Threshold 3: Elementary Ingredients by G.O.

Threshold 3: Elementary Ingredients by G.O.

Teaching Big History has provided me with new opportunities to inspire my students to be creative and innovative. Throughout the course I encourage the students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of different ways. From designing instructional infographics to creating original films, the students work to use technology to enhance their learning experience. In a new project this school year, I challenged the students to go out into the world a take an original photograph or share a photograph they had taken recently that they believe connected to their studies of Big History. Some of those images are shown throughout this post. I encouraged the students to research the work of famous landscape photographers like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and Eliot Porter for inspiration. I then shared with the students, images from Matt Walker, Cory Hansen, and Sean Parker. These contemporary artists are a few of my favorites because their work depicts a beautiful interaction between the cosmos, nature, and the modern world. The students then wrote about how their own photo reflected their knowledge of the thresholds and themes and shared their work with their classmates. Later in the year we will take our photo editing skills to the next level when we collaborate with our school’s digital photography teacher on a photojournalism project to document the Modern Revolution.


Threshold 4: Lunar Dark Side of the Moon by M.S.

My students are living at a time in human history where access to smart phones has given more people the opportunity to be photographers. The growing popularity of photo sharing apps like Instagram, Flickr, and Snapchat provide this generation with an increasing ability to create and share original content. By encouraging my students to create and share meaningful and thought-provoking photographs, they have an opportunity to reflect on their learning and inspire others to think critically about the study of Big History.

Threshold 5: A Path to Life by P.D.

Threshold 5: A Path to Life by P.D.


Threshold 6: House of Knowledge by B.R.


Threshold 7: Rows of Fertility by E.P.


Threshold 8: A Square of Time by K.K.


Bob Regan
Big History Project Team


New Orleans, Louisiana montage” by Infrogmation (talk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The Big History Project had a terrific week in New Orleans at the National Council for the Social Studies. There was plenty of great food, amazing teachers and big ideas. We met hundreds of people from around the country and there was one consistent theme to our discussions. How can we bring the aspirations of the C3 to life in our classrooms and really help students learn?


Bob Bain from the University of Michigan, our partner and trusted advisor, gave a fantastic session titled, Why Big History, Why Now? that reviewed some of the enduring challenges of teaching history, including:

  • the problems in adolescent literacy,
  • the inequitable distribution of quality resources,
  • a tendency of schools to devolve into didactic teaching at the expense of engaged inquiry,
  • a failure to help students develop connections across the content and curriculum.

His talk reviews the importance of going ‘big’ to see the connections between the smaller histories we tend to cover in schools. More than that, putting inquiry at the center of the course encourages a deeper level of engagement and creates space to add a real emphasis on literacy in the course. Bob provided a synopsis of his talk here.


On Saturday, four of our teachers got together for a session reviewing some specific practices in the classroom and how to drive real inquiry on the part of their students. Each of these teachers brought in video from their classroom, as well as samples of student work and the activity from BHP to discuss. They were:

  • Scott Henstrand
    Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies – Brooklyn, NY
    Scott talked about helping students to develop better questions and question strategies using The Mystery Box activity.
  • Bridgette O’Connor
    Scholastica Academy – Covington, LA
    Bridgette presented Claim Testing as it applies to teaching reading and working with complex informational texts.
  • Jason Manning
    Oceanside High School – Oceanside, NY
    Jason discussed strategies for incorporating disciplinary practices within the What Do You Know, Who Do You Ask activity that asks students to draw upon the insights of an infinite variety of disciplines.
  • Todd Nussen
    Oceanside High School – Oceanside, NY
    Todd walked through the use of student-generated comics as a means of developing mental models of complex ideas and shaping pre-writing activities for students.

Look for blog posts from each of these teachers soon discussing their presentations.

It is great to be home, but we are already looking forward to our next opportunity to get together with teachers.