Note from the BHP Team: Welcome to the archives of the BHP Teaching Diaries, a series of weekly blog posts by veteran BHP teachers focused on the first four months of the BHP course. In this space, teachers like Kathy Hays shared their weekly plans, lessons-learned, and new ideas for activating learning in a BHP classroom. Look back with Kathy and her fellow BHP teacher, Erik Christensenuse 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!


The Write Stuff
Final Week

Note from the BHP Team: This is BHP teacher Kathy Hays’s last post in the Teaching Diaries. Thanks to all the Diaries’ followers—we hope this resource supported you as you started out your year!  


Our focus this final week of the Teaching Diaries is on writing. Students will be required to complete the Unit 5 Investigation as a final assessment for the unit. Some of the texts in the Investigation are rather challenging for students, so we make some modifications, and focus on creating a strong claim and incorporating evidence.

I’m a big fan of the Big History Revising Investigation Writing activities. Each activity focuses on one writing skill, so students aren’t overwhelmed. The activities also allows students to become more familiar with the BHP Writing Rubric, so they understand the comments from the signal checks on Revision Assistant, which is used by BHP Score (a free tool that provides timely feedback to students on their writing).

We are focusing on how we use evidence in our Investigations for this unit and this year. Each student will receive a copy of the activity. Then, students will come up to the  overhead projector (yes, I still have one—I’m going “old school” here!) and highlight the claim and underline the evidence used in the sample Investigation essay. Other students can contribute as they watch.

For some reason, students really like the overhead projector. The two students I prepped to lead the activity will introduce it by reviewing the topic of the Unit 4 Investigation, the number of texts available for evidence, and then instruct students to read through the essay highlighting the claim and underlining the evidence. My job will be to circulate and check the progress groups are making as they work through the activity and to intervene if assistance is needed. When they have identified the claim and evidence in the sample essay, students will determine two sentences that should be rewritten to make it a stronger use of evidence and analysis. We’ll give students a few minutes to work in groups to rewrite the sentences. Groups will exchange their new sentences and provide feedback using the rubric. To finish the activity, one group will write their revised sentences on the board to be critiqued. We’ll talk about why the rewritten sentences improve the essay’s original use of evidence and make suggestions for how to make it even stronger.

The Revising Investigation Writing activity is the perfect precursor to our Unit 5 Investigation.  Students often seem overwhelmed by the number of texts in this Investigation, so I’ve eliminated two of the documents (Texts 2 and 9) to help ease some of the stress. The Investigations are one of the few things I print out for my students in Big History. They like marking the texts, and some of the documents are formatted better in hard copy than digital. Because our focus on this Investigation is going to be use of evidence and analysis, students are going to use the Investigation Library Worksheet (page 3 in the student materials of the Investigation) with each document. I make one copy per student, and students use it as a guide in their notebook while they read each of the texts. We’ll spend one class period introducing the topic to ensure students understand the question being asked. We spent last week looking at Darwin, Watson, Crick, and Franklin, and how the theory of an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs came about, so they have a solid background.

The remainder of the class period will be spent reviewing and organizing documents, and then creating a framework to write the Investigation essay the next day. We’ll wrap things up the next day by writing Investigation 5. Hopefully, they’ll finish strong as we head toward the end of the semester!


Week 11: It’s Evolutionary, Dear Watson
November 19, 2018

We’re well into the Invent a Species projects, so our focus shifts to the driving question (DQ) for Unit 5: How and why do theories evolve? We’ve had some discussion regarding the DQ, but have not made quality connections yet. Our focus this week will be on Charles Darwin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin, who will help students piece together answers to the DQ.

The Voyage of the Beagle activity in Lesson 5.3 is a fun way to kick off the week. I like the activity because it requires students to look at maps and images and draw conclusions about Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands. During our discussion, students really get into the observations and discoveries of Darwin, and by the end of our conversation, we identify Darwin’s contribution to the theory of evolution. I then ask students to put forth their best conjecture as to what we’ve learned about evolution in the 179 years since Darwin published his findings. Students finish class writing in the DQ page of their notebook.

After looking at Darwin’s journey, we read an article in Lesson 5.3: “Darwin, Evolution and Faith.” It begins by exploring Darwin’s own conflicts between his discoveries and his faith. Students seem surprised to read of Darwin’s struggle with his own discovery. The article makes a fantastic comparison between Darwin and Copernicus and how their theories challenged their faith. It’s an excellent illustration and allows students to think on a broader scale. Like the “Cosmology and Faith” article, this one looks at the three ways in which religion and science interact: conflict, contrast, and convergence. The author concludes the article by describing how science and religion have found resolution throughout history.  It’s a very powerful and persuasive end to the article. I use the article as an opportunity to bring back the discussion of science and religion, which is important in our conservative area, where the topic of evolution often stirs up some controversy. It’s also a chance to let students see how their own thinking has changed over the first few units of Big History.

To complete our investigation into how theories evolve, we read the article “Crick, Watson, and Franklin.”  Most of my students are familiar with their names from biology class, but this article provides details while making connections to the driving question. Students tend to become extremely angry with Crick and Watson, and don’t understand how they could leave out Franklin’s contribution to their discovery of DNA. This generates some heated discussions! We go back to our DQ page to add information discovered in the article on how theories evolve, and again look at questions that were not immediately answered by the discovery of DNA.

We wrap up the week by adding to the timeline of scientific contributions we’ve been working on since Unit 1. The Evolution and Life activity in Lesson 5.3 allows students to review their timeline and draw conclusions about the progress of theories. In addition, it does a great job of setting students up for the Unit 5 Investigation. Students use their timelines to answer three questions:

  • What did scientists who came after Darwin add to our understanding of life?
  • Does it seem like our acceptance of scientific concepts related to life and evolution have changed over time?
  • How does adding these people (and others) to the timeline help you to understand changes in scientific thinking?

It’s the perfect activity to transition to the Unit 5 Investigation, which we’ll be getting to next week.


Week 10: Invent a Species Fun!
November 12, 2018

We’re a week into Unit 5, so it’s time to get started with our Invent a Species project. This is an opportunity for students to demonstrate creativity and higher-level thinking skills as a project-based learning (PBL) assessment.

To make the project even more fun, we host an Invent a Species evening in the middle of December, where students present their species to an audience full of family members and others. Former BHP students come back to act as “judges” for the presentations. I also have former students serve as the facilitators for each room, helping to set up and take down presentations, and introducing each group. Students are required to dress up for the presentations to create a more formal environment.

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The project also serves as a natural bridge from the science to history focus for the BHP course. Students have heard about the Invent a Species project since early in the school year, so they have already been able to start thinking about possible topics and develop the mindset for their project. Although we haven’t introduced the criteria for the project just yet, several former students stopped by last week with suggestions for how to be successful. Their advice: Don’t procrastinate; maintain the science focus; and make sure you work with people you know will work on the project, not just your friends. This advice was much more meaningful coming from former students than from me.

I spend a full class period introducing the project and several more reinforcing the expectations for the next few weeks. We watch the quick video, Life in All Its Forms, in Lesson 5.1, which gets students thinking about all the possible species they could invent. We take their imaginations a little further by looking at the Tree of Life Infographic activity, also in Unit 5.1. A poster-size version of the infographic remains in front of the room for the duration of the project as an inspiration and resource.

To further support students, look at a couple of new species in the news and discuss how they developed. Recently, a new hybrid snake was discovered in the Florida Everglades. We’ll review the article and ask students to identify how they think this new snake might impact the environment. Do new species have to evolve in order to survive in the modern (altered) environment? If so, what characteristics would these new species need to develop to maximize their chances?

We then look at some incredible pictures of species found in extreme parts of the environment. After looking at these images, we’ll discuss what is required for species to exist in extreme conditions on Earth. We will distinguish between adaptation and evolution, as these concepts seems to be confusing for many students. Adaptation is the process groups or individuals go through to be better suited to an environment. Evolution takes a long time and requires change in the genetic structure in relation to the physical environment. Of course, this will also help to reinforce students’ understanding of Darwin’s work with finches in the Galapagos Island, which we’ll look at in Lesson 5.3.

From this point, we will go through the requirements for the Invent a Species project. Students will have four weeks to work on it. We spend one or two days each week working on the species in class. The rest of the project is completed outside class time. Students come in before and after school, and we have working lunches to allow groups to collaborate. Each week, one part of the project is due, which helps students stay on track and get to the final product. By the end of the first week, each group will submit their proposal and an initial diagram of their species that identifies its characteristics. At the end of the second week, the draft of their Wikipedia-style page is due.  A pro tip: Make sure students understand this is a “mock Wikipedia” page. Despite repeated instructions, each year a few students try to create a real Wikipedia page for their species. The model is due at the beginning of week four, with our presentations taking place later in that week.

I’m excited to see what students design. The creativity students show in completing this project never ceases to amaze me!


Week 9: Let There Be Life!
November 5, 2018

We’re starting Unit 5! As I’m teaching from a world history perspective, I plan to spend only two weeks on this unit. But there are so many great lessons and students are beginning to make connections, so I often find myself extending it to three weeks. Suddenly, with the focus of Unit 5 being life, it’s all about them! As students are beginning to put the pieces of the Big History narrative together, there is increased discussion and engagement among them.

We begin the unit with the fun activity, How Closely Are We Related? in Lesson 5.0. This activity asks students to guess the percentage of DNA we share with a variety of organisms on the planet. I put the names of the organisms and the percentage of DNA on the board in two columns. Students are then given a few minutes to decide which numbers match the shared DNA with humans. Each group presents their answers, with justifications for their decisions. Other groups are encouraged to share whether they agree or disagree, and must explain the reason for their decisions. Once we’re finished, I provide the correct answers. The greatest surprise is always the fact we share 85% of our DNA with zebrafish. To help this hit home, I share a local connection with students about researchers in Arizona using zebrafish to find a cure for pancreatic cancer.

Upon completion of this activity, we watch the video, A Big History of Everything, in Lesson 5.0. I use this video because it does a good job explaining the chronological development of life on Earth, with a great connection to how life moved to land. It also introduces the idea of an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs, which we’ll learn about later in Walter Alvarez’s video, How We Proved An Asteroid Wiped Out the Dinosaurs, in Lesson 5.2. The Big History of Everything video is meaningful, too, as it ends with the advantages primates had over other species when they became bipedal, which we’ll carry over to Unit 6: Early Humans.

I try to limit the number of videos we watch in a unit, but there are several in this one that help make connections to Threshold 5: Life. Therefore, the next day we watch Crash Course: The Origin of Life from Lesson 5.0. If you plan to read the article, “Life and Purpose,” also in Lesson 5.0, the video helps provide a solid introduction. The work of Charles Darwin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin are introduced in the video, all of whom we will learn more about when we get to Lesson 5.3. While the “Life and Purpose” article is good, it does have more of a science focus. The goal of students reading it is to prepare for the Invent a Species project, which will be the culminating activity for this unit. Students begin reading in class and finish as homework.

The next day, we begin with a discussion of the qualities that distinguish life from nonlife, comparing the descriptions in the article to those provided by John Green in the Crash Course video. From here, things get a little lighter as we move to the Claim Testing activity in Lesson 5.0. It’s a quick reminder for students to keep using those claim-testing skills.

We finish the week with The Mini Thresholds of Life video in Lesson 5.1. Prior to watching the video, we review the ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions students learned about in earlier units that led to life on Earth. After watching the video, we’ll step it up a little with Are These the Right Mini Thresholds of Life? activity. Students will work in groups to determine one threshold that should be added to the six mini thresholds of life or that should replace an existing one. They will need to identify the ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions for this mini threshold and explain how it represents a complexity that cannot be undone.

I’m stealing an idea Zachary Cain shared on Yammer a couple of weeks ago: having students create a foldable for the mini thresholds. Once the student group identifies the mini threshold they want to add or replace, they will put all the thresholds in order onto the foldable. The outside will have the name of the mini threshold, and when lifted, it will have the ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions and new complexity. The bottom will have an illustration of the new complexity. Once each group has created their mini-threshold foldable, they will present it to the class. We’ll discuss whether it meets the criteria, comparing the Big History thresholds we’ve learned about to date. This activity is very challenging for students. They struggle to identify the ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions, and have a difficult time justifying why their event fits as a mini threshold. It’s good for them to have to work through the challenge by thinking critically. The key is to take it slow and ask questions that will help guide the groups without doing the work for them. The sense of accomplishment students feel when they present their new mini threshold makes it all worthwhile.


Week 8: Collaboration on the Horizon!
November 5, 2018

I’ve been looking forward to this week for some time. We’re finishing Unit 4 with Investigation 4 on Friday, but first my class is going to team up with Erik Christensen’s classroom in California for the What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? activity in Lesson 4.3. Erik and I have had success in connecting our classrooms in the past, and we’ve been working for a couple of months to find the perfect activity to bring our classes together again. It’s going to be special because we’re getting together on Halloween, so of course we’re going to do a “spooky geology” topic. We selected the recently discovered dwarf planet known as the Goblin as the topic for students to study further, with their teams. The name is fitting, but the potential connection to the mysterious Planet 9 is what will make it a fun activity. Here are links to a couple of articles students will used to get started.

“Introducing ‘The Goblin’: A New, Distant Dwarf Planet Bolsters Evidence for Planet X”
“Dwarf Planet ‘The Goblin’ Discovery Redefining Solar System”

Our plan is to connect our classrooms using Zoom. We do a test run a couple of days before to make sure sound and visuals work on both ends. Even with our practice run, we had a little glitch last year, but were able to work it out.

We have students complete the first two parts of the What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? activity in class the day before we get together. They’ll work in groups to identify the three disciplines and three questions each will ask to gain a better understanding of the topic. From there, they’ll identify the two big-picture historical and scientific questions the group will answer. Finally, the group will justify why their team is the best possible research team in a presentation of their completed group work.

When we get together the next day as a combined class, students will be evaluated on their selection and justification, and how they answer questions posed by the other class. We’ll alternate presentations and questions to ensure the conversation is not dominated by one class. After the presentations, one group will be recognized for assembling the best team and questions. Being able to interact with Big History students from another state was a highlight of last year for my students. It’s such a valuable experience for all involved. What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? is a great precursor to the Little Big History project, too, which involves heavy presentation skills, so the more opportunities for students to share the experience with others, the better prepared they will be to embark on the LBH journey.


Week 7: Drifting into Vocabulary, Driving Questions, and Female Scientists
October 22, 2018

Unlike the drifting continents, all the pieces do come together when we build upon previous learnings in Unit 4 this week.

We’re going to continue to focus on our driving question: “How and why do theories become generally accepted?”Students are going to add some great notes to their DQ Notebooks as we look at Alfred Wegener, his theory of continental drift, and how Harry Hess provided the missing piece of the puzzle to confirm Wegener’s theory.

We’ll begin the week with a quick review of the vocabulary for the unit. Students complete the vocabulary activities as homework, but we always begin with a review of each term to ensure everyone knows its pronunciation and has a basic idea of its meaning. Whenever we stumble upon a word unfamiliar to students, I have them pull out their phones and we have a little competition to see who can find the definition that best fits our unit the fastest.I do this for two reasons: First, to ensure they find the correct definition of the word as it’s used in this unit’s context, and not just the first definition that appears. Second, to demonstrate how fast and easy it is to do.Almost every student has a phone and should learn to take advantage of the tools at their disposal.My goal is to have students develop the habit of looking up unfamiliar words. When we wrap up the unit, students will be required to use the vocabulary to complete columns two and three of the Driving Question activity and the Unit 4 Investigation, so a correct understanding of the terms from the start of the unit is essential.

After ensuring everyone is on the same page with the vocabulary, we watch the video, Introduction to Geology, in Lesson 4.3. This video is a great resource for explaining the role of a geologist and adds to our understanding of disciplines. It’s also important because it again stresses the importance of interdisciplinarity in understanding our modern origin story. I introduce the video by telling students that listening to Dr. Alvarez is similar to listening to their grandfather tell them stories, but it’s still important to identify the key points and take notes.Students always laugh when I say this, but after they’ve watched the video, they all agree! We finish the class period with a discussion on geology and why it’s an important discipline to incorporate in the study of history, again linking it to the BHP concept of interdisciplinarity.

Our focus then shifts to Alfred Wegener, Harry Hess, and the theory of continental drift. The article, “Alfred Wegener and Harry Hess,” also in Lesson 4.3, provides great information to help students answer the driving question for the unit and reinforces the concept of how evidence is necessary before a theory can be accepted. I like to supplement this concept by adding Marie Tharp to the narrative.Marie Tharp was a geologist in the 1950s. Because she was a woman, Tharp was not allowed to join her male colleagues at  sea as they mapped the ocean floor.Instead, she stayed back in the lab and used the data provided by the geologists in the field to create maps. It was these maps that provided evidence the sea floor was spreading.At first, Tharp’s discovery was dismissed by many of her peers; however, in the 1960s, Harry Hess confirmed her findings.It was a big deal. We have little information about the contributions of female scientists, so I think it’s important to incorporate women in science whenever possible. Tharp’s maps of the ocean floor are still used today. Here are two articles about Marie Tharp you’ll find useful if you’d like to add her contribution to the acceptance of the theory of continental drift.

Seeing Is Believing: How Marie Tharp Changed Geology Forever

How One Woman’s Discovery Shook the Foundations of Geology”

After reading the articles, we return to answer parts two and three of the driving question before we start work on the Unit 4 Investigation. By the time we get to the Investigation, students have accumulated a lot of information, all of which they can use to flesh out their responses with great evidence and plenty of detail. Through this sequence of activities, students get to see a great example of how prior knowledge plus learning can result in deeper understanding of a topic, which gives them—and me—a real sense of accomplishment.


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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