Rachel Hansen, BHP Teacher
Iowa, USA

I’ve been on the Big History merry-go-round for five years now. Let me tell you, it’s been an awesome ride, and it’s about to get better. With some shiny new content updates and robust skill progressions, you’re going to want to clean out your BHP closet to make room for some fancy new pieces.

Out with the old. In with the new.

You’ve probably got some BHP classics hanging in your teacher closet. For the 2019/20 school year, a few of my personal favorites got a face-lift. They are better than ever, and you’re going to want to check them out! Here are five of my fave makeovers.

  1. Easter Island Mystery

It’s so important to start the year off with a bang! Students love the mystery of Easter Island activity in Lesson 1.0, and now there’s a brand-new article to go with it. BHP teacher David Burzillo wrote an excellent recap article of the situation at Easter Island, including a snapshot of some of the leading claims about its demise. Couple this new update with the tried and true History as Mystery activity, and you’ll have your students hooked from the start!

2. History of Me

This activity has bounced around in various locations in the BHP course, but it’s now firmly found its home in Lesson 1.1. In a two-minute quick write, students jot down their own personal histories to analyze scale and how it shapes the narratives we tell. Most important, it gets them thinking about which details are important enough to include in the overarching narrative of history. I’m adding this to my start-of-the-year plan!

3. Three Close Reads

Holy guacamole. You are going to love the new Three Close Reads student worksheet! We took this new tool for a test-run last year and students raved about it. For starters, it requires them to read the text with a question in mind. This helps focus their thinking. It also guides students to identify the claim of the text and test it out. We are always looking for ways to refine that skill set. Finally, the tool culminates by asking students to reflect on the ways the article supported, extended, or challenged their thinking. These prompts fostered deep intellectual conversations in our classroom!

4. Superhero Element

I often see awesome activities I want to try out, but what I really need are concrete student samples. You too? Look no further! You asked for it. BHP delivered. Now you’ve got an image of a student sample to use when you pitch this outstanding Lesson 3.1 activity.

5. What Do You Know? What Do You Ask?

Examining BHP across disciplines is one of the best parts of the course, but it can be challenging to come up with good examples. The new and improved What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? activities scaffold interdisciplinary thinking course-wide, giving teachers a menu of options to choose from when selecting objects and events to study. For example, in Lesson 7.2, you may want to investigate Pompeii, the Mayan calendar, or the Bog Man of Silkeborg (cool, right?!). Disciplinary questions are also scaffolded appropriately. Early on, students can use the new discipline cards to help them generate questions and examine evidence. Later in the course, students develop their own questions.


BHP also released some brand-spanking-new content, and it’s hot off the press! You won’t want to miss these five new additions to the course.

  1. Big History Overview

Those fast-talking Green brothers sometimes leave my students in the dust in the Crash Course videos. I’m really excited to use John’s new article, “Big History Overview,” to kick off the year. He gives a compelling threshold-by-threshold view of the course as a whole in Lesson 1.1. This article would be great to pair with the new Threshold Name Game (also in Lesson 1.1).

2. Claim Testing

We are constantly making claims, testing them, and evaluating their validity. It’s a foundational practice. One of the most comprehensive changes to the course is the addition of four new activities to get students working with the claim testers. Lesson 1.3, What Are the Claim Testers?, introduces students to all of the claim testers, and more lessons in Units 2, 3, and 4 have focused activities centered around authority, intuition, and evidence (the fourth claim tester, logic, gets covered in the Investigation Writing activities). We tried out the opening activity on intuition in Lesson 3.2, and it was a perfect fit! The claims students tested were compelling, and we had an especially rich discussion around the prompt: How do you believe (or not) something that you know nothing about?


Students working on a claim testing activity. Photos by Rachel Hansen.

3. Threshold Name Game

Getting students familiar with the overarching BHP narrative is essential. They need a framework to hang their thinking on as they learn new content and concepts throughout the course. The better that students grasp the narrative, the more deeply they will connect with it. The Threshold Name Game from Lesson 1.1 is a quick and fun way to help students learn the guideposts in the narrative. It’s also an activity you could do from time to time during the course to help students solidify that narrative.

4. Vocabulary Routines

Building strong routines is so critical. Students need structure. They need to know what to expect. You don’t have time to waste on strategies that produce very little learning return. Big History really beefed up their vocab game for this upcoming year. Teachers can pick and choose from the routines. The key is consistency. We also know memorizing words out of context just doesn’t cut it. For these reasons, each unit in BHP opens with a word wall, which allows students to learn vocabulary in context. Vocab Tracking is a strategy for helping students keep track of new and unfamiliar words. Live Concept Mapping moves from defining terms to applying them, allowing students to physically make connections between terms using a string (kinesthetic learning for the win!). There are also four new vocabulary games that your students will be begging you to play. Take your pick from Word Wheel, Word Relay, Word Sneak, and What’s My Word?

5. “Do Civilizations Collapse?”

One of my favorite new articles can be found in the Other Materials section of Unit 7. This little nugget might be hidden away at the bottom of the page, but it is an incredibly important text for you to consider for your classroom! In his article, “Do Civilizations Collapse?,” historian and archaeologist Guy D. Middleton proposes the idea that we’ve romanticized the idea of civilizational collapse. His ideas will flip your thinking upside down. He argues we cannot continue to dramatize the histories of indigenous people and make them into Western-centric moral tales. Go read it. Now. It will not disappoint! Our students rarely champ at the bit to read more in class or discuss more. This article was a rare exception.

 Perfect practice makes perfect.

Teaching historical thinking skills is tricky. It takes practice. In one of my favorite overhauls to date, Big History mapped out the scaffolding of the most essential skills for the course. These are called the Practice Progressions and they’re beautifully laid out in placemat format. It’s unbelievable. I want one for every dinner guest. Here are a couple of the practice progressions that I am stoked to try. Check out more information on the Practice Progressions in this blog post and check out the Practice Progressions Placemat in more detail below.


  1. Causation

Reasoning about causation is what historians do. Our students are budding historians, but teaching teenagers to reason is no small task (just ask their parents…or their overactive amygdalae and underdeveloped frontal cortices). Big History really took one for the team here, carefully scaffolding this process. Students start out with causation in Lesson 2.0, in the activity Causation—-Natural Disasters. In later units, they learn to categorize causes and evaluate change over time. You can learn more about all of the causation activities in Teaching Big History, BHP’s free online professional development. I’m especially excited about the handy-dandy icons BHP developed for annotating causal thinking.


2. Narrative and Thresholds

The new graphic for Narrative and Thresholds is sweet! I want to print a giant poster and hang it on my wall for reference all year long. The lessons that go along with it are also pretty amazing. In early lessons, students create a hashtag that describes the threshold and practice writing out the narrative. Later on, they create a tweet, an “elevator pitch,” and a timeline. In each unit, students are working to strengthen their ability to tell the narrative. This is the goal of learning, right?! Internalize it. Attach meaning to it. Make it your own. Tell the story. This new learning progression helps students contextualize the narrative at each threshold moment in the course. You can learn all about Narrative and Thresholds and the activities that accompany it in Teaching Big History, too.

So breathe easy my fellow Big History veterans. Vintage BHP is still alive and well. Veteran teachers, you’ll feel quite at home when you open the online platform, but don’t let your love of the classics keep you from trying on something new this school year. And to all the newbies out there, print out that Practice Progressions Placemat, pick out your favorite pieces for your new BHP teaching wardrobe and do your thing!

About the author: Rachel Hansen is a high school history and geography teacher in Muscatine, IA. Rachel teaches the BHP world history course over two 90-day semesters to about 50 ninth- through twelfth-grade students each school year.



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