MEANINGFUL TASKS MAKE GEOGRAPHY FUN

Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Teacher
Louisiana, USA

Many surveys have been conducted and articles written about American students’ knowledge of geography, or lack thereof. A quick Google search results in article titles such as “Young Americans Geographically Illiterate” (National Geographic) and “Another Piece of Evidence that America’s Students Know Little About Their Country” (The Atlantic). At the same time, reading charts, maps, and graphs is a huge part of standardized testing and it’s a skill that students must practice regularly. So how do we get students to retain information about geography and also make it tie into Big History? The Human Migration Patterns activity from Lesson 6.3 is certainly a good place to start.

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A map of early human migrations. Public Domain.

Human Migration Patterns asks students to read the article “The Great Human Migration” from Smithsonian Magazine and write down or highlight any clues given about the migration patterns of early humans—basically, the who, what, when, where, and how of human migration. After this, they compare their notes with other students’ to fill in any missing blanks. Before they begin to draw the migration routes, they must label the map with a number of locations in order to orient themselves to modern countries and natural features that were traversed by early humans.

Many students find this activity difficult, especially since they’re unsure they’ve picked out all the clues needed to complete the map. However, with some guidance from me and members of their group, they usually get most of the necessary information. Students begin to piece together the routes, learn about modern and historical geography, and figure out where Homo sapiens and Neanderthals might have coexisted.

One thing that students frequently forget is the dates of migration, which is the last numbered item on their instructions. I would say that it’s about a 60-40 split, with the majority of students failing to label the map with this information. I think they have brain fatigue by the end and simply overlook it; however, this ends up being a great learning moment, as their grade reflects this and any other omissions and teaches them to finish reading directions to the end!

Human Migration Patterns requires students to use many skills—close reading (both for information and comprehension), researching, and mapping—as they work through the story of human migration out of Africa. While a happy byproduct of Human Migration Patterns is that students retain knowledge about geography, it is not the sole focus. Regardless, maybe one day soon we’ll see those Google search results about students’ lack of geographical knowledge change for the better.

About the author: The 2016/17 school year marks Bridgette’s fifth 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 120 students a year in three 90-minute sessions per day.

History Teachers: Our Time is Now

Casey Lever, Big History Teacher
Queensland, Australia

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Portland Bill Lighthouse, Isle of Portland, Dorset U.K. Public domain.

Teachers have both an instinctive and a conscious understanding that our role in young people’s lives is vital, and so for the most part we go placidly amidst the noise and haste, ignoring the sound and fury of criticism, often unfair comparisons, and threats of cutbacks that break around us constantly. We know that the discussions we facilitate, the skills we tenderly nurture, and the respect for knowledge and expertise we model and engender in students are vital to their future education and to their wellbeing. We know that one day, if not right now, they will make use of these fundamentals; one day they may even feel grateful for them.

At times, however, there’s a persistent nagging feeling that we’re just not relevant enough. Sure, what we’re doing to satisfy curriculum priorities is important and we should keep doing it. Losing the foundation building blocks would endanger the whole building, and no one is arguing for that. But there are times when the concerns of broader society are so great that students are bursting to talk about them, to think about them, and to have academic rigor applied to them in a way that provides a much deeper satisfaction than that offered by social media.

That time is now.

Teenagers, just like adults, sense that the world is in a period of upheaval, and that the laws and norms of democracy are being tested. They sense that the natural world is under threat and that human lifestyles will be forced to adapt—and sooner rather than later. They sense that the Internet has played havoc with truth telling and that they will need to be able to figure out for themselves what knowledge has been constructed authentically and legitimately, and how to see through those who seek to manipulate them.

Haven’t you ever wanted to be able to talk more directly about these things in your classroom? Get your head out of all the details and talk about why things are the way they are? How did we end up like this? Where is the world headed? And that’s only the beginning. How do we know the stuff written in textbooks is true? Why are we starting to talk about “fake news” and “alternative facts”? What are the strategies we need to distinguish between fact and spin?

Of course, traditional courses do allow for those discussions. They always have and they always will—over time. But Big History puts these questions at the forefront. It pays no attention to traditional and jealously guarded boundaries of subjects. Instead, it looks at the basis of knowledge. It examines scientific and historical thinking, and promotes the astonishing reality that these disciplines have a great deal in common. Seeking truths by testing explanations based on evidence, for one thing. Interrogating claims to see what stands up to scrutiny, for another. And rethinking answers when they have been proven incorrect.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze exactly why I love teaching Big History so much. I’ve always loved teaching history, whatever form it takes, and I’ve always regarded the teaching of science by my colleagues as vital to our young people. But it’s that chance to put the biggest questions of the future of humanity at the heart of my lessons every day that is the key. Every Big History lesson I ask my students to think about, research, discuss and debate the questions we all have about our role in the Universe. Often, those are the very questions they were thinking about anyway, questions that were going unanswered by the traditional school day.

The truth is that some days I feel like there are more important things I could be talking about in my classroom. I’m going to guess that other teachers might feel the same way. Teaching Big History doesn’t make me feel like that. At the risk of hyperbole, I no longer feel like I’m fiddling while Rome burns. Big History has made me a teacher activist; not for any political cause, but for the cause of empowering young people to think, to discover, to judge, and to know their part in creating their own future. And that feels good.

About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.

DINNER’S READY! HUNTER-GATHERER EDITION

Scott Collins, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

Finals have begun, which makes for even longer days, as does entering grades and completing all the other tasks that come with putting a bow on the semester. It’s dark as I leave school. I’m hungry, and the golden arches are shining brightly through my windshield. A quick drive through and two cheeseburgers and steaming-hot, salty fries are in a bag, sitting shotgun. A ready-made meal, just like that, awaiting my consumption. It hasn’t always been this easy. Believe it or not, there were times when you couldn’t order your groceries online and have them delivered to your door! Unit 6.3 of Big History features the Hunter-Gatherer Menu activity, which hearkens back to times when humans had to work much harder for a meal than we do today.

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Cheeseburger and fries by stu_spivak. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Hunter Gatherer Menu activity asks students to do research on foraging diets and the ways in which our foraging ancestors would have obtained the resources needed to maintain these diets. It asks them to abandon the mindset of today, when so many things are a smart-phone app away, and set themselves next to a campfire of 15,000 years ago with nothing but some tools and an ecosystem full of resources. What would they do then? How would they survive? This activity gets students thinking creatively about the true hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

As I introduce the activity, I ask students to quietly imagine that their desk isn’t a desk, but a downed tree, upon which they’re sitting. I ask them to visualize what the space around us would have been like 15,000 years ago. What would the terrain have been like? The plants? The animals? Would there have been water nearby? They might need to do some historical research about the area if they aren’t sure about its ecological or geological history. Based on their conclusions, they then create a menu including the resources that a hunter-gatherer would have been able to collect 15,000 years ago, at the very spot where our school is located.

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White-tailed deer by USDA photo by Scott Bauer, public domain., CC BY-SA 2.0. Wild blueberry bush by Paul VanDerWerf, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The activity allows students not only to put themselves in the minds of hunter-gatherers, but also to think about the history of the area and what it used to be like geographically and ecologically. This can be difficult for them at first, but a few prompts here and there and the creative juices begin to flow and simmer like a pot of white-tailed deer stew. As they get going and begin to truly adopt the hunter-gatherer mentality, students invariably create dishes that one might see at a five-star restaurant on Randolph Street, about 25 miles north in Chicago. As an extra-credit opportunity, I’ve even allowed students to prepare a dish from their menu on their own time and bring it in to share—a risky, but sometimes rewarding experience for the palate. Have fun with this activity and I assure you, it will be fruitful (see what I did there?).

About the author: Scott Collins is a high school science teacher in Lemont, IL. In addition to BHP, he teaches AP biology, honors biology, and integrated science. His school is on a semester system. Scott’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade BHP classes run about 85 minutes long and focus heavily on the science content. About 60 students per year join him on the 13.8-billion-year journey.