STRIVE FOR FIVE!

Kathy Hays, Big History Teacher
Arizona, USA

STRIVE FOR FIVE! That’s our new motto each time we initiate a Unit Investigation. BHP Score has transformed how I teach writing, and how my students approach the writing process. I used to spend weeks grading the Investigations, and by the time they were returned, students had completely forgotten everything about it—my feedback on their writing was shoved into a backpack, never to be seen again. BHP Score, on the other hand, returns constructive feedback much faster and on a more detailed level than I could ever manage with more than 120 students. Since the Investigation writing prompt is still fresh in my students’ minds when they get their Score reports, they have a vested interest in revising and improving their work.

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Sample BHP Score class report

My students have now received BHP Score reports for Investigations 2 and 6. In both cases, I’ve built lessons around the reports. After receiving reports for the Unit 2 Investigation, we went over the comments as a class. As students worked on their revisions, I conducted individual meetings to review their modifications. After a peer exchange and review, students wrote final drafts. It was the first time I had taken students through the entire writing process, allowing them to see the progress from first draft to final copy.

As we approached Unit 6, I wanted to craft a lesson that would build even more student investment in the BHP Writing Rubric, and prime them for making revisions to their writing. I was also curious to see how student evaluations of Investigations would compare to those of the BHP Score evaluators. After students submitted Investigation 6 (and were waiting for BHP Score reports to be returned), I printed off a batch of essays (names removed) for students to grade against the BHP Writing Rubric. A few days later, we received the BHP Score evaluations of the same essays. I had students compare their evaluations with the BHP Score ones—it turns out the scores were pretty close! Some students were confused as to why an essay had received a score of “3” when they thought it should receive a “4.” We took time to address questions and ensure everyone was on the same page before I turned them loose to craft a final version of Investigation 6. Using the feedback from BHP Score allowed students to produce quality final drafts.

At some point during the writing process of Investigation 6, we decided to “Strive for Five” on future writing assignments. Advice provided by the BHP Score team in the monthly Writing Exchange in the BHP Online Teacher Community has helped equip me with valuable teaching strategies to help my students. We incorporated the new strategies into the Unit 8 Investigation and saw scores improve significantly. I highly recommend joining the ASU Writing Exchange on Yammer for the monthly words of wisdom.

As we approach Investigation 9, everyone is anxious to “Strive for Five”! Thanks to BHP Score, students now have a vested interest in their writing.

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and this year is her second teaching Big History. She teaches five BHP classes a year, and so reaches about 130 ninth-grade students. Her school is on a semester schedule with daily 52-minute periods. Kathy’s favorite thing about teaching Big History is the opportunity to learn with her students!

My Visit with the Queen

Constance van Hall, BHP Teacher
Noord-Holland, The Netherlands

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, new year reception
at the royal palace on January 17, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Date: January 17, 2017
Location: Amsterdam, Palace at Dam Square

How did I get here? What Goldilocks Conditions contributed to me being here, visiting the royal family, the day before getting on a plane to Seattle to exchange ideas with other teachers from around the world? Big History did, of course—and a series of serendipitous circumstances following my initial discovery of the course. I was invited to meet the king, queen, and former queen (now princess) of The Netherlands. For a New Year’s reception. At their palace. Dress code: tenue de ville, which means, step up your standard “teacher outfit” a little. How I got here needs a little more explaining though, so let’s do a little—very little—big history of Big History in The Netherlands.

How it all started and which thresholds we crossed
Early 2012, my colleague Joris Burmeister was faced with an almost impossible task: to search for ways to continue a course we started in the lower grades and make this course more exciting for tenth- and eleventh-graders. I didn’t know Joris very well yet, but really wanted to help him in this quest. In February, I stumbled upon David Christian’s TED Talk (“The History of the World in 18 Minutes”), which got me so excited that I immediately ran to Joris, almost screaming: “THIS IS IT! We should do Big History. It’s perfect!” Joris was quickly infected by my enthusiasm and we decided to explore this great opportunity. And so we crossed our first mini-threshold: deciding to teach BHP.

The thing was that the course website in those days was in “pilot mode,” meaning you couldn’t access it yet. So we decided to just boldly write an email to the developers asking them to please, please, please let us in on this terrific source of knowledge-still-under-development. After a long (and difficult, because my iPhone was getting really hot and the reception was not great) conference call, we got in. With that, we crossed our second mini-threshold: getting access to the knowledge we needed.

Ok. Now we had this great website with videos and articles about Big History, a few books, and lots of enthusiasm… great ingredients, but we were still total Big History newbies. The next step, then, to becoming able and confident to teach it was to become Big History students ourselves! Today, Big History offers online professional development (“Teaching Big History”) to prepare teachers for the course, but back in 2012 there was no such thing. Thankfully, we got the whole summer to prepare ourselves, and also prepare some lessons and student materials in Dutch. No holidays for me, but the travel through time and space I accomplished in my head with Big History really was worth it! And so, another mini-threshold was crossed: feeling confident enough to teach the course—or at least, confident enough to be the “lead learner” in my classroom as I prepared to take students on a journey through content that was still new to me.

And that’s how we became a pilot Big History school. The first in Europe, we were told. David Christian was so delighted BHP had set foot on the old continent, he decided to come visit our school for the big kick-off we planned for our students. That was on September 6, 2012. The threshold we wanted to cross? Getting the students excited. Well, leave that to David: the auditorium was packed with students, managers, teachers, parents—even the janitors attended. David talked about Big History and his TED talk, and then held a Q&A. The students’ questions kept coming and coming. Thanks to David, this threshold was easy to cross: the students were excited, all right.

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Now we had to keep them as enthusiastic as they were after meeting David. I’m not quite sure why, but it turned out that wasn’t so hard to do. All the Goldilocks Conditions were there: the content and story of Big History itself, the great course website, the intrinsic eagerness and interest of our students, all contributed to this course being a success. And so it has been for the last five years. Students are very positive about the course and often ask why they can’t have more BHP (we only have one hour a week at our school). In anonymous polls, we score very high indeed. In fact 100 percent of all students agreed last year with the statement: “BHP enriched my life.”

And since they’re so excited, we’ve been doing our best to spread BHP in The Netherlands. We feel that every high school student should have access to this great course. Joris and I have spoken at a lot of conferences and have made classroom visits. We’ve spoken to the minister of education, administrators , educators-who-educate-teachers, more administrators , the secretary of state, professors, science committees, and of course teachers, a lot of them. I even wrote a book (a Dutch student handbook), which got published, intended to make it easier for teachers to jump in and start teaching BHP. Today, about 35 schools in Holland are teaching Big History. I guess we crossed another mini-threshold: getting the word out about BHP. But we’re not there yet. Joris and I continue to make an effort to spread the word by hosting classroom observations, visiting other teachers in their clasrooms, and offering coaching and help where needed.
Back to the now

I don’t travel much, normally, and I’m certainly not often invited to palaces. I never thought Big History would change all that. At the reception, while having drinks with the royal family, former queen Beatrix said to me: “You’re from the Big Bang!” I wanted to answer: “We all are, your royal highness,” but of course she meant she knew I’m a Big History teacher. And I was proud to say I am, and that Big History is growing rapidly in The Netherlands. Cheers to that!

About the author: Constance van Hall has been teaching Big History since 2012 in Noord-Holland in the Netherlands. She co-teaches the course with Joris Burmeister; they were two of the original teachers of the course in Europe!

BHP SCORE: A TOOL FOR SELF-IMPROVEMENT

Steve Hamilton, Big History Teacher
Washington, USA

I’ve been teaching world history to sophomores at Capital High School in Olympia, Washington, for five years. We have a regular and an honors track. I teach the regular class, but believe I have honors’ standards—largely due to the bar set by Big History. BHP excites me because it gets students to focus on developing, communicating, and providing evidence for an argument. Students can see that this is a skill that will last them a lifetime, so it’s not hard to convince them of its value. BHP Score makes this even easier.

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Sample BHP Score reports

BHP Score, the free essay-scoring service, provides fast turnaround on feedback for several of the Investigations (DBQ-like essays) in the course, which teachers can then use as they see fit in their classrooms. Paired with lesson plans on writing throughout the course, BHP Score opens real possibilities for students to develop strong writing skills.

My students complained when I assigned Investigation 2 on the third day of school (it’s a tough assignment for the first week of school, even if it’s only meant to provide baseline data), and sent it off to BHP Score. I was shocked to see results waiting in my inbox later that day! At the start of the next period, I put the class’s average score on the projector. The score was lower than they had hoped for, and I assured them that this was merely our starting point. I then gave each student their individual BHP Score summary sheet, and they were visibly excited to see what they scored. We set a class goal of collectively scoring at least one full point higher by the end of the year.

Fast-forward a few months: My students just completed Investigation 6 as their final assessment for first semester. To prepare, we spent a few days working our way through the Lesson 6.0 Investigation Writing – Constructing an Argument activity (grading sample essays against the BHP Writing Rubric gave students a better understanding of the expectations they’d be held to). We then reviewed their baseline scores from Investigation 2 by reexamining the BHP Score summary sheets from September. With a more nuanced understanding of the writing rubric, students looked at their first essays with a more critical eye and a better understanding of what their original scores meant, noting where they could improve for their imminent semester final. Students then launched into writing Investigation 6, and seemed to take it much more seriously than they had Investigation 2!

Our next step will be to analyze the results from Investigations 2 and 6 side-by-side and reflect on areas of growth and in need of improvement—more on that soon. Personalized BHP Score reports have given my students motivation to deepen their understanding of the BHP Writing Rubric, where their own writing falls on it, and what specifically they need to include in future essays to achieve higher scores. I’m sold!

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 emphases on skills like argumentative writing and claim testing, which he thinks is especially relevant today.