Todd Nussen, Big History Teacher
New York, USA

Like many teachers, I used to dread Back-to-School Night. After a long day of work, I had to come back to school and hope my presentation ran so long that I wouldn’t have time to answer any questions from parents I might be unprepared for. That is, until the year I started hearing something new at Back-to-School Night. A comment was coming from the parents of my students, and I was hearing versions of it repeatedly. Following my presentation, these parents and child guardians were no longer just thanking me for my time. After my first year of teaching Big History, as they exited, many of these adults were saying, “I wish they had this course when I was in school.”

Not only was this a refreshing thing to hear after a rushed 10-minute presentation, but it was the only time in 13 years of teaching I had ever heard anything like it. I doubted my colleagues down the hall were hearing the same thing from parents as they left their child’s geometry or economics class. I realized they weren’t saying it in those classes for the same reason they had never said it to me before I began teaching Big History. When these parents were students, geometry, economics, and world history were the classes they had in school!

Although the approach to teaching these subjects continues to be revised over time, very rarely are these courses redesigned in a way that results in a curriculum that might change a student’s complete understanding of  the entire Universe, the way Big History does. It turns out, students aren’t the only ones interested in Big History. Based on my experience, some of the parents of our students are just as excited to learn about the course as we are to teach it. For teachers who are looking to incorporate some Big History material or data into their Back-to-School Night presentations, there are a variety of resources on the BHP website. You can find them in the Console tab, under Teacher Resources and Feedback. 

As a social studies teacher, I have the almost-obligatory Gandhi poster hanging in the back of my classroom. On it is an image of the great independence leader, as well as a quote that reads, “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow, learn as if you’ll live forever.” Personally, I think you have to figure out how to approach the first part of the quote on your own. As for the latter part however, one way to keep learning, for anyone interested in expanding their views of how we examine history, is to use a helpful resource on the BHP website. After getting such positive feedback from parents, I started recommending that they sign up as a Lifelong Learner on the Big History Project website. I informed parents this link would provide them with many of the same resources found on the student version of the BHP website. Not only does this help them expand their own knowledge, it also allows them to assist their children as they navigate through this incredible historical narrative.

When it comes to education, I’ve always believed parent support is paramount. After Back-to-School Night, it seemed parents were becoming supportive of the story we were teaching. I was curious: Were parents still as supportive of the BHP curriculum at the end of the year as they were the first few weeks of school? Were those parents who seemed genuinely interested in the material I was using benefiting at all from the Lifelong Learner link? I presented a survey to parents during the last month of school in order to get some answers. It should be noted this survey was for parents who either use the Lifelong Learner link and/or have answered affirmatively to whether or not they have a good understanding of the course from working with their children throughout the year.

The Survey

As opposed to a traditional world history class, which typically starts with a study of early humans, BHP allows students to examine the 13.8-billion-year history of the Universe. It utilizes studies from multiple disciplines including physics, chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology, and history.

In your opinion, what do you believe are the benefits of this type of curriculum?

“I think it gives them [students] a more broad base of knowledge. Our son has taught us things from this class we didn’t know.”

“It seems to be more interesting and I believe it gave our daughter more willingness to learn.”

“I love how it shows how science and history are connected.”

“It’s great that students aren’t required to memorize a bunch of dates and names but learn how the different disciplines are connected and how this all affects us.”

“This approach allows for a better understanding of history. It fosters a holistic approach that allows students to connect subjects and make educated predictions about the future.”

Big History writing assignments require students to analyze texts, examine issues from multiple perspectives, and create evidence-based claims about what they have learned and what they believe to be true. What do you believe are the benefits to developing these types of writing skills?

“It’s great preparation for writing that will be required of the students once in college and later on in life even when they are part of the workforce.”

“These types of writing assignments teach students to look at things in different ways and to think independently while still teaching them to write properly.”

“It allows them to develop their own ideas on the situation and not just do as they are told and also helps that to develop their text analysis abilities which is so important in our world.”

“Encourages creative thinking through writing.”

“Any student who can analyze texts and support claims has the ability to become part of intellectual conversations.”

The Little Big History project asks students to research an area of interest and explain how the 13.8-billion-year history of the Universe lead to the development of this topic and its use today. Their ideas are presented in the form of a Google site/oral presentation/poster board that works to both educate and entertain audiences. What do you believe are the benefits to working on this type of project?

“I think it’s more ‘fun,’ for lack of a better word, to present in this form as opposed to just a standard research paper. What could be better than students having fun while they are learning?”

“I like that students understand that history is continuous and linked together in many ways. Working on this project as a fun and interactive way to teach parents what they learned.”

“It was interesting to see all the projects at Little Big History Night. I can’t believe how much I was learning from so many students.”

“I had been following the information in the course all along. The Little Big History Night was a blast. I got to see the information from the course in action.”

“[The Little Big History project] helps the children develop the ability to create and design these projects. This seems like a skill needed in many jobs today and it also shows how well they understand the curriculum.”

“I know she’s a freshman, but I feel like being able to complete a project like this shows me she’s already getting ready for what she’ll have to do in college.”

“This project and this course are great for visual learners. These projects were just as interesting as anything I saw on the website.”

“This project allows for creativity and showcases individual learning styles.”

To what extent has your knowledge of the Big History narrative (by either using the BHP website or working with your child) impacted your own understanding of history and help you assist your child in his work? 

“It looks like they went all out on this website. It has everything you need to understand the class.”

“Excellent resources for parents.”

“I have never seen anything like this offered to parents. Very helpful.”

“I think it’s great that they connect science to history…what an interesting way to learn.”

“It definitely opened my eyes to a lot of new information.”

“It seems like at least 5 different high school courses combined into one and everything is covered. It is all very interesting.”

“The videos are great for visual learners and anyone who wants to learn about this material.”

“Grateful that the website is there for everyone.”

“I can’t believe they are able to cover all of these topics in one class. More power to them. This is a great class.”

Overall, the feedback leads one to believe these parents remained excited about the BHP course months after it was first presented to them. The comments seem to suggest parents appreciate the academic value of some of the core themes and strategies of Big History, like the Investigation essays, the Little Big History project, and the interdisciplinary nature of the course. Several parents also shared how useful the resources on the website are for both students and parents. As a teacher, feedback like this is not just helpful, but reassuring as well. It’s pleasing to find out so many of these parents agree not just with what we’re teaching, but how we’re teaching it. Some of them are even joining in on the learning process.

Its origin is often debated, but the quote, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is still meaningful to anyone invested in education. Thankfully, Big History offers students and their parents a way to learn together. The Lifelong Learner link offers great insight into the Big History curriculum and is a must for anyone who wishes this course had been offered when they were a student. 

About the author: Todd Nussen has been teaching world history for more than 10 years at Oceanside High School in New York. His schedule includes two ninth-grade BHP classes. Each 40-minute class has about 30 students.

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