WHY I TEACH BHP

Rob Valenti
BHP Teacher, New York, USA

Teaching the Big History Project (BHP) course over the past 3 years at Springville-Griffith Institute High School as a senior capstone elective has truly been the most rewarding experience of my teaching career. At first, 14 billion years of history and science seemed daunting. But as are many things in BHP, it’s all about perspective. From the beginning, one of the goals that I’ve tried to achieve as a social studies educator has been to try and further my students’ understanding of identity—who we are. From my point of view, there is no true understanding of who we are and what the world we live in is all about without knowing our origins. Can you imagine how distorted our perceptions of the future would be without an understanding of the past?

While immersed in BHP, my students grapple with questions about our present, past, and future, and they do this from the perspective of individuals, of members of a globally connected society, and of beings in an ever-expanding Universe. These types of questions and inquiry have led to explosions of bewilderment, curiosity, and the deep motivation of students to search for answers. Class projects, discussions, and work have been rigorous, yet fun, exciting, and meaningful. This has simply been the best classroom I’ve ever been part of. And I have truly been part of the course, because while teaching BHP, I’m a student just as much as those I guide through it. I’m not the master of all the disciplines the course touches on, but rather a facilitator who, with his students, searches for answers to big questions. At the same time we dig and reach for those answers, we spin together the amazing web of connections that constitute the Big History narrative of the Universe.

A BHP Student’s Letter to His Teacher

Big History Thank you

Read the full text of the letter:

6/12/16
Mr. Valenti,

Last year, I was scheduled to take digital photo, but then you and some students came into my APUSH class and gave a presentation on Big History. It looked interesting, so I decided to take a chance on it and drop digital photo to take Big History. This proved to be one of the best decisions of my life, and I mean that truly.

To me, this isn’t just a history class, but something that has given me so much more. The structure of this curriculum has completely changed the way I look at the world. The lens that this course uses to understand the Universe has been very enlightening, and inspired me to share my own way of looking at things. Concepts such as scale and networks between people have helped me understand my own relationship with the world around me.

This class has shaped and had a large influence on my future plans too. It has energized my passion for globalization studies and has motivated me to continue studying the connections between the world’s people and cultures.

You’re a great teacher and I appreciate your encouragement of discussion and questioning. You, in teaching this class, have given me the invaluable opportunity to ask questions and ponder ideas that I never would have thought about before. I have never before taken a class so focused on important ideas and the stimulation of creative thinking as the Big History Project, and I am so grateful I got to spend this year with you in this class.

Thank you so much,
Zachary Cudney

PUTTING THE PROFESSIONAL IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

All the Ways We Train Teachers

BHP Team Post

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The Big History Project timeline

The Big History Project course is a great one. As good as it is, it pales in comparison to what teachers do with it. They tweak the activities. They write new ones. They swap out readings and videos. They overlay their approaches to reading and writing. They share and debate these changes with their peers. They do a million little things to make the course more effective for their students.

We know that great professional development is not about a day or two training before the school year starts. Great professional development is about finding space for teachers to really take a hard look at their own practice, to learn from other teachers (and scholars), and to help others—wherever they might be—on their own paths.

A perpetual first draft

When the first set of lessons was created three years ago, we worked with a group of experienced, effective teachers to document how they were teaching BHP in their classrooms. Ever since, we’ve asked BHP teachers to treat every lesson as a first draft. We collect feedback on what is working, what isn’t, and get teachers’ thoughts about how we can make things better. Then, we incorporate this feedback into our annual update. We try to edit about 10 percent of the course each year. This means that the Big History Project gets better each and every year. We’re proud of these updates. Still, we believe that the thought that goes into that BHP teacher feedback is far, far more valuable than anything we do. In thinking about, discussing, and debating their own practices with peers from the BHP community, teachers learn more than in any workshop.

An online community

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The Big History Project teacher community

The bulk of the discussions among teachers take place online in the BHP Teacher Community. As you might on Facebook, teachers post into a feed that builds over time. There are discussion areas dedicated to new teachers, individual units of the course, and a variety of other subjects. We hold moderated discussions called “BHP Exchanges,” where we invite scholars and experts to answer questions about issues important to teachers. We also make sure there are a group of teacher leaders identified so there are always knowledgeable people available to answer questions online.

There are loads of high-quality teacher communities. We’ve learned a ton from many of them. However, there are very few that focus specifically on a single curriculum like ours. As a result, the discussions can be a little distant from the topics a teacher really wants to discuss. It’s a simple idea, to build a formal PLC by focusing a community on a particular curriculum, but it is surprisingly rare. Our teachers tell us that these conversations between peers are incredibly valuable.

In addition to the BHP Teacher Community, the Big History Project also has a larger network across Facebook and Twitter. Our posts and tweets are less of a conversation, more of a way to share insights from teachers, lessons from the course, and discuss relevant news topics.

An online course

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Teaching Big History, Session 1

For teachers new and newish to the Big History Project, it’s helpful to have an in-depth introduction to the course, the lessons, and the community. Our new training course, Teaching Big History, provides teachers with a comprehensive overview. Designed in partnership with BHP teachers and the University of Michigan, Teaching Big History delivers about 9 hours of training. It covers each of the eight thresholds of BHP using selected videos and articles from the course itself. It reviews the key instructional practices from the course so that teachers can choose what to adopt into their own practice. It covers the core logistical elements of the BHP program, explaining how to set up a class, enroll students, and access key resources. Finally, the course will introduce teachers to the BHP Teacher Community, inviting them to comment on units and discuss the process of planning their school year.

Help!

There are times when all else fails and you just want to get in touch with us directly. If you ever have a question, you can always reach us at help@bighistoryproject.com.

GETTING TO KNOW TEXT GENOME

With this year’s update, the Big History Project teamed up with Text Genome to revise the course glossary and the related vocabulary activities, and to provide supporting Text Genome reports for many articles and videos throughout the course. We wanted to improve the literacy supports within the course and respond to teacher feedback about our vocab activities. To help understand how to use the Text Genome reports and the new activities, we wrote up a scenario of how a fictional teacher might use the resources.

Amanda teaches Big History for eighth graders at Corteleone Middle School in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Helping her kids become better writers is a big focus for Amanda.

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Vocabulary guide

At the beginning of each unit, Amanda downloads the unit vocabulary guide. This guide calls out the key vocabulary her students will encounter in the readings and videos for that unit. Each word is put in the context of its morphological family and semantic (conceptual) network, and examples of the word used in various sentences are provided.

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Sample visualization of a semantic network.

NOTE: There are no definitions given for vocabulary words included in the report. If you want the definitions, they’re available in the glossary, as always, but they don’t appear in unit guides or the individual Text Genome reports. We’ve done this intentionally. Rather than simply memorizing a definition, we want students to understand the concept a word represents. So, the emphasis is placed on the structure of the language around each word rather than its simple definition.

Amanda asks her students to review the list and to call out words that are unfamiliar, or words they think they should know (but do not). For each, she focuses on the related words and has the students look at the examples provided. She knows that simply memorizing a definition isn’t helpful; it’s important for students to become familiar with the use of the word in context and the concept it represents.

Next, Amanda asks students to look at the vocabulary activities. In Big History, there are two set of activities for each unit. Each activity has two types of questions. The first question type is a fairly simple fill-in-the-blank question. The goal here is to help students become familiar with the words in context and to give them a sense of how comfortable they are with the words.

An example from Unit 1, Lesson 1, looks like this:

Use one of the given choices to fill in the blank.

Our solar system is part of a vast __________________________.

               nerve

               universe

               rice

               cats

In the second type of question, students complete a set of multiple choice questions to revisit these same words.

What does the word universe mean?

____ a piece of stone or metal that attracts iron or steel

____ a map line dividing Earth halfway between the poles

____ everything that exists in Earth, the planets, and space

Once the students have completed the first vocabulary activity for the unit, Amanda leads a quick discussion with students about any particularly challenging or unfamiliar terms.

Later in the unit, usually the third lesson, the conversation and the questions are a bit different. At this point, students have seen all (or nearly all) of the words in the unit vocabulary. They have seen them in the texts and they should have completed the first couple of exercises in the unit, which provide context for each word. Now, it’s time to formalize their understanding by looking at different forms of the words (morphology) and related words (semantic network).

Before beginning the activity, Amanda takes a moment to review the vocabulary with the class for a second time. She asks the students to pick out words that are still unfamiliar, or words that gave them trouble in a readings or video. This time, she points them to the semantic networks and asks them how each of the vocabulary words differs from the other words in its semantic network. The goal at this stage is to push a deeper understanding of the concept.

Next, Amanda asks students to look at the first type of question in this activity. This one takes the simple fill-in-the-blank question from Part I and focuses on getting familiar with all of the different variations on the word that they encountered in the unit’s readings or videos. It’s certainly a more challenging activity than the simple one-word exercises that they have saw in Part I, but because the list of words is finite and the words are related, deciding which one goes where gives the learners a chance to see how words in a family are related and how different forms are used in different grammatical settings.

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Fill-in-the-blank sample question

The second type of question in this activity is a matching exercise that focuses on the semantic network of each word. It asks students to find synonyms for the key words. Again, engaging readers in choosing what goes with what lets them get a better sense not only of the boundaries on the meaning of the word but its neighbors as well.

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Find synonyms sample question

Amanda wraps up the vocabulary activities for the unit with a quick discussion about any particularly challenging or unfamiliar terms. She reminds students that whenever they come across an unfamiliar word, they can review the same information in the glossary or the Text Genome report.