DEAR FUTURE BIG HISTORY STUDENT…

Kathy Hays, Big History Teacher
Arizona, USA

Last week, as they were wrapping up the year with final exams, BHP teacher Kathy Hays asked her Big History class to write letters of advice to next year’s BHP students. It turns out she has a very reflective, helpful, and honest class! Here are a few of our favorite responses—you might even share them with your own incoming class.

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NGC 5806, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Virgo. ESA/Hubble & NASA. CC BY 3.0.


Dear Future Big History Students,

If you are reading this, you are a student who just entered the Big History Project. Congratulations! The Big History Project is a complex program that allows you to learn in a new way. Exciting, right? You don’t kick off the course with asking how the Civil War started on the first day of school, you start looking waaaaaay back to the beginning. The beginning of space, time and the entire Universe, 13.8 billion years ago. This class is valuable because you will learn a lot of useful skills that you can use in the future, such as critical reading and writing. I was challenged by this class, but it’s good to be challenged. The Investigations helped me to improve my writing. I can now make and support an argument with evidence. Also, I learned how to do a research paper with the Little Big History Project.

This class gives you challenging tasks and assignments to do that actually make you think (crazy, right?), but I was able to pull through because of all the great sources of information that helped me. It was really fun to look at all the different disciplines Big History used as we studied history. Some of the skills I learned are how to use citations in my essays, incorporating text as evidence, and making a counterclaim. Big History may be a challenge at first, but you’ll get the swing of things pretty fast. Have fun and enjoy your year!

Sincerely,

April


Dear Incoming Big History Student,

During your time in this course your perspective on the world around you will change greatly. This class can be challenging when it comes to essays and other activities, but make the most of it. Appreciate that you get to think at a higher level, and see how you can help the world and its future. This course can become difficult, but it is a way to remind you to be humble. You learn about the world around you, as well as the amazing opportunities the class provides. Don’t just float by. Join the discussions, because the more discussions you have, the more you will learn. I will take away the ability to write a great essay, and be able to better communicate with my peers.

Best of luck to you!

Hale


Dear Future Big History Students,

Big History is a challenging, yet fun subject to learn. The most valuable thing I got from the class is the critical thinking skills. Every article, video, and source you look at makes you think, “is this reliable, what evidence can I find to make it reliable, and can this evidence be confirmed?” You use critical thinking skills throughout the entire year. The most challenging part of the course, to me, was writing the Investigation essays. I really struggled on using all the sources to the fullest, and justifying them to make an intelligent claim. I got through all the challenges of Big History by listening and taking detailed notes when we were having discussions. I also told myself that I was able to move forward and conquer the challenges.

I have better writing and presentation skills. I’m extremely shy so I don’t like presentations all that much. Being in this class helped to bring me out of my shell and speak louder to an audience. My writing skills from the beginning of the year have improved greatly. I went from getting twos and threes on my Investigation essays, to all fives at the end of the year. These skills I have gained will be with me throughout my high school experience. They are skills I hope you improve on too. Big History may seem difficult at first, but if you listen and stay engaged you will understand. I hope your year in Big History is a great one!

Sincerely,

Laikyn


Dear Future Big History Students,

Big History is a class explaining how the Universe began and how it is going to be in the future. It covers all aspects and elaborates on thresholds. The most valuable thing from the class is the knowledge gained. I didn’t think much about the future until I took Big History. It makes you consider what the world is going to be like during your lifetime, and many years afterwards. From the information we learn, we try to predict the fate of the people and planet.

I was challenged when writing unit Investigations. They forced me to think critically, use evidence to make an argument, compare evidence, and to see the other side of the argument. To thrive in this class, you have to have an open mindset and a passion for learning. Some skills I have gained over the year are critical thinking, the ability to write in limited time frames, and to read thoroughly. The Big History Project has immensely benefited my education and I would choose it again over any other history class.
Sincerely,
Rachel


Dear Future Big History Student,

Over the past school year in Big History class, I have learned so much about the significance of focusing on a much larger scale. After this course, I realize that the seemingly big moments in human history, like the World Wars are not so big after all. While events like these affect human life, they are rather small on the whole Big History scale. Keeping this in mind, however, I now know the importance of scale when looking at the history of the Universe. In this course, I have found that scale is one of the most valuable aspects.

Overall, this course challenged me to think more critically when dealing with the early Universe. We learned that this early history is history we do not know for sure happened. It is just an educated theory; it is an origin story. These lessons sometimes contradicted my beliefs, but over the first couple units, I learned to keep an open mind. The best way to overcome learning difficulties is to keep an open mind and be aware of different perspectives.

This Big History course allowed me to keep in mind that the beginning of history did not begin with the first units in standard history classes. After this class, I know that the history of the Universe is just as important as world history, and that there is so much more that we know, but so much that we still do not know about our Universe.

Emma


Dear Future Big History Students,

When taking a Big History class, the most valuable thing you learn or take away is the ability to look at problems, ideas, etc., on a big or small scale. It helps you develop different perspectives while looking at the same event.

I can say I was challenged when we looked at and were asked to answer the Driving Question for each threshold. I persisted by watching the Big History videos and reading the articles, and participating in our class discussions. A skill that I learned and will continue to use throughout my high school career is claim testing. I know I will have to do research in the future, and claim testing will enable me to check my sources to make sure my information is accurate. I hope you have a great year in Big History.

Makayla


Dear New Big History Students,

Big History is a course that forces you to think. It introduces many valuable concepts such as claim testing, collective learning, scale and perspective. This class does provide many challenges. Personally, I was challenged with the Big Bang and the creation of stars and planets. What challenged me was the fact that there was nothing, then out of nowhere, a Universe. I also didn’t quite understand how chemical elements formed and came to Earth. I persisted by taking notes, listening, asking questions, and doing additional research. I also asked my friends who were in the class.

Big History has taught many skills that will stick with me throughout high school as well as my adult life. Collective learning has been used to help humans become the dominant force on the planet. As the world zones connected, collective learning rapidly increased. This is the idea that having information, sharing and improving upon it allows for advancement.
With much of the fake news today, claim testing is a great way to test if a source is reliable. A good way to claim test is checking for Authority, Logic, Intuition, and Evidence (remember: ALIE).

One major concept that I will use is perspective. Not only can it be used for Big History, but you can use it to see something from another person’s point of view on a topic.

At some point during the course, I started to feel disconnected and discouraged. I realized I had stopped asking questions and participating in discussions. In the end, I saw how Big History will help me in the long run. You start to see the concepts discussed in class out in the real world and see it applied in real life. It can be a lot of work, but it’s work that will strengthen your skills in school, life, and assist lessons being taught, I really enjoyed the What Do You Know, What Do You Ask activity. It let us put ourselves into a new discipline and ask questions to try to investigate an event in history. We got to incorporate science and history to solve a modern world problem.

This course was very interesting and though it provided some bumps in the road, it really all tied together in the end to create a long, beautiful narrative of the Universe. I hope you have a fun year! Remember, keep questioning!

Sincerely,

Carynelle


Dear New Big History Students,

What you know about history is the tiniest fraction of what you are going to learn in Big History. What is important is to have an open mind and question things because debates and decisions will be a big part of the class. The first three units had me lost at times, but when we started getting to life on Earth, I realized the value of life and how complex we are. This course challenged me to think in ways I never thought I could think. The more involved you are in the class, the more you will persist, learn and enjoy it. The biggest takeaway I got from this class was from the Investigation essays, and using evidence to prove my point. I went from being in the two and three range on the rubric to all fives and one four! This class may be difficult at times, but if you apply yourself it will be fun and exciting to learn. Also, you’ll get familiar with Crash Course and you may not be able to watch John Green for a while. You will leave the class definitely prepared for the rest of your high school career.

Good luck!
Mariah

About these students’ teacher: 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!

The Mystery Box

Scott Henstrand, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

The following activity was developed by BHP teacher Scott Henstrand for his classroom. Please use as is or adapt as you see fit! Scott’s student materials are also available. Read more about Scott at the end of this post.

Purpose
Making and testing claims is one of the fundamental skills in Big History. This skill is essential to understanding the continuous unfolding and modification of the Big History narrative. With so much still in the dark—“What came before the Big Bang?” “What are the details of the Big Bang itself?”—the narrative is never complete. In this activity, you will explore in groups the use of claim testers by investigating a box containing unknown materials and using your senses as empirical evidence to make claims about the items in the box.

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Mystery box, by PDPics. CC0 Public Domain.

Materials
-One box per group of three or four students. The box is made from a 9x9x9-inch corrugated cardboard box. Put in three to five items such as a clothes pin, a wooden or Styrofoam ball, and a paper clip. Vary the items in the boxes. Tape shut with duct tape.
-One Mystery Box Observations Worksheet per student

Process
Begin the exercise with a story of some sort that gives an aura of mystery to the boxes. Tell students that they are being challenged to use the four BHP claim testers to test claims on what is inside the boxes. Have students hand out the boxes, one per group. Let them explore the boxes and make claims based on logic and the evidence. Instruct them to make sure they jot down evidence and claims on their Mystery Box Observations worksheet.

Next, have students share their findings. Have them state their claims and defend them with claim testers. During this process, students will probably ask you, as an authority, to tell them what items are in the boxes. Don’t do it! Continue the process of sharing and claim testing. Another question that may emerge is whether or not the boxes contain the same items. This should be an opening to speak about scale. The contents can be looked at in the scale of one box or the scale of, say, nine boxes.

The last prompt is to state that you have one more Mystery Box to share. Build up to this and then point to your head and ask, “What’s inside this mystery box? What am I thinking?” Have another round of claims and claim testers.

At the end of the class, when the students expect you to reveal the contents of the boxes, leave them wondering by telling them, “You will never find out exactly what is contained in the boxes, as we will never be completely sure of the Big History story.”

By the way – I’ve uploaded a video of my class at work on this activity in the BHP online community.

About the author: Scott Henstrand has been teaching Big History at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a public school in New York, since 2011. His school offers the course as a two-year deployment that replaces global studies. In the first year, Unit 1 through Unit 6 are covered; in the second year, Unit 6 through Unit 10. Scott loves teaching the course because of the fundamental philosophical implications of the material.

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.”