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.

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