Brian Moore, BHP Teacher
Recently, a colleague asked what advice I would give to new Big History teachers. What would I recommend they do to prepare? This question got me thinking about when I was beginning my journey teaching Big History about two years ago. The course seemed different, interesting, and fun, but also scary and overwhelming at the same time. I became dedicated to doing my best to prepare to teach Big History. What follows are my suggestions for those about to start of their own 13-billion-year teaching experience:
1. Place emphasis on the larger narrative of Big History
As history teachers, we sometimes get lost in the details of names and dates of events we consider turning points in the history of the world, a region, a country, or even a community. Many of us struggle to cover a couple hundred years in one school year. Big History looks at over 13 billion years of history. What a different story than we usually tell. We are telling the scientific origin story, and it requires us to adjust the scale at which we view history. We have to take a step back and look at the broader themes and topics that appear throughout this history of everything. You won’t be able to cover all of it, and that’s OK. Focus on what gives your students the most important information to successfully understand the larger narrative of Big History.
To stay focused on the larger narrative, I keep my lessons centered on the eight BHP thresholds, and I emphasize claim testing, increasing complexity, and collective learning. These topics must be included in any course that uses Big History as its base curriculum or augments an existing curriculum with Big History.
2. Select the topics and activities you think will be most interesting to students
Since the course is flexible, you can tailor it to fit any reasonable timetable, and decide how to sequence the topics. Select the most valuable activities for your students; you don’t need to use them all. Design the version of Big History that best supports your students’ learning and creates positive classroom experiences. You know your students and what works for them in the classroom best. Find ways to merge activities from other classes you’ve taught with the content offered in Big History. You also might find yourself creating new activities. If so, please share with us on Yammer, which is another resource for you. No matter how long I teach a course, I love seeing what works for other teachers.
3. Find ways to have fun with the topics and activities
It’s easy to fall into basic learning and assessment patterns that end up being boring for both us and our students. Spend time finding ways to create fun learning activities to improve motivation and engagement. Try working in new materials or use the materials from Big History, but change up your method of assessment. I worked with BetterLesson coach Laura Cruz to develop three new activities that go beyond the basic question-and-answer pattern to get my students more motivated and engaged. Find things that are interesting and fun for both them and you.
4. Learn with your students
Early on in my BHP training, someone said that at times, a Big History teacher becomes the “lead learner” in the classroom. This happened to me. I am no longer the instructor. I am learning right alongside my students. When they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, we tackle it together. When students question something I say, I challenge them to find discrediting evidence and give them the opportunity to disprove me. Being fallible helps build a rapport so students are less afraid to ask questions and newly eager to offer their own ideas, even if those ideas oppose classroom consensus.
5. Take chances
You’re already taking a chance by teaching Big History. Don’t be afraid to keep taking chances as you take on the role of lead learner. How can you have fun with the course and its topics? Take your class outside for an activity like re-creating the history of the Universe to the scale of a football field. Spread interest in Big History by inviting people in to see what your students are working on.
6. Cover all thresholds
Big History is ultimately about teaching students the history of the Universe from its very beginning. You can shorten the units, but make sure you are facilitating learning that allows students to take in the whole story. Give them a full frame of reference for the origin of the Universe without leaving too many unanswered questions. What I mean is, try not to skip entire units. This year, I wanted to place an emphasis on Units 6 through 10, so I condensed Units 1 through 5 into a much shorter period than I had the previous year. Adapting my course was difficult at first, because I wanted to cover more information than I had time for, but I was able to maintain the integrity of each unit and the larger narrative of the course while preserving time for the later units. Had I skipped units entirely, I would have left out some of the thresholds and disrupted the Big History storyline.
7. Learn from other teachers
Collaboration is a critical component of effective teaching. It’s hard to collaborate when you are the only one teaching Big History in your school, and that’s often the case for first-time Big History teachers. This is a course best taught with others. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to stay connected with other BHP teachers. One of the easiest and most useful ways is through the BHP online community on Yammer. Yammer gives BHP teachers access to the entire community, which includes veteran teachers; novice teachers; experts in fields like astronomy, physics, and anthropology; as well as coaches and Big History staff.
Another way teachers might find support is by reaching out to teachers of other subjects. Big History takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying history. Working with teachers of English, science, math, and other disciplines provide a more complete education to students and assist you in better facilitating interdisciplinary units and activities.
8. Take the training course
The Teaching Big History training course was the most valuable tool for me going into my first year. It helped me better understand the content and skills my students would be focusing on during the year. It also helped prepare me for navigating the website and setting up my classes. With these resources, I wasn’t stumbling right from the start with simpler tasks like setting up classes and accessing materials.
I also encourage parents and guardians to complete the abbreviated version of the course so they have a better understanding of what their student will be learning. Only a few do it each year, but they find the course enriching and valuable. Since the course is flexible, you can tailor it to fit any reasonable timetable and decide how to sequence the topics for this specific audience.
9. Be easy on yourself
Switching from a traditional curriculum to Big History will feel uncomfortable at times. You’ll encounter bumps along the road and sometimes lessons and activities won’t work out as you’d planned. Use these moments as learning opportunities to improve the next lesson or improve that same lesson the next time you teach it. Try to keep a growth mindset and look for ways to enhance your teaching and the learning in the classroom. This journey will be new to you and your students, so celebrate the victories, no matter how small, and learn from the setbacks.
Learning with BHP and teaching the course in my classroom has been the most rewarding professional experience of my career. It’s not always easy, but I learn something new almost every day from teaching Big History and being a part of its professional community. I’ve had to think about topics I never would have considered studying in the past. I’ve developed new skills as an educator. I often think of the saying, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” For me, Big History has been worth the squeeze, and the juice has just the right amount of sweetness.
Good luck exploring the history of everything, and please reach out to me on Yammer should you have any questions or just want to chat.
Dr. Brian Moore
About the author: Brian has taught BHP at Connecticut’s Bullard Havens Technical High School since 2016. He teaches four sections of BHP as the ninth-grade world history course for the full academic year. The unique environment of this urban technical high school is structured to allow students to alternate between academics and a trade area for about two weeks at a time. Brian has to be organized with the flow of their school year to create units that fit into each of the approximately two-week teaching windows. He welcomes the opportunity for in-depth, hands-on learning this setting and student population affords.