SO YOU’VE DECIDED TO TEACH BIG HISTORY: HERE’S WHAT TO EXPECT

Rachel Hansen
BHP Teacher, Iowa, U.S.A.

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP World History course over two 180-day semesters to about 50 ninth-grade through twelfth-grade students each school year.

The first year teaching Big History feels like drinking from the fire hydrant on a hot summer day. It’s both refreshing and overwhelming. If you’re a bit anxious about teaching the entire history of the Universe in a single course, that seems pretty reasonable.

Unchartered Territory

No matter your background area of expertise, there’s going to be a level of unfamiliarity with BHP course content. As a social studies teacher, I felt in over my head with the science content in the first few units. Seeking out experts was critical—especially on Yammer, the BHP Teacher Community.

I think I broke into a cold sweat when I realized that Unit 3 covers the life cycle of stars and my arch nemeses from high school—chemistry and the periodic table of elements. What I remember of chemistry in high school mostly involves Bunsen burners (we lit a lot of things on fire) and a periodic table T-shirt that I bought to wear on test days (it glowed in the dark). I really struggled to engage with subjects that lacked a strong human connection.

In the midst of my summer planning frenzy, I desperately searched the BHP Teacher Community on Yammer for help. The search results were incredible. Teachers posted student comic books on the life cycle of stars and projects that related to the history of the periodic table and our changing knowledge about the elements. A colleague of mine also recommended a tremendous book by Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. This inspired me to look at chemistry with new eyes—the eyes of a historian. Much to my surprise, chemistry did have a human connection!

The BIG Narrative

Maintaining a cohesive narrative for the entire history of the Universe is tricky. One of the core concepts in the course is teaching about thresholds—the big turning points in the Universe’s history. In order to do this, we frequently asked students to think across scale, both in time and space.

We reinforced the concepts of thresholds and scale in a variety of ways. We approached scale from a geographic perspective to make it more human, analyzing census data at various scales. Students periodized music genres, musical instruments, American history, their own lives, and the history of silver. We asked them to create concept maps that showed how seemingly unrelated events shared much larger connections in the big picture of history. Students created timelines to visualize history at various scales, and we even tried to reframe the periodization of historical trends and events in ways that might change entire narratives. Our year culminated with a Little Big History Project, in which students told the history of an object, broken into at least five major thresholds.

Mindset

Mindset was critical for me when navigating outside of my comfort zone. As the lead learner on this Big History adventure, I adopted the same disposition we expect of students. I knew I didn’t need all the answers, but I certainly needed some expert materials that would help me frame good questions. Teaching the history of the Universe is a daunting task, but the collaborative experience is truly transformative.

THE HOOK: EASTER ISLAND MYSTERY ACTIVITY

Bridgette Byrd O’Conner
BHP Teacher, Louisiana, U.S.A.

About the author: The 2016/17 school year marks Bridgette Byrd O’Connor’s fifth year teaching BHP as a semester-long history course. She teaches ninth and twelfth graders at Saint Scholastica Academy, a private school for girls. Bridgette teaches her 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.

easter-island-mysteryAllow me to state the obvious: the BHP course offers a ton of activities. I’ve now taught the course for four years and I’ve developed a select list of favorites. One of these is Lesson 1.0’s Easter Island Mystery. This activity is the perfect hook to begin a 13.8-billion-year journey.

Students are often uninterested in history because they think they’ll be learning the same old stuff and memorizing a bunch of facts. By opening with a mystery, students begin to see how scholars use a variety of information from multiple disciplines to construct claims about the past. It also gets them involved in trying to figure out the mystery itself, and they learn that even experts  don’t always have definitive answers, and that’s okay!

Here at Saint Scholastica Academy, we had our first day of school just a few days ago, and Easter Island Mystery was our first in-class assignment. As I was walking around, monitoring groups, I heard some amazing student hypotheses about what might have happened to the people of Easter Island. Did the population decline due to a war, famine, disease? Their minds were focused and working hard to figure out the mystery.

The conversations and questions I overheard while monitoring the groups of students and the palpable level of engagement and energy—there’s no question that this activity had once more helped me overcome that first hurdle of teaching history. These kids now knew they weren’t going to be learning the same old stuff and memorizing a bunch of facts. This was not going to be their parents’ history class. This activity is a keeper!

ADAPTING HISTORY AS MYSTERY TO MY LOCATION

Gregory Dykhouse
BHP Teacher, Michigan, U.S.A

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Video still from the BBC program, The Mystery of the Headless Romans.

Unit 1 of the BHP course kicks off with History as Mystery, an activity that includes a 50-minute BBC program, The Mystery of the Headless Romans. This program introduces many useful ideas—how historians investigate questions, how hypotheses may emerge into accepted theories, and how interdisciplinary skills are necessary for exploring the past. It even features 30 decapitated skeletons, which I would have thought would be great fuel for budding high school historians. However, as I taught the lesson in class, I was surprised to find it didn’t capture my students’ interest. Why?

I think the missing component was a connection between my students in twenty-first century west Michigan and the mystery itself, which centers on third-century York, England. I tried a number of techniques to give my students the context they might need to connect with the activity scenario, but had little success. I wondered if I could affect their level of engagement by adapting the activity to focus on a mystery closer to their own time and place. I thought I might be able to take advantage of something I’d observed over the years: Although most students don’t know much about local history, many of them feel like they should, so they’re open to filling that knowledge gap.

I decided to test my theory. The next time I taught BHP, I began the year with my “localized” adaptation of History as Mystery. I had my students investigate a number of images that involved places or things from west Michigan’s past.

What was the Hotel Ottawa? Why has it disappeared?

What was the Getz Zoo? What happened to it?

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George Getz, Jr., rides Nancy the elephant. Courtesy Digital Commons @ Hope College.

What was the Jenison Amusement Park (which included a roller coaster with light bulbs from Thomas Edison)? Where did it go?

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Roller Coaster at Jenison Park, Michigan, 1907, by Wystan. CC BY 2.0.

What was the lost city of Singapore? How did we lose it?

What’s the story with wooly mammoths? What wiped them out?

What happened to the white pine? Why did it go from abundant to nonexistent?

My students were excited by the images. What were these places and things? Why don’t they exist anymore?

The subject of each of these images became extinct for different reasons. I had students investigate an image following these steps:

  1. State a how/why question. For example, why did the white pine disappear?
  2. Conduct research.
  3. Formulate a position statement or thesis.
  4. Support the position statement with evidence.

I didn’t have excessively high expectations for these tasks. I simply wanted to introduce a process of historical inquiry. We then shared our findings and attempted to begin a narrative of west Michigan’s history. We ordered early life (both animals and plants), early industry (logging), and later industry (tourism). We attempted to explain the extinctions and determine what, if anything, moved into the niche they left behind. We speculated about which experts would be useful in helping us understand the past (biologists, architects, anthropologists). In support of a fuller narrative of Michigan’s history, which features physical history, biological history, early humans, rise of agriculture, revolutions of industry and society, we identified the constructs of time that we would use throughout the year.

The “mystery of our local past” led us to develop a history of Michigan, which became our model for the year. BHP encourages us to create our own versions of activities and to adapt the course to meet our students’ needs. My kids needed to start off their year with something they could relate to, and I’ve landed on this version of the opening activity. I think it still hits the important themes and concepts of the original. Try developing your own version of an activity that isn’t working for you by scaling it to your locale—and be sure to share it with us!