YOU DO YOU: MY FIRST YEAR TEACHING BIG HISTORY

Hajra Saeed, BHP Teacher
California, USA

Last August, I sat in a coffee shop with a teacher friend, stressing about what I had gotten myself into by switching from middle school to high school to teach a Big History pilot class for our district. She gave me the advice I needed to hear: “You do you.” That statement has carried me through my most exciting year of teaching in 16 years.

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“You do you,” came to mean a lot of things to me this past year. As we began our journey through Threshold 1 through Threshold 3, I realized that it’s okay not to know everything, and that it’s best to turn over discussions to my students when they’re the experts. I became comfortable with admitting that I didn’t need to be the expert of every discipline, and encouraged my students to investigate until they found articles and videos that enabled us to discover answers together. My friend’s advice meant that although I might not be the chief scientist in the room, I could certainly provide a critical historical lens. In a Lesson 2.2 video, my students and I learned from astrophysicist Jana Levin that even scientists don’t know the answers to everything, and we embarked together on a path of discovery.

When I didn’t understand how to implement an activity from the curriculum, I turned to the BHP Online Teacher Community on Yammer. I had discovered that “doing me” meant I didn’t fully understand how to best implement BHP that first year. The people on Yammer were amazing! When I posted questions, they immediately replied. When we reached the “Evolution and Faith” article in Unit 5, I posted on Yammer about some concerns I had with the article. Immediately, teachers offered up advice on how they delivered the lesson. One teacher even sent me a research paper on the topic that she had written. Here’s a link to our conversation.

Big History is not just a journey for the students; it is for the teacher as well. I have finally learned to appreciate science, including the study of rocks! I’ve learned to rekindle the lifelong learner in me, and in turn have been able to motivate my students to question and research. After all, isn’t that what school is all about?

About the author: Hajra Saeed teaches at Sato Academy of Math and Science, a STEM school focusing on biomedical science and engineering in Long Beach, CA. She’s been teaching for 16 years and has taught Big History since 2016. Hajra’s four sections (about 100 students) meet twice a week for 95 minutes and once a week for 45 minutes.

TACKLING CAUSALITY

TACKLING CAUSALITY
Ben Tomlisson, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Note: This blog post is featured in Session 5 of Teaching Big History, our online training course for new and returning teachers. You can delve even deeper into the topic of causality there!

The Big History Project is a course that looks and feels different from any traditional history course currently out there. Many of us who teach multiple social studies subjects are looking for ways to embed and develop those critical historical thinking skills in our students. Big Historians should be able to think critically and “outside the box”; they should get better at reading and writing skills; and they should also develop an interdisciplinary approach to learning. They should also be able to reason like historians and have skills in areas like causation. How do we challenge students to consider multiple causes of an event or process and reach substantive conclusions on the significance of each cause? How do we frame causation questions in Big History that engage students in the work of a historian: questioning the validity of a cause, considering the role of individuals in causation, and looking at the relationship between causes?

The course’s new lessons on causation help us make these skills explicit in our lessons. The Alphonse the Camel activity in Lesson 5.2 is a great way to engage students in “thinking like a historian.” They’re challenged to produce a multicausal explanation that creates a hierarchy of thinking: Which cause was most important? Which was the trigger? As Big Historians, what if we scale up and look at long-term factors, like the formation of mountain ranges and trade routes? My students used this approach to build causal diagrams of Alphonse’s death. They also made claims based on the importance of one cause over another: If not for the mountains, Frank, or trade, would Alphonse have survived?

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A one-humped camel, By Jjron, CC BY-SA 3.0.

At the end of this activity, students are keen to know the correct answer, and here is where the counterintuitive nature of our discipline comes in: there isn’t one! There are multiple valuable causal explanations. Although this can be frustrating for students, we can return to the claim testers and Bob Bain’s measure for causation to test the validity of their explanations.

These new lessons (you’ll find them in Unit 3, 4, 6, and 8) offer explicit opportunities to teach causation, but where can we offer more opportunities for students to learn these skills throughout the course? When telling a sweeping narrative like Big History, it’s critical that students understand the thresholds with their ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions. That’s where we have a great vehicle for developing their causation skills. Once they understand the threshold for a particular event, students can begin to analyze these and make their own claims. They can discriminate between the importance of ingredients or look for the most important Goldilocks Condition as the trigger. I encourage students to add new ingredients and Goldilocks Conditions to each threshold and to question the validity of a Goldilocks Condition. Students then begin to see that understanding causation is based on critical and creative thinking, rather than rote learning.

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The lessons on star causation provide opportunities for us to begin teaching this concept earlier in the course. One mistake I made during my first year teaching the course was to approach the prehuman units (Units 2 through 5) as more of a science course, and I concentrated on the rich content within. Instead, try to approach those early units wearing your “historian hat”—you’ll find opportunities for historical thinking throughout. For example, in Unit 4, have students look at the creation of the Earth, and then list all the causes from the Crash Course video: The Solar System & the Earth. Then, have them consider removing some of those causes. Would Earth have been created if not for the collision with an Earth-like planet? Other Big History teachers tell me they love to explore the counterfactual “what if” questions. How would life have been created without plate tectonics? How important was this cause for the creation of life? Do you have an idea regarding causation in Big History? Do you have some favorite counterfactual questions of your own? Post your ideas on Yammer and watch collective learning take hold!

About the author: 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.

 

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.