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.

INTERDISCIPLINARITY: A BIG HISTORY THEME

David Burzillo, BHP Teacher
Massachusetts, USA

Too often, history appears to students as just a list of facts. One event after another, one famous person after another. Students don’t understand what connects these facts and people. They don’t see what they learn in their history classes as a coherent line of inquiry. More important, students often struggle to formulate their own questions and plan their own lines of research into these questions. This is what the new C3 standards here in the U.S. call the “arc of inquiry.” Formulating questions is an essential component of any good history course, and in the Big History Project, developing good questions is always at the forefront of the lessons in each unit.

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In BHP, one of the key strategies we use to help students develop insight into the connections among elements of the course is interdisciplinarity. By looking at ideas and events from the perspectives of a variety of different academic disciplines, new questions and insights open up for students. In each unit, students are introduced to new academic disciplines and they’re asked to learn about the essential questions, methods, and ideas of each of them. In addition, students are asked to integrate content and lessons from the various disciplines in their writing and thinking.

One of my favorite activities comes at the very start of the course. History as Mystery brings students along as a group of scholars try to solve a case of a group of headless bodies unearthed in a Roman cemetery in York, England. As the mystery unfolds, it becomes clear that only by combining the expertise of forensic anthropologists, art historians, archaeologists, and historians, among others, can the full story of these bodies be told. Students must think about the role of each discipline and how it might help to solve the mystery. If you want to read a little more about the History as Mystery activity, check out this post by another BHP teacher (which focuses on how you might adapt the activity to your local context).

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Still from Timewatch The Mystery of the Headless Romans

Asking good questions and drawing on the disciplines is a challenge for most of my students at the start of the year. It’s always interesting to watch students process the material in the History as Mystery activity. When students hear archaeologists describe the cemetery in York, England, as a Roman cemetery, they typically conclude that those buried there must be Romans; but when they hear a little later about the horrific way that many of the dead met their ends, they leap to the opposite conclusion—that these must have been the local enemies of the Romans. Getting students to ask questions and revise their hypotheses without drawing conclusions is a challenge I think all teachers face as they introduce the material in the first few units of the course.

Most students taking Big History are ninth graders who will not yet have taken physics, biology, chemistry, or much history. As a result, great care is taken throughout the course to introduce new disciplines as they become relevant. In Unit 1, for example, the article “Approaches to Knowledge” introduces the general idea of disciplines and the differences among them, providing students with a framework for thinking about the disciplines as they’re introduced. Here, they’re introduced to the general idea that each discipline has a unique set of questions it asks and methods it uses. For my students, one of the most interesting points this article makes concerns the nature of textbooks. Most of my students have never been asked what the purpose of a textbook is or who decides what material is included in it and what is left out. As the course unfolds, students realize that the fact that Big History does not have a textbook allows them greater ownership of the questions of the course and greater responsibility for assessing the evidence they assemble to answer their questions.

Another key activity type for building interdisciplinarity skill is What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? First introduced in Unit 2, and then scattered throughout the course, each of these activities presents students with a significant event for which they must assemble a response team. In my classroom, students first tackled this activity by reading about the recent discovery of a cemetery at Jamestown and the four bodies unearthed there. (No, we don’t just talk about cemeteries in my class!) This activity proved a good complement to the History as Mystery activity, but there was less mystery about who the people were in Jamestown and more questions about their religious affiliations and class, which raised a lot more questions about culture than the History as Mystery activity. Each time this activity recurs during the course, students get a little more sophisticated in the disciplines they choose and, more important, the questions they ask. This is key to the Big History Project; we want to see students leave the course with the ability to use interdisciplinarity to ask better questions and to connect the dots of the course into a coherent picture.

About the author: Dave Burzillo has taught for over 30 years, more than 25 of them at his current school, a private high school in Weston, MA. For the last 7 years, he has taught BHP to ninth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders. His school runs on a trimester system, which gives him about 90 days to cover 13.8 billion years of history in each class. He has 12-16 students in each class. Recently, Dave began offering an online BHP course in the summer.

History Teachers: Our Time is Now

Casey Lever, Big History Teacher
Queensland, Australia

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Portland Bill Lighthouse, Isle of Portland, Dorset U.K. Public domain.

Teachers have both an instinctive and a conscious understanding that our role in young people’s lives is vital, and so for the most part we go placidly amidst the noise and haste, ignoring the sound and fury of criticism, often unfair comparisons, and threats of cutbacks that break around us constantly. We know that the discussions we facilitate, the skills we tenderly nurture, and the respect for knowledge and expertise we model and engender in students are vital to their future education and to their wellbeing. We know that one day, if not right now, they will make use of these fundamentals; one day they may even feel grateful for them.

At times, however, there’s a persistent nagging feeling that we’re just not relevant enough. Sure, what we’re doing to satisfy curriculum priorities is important and we should keep doing it. Losing the foundation building blocks would endanger the whole building, and no one is arguing for that. But there are times when the concerns of broader society are so great that students are bursting to talk about them, to think about them, and to have academic rigor applied to them in a way that provides a much deeper satisfaction than that offered by social media.

That time is now.

Teenagers, just like adults, sense that the world is in a period of upheaval, and that the laws and norms of democracy are being tested. They sense that the natural world is under threat and that human lifestyles will be forced to adapt—and sooner rather than later. They sense that the Internet has played havoc with truth telling and that they will need to be able to figure out for themselves what knowledge has been constructed authentically and legitimately, and how to see through those who seek to manipulate them.

Haven’t you ever wanted to be able to talk more directly about these things in your classroom? Get your head out of all the details and talk about why things are the way they are? How did we end up like this? Where is the world headed? And that’s only the beginning. How do we know the stuff written in textbooks is true? Why are we starting to talk about “fake news” and “alternative facts”? What are the strategies we need to distinguish between fact and spin?

Of course, traditional courses do allow for those discussions. They always have and they always will—over time. But Big History puts these questions at the forefront. It pays no attention to traditional and jealously guarded boundaries of subjects. Instead, it looks at the basis of knowledge. It examines scientific and historical thinking, and promotes the astonishing reality that these disciplines have a great deal in common. Seeking truths by testing explanations based on evidence, for one thing. Interrogating claims to see what stands up to scrutiny, for another. And rethinking answers when they have been proven incorrect.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze exactly why I love teaching Big History so much. I’ve always loved teaching history, whatever form it takes, and I’ve always regarded the teaching of science by my colleagues as vital to our young people. But it’s that chance to put the biggest questions of the future of humanity at the heart of my lessons every day that is the key. Every Big History lesson I ask my students to think about, research, discuss and debate the questions we all have about our role in the Universe. Often, those are the very questions they were thinking about anyway, questions that were going unanswered by the traditional school day.

The truth is that some days I feel like there are more important things I could be talking about in my classroom. I’m going to guess that other teachers might feel the same way. Teaching Big History doesn’t make me feel like that. At the risk of hyperbole, I no longer feel like I’m fiddling while Rome burns. Big History has made me a teacher activist; not for any political cause, but for the cause of empowering young people to think, to discover, to judge, and to know their part in creating their own future. And that feels good.

About the author: Casey teaches Big History at Ipswich Girls Grammar School in Queensland, Australia, where she is also the Head of Department of Humanities. This is her third year teaching BHP, which runs as a semester-long core history/science subject for students in years 9 and 10 at her school. She enjoys the opportunity BHP gives her to learn more about science alongside her students, as well as the course’s emphasis on the big issues confronting all humans.