Scott Henstrand, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

In my first year teaching Big History (five or six years ago, now—I’ve lost count), I discovered a lens of focus that made the course infinitely engaging to teach—and learn. As with most teachers new to Big History, my early planning for the first five thresholds got bogged down in the minutiae—my students and I lost sight of the unfolding story. I realized that, of the three core BHP concepts (thresholds, collective learning, and origin stories), it was the telling of narratives and origin stories, and the differences between narrative and story, that compelled me to restructure the course from how I had first outlined it.

Cygnus Loop supernova remnant. Credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF.

In restructuring my approach, my primary concern was to keep the modern scientific narrative in perspective as an ongoing attempt to explain our Universe. I continually gave students origin stories from across time and the globe related to the threshold at hand—this kept us grounded in what is a universal human desire to discover our origins. (By the way, the more I teach BHP, the more I realize it’s okay for this narrative to remain in a space of wonder.) And since the modern scientific origin narrative is not fixed, matters of closely reading and critically analyzing what the story proposes—and the choices made by the tellers of the story—become of utmost importance. The course’s emphasis on doing this literacy work with students is one of the most important reasons we should be teaching Big History.

To this end, my school team focuses on defining and distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction. We’ve worked with our ELA staff (Big History invites authentic interdepartmental collaboration) to base our definitions of fiction and nonfiction on the work of Kylene Beers. This is what we decided: Fiction is something made up by a person that does not need any supporting evidence. Sometimes fiction takes a historical event and adds details to the story that are not really known. This is historical fiction. The key, though, is what we use as a definition for nonfiction: text where the author intends to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, idea, or belief. This allows for the nonfiction to change form – you then need a critical eye to evaluate the text and suspend your own belief system to fully read it. Beers has commented on the active participation required of readers of nonfiction:

Definitions of nonfiction that tell students that nonfiction is ‘true’ or ‘real’ or ‘not false’ suggest to students that they do not have a role in reading nonfiction. We disagree with that. We think readers have a critical role in the reading of nonfiction.

-Kylene Beers, Education Week

Beers steers us away from an apodictic view of nonfiction, one where to read is to accept a given truth, and toward an active stance of seeking truth. To create active readers is the goal. This is where the primacy of the core concept origin stories meets the essential skill of claim testing using the BHP claim testers intuition, authority, logic, and evidence.

From this premise, all texts fall on a continuum of fiction/nonfiction. (That thing that’s 100 percent not fiction? It doesn’t exist.) Any fabricated story is a fiction. What becomes interesting is deciding where to place the great fictions on the continuum. I would place Moby Dick and One Hundred Years of Solitude, as examples, on the continuum as not pure fiction, since these are fabrications that speak to deep human truths. On the other end of the continuum, close to the purity of nonfiction and absolute truth, lie many of the scientific/historical narratives we have—such as the modern scientific origin narrative of Big History. Claim testing gives us a way to determine where a text might fall on the continuum.

While reading a text in class, one student of mine proposed a solution for determining a text’s “truth value.” In an inspired bit of thinking, the student proposed that the more claim testers a text used, the closer to nonfiction the text was. To give further nuance, the student proposed that the greater the variety of claim testers used (not just logic or evidence, but also intuition, for example), the more it moved a text toward nonfiction. With a premise that the modern scientific narrative is always incomplete, students had a way to argue for the truth value of any text.

This use of claim testers as a truth-value indicator is also valuable to students for judging their own writing. They now understand that for their documents to be considered as closer to nonfiction, they need to understand better why they make a claim and use a variety (and more than a couple) of claim testers.

Of course, this is a work in progress. At least students now have common ground for deepening their understanding of fiction/nonfiction and claim testers. I also do not leave myself out of that endeavor.

About the author: Scott Henstrand has been teaching Big History at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a public school in New York, since 2011. His school teaches offers the course as a two-year deployment that replaces global studies. In the first year, Unit 1 through Unit 5 are covered, and in the second year, Unit 6 through Unit 10. Scott loves teaching the course because of the fundamental philosophical implications the material addresses.

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