by Bart Shaffer, BHP teacher
Washington, USA

Will my students just shut down? Can they really succeed with this amount of reading and writing? There’s no way they can keep up with this pace! This is TOO HARD!

I teach at the most diverse high school in the state. With 58 languages spoken and kids from nearly 90 different countries, the majority of our school’s student body has recently emigrated to the US. And a large number of those students come here as refugees with little formal education. When I was asked to teach the Big History Project course to these kids, I was skeptical. How could our freshmen possibly thrive in this rigorous course?

This course is exactly what my students need.

Over the past two years, with the support of the BHP community and my PLC, I can say without a doubt that this course is exactly what my students need. What’s more, BHP’s laser focus on teaching core concepts and literacy skills allows me to gather data to prove that my students are growing!

The way BHP is designed [allows for] my English Language Learners (and everyone else) to slowly build their proficiency.

My experience has shown that the way BHP is designed—with spiraling opportunities for kids to continue to hone their skills throughout the course—is a very powerful way for my English Language Learners (and everyone else) to slowly build their proficiency. Of course, there are times when I am implementing additional strategies to scaffold their learning, but these are the same types of things I would need to do with any curriculum. Simple things that I have done that seem to help my students include:

  • Creating word walls with academic and course vocabulary before reading an article
  • Providing sentence stems for group discussions and writing assignments
  • Utilizing the video transcripts to scaffold their learning (and provide an easy way to translate, as needed)
  • Allowing students to watch the videos on YouTube—where the closed captions can be set to their home language
  • Designing graphic organizers to serve as a guide during research

These small strategies coupled with the intentional design of the BHP course materials have led me to the conclusion that having high expectations and pushing students to try (and sometimes fail) result in tremendous student growth–quite the opposite effect of making them shut down as I’d originally feared they might. These students can see how the skills they’re building in BHP are transferable to their other coursework and to other parts of their lives—and so they work hard to be successful!

Are you willing to provide the supports [ELL students] need to show growth in how they read, write, and think like a historian?

As I speak with other colleagues who are starting to teach this course, I have begun to shift the conversation from “Is BHP too hard?” to challenging their core beliefs.  “Is it okay for an ELL student to be challenged? Can you handle allowing them to be frustrated and grapple with the skills?  Are you willing to provide the supports they need to show growth in how they read, write, and think like a historian?” If your answers are yes, then BHP might just be the best course out there to address these learning goals!

About the author: Bart has been teaching BHP since 2017 at Kent-Meridian High School in Washington. He teaches five sections of BHP to 150 (mostly) ninth-grade students. He teaches the course in a year-long, five days a week format.

 Header image: © Steve Debenport/Getty Images.

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