SOMETHING HAD TO CHANGE

Michael Cromie, BHP Teacher
California, USA

I’m a seventh-grade social studies and ELA teacher at a technology magnet middle school in Ventura, California. I’ve been with the district since 2006, but have recently returned to the classroom after a stint as a technology integration specialist at a technology magnet elementary school.

Stepping back into the classroom was very exciting at first since our students are all issued their own netbooks and we learn in a 1:1 environment. However, after a few weeks I was very disappointed with the availability of district-adopted digital curricula and found myself trying to adapt outdated traditional textbook and workbook materials. This process was very time-consuming and was not producing very good results. I was desperate for something to turn the year around. Enter Big History Project.

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One of the sixth-grade teachers at my school showed me how she was using some material from Unit 7 of the Big History Project course to supplement her ancient civilizations course, and I was immediately drawn to the multiple Lexile levels available for each article. I teach a mix of readers—from GATE students reading at a 12+ grade level, to general and remedial students reading at a 2nd-grade reading level. I was intrigued and decided to research the BHP course for supplemental reading material.

I quickly saw that BHP is much more than leveled articles and supplemental material—it’s an interdisciplinary and unified approach to teaching history. I decided I would do the “Teaching Big History” training over our fall break so that I could come back and teach the course over the remaining three quarters of our school year.

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During the training, I joined a number of very supportive BHP Online Teacher Community groups on Yammer. Our district uses Google’s G Suite for Education so I was specifically interested in the Google Docs group and some wonderful people there who were willing to share their resources. Once I started implementing the course, I realized that I needed to really differentiate for the wide variety of learners I teach. I was able to take the resources on the BHP site, combine them with what I was getting from the teacher community, and cobble together unit after unit with very little time spent outside of the work day. Here we are in Unit 8 already (which aligns nicely with our state content standards) and I’m confident that we will make it through most of the material even though we began in the second quarter.

The best part of BHP has been the cohesiveness of the units and the recurring activity types and routines, such as Three Close Reads, Driving Questions, Claim Testing, and Investigations. I love how the course reinvigorated my teaching, allowing me the opportunity to learn about topics like the Big Bang alongside my students. I also found the various course planners especially helpful. My school is on a block schedule so the one from Bridgette O’Connor was great because it gave me an idea of what was essential, what was necessary, and what could be considered optional.

All in all, I am so thankful that I found this course! It has been very enjoyable to become a “lead learner” with my students as we studied how we are all made from elements that were created from supernova explosions billions of years ago and have been increasing in our complexity and interconnectivity ever since.

About the author: Michael teaches social studies and language arts at the DeAnza Academy of Technology and the Arts – a middle school in Ventura, California. His Big History sections are on a block schedule with 100-minute periods. He started teaching Big History partway through the 2016-17 school year.  

 

FACILITATING A BIG HISTORY BOOK CLUB FOR STUDENTS

Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

The idea for a history book club came to me a few years ago when I was teaching my AP Euro class and I used to assign a historical fiction reading list for extra credit that very few students actually read! We approached our school librarian, who connected us with a librarian specializing in young-adult fiction in the area, and between us we hammered out the logistics of a quarterly history book club.

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Students participate in Mt. Si High School’s student book club. Photo courtesy Ben Tomlisson.

The idea is to target a particular age/grade each quarter. This quarter, we have our freshmen reading Sapiens, by Noah Harari. We had used some of this book in our Big History class last year and students were fascinated by the questions it raised, so we decided to use it for our book club. The books are acquired by our library service and we try to supplement using PTSA funding to top up this supply.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari. Fair use.

At the first meeting of the book club, students produce the group’s rules and expectations for the discussions we’ll have. We limit the number of students to 20 per lunch session, and every Wednesday we meet, eat, and discuss the questions raised by our reading. Students are assigned a set reading for the week and they generate discussion questions for the following week (you can view examples of these in this post in the BHP online teacher community). The last week of the club, we have an “Ask the Expert” session, to which we invite a special guest speaker. It hasn’t been difficult to convince students to do more work. Yes, we do offer extra credit, but this is based on their participation in discussion rather than an extra assignment.

Students have been re-energized by the questions raised by their readings. I have one student who waits by my desk at the start of every period to ask questions—not about her grade (!) but about a quote from the book or an issue it raised. This is energizing for my own teaching and I’ve tried to adapt some of my lessons to these questions. We have students already asking what the next book will be. To determine what we’ll read next, we’ll use a list of age-appropriate materials from our library service and will get student feedback on what they want to read.

My advice for anyone trying this is to start small (limit the number of students), choose a book that you think will capture your students’ interests, and get help from other departments and your local library service.

Ben Tomlisson teaches Big History as a full-year ninth-grade elective at Mount Si High School, WA, where he has taught since 2005. Mr. Tomlisson hails from Manchester, England, and has taught in Japan. He loves that Big History provides the space where he and students can build relationships and ask meaningful questions.

GROWTH IS THE GOAL: USING BHP SCORE TO REVISE STUDENT WRITING

Steve Hamilton, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

We ended the first semester of Capital High School’s Big History class with Investigation 6. On the final day of the semester, students completed their Investigations and submitted them to BHP Score. I also scored the essay myself. Having sent in Investigation 2, the students knew the type of detailed feedback they would be getting from BHP Score. We were excitedly anticipating their scores. I wanted the students to experience growth and improvement.

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Sample BHP Score class and student reports

When the scores for Investigation 6 arrived a few days later, I revealed each student’s overall score and the class average. The scores had improved from Investigation 2, and the overall average went up. We had progress and improvement. It was small, maybe, but we were going in the right direction.

I saw an opportunity to use the reports as an instructional tool. I printed students a copy of their individual reports from both Investigations, and created an additional reflection sheet for them to compare and reflect on the feedback they’d received. As I went around the room, I asked each student what they could improve on for Investigation 9, the next essay they’d submit for grading by BHP Score. With the use of the BHP Score report and feedback, in tandem with the BHP Writing Rubric, the students could be very specific:

“I did not cite all of my sources. Also, I can word my essay more formally in essay #9.”
– Milo

“I can use more text evidence and use a better argument. Maybe have the text I want to use written down before I go to do the essay.”
– Tiffany

BHP Score breaks the writing process down for students. Reflecting on the process and being very specific about what they need to focus on helps all students to improve and grow over the course of the year, which is the goal. I had kids who improved greatly and also those who improved just a little bit. I also had a student who did not improve in any areas, but instead slid backwards. Each of these results brings a great learning opportunity for students. They don’t need to be perfect or even to get an A, but they do need to show growth and learning.

Note: this is the second of a series of blog posts I’m writing about my classroom’s experience with BHP Score this year. Read the first one, BHP Score: A Tool for Self-Improvement.

About the author: Steve teachers two sections of Big History as a full-year tenth-grade world history course at Capital High School, an International Baccalaureate school in Olympia, Washington. Steve has been teaching BHP since 2015, and is particularly appreciative of BHP’s emphasis on skills like argumentative writing and claim testing, which he thinks is especially relevant today.