BHP AND THE FACT/FICTION CONTINUUM

Scott Henstrand, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

In my first year teaching Big History (five or six years ago, now—I’ve lost count), I discovered a lens of focus that made the course infinitely engaging to teach—and learn. As with most teachers new to Big History, my early planning for the first five thresholds got bogged down in the minutiae—my students and I lost sight of the unfolding story. I realized that, of the three core BHP concepts (thresholds, collective learning, and origin stories), it was the telling of narratives and origin stories, and the differences between narrative and story, that compelled me to restructure the course from how I had first outlined it.

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Cygnus Loop supernova remnant. Credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF.

In restructuring my approach, my primary concern was to keep the modern scientific narrative in perspective as an ongoing attempt to explain our Universe. I continually gave students origin stories from across time and the globe related to the threshold at hand—this kept us grounded in what is a universal human desire to discover our origins. (By the way, the more I teach BHP, the more I realize it’s okay for this narrative to remain in a space of wonder.) And since the modern scientific origin narrative is not fixed, matters of closely reading and critically analyzing what the story proposes—and the choices made by the tellers of the story—become of utmost importance. The course’s emphasis on doing this literacy work with students is one of the most important reasons we should be teaching Big History.

To this end, my school team focuses on defining and distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction. We’ve worked with our ELA staff (Big History invites authentic interdepartmental collaboration) to base our definitions of fiction and nonfiction on the work of Kylene Beers. This is what we decided: Fiction is something made up by a person that does not need any supporting evidence. Sometimes fiction takes a historical event and adds details to the story that are not really known. This is historical fiction. The key, though, is what we use as a definition for nonfiction: text where the author intends to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, idea, or belief. This allows for the nonfiction to change form – you then need a critical eye to evaluate the text and suspend your own belief system to fully read it. Beers has commented on the active participation required of readers of nonfiction:

Definitions of nonfiction that tell students that nonfiction is ‘true’ or ‘real’ or ‘not false’ suggest to students that they do not have a role in reading nonfiction. We disagree with that. We think readers have a critical role in the reading of nonfiction.

-Kylene Beers, Education Week

Beers steers us away from an apodictic view of nonfiction, one where to read is to accept a given truth, and toward an active stance of seeking truth. To create active readers is the goal. This is where the primacy of the core concept origin stories meets the essential skill of claim testing using the BHP claim testers intuition, authority, logic, and evidence.

From this premise, all texts fall on a continuum of fiction/nonfiction. (That thing that’s 100 percent not fiction? It doesn’t exist.) Any fabricated story is a fiction. What becomes interesting is deciding where to place the great fictions on the continuum. I would place Moby Dick and One Hundred Years of Solitude, as examples, on the continuum as not pure fiction, since these are fabrications that speak to deep human truths. On the other end of the continuum, close to the purity of nonfiction and absolute truth, lie many of the scientific/historical narratives we have—such as the modern scientific origin narrative of Big History. Claim testing gives us a way to determine where a text might fall on the continuum.

While reading a text in class, one student of mine proposed a solution for determining a text’s “truth value.” In an inspired bit of thinking, the student proposed that the more claim testers a text used, the closer to nonfiction the text was. To give further nuance, the student proposed that the greater the variety of claim testers used (not just logic or evidence, but also intuition, for example), the more it moved a text toward nonfiction. With a premise that the modern scientific narrative is always incomplete, students had a way to argue for the truth value of any text.

This use of claim testers as a truth-value indicator is also valuable to students for judging their own writing. They now understand that for their documents to be considered as closer to nonfiction, they need to understand better why they make a claim and use a variety (and more than a couple) of claim testers.

Of course, this is a work in progress. At least students now have common ground for deepening their understanding of fiction/nonfiction and claim testers. I also do not leave myself out of that endeavor.

About the author: Scott Henstrand has been teaching Big History at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a public school in New York, since 2011. His school teaches offers the course as a two-year deployment that replaces global studies. In the first year, Unit 1 through Unit 5 are covered, and in the second year, Unit 6 through Unit 10. Scott loves teaching the course because of the fundamental philosophical implications the material addresses.

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.