BHP’s Investigation 0 pops up the first week of school. It’s not that bad, and it’s totally worth it.

Bart Shaffer, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Do I really have to start the year with a formal essay? My kids are going to hate me! Worse, what if my lower-performing students just shut down and give up? These were my thoughts and those of several members of my BHP Professional Learning Community when we first heard about Investigation 0, the baseline writing assessment that takes place during the first week of school in the Big History Project. We quieted our fears, decided to trust the process, and man, I’m sure glad we did!

Starting the year with an Investigation essay may sound like a deal-breaker to some, but I discovered that most students are used to the idea of taking a pre-test and tracking their growth throughout a unit or course. With a little assurance that this writing assignment wasn’t going to affect their grade, that it was truly a baseline assessment, students were happy to show me what they’ve got! I will admit, however, that there is a little bit of convincing that you’ll need to do before you dive right in.

So, take my advice and try to make essay writing during the first week of school as painless as possible. Here are some things I learned from my own classroom and those of my peers:

  1. Pre-teaching?? Don’t worry about pre-teaching anything! This should be a true baseline assessment, so it’s best if you do as little instruction as possible before the students begin. I’ve noticed that newer BHP teachers always want to give tips, tricks, and other essay-writing instruction prior to Investigation 0—but the longer they teach the course, the more value they find in doing an authentic pre-test of their students’ skills. Just trust us… it’s worth the risk!
  2. Encourage but don’t help. Instead of giving instruction prior to the Investigation, spend your time encouraging students. Let them know that this is just a pre-test. Tell them it won’t affect their course grade. Encourage them to just do their best. When they ask questions like, “How do I do this?” I just say, “Think about what your English teachers have taught you in the past. You’ve got this—just do your best!”
  3. Don’t let them revise…yet. Don’t let students spend too much time with Revision Assistant on this first round. I usually just have the students type their essays in a word processing program, and then cut and paste it into the Revision Assistant tool. At this point in the year, I haven’t taught them how to use the program, anyway!
  4. Wow! Those scores are low! Most students get VERY low scores on their Investigation 0. Be sure to spend some time talking about this with students once they’re done with their essays. Ask them about what they’ve learned in English language arts class in the past. My kids quickly come to the conclusion (and usually smack their foreheads saying “Oh man!”) that they DO know how to write this type of essay… but they’d forgotten those transferrable skills that they’ve learned in the past. Tap into that prior knowledge as you move forward teaching Investigation writing.
  5. Partner with your colleagues. Be sure to share the results of Investigation 0 with your colleagues from other departments, and discuss how you can all use similar language as you begin to teach writing in your own classroom. It helps students to be even more successful!

I teach at the most diverse high school in my state. My students come to me at all levels of proficiency.  But all of them can turn something in for Investigation 0. The scores will be low—but that’s great because it gives them room to show growth over the year! As an example, this past year I set the goal that my students would improve by at least one level on the BHP Writing Rubric throughout the year. From Investigation 0 to the end of the year, I saw 93% of my students meet this goal! This type of progress has emboldened me to seek additional professional development this summer and set even loftier goals for my next year’s students.

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About the author: Bart Shaffer has been teaching BHP since 2017 at Kent-Meridian High School in Washington. He teaches 5 sections of BHP to 150 (mostly) ninth-grade students. He teaches the course in a year-long, 5-day-a-week format.

Cover image: Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash, public domain.


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