REFLECTIONS ON MY FIRST TWO YEARS OF TEACHING BHP

Chelsea Katzenberg, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

This year marked my second teaching the Big History Project course, and it couldn’t have been more different from the first year I taught the course. As spring fever sets in and I begin looking ahead to next year, I am reminded of the growth I have made as a teacher of Big History, and the necessity of remaining flexible in the face of changing student needs. Here’s a glimpse of the instructional shifts I made between Years 1 and 2 of teaching the course.

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Sunrise. Public domain.

Last year, I taught Big History for the first time in what was, in many ways, an ideal setting. I taught a small group of mainly high-achieving seniors with whom I had a strong relationship after also teaching them as freshmen and sophomores. The class was an elective, and while I had to deal with some pretty intense “senior-itis” toward the end of the year, the students definitely grasped and appreciated my role as “lead learner” as we all navigated the course for the first time.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Big History to the entire sophomore class as their Global I course (freshmen take U.S. History at my school). The widely varying abilities represented by an entire sophomore class (as opposed to a small, high-achieving group of seniors) caused me to make considerable modifications to the materials I used Year 1. I’ve had to be much more selective and thoughtful about what I include in each lesson, which is certainly not a bad conceptual adjustment to have to make! While Year 1 was more experimental and free-flowing, Year 2 has been more about “What will have the greatest impact on my students?”

The biggest shift this year was the emphasis placed on literacy. Whereas last year I would hand the seniors a reading and say “read it and answer the questions,” this year my students require much more support. We read a LOT and we write quite a bit (there can always be more!). From the reading process to annotations to increased emphasis on vocabulary to days-long reading/writing workshops leading up to Investigations, the biggest shift this year has been in recognizing that, for obvious reasons, my students need a lot more skill-based instruction than last year.

Additionally, for students inundated in the Regents-controlled educational atmosphere of New York City, Big History has represented a — sometimes uncomfortable — conceptual shift. I knew that it would be important to spend a lot of early lessons on what Big History is. Despite my attempt to emphasize the overall picture of Big History, I still faced a lot of “Why are we learning about science?” questions in early units. However, I relished those questions, as they gave me a chance to return to the overall narrative and force students to think about their assumptions about history and science and to recognize the important overlaps.

Additionally, I have faced occasional concerns along the lines of, “Why are we learning this if it’s not going to be on the Regents?” This question often makes me cringe internally, as it shows how powerfully testing shapes many students’ perspective on education. However, it is also a question I look forward to answering with a question of my own. “Why do you come to school? What do you think education SHOULD be about?” It’s definitely led to some rich discussions, as I think some students have never even been confronted with the idea that school is NOT just about passing the “test” (whatever that test may be).

Side note: I believe that the literacy-heavy focus of BHP more than prepares students for the Regents exam. I’ve seen students increase their stamina and comprehension thanks to the literacy focus of the course. After taking a Mock Regents last month, my students told me that the DBQs seemed “easy” compared with the work required by an Investigation. I know the sentiment is similar among my BHP colleagues at Oceanside High School — they’ve seen impressive results on Regents from their BHP students.

In many ways, my second year of teaching BHP has thrown as many curve balls as the first. And that’s okay. As we near the end of Trimester 2, and as I gear up for Units 8 through 10, I look forward to continuing to push student thinking and assumptions of both education and the world around them. Especially as the Regents pressure ramps up in other subjects in June, I want students to have a space where their curiosity does not need to be pushed aside in the interest of time and testing. Even with the challenges of senior-itis last spring, Unit 10 was an adventure that my seniors and I loved; I can’t wait to see the energy my sophomores bring to it this year!

About the author: Chelsea Katzenberg teaches in the Bronx, NY, at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II. BHP is a required course for tenth graders at her school, and Chelsea teaches five sections of it, all with a world history focus. She loves that Big History encourages her students to ask questions they might never have considered!