Big History for All Learners

Todd Nussen, Big History Teacher
New York, USA

It seems like there’s more material, more time periods to cover, more terms to remember, and more complex ideas to understand. If the Big History curriculum is overwhelming, why would we bombard students with it?


A selection of BHP resources.

This is a valid question. Those of us who have been teaching Big History to students with diverse learning needs and abilities know that this dynamic curriculum can allow all learners to master advanced writing strategies, evaluate and utilize new information, and discover the connections between science and the humanities. BHP course resources and activities are adaptable and shareable, and help teachers meet the needs and abilities of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). I’ll outline a few of my (and my students’!) favorite features.

Each Big History article is available in at least four Lexile levels. Special-education teachers, speech-language pathologists, and hearing specialists at my school love this feature. So do students—they can challenge themselves by reading the same article at higher levels, or lower the Lexile level, if needed. And they can do this with just a few clicks (or taps) from their student view of the course. I like that students can check out the readings in higher levels—it gives them a goal to shoot for, while providing some of the steps for getting there. For students who are visually impaired, each unit comes with a text reader file, a Word document that contains all of the unit’s articles (in all Lexile levels). This text reader document is compatible with text-to-speech tools.

IEP accommodations often allow students to request a copy of class notes. The downloadable unit slides help with this. The unit slides outline the key ideas and terms for each activity, article, and video in the unit (in both PDF and PowerPoint format). If a student is shaky on a concept, they can refer back to these (or support staff can help them to do so). The course website also allows students to download the articles, vocabulary lists, and infographics used in class. In addition, each unit includes “Other Materials” and “Web Links” Sections. Even if you don’t wind up using material from these sections in class, special-education teachers and support staff will find that they provide additional resources that help reinforce ideas and vocabulary.

BHP course videos also have useful scaffolding features built in. The ellipses icon on each video leads to the transcript, notebook, and Text Genome tools. Students can download transcripts from their course view, or teachers can print them out ahead of time. You can get creative here—I’ve instructed students to use transcripts before, during, and after viewing videos. It’s a good way to encourage close and active reading of video content. It also conveniently includes time stamps to help students follow along, and highlights key vocabulary terms. The notebook tool offers the same transcript, but includes an area students can use to take notes and answer guiding questions. Text Genome reports help students make sense of critical words by pointing to the cluster, semantic network, and word family of each. There are vocabulary activities in each unit that are a nice complement to these.

Yes, the BHP website can look intimidating at first. But there are many convenient tools and features built in that help scaffold the content for students. While these are especially helpful for meeting the IEP requirements of students with special needs and abilities, I find all my learners benefit from them.

About the author: Todd Nussen has been teaching world history for more than 10 years at Oceanside High School in New York. His schedule includes two ninth-grade BHP classes. Each 40-minute class has about 60 students.

The Significance of the Counterclaim

J. Steele, BHP Score Team
Arizona State University, USA

If you’ve signed up for BHP Score and have received a round of feedback on at least one of the course Investigations, it’s likely you’ve seen some version of the following phrase in the comments for many of your students: “Be sure to include a counterclaim to strengthen your argument.” But what exactly is a counterclaim, and why is it deemed so important in the BHP Writing Rubric?


Sample BHP Score grader comments.

After your students construct a claim or thesis, encourage them to include a counterclaim to provide an acknowledgment of a possible opposing point of view. Offering a counterclaim and giving enough evidence to disprove that counterclaim strengthens the argument by reassuring the reader that the student is well-informed and able to discern multiple perspectives. The development and refutation of an appropriate counterclaim speaks to a student’s critical thinking and skills of argumentation. Some possible lead-in language for a counterclaim includes:

  1. Some might say ___________, but _____________.
  2. An alternative belief may be ______; however, __________.
  3. Though it is important to note _____, it is also important to understand _______.
  4. A possible counterclaim for this argument could be _______, but ____________.

The counterclaim concept might seem difficult for some students to grasp without comprehension of real-world applications, but one recurring activity within the BHP curriculum can help students understand the importance of this skill. The four debate activities in Units 2, 6, 8, and 9 provide a structure that can be useful for outlining a written argument as well. During the debates, each team is given 4-6 minutes to present their position, 2 minutes (after a few minutes of preparation) to offer a rebuttal, and 1 minute to state a conclusion. In their rebuttals, students must respond to the evidence that the other side has offered and construct an argument about why the evidence is irrelevant or contestable.


BHP debate activities.

As your students begin new Investigation essays, encourage them to remember the debate process; even though they do not get to hear directly from the opposing side when they write, they can anticipate what the other side might say and include an appropriate response. Examining the BHP Debate Rubric as a class can also be helpful when determining what should be included in a written counterclaim argument. The criteria to achieve the Above Standard rating (or 4) under the Rebuttal and Closing Statement section reads: “Makes an abundance of logical points against the points of the other side; is thorough and logical in the explanation for why their side has the strongest argument.” By bringing the language of the debates into Investigation essay writing, students may find it easier to come up with an effective counterclaim section.

Constructing a persuasive argument, like any writing skill, requires intentional practice to see positive results. As your students become more familiar with counterclaims, you may find that not only will it be reflected positively in their Investigation scores, but in their critical thinking skills in the classroom, as well.

Note: If you find the counterclaim lead-in language helpful, the book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein provides similar tools to assist in breaking down key writing concepts.

About the author: J. Steele sits on the BHP Score team at Arizona State University. You can learn more about the BHP Score team in this blog post.

Constructive Feedback

Chelsea Katzenberg, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

As Big History teachers, we know we’re supposed to assign Investigation 2 at the start of the school year—so we can get a baseline measure of student writing and track its improvement throughout the year. Investigation 2 was  definitely a baseline for my students! I assigned the challenging Big History reading-and-writing assignment right as the school year was getting underway in New York City: Student schedules were being shuffled, other classes were doing light beginning-of-year lessons, and students were working to reorient themselves to the whole “school thing.”


Sample BHP Score Report

The chaos the start of school year made it impossible for me to submit as many Investigations as I might have liked, and certainly not all the submissions were at a stage of completion. Initially, this made me a little hesitant to use the BHP Score results as feedback in class: I was concerned that students who rushed to submit would be disheartened by the results, and that students who didn’t submit in the first place would be disengaged upon not receiving Score results. Despite this, I decided my students should see the results. The in-depth, rubric-oriented feedback the Score reports provide is something I don’t have time to compile myself (as much as I would like to!). And for those students who didn’t submit an essay, I wanted to them to see what they were missing!

Because students hadn’t seen the BHP Writing Rubric prior to submitting Investigation 2, I knew it was important to go over it before handing back the Score results. To make the rubric more manageable (it can be overwhelming for students), we focused on just one section—Constructing an Argument. This helped me home in on the skills I wanted to teach that day. I told students that although I’d like to see them improve in all categories on the rubric (such as Mechanics and Use of Texts), they’d only be graded on our section of focus. Students all assessed themselves on that section of the rubric as well, so that even those who hadn’t submitted knew what to work on. Additionally, I gave each student who didn’t submit their essays another student’s Score report to look at (with the name blacked out), so they’d be eager to submit for Investigation 6.

Students had mixed reactions to the feedback. Some were upset, mainly because they received constructive criticism on elements they hadn’t been instructed to include in their writing (like I said, this data was DEFINITELY a baseline). However, after that initial reaction, I noticed many students looking back and more carefully at their feedback and the rubric. Several students had comments along the lines of, “After I really looked back at what I wrote, I definitely agree with what they said.” Overall, students appreciated having such professional-looking and personalized feedback, and could incorporate it into their revisions.

I’ll certainly use Score feedback in my Big History classroom moving forward. The struggles I had were mainly with my own implementation of the assignment, rather than with the actual feedback. It’s good practice for students to receive assessment from a “neutral” reader; they’re so used to getting feedback from me, it’s helpful to hear it from someone else. My students and I are looking forward to seeing the results from Investigation 6, which they’ll be writing with much greater familiarity with both the skills and concepts of Big History!

About the author: Chelsea Katzenberg teaches in the Bronx, NY, at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II. BHP is a required course for tenth graders at her school, and Chelsea teaches five sections of it, all with a world history focus. She loves that Big History encourages her students to ask questions they might never have considered!