Note from the BHP Team: Welcome to the BHP Teaching Diaries, a series of weekly blogs by veteran BHP teachers. In this space, teachers like Erik share their weekly plans, lessons-learned, and new ideas for activating learning in a BHP classroom. Follow along with 9th grade Arizona BHP teacher Kathy Hays, too.  Use their tips and tricks, resources, and wisdom to inspire great things in your own classroom!

Erik Christensen, BHP Teacher
California, USA

About the author: Erik Christensen began teaching Big History in 2016 at Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles. GHCHS is the largest charter school in the United States, with an enrollment of approximately 4,800 students. Erik teaches four sections of Big History in an integrated classroom environment that combines general education and special education students. 

Week 6: Pacing and Adjusting Schedules
October 15, 2018

Pacing in the Big History classroom is always a tough task.For teachers, time is always a luxury— and the Big History classroom is no different. This week is PSAT testing week at my school, and the schedule was published just a week or two ago. This means I will meet with my students for only two-and-a-half periods this week.

I was planning to do Investigation 3, but my students still need significant supports with this and I’m running into a schedule crunch. Instead, I will reluctantly abandon Investigation 3 this week to work on a combination of routine-based activities, including BHP Vocabulary, What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? (WDYK? WDYA?),and claim testers.

Our first day of instruction will consist of a modified vocabulary activity that combines the BHP Vocabulary worksheets with This is an in-class collaborative competition that reinforces vocabulary use. You can check out my Quizlet deck for Unit 3 here. Later in the period, we’ll start the WDYK? WDYA? activity. Students will get into their groups of four and we’ll use salt as our topic. I borrowed this idea from BHP teacher Kathy Hays, who offers some other great suggestions for WDYK? WDYA? topics in this Yammer thread.

On Day 2, finish up the WDYK? WDYA? activity. Selected student groups will practice presentation skills by presenting their findings in front of the class.

We will do the Mystery Box activity developed by BHP teacher Scott Henstrand on our shortened Day 3. This activity will reinforce the claim testers while providing a fun distraction for students who are immersed in standardized testing this week. I plan to include coprolite (fossilized poop), ancient Roman coins, crumpled up paper, and chunks of Styrofoam in the boxes. Of course, the students will never know what’s inside!

How do you deal with schedule challenges? Log into Yammer and let us know!

Week 5: Developing Good Video “Reading” Habits, and More
October 8, 2018

Our journey on an exploration of the formation of stars (Unit 3 and Threshold 2), continues this week. We begin the week with more activities from Lesson 3.1, where students discover how almost all of the elements in the Solar System were made and how they got to Earth. Before you get any further into teaching the creation of stars, I’d recommend reading this great Yammer thread that clarifies some of the “murky” points of how we know which elements came from stars. This thread is also great because it shows how scientists are continually refining our modern origin story, and the discussion can give you additional resources that cover the origin of the elements in the Universe. Most of this information was provided in the thread by an astrophysicist and multidisciplinary University of Michigan professor, Cameron Gibelyou, who will be doing a BHP Exchange on Yammer October 8-12, if you would like to ask him questions yourself.

Last week, we watched “How Were Stars Formed?. This week, we’ll watch “What Did Stars Give Us?” Now that students are a little more comfortable with the subject matter, I’m going to have them watch the video using some different tactics.

Video lectures are an essential component of Big History, and we develop our video “reading” habits much like we develop our text reading habits using the Three Close Reads strategy. Prior to watching a video like “What Did Stars Give Us?”, I upload a Google Doc for each student that includes the Purpose, Process, Key Ideas/Factual questions, and the Conceptual Thinking questions for the video. You’ll find all of these resources just below the video. As a group, we preview, or find the “gist,” of the video by reading the Purpose, Process, and Key Ideas sections. This gives students a chance to discuss new vocabulary, clarify any confusion, and get a sense of what content they should expect to listen for and learn about before the watch the video.

The next step is reading for information, that is, the content that will help students understand the video and record important information from it.As we watch the video the first time, we pause it to tackle the Key Idea questions, first in small groups of four and then as a whole class.This method essentially doubles the length of the video, but allows for student talk time and rephrasing, and ensures all students are collaborating to capture the essential information from the lecture.It’s also a great way to help students who have “checked out” to check back in. If we have enough time, students move on to the third step of the process and have a chance to address the Conceptual Thinking questions. We require they respond to this question with at least four sentences. This provides students with an opportunity to practice some topical writing and for you as their teacher to gain some insight into their thinking process.

After we work on our video “reading” skills, we return to another BHP concept: causality. Students will return to the paper causal maps in the activity Understanding Causes and Consequences Part 2. Students can review their previous information and/or use the video transcript to reinforce their understanding of how elements are formed and how this process fits into the general life-cycle of stars.Once the paper maps are completed, students will transfer their information to their digital causal maps on

At the end of the week we kick of Lesson 3.2! We do the Ways of Knowing – Intro to Chemistry video using the same method as I’ve described above, and then spend the remainder of the class working on my favorite BHP activity, What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? (or WDYK? WDYA?, as we sometimes refer to it).This routine-based activity is certainly a must-do activity for the course because it continues to teach the BHP skill of interdisciplinarity. It’s one we will return to often over the course of the year. (Read more about my thoughts on WDYK? WDYA? in this Yammer thread.) The object/topic for this activity will almost certainly be an element from the periodic table, but I let the topic emerge from the discussions and interests of the students over the course of the week.

Unit 3 can be challenging for teachers and students alike. Log into Yammer and tell us how you plan on teaching Unit 3!

Week 4: Star Power
October 1, 2018

We are all set to begin Unit 3 this week. The students have been working hard improving their writing using the BHP Score service and Analyzing Writing activities and I’m sensing a bit of fatigue in many of them(and their teacher).It’s time for a transition. This week, we explore stars. We’ll work on learning more vocabulary, going deep on the BHP concept of causality, and Thresholds 3 and 4—and we’ll do it by reading some poetry and drawing some comics!

We kick off Unit 3 with the Life of a Star card sorting activity. Students are asked, with very little front-loading, to sort the images of the stars to reflect the star life cycle, from beginning to end. The discussion that follows leads to terminology about the creation of stars, which is relevant throughout the unit.

We follow this up with the video lecture, How Were Stars Formed? We frequently pause the video, using Google Docs to capture the responses to the key ideas questions outlined in Lesson 3.0. When the video concludes, students address these conceptual thinking questions: Do you think the process of new stars forming continues today? Is our star one of the first stars formed or did it form later? They are required to write a four-sentence response as an exit ticket if there’s time, or as part of their homework, if there isn’t.

We spend the next day working on vocabulary and digging into the DQ (Driving Question) of this unit for the first time. After working on their first vocabulary activity, students are asked to use a minimum of six new vocab words in their written response to the DQ: How can looking at the same information from different perspectives pave the way for progress? I give students seven minutes to write. This seems to be the magic number for early year high-school students. Any less and their brains can’t get warmed up. Any more and the students are “over it.” The key is they must write for the entire seven minutes. Once they are finished, I select several students to share their responses with the class and receive praise for their efforts.

The rest of the week is spent continuing our journey with stars using an artistic lens. Students are asked to work on their mapping skills by mapping the formation of stars, first on chart paper, then on their worksheet copy of the Causes and Consequences: Part 1 activity. Later, students will use the mapping software MindMup to create digital causal maps that map out star formation, beginning with the Big Bang. These exercises are a great way to practice to the idea of causality, which we will return to repeatedly in the course.

On Day 4, students become decipherers Students become decipherers of poetry when we read “The Habits of Light,” by Anna Leahy, a poem that celebrates Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whom students will recall from Unit 1.The poem works so well with Unit 3 because it incorporates concepts of matter, energy, and scale, as well as new ideas, such as brightness and luminosity. We don’t break down the poem; we just read it, discuss it, and read it again, so it’s low stakes for students who might be averse to reading poetry.

We spend the remainder of Day 4 on the Star Comic activity. This requires students to interact with the “Life Cycles of the Stars” infographic. As an alternative for those who, like this teacher, are not artistically inclined, there is a poetry option for this activity, too. The idea for this nonvisual, yet substantive alternative comes directly from BHP teacher Jennifer Castillo in a recent Yammer conversation about the Universe Comic activity in Lesson 2.1.

Day 5 begins with a quick assessment on Socrative that focuses on the formation and life of stars. All of a sudden, we’re in Lesson 3.1! We use the opening activity, Is It in There?, to begin thinking about the elements around us. This quick activity is followed by the brief, but informative, Threshold 3 video.

Wow, two thresholds in a week! Time flies when you’re having fun! Log in to Yammer and tell us what you’re learning this week!

Week 3: A Writing Focus
September 24, 2018

This week in my BHP classrooms, we’ll take a break from looking at new content and instead, students will work on their writing skills. Early in my BHP career, I made the very deliberate decision to focus on the development of writing proficiency, occasionally at the expense of teaching more content. However, BHP does a wonderful job of overlapping content at multiple places in the course, so there’s no need to worry about missing content. If some content is skipped in one lesson, chances are it reappears in another one.

I have the good fortune of working with education consultant and BHP expert and contributor Anita Ravi this semester. Anita, in her own blog post, writes “If you teach history, you teach writing.”Educators with her mindset remind me that my content sacrifice is not in vain and that the writing data I collect reaffirms the value of the work I do in the classroom.

Since writing begins with words, I start by equipping the students with appropriate vocabulary. Just knowing the words isn’t enough. We use technology to play games with unit vocabulary ( has some amazing BHP vocabulary decks). We also use these words in the BHP vocabulary activities, and, most important, I provide opportunities for the students to use the vocabulary before they start work on the Investigation.

The Investigation 2 prompt, which the students are addressing this week, is a whopper of a question: “How and why do individuals change their minds?” Where to even start? The DQ activity gives students the chance to respond to this question. I instruct the students to use at least six (no more than ten) of the unit vocabulary words in their responses. With these guidelines, their initial responses are focused on astronomy, science, and evidence, rather than musings about which shoes they should buy (an important issue to be sure).

We spend a day digesting the Investigation Text Library. By now, based on our activities last week, the materials are easily absorbed by the students. Having participated in research and a debate, they are now experts on how views of our Universe have changed since the ancient times of Ptolemy and Aristotle. We complete the worksheet (graphic organizer) included in the Investigation to give them one final dose of claim testing before they tackle their essays, and to provide another opportunity to organize their thoughts.

If there’s time, we will also dig into the Analyzing Investigation Writing—Use of Organization activity in Lesson 2.2 and the Analyzing Writing—Use of Evidence activity, also in Lesson 2.2.The latter activity is new for 2018 and I look forward to trying it out.

The last day of the week is writing day. Students are provided with a full battery of resources, including one-on-one support, vocabulary, notes from the previous lesson, the graphic organizers, the Investigation Library, and, of course, the BHP Score tool, Revision Assistant.

How do you teach Investigations? Log in to Yammer and let us know!

Week 2: Astronomers and Debates
September 17, 2018

We’re working on Lesson 2.1 this week, in which we a set students up for success in Investigation 2. This lesson lays out some of the various views of the Universe that have occurred through time. Like so many other lessons in Big History, this one does double duty as a history of science.

By the end of the week, students will be able to understand how our understanding of the Universe has changed over time. They will accomplish this by completing two collaborative activities:

  1. Day 1: Creation of a Padlet that documents essential information about each group’s assigned astronomer
  2. Days 2 and 3: Participation in a debate that asks, essentially, which astronomer was the most influential contributor to our understanding of the Universe

To start, I divide the class into groups of four students and assign each group an astronomer from the articles included in Lesson 2.1. While there are only six astronomers included in the lesson, an article about a seventh astronomer, Tycho Brahe, can be found in the Other Materials section of Unit 2. If your class has more than seven groups, I recommend having multiple groups cover Newton, Leavitt, and Hubble groups, since these articles are a bit more complex than the others.

Once the astronomers are assigned to the groups, students will have a day to create a collaborative Padlet that will address critical information about their astronomer’s view of the Universe. The Padlet, which must be multimedia (graphics, text, audio and video), addresses the following questions, which are found in the Key Ideas—Factual section of the Changing Views Article Collection.


Days 2 and 3 are spent preparing for and then having the debate. Students are introduced to the BHP structure for debate for the first time during this lesson. The structure for the debate is detailed in the documentation for the Views of the Universe Debate activity. The student groups are consolidated, given instructions about the debate, and shown how they will be scored using the BHP Debate/Presentation Rubric. After a day of preparation, students debate each other and the class votes (Socrative or Google Forms work well for this). The winning group receives a small prize.

On Day 4, we round out the week by ending with a brief quiz, a second exposure to the unit vocabulary, and a response to the Unit 2 driving question (How and why do individuals change their minds?),  For an example of how I combine the quiz, vocab, and DQ exercises, see my blog post from last November.

Now that we’ve completed Lesson 2.1, we kick off Lesson 2.2 on Day 5. We begin this lesson with Janna Levin’s Introduction to Astrophysics video, and then a guided walk-through of the What Do You Know? What Do You Ask activity based on a historic (or future) astronomic event—something like the return of Halley’s Comet in 2061.

What technology are you using in the classroom this week? Do you plan on doing the debate? Log in to Yammer and let us know!

Week 1: What Knows What? and Causality
September 10, 2018

This week we will begin Unit 2: The Big Bang. I look forward to this part of the year because it feels like the course is really beginning. During the first two to three weeks of school, we have been working hard to establish the fundamental BHP concepts and skills that students will be using throughout the year. 

Many students find the first few weeks of the course difficult and possibly even strange. They have written two essays in less than a month, are expected to work productively with a new set of peers that they just met, and might be confused by the content. One student asked me this past Friday, “Are we EVER going to do history in this class?” 

So, Unit 2 begins on Tuesday. We will kick off with the opening activity, Who Knows What?  This is a sort of prequel to the more powerful interdisciplinary activity, What Do You Know? What Do You Ask?, which recurs throughout the course. I modify the activity in the following ways to align just a bit better with what students will be expected to do later in the course.

  1. The activity suggests using the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an event to consider. As the years have gone by, I realize that not many of my students can relate to this event, so I try to pick a more local event that has a bit more relevance for them. In the past, I have used earthquakes, a record breaking heat-wave, and the emergence of a new technology (for example, Tesla cars and the latest Apple Watch).
  2. Instead of asking students what questions alternative versions of themselves would ask, I predetermine three different disciplines that will be investigating the event. Later in the course, students will be expected to identify three disciplines on their own. What would a historian ask about _____? What would a climatologist ask about _______ ? What would a _____ engineer ask about _____ ?
  3. Then, in groups, students work together to come up with the single most important question these three disciplines might be able to answer about the event—a question that allows each discipline to contribute to the answer. This is difficult!

This activity can be rounded out by revisiting the definitions of disciplines and the interdisciplinary approach, which they learned in Unit 1.

Later in the week, we will jump into an activity I developed and wrote about in another post, one that combines vocabulary and the DQ Notebook to start building schema to support success in Investigation 2. This is followed by the routine-based, research-focused activity, This Threshold Today, which I have modified to include links to up-to-date news articles. The week also includes David Christian’s brief video lecture about Threshold 1 and Janna Levin’s video lecture about the Big Bang. 

Finally, the week concludes with a short quiz and the Unit 6 activity, Alphonse the Camel. Although the sequence of causality activities actually starts in Unit 4 with the activity Categorizing Causes, I choose to do Alphonse right away, as it emphasizes the course theme of scale. Causation is also a critical historical skill and I believe it is important to introduce this early in the course. It is a fun and effective lesson about causality, one that students grasp immediately. 

Log in to Yammer and let us know what you are up to this week!

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