HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE BIG HISTORY

Todd Nussen, BHP Teacher
New York, U.S.A.

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I’ve met many world history teachers who were apprehensive about taking the leap into Big History. That’s a perfectly natural reaction. A first-year teacher might very well find BHP daunting in its scope and complexity, but an experienced world history teacher who has already worked hard to fit a lot of instruction into limited classroom time may have even more anxiety. How are they going to reorganize their tried and true course?

The first six units in the Big History course are vastly different from a standard world history curriculum. You may ask yourself:

  • Can I teach the science content adequately enough?
  • Will learning the scientific components of the curriculum really support my students’ understanding of history?

Yes, and yes. You can certainly support the content that is outside of your area of expertise, and learning the science will improve students’ grasp of history. As educators, it is essential to remember that content delivery must never eclipse skill development and acquisition.

If, like me, you’re a trained teacher of history, you may not relish becoming a science teacher – and the good news is you don’t have to. History is by nature interdisciplinary, so just as a lesson on the Gutenberg press might require some knowledge of mechanical engineering, or teaching about the great explorers would call for some study of celestial navigation, so does Big History’s billions of prehuman years depend on what science has uncovered. A true scientist may think of it differently, but for me, it’s still all history.

Teaching BHP has been an opportunity to develop collaborative relationships with my colleagues in the science department, relying on their help with the “How?” and “Why?” questions while I take care of the “When?” and “What?” questions. Additionally, BHP provides all the resources needed to teach the science-based threshold events of the past 13.8 billion years. Students’ skills of claim testing and document/multimedia analysis become so well developed during the first couple of months of the course that when they start studying human history, the student-centered lessons and activities are remarkably engaging and interesting.

Also, the writing strategies developed during the more science-dependent units become invaluable throughout the school year. When working with my students on the BHP Investigation writing activities—the analysis of texts, the planning associated with writing—I found the questions being asked were far superior to those history teachers traditionally work on with their students during the first months of school.

The world-history-to-Big-History transition reminds me of when I was told I was going to teach economics for the first time. My degree was in history and I had only taken one economics class, a requirement of my education degree. So I did what any new teacher would do—I panicked! Then, after panicking some more, I went back to my old economics books, consulted with my colleagues, and began to craft a scope and sequence for instruction. I was proud of what I put together, but it would have been a lot less work and a lot more fun if I’d had a rich online resource like the BHP website.

In addition to the activities and readings that can be found in BHP, another incredibly helpful resource to new and seasoned BHP teachers is the Teacher Community on Yammer. Yammer offers BHP teachers across the globe the opportunity to share ideas and collaborate virtually.

In the end it comes down to this: I have consistently found—in my own classroom and in the classrooms of my world history colleagues—that we have been able to deliver a more engaging and dynamic course for students through the lens of Big History. Students are more motivated to learn, they have richer dialogue in class, and most impressively their conversation—and their learning—extends to nearly all their other classes and to their lives outside school as well.

C3 IN SOCIAL STUDIES: HOW DO WE GET BEYOND THE BUZZ AND ACTUALLY DO IT?

David Burzillo
BHP Teacher, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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Big Historians David Burzillo, Scott Henstrand, and Todd Nussen at NERC 2016

There’s a lot of talk in education circles about C3. It typically includes a lot of buzzwords and acronyms. Those discussions are important. But how do you actually do C3 in the classroom?

I’m going to be at the Northeast Regional Conference for the Social Studies (NERC) next week with Big History Project (BHP) teachers Scott Henstrand and Todd Nussen to teach a clinic on doing C3. BHP naturally lends itself to a discussion of the C3 framework and, more important, actually implementing C3 in the classroom.

In case you’ve lost track, C3 stands for college, career, and civic life. You could print out and read through stacks and stacks of paper to get a thorough understanding of the full C3 framework and what it calls for. I won’t get into all that. Night reading. The upshot is this:  Our call to action as history teachers is not just to help kids learn history, but also to help them develop the tools and skills of disciplines and critical thinking they’ll need to successfully navigate college, career, and civic life. The C3 specifies four key dimensions, or achievement goals, for students:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

Taken out of context, those seem like some pretty lofty goals for a history class! But if we reexamine them through the lens of Big History, achieving these readiness goals becomes a more approachable task, and the BHP course has many resources to help students develop and refine their skills in these dimensions.

At NERC, my colleagues and I will show, and assist attendees in practicing, how BHP addresses each of these requirements. From the practice of claim testing that teaches students how to examine claims using intuition, logic, authority, and evidence (or, “how do I know I can trust these Google results?”) to What Do You Know? Who Do You Ask? activities, in which students assemble multidisciplinary teams to solve a problem. In every unit, students have an opportunity to complete an Investigation, which is a deep dive into the unit’s driving question. Here, they evaluate original texts to construct coherent arguments and apply knowledge. These exercises are difficult at first but after a couple of units, the routines become comfortable and students begin to explore and inquire more deeply.

This is just a sampling of the activities, concepts, and routines built into BHP. And they work.

At NERC, you’ll get a chance to sample BHP’s approach to the C3 and collect your own evidence. We’ll bring stories from the classroom and research so you can test our claims that BHP hits the C3 mark. We hope to see you there.

SHARING STUDENT WORK WITH A LITTLE BIG HISTORY EVENT

Damian Pawlowski
Big History Teacher, California, U.S.A.

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LBH Night pictures courtesy Damian Pawlowski

One of the most exciting aspects of teaching Big History is sharing the awesome narrative of the course with students. As we work our way through the eight thresholds and various themes of the course, the greater story of Big History becomes clear and students begin to view the study of history with a new perspective. Throughout the year, I challenge students to demonstrate their knowledge of the Big History narrative in a variety of ways. Students write Investigation responses, conduct debates, give presentations, design animations and infographics, and create original films. In each of these activities, students have the opportunity to be creative and share their understanding of the story of Big History.

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Examples of student LBH work

All this work leads up to students playing the role of storyteller in the culminating assessment of the course, the Little Big History (LBH) project. For this project, students choose a topic—a commodity, a living thing, an activity, or a place—and trace the history of the topic using the lenses of the BHP thresholds and themes.  Students are challenged to make connections between their topic and at least three different academic disciplines, and specifically focus on connections to their studies in world history. They’re required to discuss the significance of their topic in the world today and make predictions about the future of their topic. In the end, the LBH project gives students the opportunity to tell an exciting story about a topic they’ve chosen, and to share their knowledge with their classmates.

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Last year, our students decided that they wanted to share their stories and the Big History narrative beyond the classroom by putting on a community showcase event at our high school. They had worked hard for several weeks to research, write, and create their LBH projects so they were eager to organize an event to show off their work. As the classes began to brainstorm ideas and plan for the showcase, it became clear that they were invested in getting every student involved and making the event memorable. After a few days, we had a plan in place. We then organized teams of students to be responsible for the different tasks we would need to complete in order to make our showcase a success. While the students had doubts about whether they would have everything ready in time, in the end it all came together smoothly. They did an amazing job hosting the event and an even more amazing job sharing their outstanding projects. The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive and the students loved getting recognition for their work.

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Although planning, organizing, and hosting the showcase took a great deal of effort, it was worth it. The event gave students the chance to share their excitement about the course and their projects with a larger audience, and even inspire others to think critically about the study of Big History.

If you’d like to hold an LBH project showcase at your school—and our students and I hope you do—here are a few things we learned from our own experience:

Plan and prepare
Reserve a space on your campus where students can easily share their projects with the audience. Be sure to set aside enough time for students to practice their presentations before the event. The week before the event, our students presented their projects to a panel of parents and members of the community and received feedback on how they might improve. Students then had time to make final adjustments in preparation for the event and were able to feel confident they were sharing their best work.

Get the students involved
Work with your students to plan an event that is original and meaningful. The great thing about our showcase was that it was organized and run by the students. In addition to having students present their projects during the event, we also enlisted students with different talents to promote and document it. We had a team of students skilled in graphic design create a logo, flyer, and program. Other students organized a photography and film crew to document the showcase. Having students contribute their unique talents to the event was a great way to get everyone invested and involved in making it memorable.

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Spread the word
Have the students brainstorm creative ways to advertise the event at school and in the community. Our students posted flyers on campus and spread the word at our downtown farmers market. Encourage your students to invite their teachers and friends in other grades. It was great for our students to hear how impressed people were with the event and how much they learned from the presentations.

Inspire future Big Historians
Hosting a showcase can be a great way to promote the study of Big History at your school. We invited the incoming freshman class to our event so that future students might be inspired to study Big History. At the end of the event, our students challenged the younger members of the audience to find their own ways to be creative and encouraged them never to stop asking the big questions.