Erik Christensen, BHP Teacher
Note from the BHP Team: This is the final Teaching Diary entry for BHP teacher Erik Christensen. In this series of weekly blog posts by veteran BHP teachers, Erik shared his weekly plans, lessons-learned, and new ideas for activating learning in a BHP classroom for the first four months of the school year. Take a look back at his entries as well as the entries of Arizona BHP ninth-grade teacher Kathy Hays’s too, and use their tips and tricks, resources, and wisdom to inspire great things in your own classroom!
As the first semester of BHP begins to wind down, we approach the natural transition point in the course that lies between Unit 5 and Unit 6. The break between these units coincides with our winter break and this time of year lends itself well to the reflection process. I am my own worst critic, so my winter break is full of “would have,” “should have,” and “could have” reflections. I get lost in the details. If I had more time, I would have delved deeper into the fascinating science curriculum BHP offers. I should have modified the assessment for Lesson 2.0 to provide different ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge. I could have done a better job describing how the Earth formed in Unit 4.
I learned early in my career as a BHP teacher that I can’t do it all. I had to think bigger (I mean, it is Big History), so my question to myself became, What do I want my students to know and understand this year?. Working collaboratively with other BHP teachers at my school and with my school’s administration, I actively decided to focus on historical reasoning skills, literacy, and the overall narrative of the BHP course.
This meant some historical content would be left by the side of the road. With 13.8 billion years of history to cover, many parts of this year-long course need to be passed over. I’ve had to come to terms with this and recognize the deeper value BHP offers. Teaching the larger set of skills and concepts to students over the one year is much more important than teaching the minutiae of history. Students will take many more years of social studies classes in which they are exposed to details, individuals, facts, and dates. The skills and concepts learned in will BHP serve them for the long-term by preparing them to make sense of the information they encounter in any social studies course.
One such lasting skill is literacy. The focus on literacy is relentless in our classroom. All students are expected to make improvements toward proficiency or beyond throughout the year. Students are provided with frequent low-risk opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the course content through written and verbal performance activities. Progress is equally as important as mastery in our extremely diverse classroom, and we encourage students to always think bigger and to always move forward. These are the skills they will carry with them, always. The “big” part of Big History.
As I reflect on our emphasis of literacy, I realize that I should pay more attention to the big picture than the smaller details. Why do I teach Big History? It’s the relevance of the overall narrative I want to communicate to our students. It’s more than the names of epochs, leaders, and chemical compounds. Like me, your goal probably is for students to walk away from the course understanding the Universe, which (like the world, our society, and their adolescent selves) is always growing more complex. Whether it’s their literacy, their writing, or their oral performance, the complexity of the skills they’re acquiring are always growing, too. Understanding this complexity, which is woven throughout the Big History curriculum, and grappling with the reality of it gives students the real tools they need to succeed in the twenty-first century. At the end of the semester, as you’re doing your own soul searching about what you did or didn’t do, remember you have taught the complexities and interconnectedness of our modern world to your students. This is the stuff that stays with them, even if you didn’t spend as much time on Lesson 2.0 as you would have liked.
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.
Cover image: Classroom board at Aspire Alexander Twilight Secondary Academy, Sacramento, CA. Photo © Amanda Lipp.