Mark Ehlers, BHP Teacher
North Carolina, USA

The first day of class is tough on everyone! The students—especially the new freshmen that I teach—are worried about being in high school for the first time. Teachers, on the other hand, worry about trying to “hook” the students right away. The first day really sets the tone for the whole year. No pressure, right? I teach high school freshmen in classes that range from eight to fifteen students in 50-minute classes. For our first day of class, I wanted to really get the kids excited about the possibilities of Big History, so I chose to use a modified version of the Unit 1 activity History as a Mystery.


I started by giving my students a five-minute introduction to the cold case: 30 bodies discovered in York, which had once been a Roman outpost against Scottish tribes to the north. I asked them to make a hypothesis to explain this mystery, and we then discussed a few of their hypotheses. I explained that they were making their hypotheses based on Intuition—one of our BHP claim testers. I then told them that, to get a better answer, we would need to talk to a variety of different experts in different disciplines (Authority) and consider their Evidence and Logic. We then viewed the first 19 minutes of the film The Mystery of the Headless Romans. I asked my students to note the type of experts that were interviewed and the evidence that each used to draw their conclusions as they watched the video. We ended the film with the evidence presented by the forensic dentist. To finish off the day, I asked them to write down one additional expert that they would want to talk to about the mystery.

The next day, we started by summarizing the evidence from the previous class, and then I asked them to revise their initial hypotheses using the evidence presented so far. We watched the last 10 minutes of the film to get the final pieces of evidence from the archaeologist, the forensic anthropologist, and the historian. As a class, we listed the experts that we saw and the evidence that they used to come to their conclusions. We discussed whether any of the experts could have put together the whole story on their own, and how new evidence forced them to alter their claims, which easily led to a discussion of the interdisciplinary nature of Big History. For our summarizing activity, we read the essay, “What Will We Leave Behind?” (included at the end of the History as Mystery activity) and students completed their responses in small groups.

It was a great two-day activity that held my ninth graders’ attention in a way that I’ve never seen before—I had one student literally jumping out of her seat to tell me that her father is a forensic dentist and has solved mysteries like this. Even better, it was a great way to introduce my students to some of the big ideas that they will be encountering over the rest of the course. I can’t wait to watch my students dive in even deeper!

About the author: Mark teaches Big History to high school freshmen at Davidson Day School in Davidson, NC. The 2017/18 school year marks his second teaching high school and first teaching BHP. It’s his school’s first year implementing the course as a replacement for the traditional world history survey. Mark teaches four sessions of a year-long Big History course; they meet daily for 50 minutes.

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