Zachary Cain, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA


For many of us, the school year has just wrapped up, and the call of the pool and David Christian’s newest book are all but irresistible. Yet, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water (cue the theme from Jaws), Big History has announced a slew of new materials for SY 2019/20. No need to go into full freak-out mode. Here is a short breakdown of these must-use new classroom resources and a summary of what I am looking forward to rolling out this year with my sixth graders.

New and notable

Before you peruse all the new content on the site, be sure to take a look at the Practice Progressions Guide, as well as the new Part 3 of BHP’s free, online professional development, Teaching Big History. These resources provide an overview of the new BHP Practice Progressions, a series of spiraling activities that will help reinforce the foundational skills and essential thinking practices of every Big Historian. This, along with the overall narrative of thresholds of increasing complexity, is what we want our students to walk away with as learners. Here are the highlights and where I plan to focus my students’ attention in SY 2019/20:

  • Reading: The Big History Overview reading in Lesson 1.1 will be an extremely helpful preview for students, setting the stage for everything else to come. And, a revamped, more intuitive Three Close Reads Worksheet will help students focus on anything they read and watch during the course.
  • Writing: As I explain to my students at the start of each year, learning to write is not a one-time deal, but a continual and evolving process. BHP has now broken down the writing process into a series of focused lessons, one in each unit, that will have students rocking out some awesome Investigation writing by the time they hit Unit 9.
  • Claim testing: Claim testing and each of the claim testers gets the spotlight in Units 1 through 4. This breakdown of each of the claim testers (intuition, logic, evidence, and authority) orients students, who can then engage and use these skills in their Investigation writing in later units. The Claim Testing – Authority activity in Lesson 2.1 is especially awesome—how can you go wrong with an activity that features Stephen Hawking and Luis Walter Alvarez?
  • Causation: Alphonse the Camel has some new friends. I can’t wait to get to Unit 3 and do Star Formation Part 1 and Part 2. (Shameless plug for my blog post on this topic.)
  • Scale: As much as I try to keep scale in mind throughout the year, it’s often the skill that gets the least amount of coverage. Well, that is about to change this year with a new series of activities. A small group of my kiddos had a chance to try out the new Changing Views Timeline activity in Lesson 2.1, and I can’t wait to use it as a review activity leading into Investigation 2.
  • Disciplines: I’m not sure which piece I’m more excited about, the BHP Discipline Cards (and oh, yes, we will have a trading card project for this one) or What Do You Know? What Do You Ask?, which spirals throughout many of the units. Can you say forensic anthropologist and Otzi the Iceman? (See Lesson 6.1!)
  • This Threshold Today (TTT): Time for some current events to help those students who inevitably ask, “What does the Big Bang or stars lighting up have to do with life today?”
  • Narrative and thresholds: If you have not had a chance to check out the Narrative and Thresholds graphic organizer and activities, this one is a must for all visual learners.
  • Vocabulary: BHP has gone and developed a set of new vocabulary activities for each and every unit (let’s just say that your Word Wall is going to look awesome this year).

Too much of a good thing?

I hear you over there, thinking, “But Zach, haven’t you written some advice on Yammer about there already being enough content on the BHP website to cover a two- or even three-year course?”

Yes, you are correct.

“So, if BHP has added even more material, how are you planning to include this new material with everything else?”

Good question. For years, I’ve been struggling with the idea of how much time to devote to reading and watching video clips during class. For sixth-graders, there is a definite learning curve for understanding the basic protocols of the course (think things like Three Close Reads). However, once they’ve practiced them a time or two, I think class time is better used for other things besides content consumption. That’s why this year we are going to look to “flip” our classroom. In the flipped classroom, content consumption is done as homework, while class time is used for higher-order thinking activities such as debates, inquiry writing, and hands-on projects (check out this article on the concept of classroom flipping). With students doing the bulk of the reading and video watching at home, a huge chunk of classroom time will be freed up.

What I’m doing on Day 1

Unit 1 introduces the core concepts and skills of BHP. It’s equally important for setting student expectations for the flipped classroom. Day 1 is always a tricky one because of the need to address “housekeeping” details like attendance, tours, lockers, and expectation-setting. There’s little time to start any of the actual curriculum. This year though, instead of waiting until Day 2 to dive into the opening activity, we’re going to try something new. In Lesson 1.0’s opening activity, History as Mystery: The Case of the Headless Romans, we’re going to have students do the first part of the activity as homework on Day 1. At home, they’ll develop a list of experts who were involved in the process of identifying what happened to the skeletons found at York. This will lead to our first in-class activity on Day 2. We’ll complete the activity as a class and we’ll also introduce and discuss the BHP Debate Rubric and what it means to have a debate. With this activity, we’ll set the foundation for talking about claim testing and what we should look for when claims are being made.

What am I doing after Day 2? Here’s my full course plan for the year. My course plan is just one example—for more, check out the other teacher course plans in Teaching Big History. Read the teacher profile at the top of each plan to quickly find one that works for you.

Can’t wait to hear what new materials others are going to use in their classrooms, and how you’re planning for your upcoming school year. Harness the power of collective learning—be sure to share your ideas on Yammer!

About the author: Zachary Cain has been teaching since 2002 and has taught at Edison Middle School in Champaign, Illinois, since 2004. He has been teaching BHP since 2013. In Zachary’s school district, Big History is taught to all sixth graders (800+ students) as a year-long course that meets for 47 minutes each day.

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