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 Kathy share their weekly plans, lessons-learned, and new ideas for activating learning in a BHP classroom. Follow along with California general/special education BHP teacher Erik Christensen, too. Use their tips and tricks, resources, and wisdom to inspire great things in your own classroom!


Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher
Arizona, USA

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and teaching Big History since 2015. She teaches five BHP classes a year, and so reaches about 130 ninth-grade students. Her school is on a semester schedule with daily 52-minute periods. Kathy’s favorite thing about teaching Big History is the opportunity to learn with her students!


Week 6: Working Through Unit 4 Together
October 15, 2018

After a week off, we’re back in the saddle and ready to tackle Unit 4! We’ll launch Unit 4 with the DQ Notebook activity in Lesson 4.1, in which students try to answer the unit’s driving question: “How and why do theories become generally accepted?”I provide little instruction other than to reassure students that they should answer the question to the best of their ability, and to remind them that they’ll have a chance to revisit the question later in the unit. Prior to collecting their worksheets, a few students share their responses, which leads to a couple of “a-ha” moments, as students gain a better understanding of how the question fits into Big History.

As we work through the Unit 4 lessons, every time we encounter information that may help provide evidence for answering the driving question, students add the information to their DQ pages in their notebooks. We’ll use this information when we revisit the DQ Notebook activity next week, as we come to the end of the unit.

The rest of our Monday class period will be spent watching and discussing the video, What Was Young Earth Like? in Lesson 4.1.This is a great introduction to the conditions on the planet as it was forming, and it makes a connection to the driving question, as David Christian talks about Alfred Wegener and the reluctance of geologists to accept his theory of continental drift.At the end of the video, students will take time to add this information to their DQ journal.

The remainder of the week will be spent on two activities: Categorizing Causes in (Lesson 4.0), and Biography of a Continent (Lesson 4.2).I love the causality lessons in Big History, but students do find the Categorizing Causes activity quite challenging. Although listed in Lesson 4.0, it uses the video The Early Atmosphere, which appears in Lesson 4.1. After doing this activity last year, I made a couple of minor adjustments. In Part I, we watch the video together, working to identify causes that led to the formation of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Early Atmosphere video goes fast, making it difficult for students to pull together all the information, and some students need support identifying causes that have multiple consequences.

To alleviate the frustration, I provide copies of the video transcript and have students work in pairs to identify causes and consequences. From here, we’ll move to Part II of Categorizing Causes. Students will switch from partners to groups of four, where they’ll compare lists and work to categorize each cause as either astrophysics, biology, chemistry, or geology .Each group must provide justification for their choice. We wrap things up by coming back together and sharing decisions. The discussion is led entirely by students; I just facilitate and make sure order is maintained. It’s a great two days of higher-level thinking and student-led discussions. Students walk away with a sense of accomplishment for identifying and classifying the causes and consequences and confidence in their ability to engage in higher-level classroom conversation.

After we wrap up our discussion of causality, we move on to Lesson 4.2, Why Is Plate Tectonics Important? I have always done the “We Are All Lava Surfers” article, and it’s been a great reading activity, but I decided to change things up this year by having students work on Biography of a Continent. I put students in groups to research and create a report about their assigned continent.We haven’t done much digital work on projects this year, so I’m going to make a minor adjustment and have each group create a digital presentation to share with the rest of the class.I’m excited to see how students respond! It’s a great transition to next week’s look at Alfred Wegener and his rejected theory of continental drift.


Week 5: Big History Live!
October 8, 2018

We’re on fall break this week, but before heading to a week of rest and relaxation, we took our annual field trip to the Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory, which gave us a great opportunity to bring Big History to life. One of the reasons I love teaching Big History is the many opportunities for students to experience history firsthand and in our own backyard. We don’t have a lot of museums in Arizona, but we have some amazing places that relate directly to the Big History thresholds and provide students with an opportunity to see these big concepts in our everyday world.

Our trip began as the sun came up at 6:00a.m. Saturday morning with a 3.5-hour journey to the Grand Canyon. As we traveled through the landscape, we looked at the geographic changes and the variety of vegetation, from giant saguaros cacti to aspens. As soon as we arrived at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, students were able to begin applying Big History concepts and skills to what they were seeing. Many identified scale, as we looked at models of the Grand Canyon, and others were able to find a connection to origin stories when they read about how the original inhabitants of the area described the formation of the Canyon.

From the Visitor Center, we walked over to see the breathtaking view of the Grand Canyon. For most students, this was their first time seeing this amazing geographic wonder and they were completely in awe of the magnificent size and beauty. We did the traditional group pictures and then had our picnic lunch overlooking the incredible scenery.

After lunch, we walked along the rim for a mile to the Yavapai Geology Museum for a quick lesson in the geologic forces that formed the Grand Canyon. We even managed to hit Threshold 9, because the museum has an exhibit showing the impact of humans on the future of the Canyon.

From the museum, we continued our rim walk, this time along the Trail of Time. It’s a three-mile walk covering three billion years of history. There are markers each meter representing one million years, then larger markers every 100 million years. Each marker provided a history lesson about the Canyon and the development of the planet, as well as human development in the region, so we were able to connect with Thresholds 4 through 8 as we walked the route. Students learned about the multiple disciplines,such as geology, climatology, and dendrochronology used to study the canyon. By the end of our, we had gone back over three billion years in time and were at the Grand Canyon Village. A quick trip to the ice-cream store, then we loaded the bus to head to Flagstaff for part two of our adventure.

After dinner in Flagstaff, it was dark, and time to head up Mars Hill to the Lowell Observatory. We divided into groups, so we wouldn’t overwhelm the lines at the telescopes or scare other visitors. Each group visited all three telescopes, met with an astronomer, and attended a presentation on either Mars, the Solar System, or Unmanned Space Exploration. As we wandered through the observatory, students discovered connections to Thresholds 2, 3, 4, and 6.

Before we left, I brought all the students together outside and had them lie down on the large sidewalk to look for meteors and satellites. I taught them how to find satellites in the sky. Because of the city lights in Mesa, most have never seen a sky filled with stars.Cell phones were off, and for 15 minutes (in 32° temperatures), students searched the skies. It was like watching a firework show, as satellites and meteors sailed across the sky. An exhausted group of students boarded the bus for the journey home, where we arrived just before midnight, ready to start our fall break.


Week 4: Formations
October 1, 2018

After finishing up last week with Threshold 3 and the discipline of chemistry, we start this week by looking at the once precious (or perhaps still precious, depending on where you live in the world) commodity: salt. In examining salt, my objective is to connect Threshold 3 (New Chemical Elements) and Threshold 4 (Earth and Our Solar System)with activities outlined in this diary.

As you no doubt remember, in Big History we use the concept of thresholds to mark points in time when the complexity of the Universe increases significantly. From chemical elements (like salt), to planets, to living things, and so on, the story of Big History evolves as our Universe does, and thresholds help students remember where we are in the 13.8-billion-year journey.

It’s important to look at something students are familiar with as we transition from the creation of new chemical elements to the formation of the Earth, and salt seemed to be a natural fit. I’m going to attempt to guide them to choose between looking at the formation of the oceans and the impact of salt on life on Earth.

We start our exploration of the ubiquitous mineral with an excerpt from a wonderful little book called The Story of Salt, by Mark Kurlansky. This gives students some context and a brief “Little Big History” on salt. After, I have students work on What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? Since students have done this type of activity before, they should be somewhat familiar with how it works. It’s also an activity type we’ll return to over the course of the year, so this is yet another opportunity for students to think about interdisciplinarity.

In the past, to round out the unit I’ve always done the Unit 3 Investigation as a class activity; however, this year, I’m going to change things up. It’s just too soon after the Unit 2 Investigation, and I’m worried I’ll have a rebellion on my hands. Instead, we will write a short essay identifying the major steps in the formation of the Universe between Units 1 and 3. This will allow me to do a quick check to see if students understand how everything connects from Threshold 1 to Threshold 2.

In the latter half of the week, we’ll transition from Unit 3 to Unit 4, in which we’ll cover the formation of the Earth and Solar System. I like to begin the unit with the Planet Card Sort activity because it’s a quick way to get students engaged and thinking about the creation of a solar system, while pushing them to use their new knowledge of stars. We’ll follow this with a look at the concept of scale, and how we’ve narrowed our focus from the Universe to Earth. By revisiting scale and where we are in our Big History journey, students are on better grounding before watching the Threshold 4 video.

At the end of the week, we’ll read and discuss “How Our Solar System Formed,” before wrapping up the week with the Active Accretion activity. Students love this activity and it is often one of their favorites of the year. We get to go outside, and they can gently “crash” into each other while forming a planet.

This is a very special week, as we extend our learning to Saturday with a trip to the Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory. It’s the perfect real-world connection to Big History!


Week 3: Star Stuff
September 24, 2018

We’re now embarking on a quick journey through Unit 3 and our theme this week is: “Are humans really made of star stuff?” Students have been working on this unit since last week and have begun working on their Star Comics, the assessment for Threshold 3. Students are hard at work on their comics at home, making them “fridge-worthy” before they turn them in at the end of the week.

We begin this week with the question and activity, Is It in There? This is a great opening activity that asks students to think about what elements might be found in a series of four objects: a cell phone, a car, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a blueberry muffin. It gets students thinking about chemical elements and where they can be found in the world. We follow this up with the new Crash Course video, Why Star Stuff Matters, which does a fantastic job connecting Thresholds 2and 3, while emphasizing why “star stuff” is so important to the Big History narrative.

As we review the ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions for Threshold 3, we make the connection through the Understanding Causes and Consequences, Part 1, activity, reinforcing how we use the cause and consequence tool for studying history. I have students read “A Little Big History of Silver” as homework. It’s a great introduction to the Little Big History (LBH) project later in the year. We’ll spend half a class discussing the article to connect to the BHP narrative and big picture. We finish the unit with a look at Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev as a partner activity. After looking at the contributions of Curie and Mendeleev to our understanding of chemistry and the creation of the periodic table, we will add them to the Changing Views Timeline we started in Unit 2.


Week 2: What Do You Know?  What Do You Ask?
September 17, 2018

We’re finishing Unit 2 with a bang! We’re completing the Unit 2 Investigation, and students are excited to see how their scores have improved since Investigation 0.However, before we go into writing mode, we’ll complete my absolute favorite activity: What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? Students will learn about new disciplines, think critically while developing questions exerts would ask, all while preparing for their Little Big History project later in the year.

This year, I’m switching it up. Our first What Do You Know… topic is the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. I normally divide the class into groups of four, but we’re using groups of three for this activity. I’m using three-student groups because the group is going to determine the three disciplines they’ll use for their Investigation, and each person will assume the role of one of the experts (that is, three students, three experts).  As experts in a discipline, they’ll research further, designing questions the expert would ask, and possibly identify well-known individuals from that field of study. Once finished, they’ll determine one scientific and one historical big picture question (two total) for the team of experts to research. Finally, the group will justify why their team is the strongest, based on their research, questions, and experts they wish to speak to.

We will finish the week with the culminating presentations. Each team member introduces themselves as the expert in their discipline, identifies the question asked, and explains why the question was chosen. The group continues through parts two and three. After all presentations, the class votes, and the best team receives a prize (generally chocolate).

This is the perfect activity for seeing student growth throughout the year.The first time can be a little rough, as students often are not sure of the difference between a discipline and an occupation. As the year goes on, students become extremely competitive to put together the best team and questions. This is the perfect connection to the LBH project later in the year.


Week 1: Unit 2: Changing Views Timeline
September 10, 2018

I’m so excited about this week in Big History! It’s loaded with my favorite BHP activities. We’re beginning with Lesson 2.1’s Changing Views Timeline and finishing up with my absolute favorite activity, What Do You Know? What Do You Ask?

The Changing Views Timeline takes students from the geocentric views of Ptolemy to Edwin Hubble’s expanding Universe. It’s an excellent connection to the unit’s driving question (“How and why do individuals change their minds?”) and the concept of collective learning.

This year, students will work on the Changing Views Timeline activity in groups of six, with each person taking on the role of one of the scientists. They will complete three close reads of their article, making sure to answer the following questions:

  • What contributions did the person make to how we view the Universe?
  • What previous information did this person build upon or challenge in making the contribution?
  • What evidence is used to challenge and to support the contribution this person made?
  • What political and social challenges, if any, did this person face when making the contribution?

Each person gets a large Post-it with a five-pane window to record information. The first day we read and compile information. On day two,  students present their findings. Despite working individually, those who read the same article will present together to ensure everyone gets the same information.

After presentations, students will begin entering information onto our year-long timelines. We’ll start with the contributions of Ptolemy and add each scientist up to Hubble. As we learn about more scientific contributions (Curie, Mendeleev, Wegener …), we’ll add to the timeline so by the end of the year students will have a completed timeline showing how scientific thinking evolved over time.

Each student receives a one-foot wide piece of butcher paper to create the timeline. It’s important to have a lot of space for students to add information, especially closer to modern times. We store the timelines in the classroom to ensure they are kept in good condition.  Some prefer to use an online timeline (https://time.graphics/.) but I like the hands-on approach. It’s fun to see students thinking and making connections. It’s going to be a great week!  unspecified

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