BHP Team

Teaching Big History this year? Thinking about doing so in the future? The online BHP Teacher Community is great to lean on. Recently, we spotted one teacher asking another for advice on prepping for the first few units. Follow their conversation below, and then join in with ideas or questions of your own!


Casey Lever:

Hi David. I am just about to launch into BHP again in a couple of weeks. I’m on a different timeline to you – here in Australia. Do you have any recommendations for something hands-on in the first unit or two which the kids will enjoy?

Dave Burzillo:

Casey, I have always found Unit 1 to be very challenging. Students need to understand the key themes and skills presented in the unit, so I know I have to spend time on them. But students also want to get to the story–that’s why they are interested in the course–and the time spent on themes and skills delays the start of that story. I honestly think I have gotten better at balancing these two needs, but I have definitely not found the perfect solution yet. I am not sure that I have any great ideas for you, but here are some of the hands-on things I do early in the course, most of which come from the website:

1. I like to print out plain cards listing the thresholds–and sometimes additional historical events as well– and, before we have talked about thresholds or the key points in the course or students have watched David Christian’s video (in Lesson1 .0), I ask students to work in groups to arrange the thresholds in order. This is aimed at getting at what they know about the history of the Universe at the outset of the class. It always leads to an interesting discussion. Within the first few weeks of the start of the year, parents come to 15-minute classes. I often use this activity with them as well.

2. I really like to do the Easter Island Mystery and Headless Romans (History as Mystery) activities early in the course. The Headless Romans activity is a great illustration of history but it also is a great illustration of interdisciplinarity, and this is primarily why I use it. I show more of the Headless Roman video than in the activity on the [BHP] website, and I give my students some of the graphs and written analysis from the reports written by the anthropologists interviewed in the video. I like my students to approach this story like it is a unit Investigation, where some of the “texts” are sections of the video we watch, and other “texts” are maps of York and excerpts from the reports on the excavation.

3. I love to take kids outside and do the Big History timeline on the football field. I have also had them do the size of the Solar System on our football field for variety’s sake. All students have phones, so I make sure everyone takes a picture of the threshold before them and the threshold after, and I collect these and post them on our course page. In Massachusetts, I can drive 14 or fewer kids in a van, and in years where I have had a smaller class, I sometimes do this variation: I have told my class that the Big Bang happened at our school, and “today” is a point three or four towns over. Students calculate the different thresholds on a highway near the school, and then we get in one of the school’s vans and “drive” the timeline. If it is a morning class, I bring donuts!

4. For coverage of the claims testers (which is the topic of Lesson 1.3), I give my students 10 statements about various things (weather, sports, etc..) and they need to identify the claim and the appropriate claim tester for the claim. From early on I have also had students look at examples of when claim testers can fail us. Chris Steussy and some of the NYC teachers shared these ideas in one of the early BHP summits. One example is a geometric proof that shows 1=2. (Lots of websites have this proof.) Another is the Monty Hall problem (there are many short videos on YouTube about this). This one is really fun. The premise is this: you are on a game show and can choose the prize behind door A, B, or C. You choose A. The game show host then eliminates C, so now the big prize is behind A or B. Do you change your choice to B or stick with your original choice, A? Intuition says stick with A, and most people say stick with it. But, logic shows clearly that if you change to B you will actually have a better chance of winning. The videos explain the logical process really clearly.

Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.

Casey Lever teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of the 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.

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