Jenny Holloway, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA


Kepler’s supernova remnant, SN 1604. NASA/ESA/JHU/R. Sankrit & W. Blair. Public domain.

I’ve always found BHP’s Unit 3 (Stars & Elements) daunting. On the surface, it appears that BHP teachers must master the subtler nuances of astrophysics, chemistry, and nuclear fusion to adequately teach the star life cycle. If you’re anything like me, the mere mention of astrophysics is enough to make you run for the hills. Fortunately, there are activities like The Life of a Star that make teaching this threshold less intimidating.

The Life of a Star, which is the opening activity of Lesson 3.0, is designed to hook students’ interest in the content of this unit, and serve as a quick formative assessment of their background knowledge. The activity asks students to place four images from the star life cycle in order, from the birth of a star through its death. Using evidence, students work in pairs to place the images in order and describe what stage the image is referencing. In my class, students work together for a few minutes and then I field their guesses, so we’re placing the images in order as a class.

This activity (as well as the Planet Card Sort in Unit 4) is incredibly valuable for me to gauge my students’ level of understanding and misconceptions about stars. With a simple image sort, I can determine if my students know anything about the death of stars or what happens during their lifetimes (usually, their knowledge is relatively limited). And it’s valuable for them, too. It helps students focus on the themes that matter: the conditions that create a star, what happens during its lifetime that is so significant, and how its death produces further complexity for our Universe. And, perhaps most important, it keeps you sane: Remember, Unit 3 is simply another example of increased complexity, this time demonstrated through the life cycle of stars—t’s not a foray into advanced astronomy.

About the author: Jenny Holloway has taught history at Washington state’s Mount Si High School since 2012. She teaches three sections of the year-long BHP course to ninth graders.

Using Claim Testers

Donnetta Elsasser, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Note: This blog post is featured in Session 3 of Teaching Big History, our online training course for new and returning BHP teachers. You can delve even deeper into the topic of claim-testing there!

“Research shows…” “Well, I heard…” When my students say things like that, I always ask them “How do you know that?” or “Where did you hear that?” I want them to think before they pass along potential misinformation. I also want them to develop a healthy skepticism to their learning. That’s why the BHP practice of claim testing fits so nicely with my educational philosophy. Authority, evidence, logic, and intuition. We should use those as often as our highlighters and Ticonderogas.


Since I’m always asking kids to question the information they encounter, introducing BHP claim testers is more about new vocabulary than new ideas. I tell them that claim testing is BHP’s way to have them decide what to believe. It’s a set of filters to apply to new information (claims) in order to examine (test) what information is credible and trustworthy. So, how do they work?

Claim testers make us stop and think, instead of passively receiving knowledge. They make us ask ourselves questions like, “Where did this come from? Is this an authority I can trust?” The example I always use: If I wanted to know some statistics about cancer rates for smokers, whom should I trust—The American Heart Association, or Bob and Tom’s Smoke Shop? That usually leads to a good discussion of why we see certain people or entities as authorities and also how we can detect bias.

Even when we can trust an authority, we should still look for evidence to back up the statements we hear or read. Are these claims based on evidence, or just hearsay? Most established authorities will readily supply evidence, which is part of what helped them become authorities. But what if evidence comes from an unrecognized source? In addition to trying to find out more about the source, we can apply another claim tester to the information—logic. We can use logic and ask ourselves if the information makes sense. If it does, that’s one step closer to its believability.

There is one more claim tester in the BHP storehouse, and that is to ask, “What does my gut tell me?” This is especially good for people who rely on their intuition to guide them through decision making. Don’t discount this one, even if you’re more of a thinker than a feeler. Sometimes information is presented in a logical manner with evidence and authority to back it up, but it just seems “too good to be true.” If your gut is telling you to call for backup, then you should probably listen to your gut.

Claim testers come to be an automatic filter during discussions, when evaluating websites, listening to speeches, or while reading articles. As students get more sophisticated, claim testers can also be incorporated into writing. Students can establish credibility of a source by speaking to its authority. Or, when including a counterclaim, a student can question the logic of an opposing argument, or the lack of evidence to support an opposing view.

It’s important to revisit this concept multiple times during the year. At the start of the year, students are just claim testing simple statements. Later, they learn to use claim testing to structure the way they talk with one another. Rather than simply disagree, they’ll say, “What’s your evidence?” or “Who’s the authority making that claim?” Later still, it will structure their writing as they learn to write in a way that addresses claim testing up front.

So, really, claim testing is a new name for an idea that has been around in our classrooms for a long time. When we draw attention to the device enough, students will start to depend on it as much as any other school supply in the back pack.

About the author: Donnetta Elsasser began teaching the Big History Project in 2014. She teaches at Touchet School in southeastern Washington. Her school runs a year-long BHP course for ninth graders. It meets five days a week, for 50-minute periods.


BHP Team and Collyn Gaffney, BHP Teacher
North Carolina, USA

Teaching Big History for the first time this year? If you’re oscillating between thinking it’s the best curriculum ever and wanting to pull your hair out because… #science, you’re not alone. Last year, first-time BHP teacher Collyn Gaffney chronicled the ups and downs of her year in the online BHP Teacher Community. Her year isn’t unlike what a typical “BHP newbie” experiences. We asked Collyn if she’d be okay with us sharing her reflections with the wider community, in the hopes that others in a similar situation would find comfort in her words.

Thanks, Collyn, for your candid, honest, and inspiring reflections. We hope other BHP newbies will follow your lead and share their own trials and tribulations in the BHP Teacher Community!


Read the full thread here.


Read the full thread here.


Read the full thread here.


Read the full thread here.


Read the full thread here.


Read the full thread here.


Read the full thread here.