Jenny Hollaway, BHP Teacher
As the school year winds down, I inevitably find myself playing the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” game. Despite my best efforts, I always “shoulda” incorporated more “history” into Units 1 through 5 of my Big History course—you know, those units titled “The Big Bang” and “Stars & Elements”—the ones that would make any teacher new to the curriculum wonder how and why it gets regularly approved as a history course in schools. I’ll confess: It’s so easy to get sidetracked by the wonders of the Universe, where student curiosity about the unknown guides us each year in directions I often don’t anticipate. But those awesome tangents don’t preclude any classroom from homing in on important historical thinking skills—like scale-switching—which get their footing in the early units of BHP (and are foundational for future courses at our school).
To make the focus on historical thinking skills all the more prominent, new activities that flesh out what are called practice progressions have been added to the course. I’m super excited to try the ones related to scale in my classroom. You’ll find three scale activities in Units 2, 3, and 5, that build on one another and culminate in the creation of one giant timeline (or several smaller ones, depending on how your kids interpret it), spanning multiple periods in history.
It starts in Unit 2 with the scientists who’ve helped us understand our Earth, the Solar System, and the Universe – featuring the likes of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Edwin Hubble. Then, in Unit 3, the chemists come into the equation – and onto the timeline. I’m especially excited about this activity in the sequence. How does adding the contributions of scientists like Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev to the story change the construction of the timeline? Do students make a case for keeping everyone (our Unit 2 and 3 friends) on the same timeline, or dividing it into two – one that deals with the macro scale of astronomy and one for the micro scale of chemistry? Or is there a case for both? Students begin grappling with periodization here – and doing the work of real historians. I envision this leading to awesome conversations about how different parts of the same past become emphasized (or de- emphasized) depending on the choices historians make about organization and representation. The awesome conversations will definitely continue when we then add Darwin and the discoverers of DNA to the timeline in Unit 5. And this is all before Unit 6 – Early Humans!
The great thing about these activities is that they put history (and historical thinking skills) front and center in a course that can, on the surface, seem otherwise. As students add to their timelines, they will use scale to understand the scope of scientific discovery compared to the history of the Universe – and learn valuable lessons about timelines and periodization as analytical tools for understanding our past. I’m thinking this sequence of activities may result in a huge timeline (or timelines!) for our classroom wall—a visual reminder of what we’ve learned, a platform for review at the end of the year, a place to discuss causation and periodization as a class, and a constant reminder that the first few units of Big History are history!
Author: Jenny Holloway is a teacher at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie, WA and has been teaching for 8 years. When she isn’t teaching or collaborating with her awesome colleagues, she can be found traveling, watching the Mariners, and learning Japanese.