by Michael Carman, BHP Teacher
I first heard about the Big History Project a few years ago, at a presentation by Bob Bain at the National Council of the Social Studies. The course intrigued me. Why? Well, like many teachers, I was concerned with history so frequently being presented as “one darn thing after another”—simply a list of facts to memorize and forget after the test. History is frequently ranked as students’ least favorite subject, and students often leave history courses without a clear understanding of what they learned in terms of content and skills. Additionally, many high schoolers really struggle with reading nonfiction texts, and within academic subjects, few courses explicitly teach reading strategies.
I knew teaching skills and big, overarching concepts was crucial, but I lacked the resources to make this possible
At the time, I was teaching a freshman course called World Cultures. It used a thematic, modern-world history curriculum that we designed as a department in my first year of teaching, and I always found it wanting. One day, a fellow AP US history teacher suggested that we pay attention to potential AP students’ English grades, rather than their performance in World Cultures, for admittance, because the English course more closely resembled the AP history course. This supported my suspicion that our current approach in World Cultures was amiss. The course relied on cobbled-together readings and resources—some of which were at a too high or too low reading level for different students. Most troubling was the fact that the course struggled with breadth versus depth of topics and adequately integrating skills, which had scarcely been thought of at the time of the curriculum’s creation. This left me feeling somewhat rudderless: I knew teaching skills and big, overarching concepts was crucial, but I lacked the resources to make this possible.
[BHP] seemed to be what every textbook I had encountered had failed to be.
I was struggling with this dilemma when I heard about the Big History Project. Big History is rooted in the foundational skills of claim testing, integrating disciplines, and reading and writing, as well as the overall course narrative of thresholds of increasing complexity. The course seemed to be what every textbook I had encountered had failed to be: clear, responsive, skills-based, and with loads of materials to help teachers, all free of charge.
Soon after hearing of Big History, I began speaking with my department head about the possibility of using it as a course. We did not want to rush into anything haphazardly, so we took a few years to plan a deployment. This left me time to experiment and supplement my existing course with BHP materials to see how it might go. I was extremely impressed with the leveled readings, which allow students to select between three or four different levels of textual difficulty. They solved a problem that had persisted in nearly all of my classes and throughout my career: some students have difficulty grappling with a grade-level text, and for others, it’s too easy. BHP’s Newsela Lexile-leveled readings allow every student to engage with deep content knowledge, all in a relatively brief format.
I also began to experiment with BHP’s Three Close Reads process. For a master’s degree course, I explored the issues with reading informational texts in a social studies classroom. I found great support in the research for teaching reading strategies to students and for approaching informational texts in a three-step process. The Three Close Reads process fits this model, in which students scan the text first, then read it for information, and then think more conceptually about it. The response I got from this was positive, and many students that I worked with felt like they had improved their reading skills.
I have found a number of benefits to teaching the full course, rather than simply using select resources from it.
This year, I’m teaching BHP in its entirety, over the entire year, for the first time. While any new course has a learning curve, I have found a number of benefits to teaching the full course, rather than simply using select resources from it. First, the course is based upon a spiraling development of skills, including disciplinary thinking, causation, writing, and reading. Second, the course offers a clear, cohesive narrative not just for humanity, but for the entire Universe. Last, the course offers a base for how all the subject areas connect and relate through an interdisciplinary approach with science, language arts, and more. High school, for many students, can seem like a random collection of unrelated subjects, but Big History unites all those areas of knowledge into a cohesive whole.
This…is exactly what students should be doing in school.
That isn’t to say that adjusting to Big History is without challenges. Some students find it difficult to understand why a history class needs to go beyond the era of recorded history. This time span necessarily moves into questions that require students to think deeply about why we are here, and how we got to now. This deep thinking and asking and answering these probing questions is exactly what students should be doing in school. The narrative of the course provides them with a picture of the Universe that escaped me until I began learning about Big History myself and will provide them with the tools to engage with the issues of the future.
The world of Big History is an exciting one. Hop on board!
About the author: Michael Carman has taught Big History since 2018. He teaches four sections (a total of 95 students), four to five days a week in Pontiac, MI.