How I Turned One Sceptical English Teacher into a BHP Believer

Charles Rushworth, BHP Teacher
Sydney, Australia

When I suggested at a recent staff meeting that it was possible to not only teach numeracy, but also causality, source and data analysis, and basic economic theory using historical economic data during one lesson, my colleagues looked at me as if I had lost my mind and started laughing. Once the laughter subsided, I invited one of my more sceptical colleagues into my class to help me deliver a lesson that accomplishes these aims—the activity Understanding the Consequences of the Global Depression from Lesson 9.6 of the Big History Project course. The way she delivered the activity would be up to her. Here’s how it went.

Understanding the Consequences of the Global Depression asks students to evaluate consequences of the Great Depression—and economic interdependence—after plotting and analyzing several countries’ GDP data from 1929-1939. Teachers with limited backgrounds in economics or mathematics, fear not: the activity is less about number-crunching and more about using data to tell a story. Besides, it can be delivered in a variety of ways depending on your circumstances and the interests of your students.

My colleague (who, I should mention, is an English teacher) chose to deliver this lesson as a group activity using a projector, a whiteboard, and the activity worksheets, which she had printed from the BHP website. Each student group was asked to pick a country and then plot its GDP data on the provided graph, which was projected onto the whiteboard. Once complete, they discussed how trends in countries’ GDPs might help explain the onset of World War II.

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This activity encouraged authentic collaboration among students (and staff!). It also provided them with the skills to interpret numeric data and transform it into a visual representation that is easy to understand and present to their peers. Furthermore, it reinforced the interdisciplinary approach that is prevalent throughout the course. In a nod to the interdisciplinary structure of BHP, this anecdote from my school also demonstrated that anyone—even an English teacher—can teach numeracy in a fun, engaging, and relevant manner.

About the author: Charles teaches Big History to grade 9 students at Liverpool Boys High School in Sydney, Australia. He has taught Big History since 2012, in both year-long and semester-long formats. His current BHP class meets once a day for 55 minutes at a time.

REFLECTIONS ON MY FIRST TWO YEARS OF TEACHING BHP

Chelsea Katzenberg, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

This year marked my second teaching the Big History Project course, and it couldn’t have been more different from the first year I taught the course. As spring fever sets in and I begin looking ahead to next year, I am reminded of the growth I have made as a teacher of Big History, and the necessity of remaining flexible in the face of changing student needs. Here’s a glimpse of the instructional shifts I made between Years 1 and 2 of teaching the course.

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Sunrise. Public domain.

Last year, I taught Big History for the first time in what was, in many ways, an ideal setting. I taught a small group of mainly high-achieving seniors with whom I had a strong relationship after also teaching them as freshmen and sophomores. The class was an elective, and while I had to deal with some pretty intense “senior-itis” toward the end of the year, the students definitely grasped and appreciated my role as “lead learner” as we all navigated the course for the first time.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Big History to the entire sophomore class as their Global I course (freshmen take U.S. History at my school). The widely varying abilities represented by an entire sophomore class (as opposed to a small, high-achieving group of seniors) caused me to make considerable modifications to the materials I used Year 1. I’ve had to be much more selective and thoughtful about what I include in each lesson, which is certainly not a bad conceptual adjustment to have to make! While Year 1 was more experimental and free-flowing, Year 2 has been more about “What will have the greatest impact on my students?”

The biggest shift this year was the emphasis placed on literacy. Whereas last year I would hand the seniors a reading and say “read it and answer the questions,” this year my students require much more support. We read a LOT and we write quite a bit (there can always be more!). From the reading process to annotations to increased emphasis on vocabulary to days-long reading/writing workshops leading up to Investigations, the biggest shift this year has been in recognizing that, for obvious reasons, my students need a lot more skill-based instruction than last year.

Additionally, for students inundated in the Regents-controlled educational atmosphere of New York City, Big History has represented a — sometimes uncomfortable — conceptual shift. I knew that it would be important to spend a lot of early lessons on what Big History is. Despite my attempt to emphasize the overall picture of Big History, I still faced a lot of “Why are we learning about science?” questions in early units. However, I relished those questions, as they gave me a chance to return to the overall narrative and force students to think about their assumptions about history and science and to recognize the important overlaps.

Additionally, I have faced occasional concerns along the lines of, “Why are we learning this if it’s not going to be on the Regents?” This question often makes me cringe internally, as it shows how powerfully testing shapes many students’ perspective on education. However, it is also a question I look forward to answering with a question of my own. “Why do you come to school? What do you think education SHOULD be about?” It’s definitely led to some rich discussions, as I think some students have never even been confronted with the idea that school is NOT just about passing the “test” (whatever that test may be).

Side note: I believe that the literacy-heavy focus of BHP more than prepares students for the Regents exam. I’ve seen students increase their stamina and comprehension thanks to the literacy focus of the course. After taking a Mock Regents last month, my students told me that the DBQs seemed “easy” compared with the work required by an Investigation. I know the sentiment is similar among my BHP colleagues at Oceanside High School — they’ve seen impressive results on Regents from their BHP students.

In many ways, my second year of teaching BHP has thrown as many curve balls as the first. And that’s okay. As we near the end of Trimester 2, and as I gear up for Units 8 through 10, I look forward to continuing to push student thinking and assumptions of both education and the world around them. Especially as the Regents pressure ramps up in other subjects in June, I want students to have a space where their curiosity does not need to be pushed aside in the interest of time and testing. Even with the challenges of senior-itis last spring, Unit 10 was an adventure that my seniors and I loved; I can’t wait to see the energy my sophomores bring to it this year!

About the author: Chelsea Katzenberg teaches in the Bronx, NY, at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II. BHP is a required course for tenth graders at her school, and Chelsea teaches five sections of it, all with a world history focus. She loves that Big History encourages her students to ask questions they might never have considered!

WHAT’S THE STORY? USING DATA VISUALS IN BHP

Greg Dykhouse, BHP Teacher
Michigan, USA

One  great feature of the Big History Project curriculum is the abundance of tables and graphs that students must make sense of throughout the course. Providing opportunities for students to hone their interpretation and critical thinking skills as related to data displays is valuable in developing a “master historian.” It also leads to great inquiry and a genuine sense of wonder from students.

Graphing Population Growth from Lesson 9.2 centers on a display of human population growth over the last 10,000 years. By analyzing and conjecturing about this graph, students are tasked with making sense of changes in population growth pre- and post-Modern Revolution.

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Human population graph between 10,000 years ago and today

Reinforced throughout this activity is the concept of scale, which is central to the BHP course. The story of population changes over different scales of time and space. Reinforce this theme with students when interpreting the graph: What is the time and space of the graph? What information is on the axes? What story is told?

Then, have your students conjecture about why the story of population growth has unfolded in the way it has. Once they’ve had a chance to offer some ideas, remind them to consult the threshold cards (which I hope you’ve displayed along a wall in your classroom, as they’re a great reference throughout the year). Can they label any of the Big History thresholds along the population growth curve? Is there a correlation between the emergence of a threshold and the direction or slope of the curve? Speculate answers together, write some offerings on the board, and then let the students complete the questions from the activity. Discuss their answers together.

To close, ask students, “When you turn 50, how will your world be different from today’s world, assuming current trends continue? What challenges may you have that your parents or grandparents never had?” This visual is an effective tool to generate wonder and urgency.

About the author: Greg Dykhouse has been teaching at Black River Public School in Holland, MI, for over 20 years; he has taught Big History there since 2011. He teaches the course to four sections of ninth graders that meet three times a week for 85-minute blocks.