MAINTAINING THE THROUGH LINE

Garry Dagg, BHP Teacher
Vasse, Australia

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Mother humpback and calf. NOAA Photo Library. CC BY 2.0.

So, you’ve seen the website. You’ve done the online training course. You’ve got the OK to launch this project on your unsuspecting class. You have got your head around 13.8 billion years of history that goes from the minute to the colossal, from bacteria to supernova. You have weighed the balance between science and the humanities and where your strengths and weaknesses will lie.

But now comes the real challenge: How do you tell this epic tale to a class full of fully, barely and partially engaged teenagers whose lives are filled with Instagram, puberty, future goals and nagging parents? The answer? By focusing on the through line and letting everything else take care of itself. Be a whale that comes up for breath, each Big History threshold a mighty spout visible to all, and then dives down again to various depths of the ocean of learning that this course allows.

We all have strengths and weaknesses—as educators, peers, parents, enthusiasts, and humans. We take these aspects into all parts of our lives and work with them every day; the Big History Project is no different. It can be daunting as an history teacher, as I am, to tackle the physics of the Big Bang—nature’s creation event; or the periodic table of the elements and its strange mix of numbers and letters.

While I will never be able to teach my students how ripples in the fabric of gravity have affected the expansion of the Universe, I can always bring them back to the great narrative of the Big History Project: Each stage has created Goldilocks Conditions that have allowed the next threshold of complexity to develop. In this way, my adaptation of the course reflects not just my teaching strengths, but also the aspects of the course that I know will engage and inspire my students. So, like a whale I come up for breath at each threshold and reiterate the point, consolidate the learning and ensure that all my students have grasped the majesty of each stage – stars lighting up, chemical elements exploding to life, our own Solar System being born—all the way to how their old age will look.

Then, when I dive down again into detail, like a whale chasing plankton or simply enjoying the warm waters, I choose with my students the depth of learning and teaching that we will engage in. As a history teacher, it will always have a historical bent; my handful of class periods on the chemical elements zoom in on the wondrous life of Dmitri Mendeleev, using the Life of a Star activity and Mendeleev articles to accompany the Big History video clips. Come Unit 6 and beyond, however, I dig deeper, accessing nearly all the resources from the site and telling the great story of human history and migration. At times it feels rushed and often it feels tangential, but throughout, the through line of Big History is maintained so students can follow the narrative, connect the thresholds, and breathe the narrative of history.

About the author: Garry teaches at Cape Naturaliste College in Vasse, Western Australia. He has taught Big History since 2013. All tenth-year students at his school take Big History. Classes are delivered over the course of a 20-week semester, with four 64-minute class periods per week. Garry says ,“All teachers in our department are BHP aficionados and love the perspective and depth it gives students.”

WHAT DO PARENTS THINK OF BIG HISTORY?

Kathy Hays, BHP Teacher
Arizona, USA

Big History is a family adventure in my classroom. We include parents on BHP field trips, and invite them to evening engagements where students showcase their work from course activities like the Invent a Species and Little Big History project (more on that in this post). I recently became curious: What do parents think about this course?

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Family field trip to ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration. Photo courtesy Kathy Hays.

I asked the parents of six of my BHP students to describe their experience with the course. Three parents responded directly: one through email, and the other two while on a recent class hike. A fourth parent sent her son in to describe how Big History is a part of their weekly Sunday dinners.

All families agreed Big History prepared their students for AP classes (most of my students, who are ninth graders, enroll in AP human geography in tenth grade). Big History Unit Investigations and the emphasis on claim testing were mentioned as helping students to develop critical thinking skills. As one parent put it:

“Big History compels students to think, ponder, and imagine. These are characteristics that I deem as highly important for success in education and as a productive human being in society.”

Parents believe Big History brings to life very old subject matter and that the curriculum allows students to see how the history of the world is relevant to their lives. Students feel as if their opinions are accepted, which allows them to express themselves in class, bringing value to the learning environment because they are engaged in the learning process. They found the Invent a Species activity and the Little Big History project valuable because they provided students the opportunity to create work together, while applying the concepts they were learning in class. Each family mentioned how their children talked at length as these project evolved and were genuinely excited about the work. Our presentation evenings were a highlight for families.

My favorite story about a family’s Big History experience involves Sunday family dinner. Big History came to dominate the discussion, and Grandma even went online to take the course so she could be involved in the conversations.  Grandma did not agree with a lot of the concepts taught in Big History, but thought it was fascinating. She even took all the grandchildren on her own Big History field trip to Lowell Observatory when she was studying Unit Four.

It seems as if parents do want to be involved in their children’s education, but as students get older, the welcome door is not always open. Big History provides the opportunity for parents and students to connect, while developing critical thinking skills that will last a lifetime.

About the author: Kathy Hays has been teaching for 30 years, and teaching Big History since 2015. 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!

Professional Learning That Works

Stephanie Thompson, BHP Teacher
Idaho, USA

When I learned I would be teaching Big History, I was excited but apprehensive: How would I squeeze such a dense curriculum into one trimester? How would I help my students develop the rigorous level of thinking the course requires? How would I incorporate writing into the science lessons when I already felt so inadequately prepared to teach unfamiliar topics? However, I persisted: I believe hard work pays off (on both the students’ and the teacher’s part), and was motivated by the growth in writing skills BHP classrooms show. What made this persistence easier was participating in the online PD: Teaching Big History.

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Teaching Big History sessions

The five modules of Teaching Big History (which took me about nine hours to complete) provided a helpful “big picture” view of what I could expect for the year, both in terms of content and structure. So much phenomenal information was packed into the videos and readings! Questions I had previously been thinking through were immediately answered in Session 1.1, “What to Expect.” I especially enjoyed the blog posts on what it’s like to be a first-year Big History teacher: I love Shawn Bean’s statement that “the process becomes more important than the subject,” and found Chloe Simmons’ activity and engagement strategies for specific thresholds particularly helpful.

I also appreciated Rachel Hansen’s candid openness in her blog post about depending on teachers in the Community for support—I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I wasn’t alone! And, indeed, I have taken advantage of the opportunity to engage with the BHP Teacher Community on Yammer. It’s amazing how much useful feedback you get upon posting questions; I am continually inspired by the brilliant ideas and resources from other teachers, new and veteran alike.

BHP’s ongoing research on student writing growth served as my initial inspiration for wanting to teach the course (I know writing proficiently will open so many doors for my students), and has continued to motivate me through this first year of teaching Big History. I was pleased to find that Session 3 of the online PD is entirely devoted to best practices for teaching writing. I’ve referenced this section of the online PD multiple times throughout the year.

I’ve been learning right along with the students throughout this entire school year. And that’s okay!

About the author: Stephanie Thompson is a first-year BHP teacher in Idaho at the Rocky Mountain Middle School. She team-teaches Big History to a class of 32 eighth-grade honors students. Stephanie teaches the science-specific lessons. Her school is on a trimester schedule and has blocked out two 55-minute periods a day for the course.