World Explorers: Mini Project, Maximum Thinking

Jenny Holloway, BHP Teacher
Washington, USA

Our Big History team at Mount Si High School created the Lesson 8.1 Explorers Mini Project out of desperation. With so many explorers, how could we teach them all without subjecting students to “death by PowerPoint”? Our solution was this project, which has since been added to the BHP curriculum.

The Explorers Mini Project asks students to research, from a given list, an explorer responsible for connecting two world zones. They must answer questions related to their explorer’s motivations, accomplishments, and contribution to collective learning. In true BHP form, students are also asked to identify evidence that contributes to our current knowledge: what was left behind that allows us to trace their explorer’s journey?

What’s great about this activity is that it forces students to think outside the box—as they assess, for example, how their explorers contributed to collective learning. This question is a welcome challenge for most, as it encourages thinking beyond obvious facts and prods students to make connections between their explorer’s achievements and how they contributed to phenomena like globalization. Even though students struggle with answering the higher-level questions connected to the BHP themes, I think the process is healthy and worth it!

This mini project bridges BHP themes and world history nicely. Your students may need extra guidance as they engage in research, and some encouragement to think outside the box. I’m happy to offer extra support and share the unique twist we add on at Mount Si—just tag me in a post in the BHP Online Teacher Community!

About the author: Jenny Holloway is in her fifth year teaching history at her current high school in Mount Si, WA. She teaches 2–5 classes per day of the year-long BHP course to about 30 ninth- and eleventh-grade students.

My Visit with the Queen

Constance van Hall, BHP Teacher
Noord-Holland, The Netherlands

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, new year reception
at the royal palace on January 17, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Date: January 17, 2017
Location: Amsterdam, Palace at Dam Square

How did I get here? What Goldilocks Conditions contributed to me being here, visiting the royal family, the day before getting on a plane to Seattle to exchange ideas with other teachers from around the world? Big History did, of course—and a series of serendipitous circumstances following my initial discovery of the course. I was invited to meet the king, queen, and former queen (now princess) of The Netherlands. For a New Year’s reception. At their palace. Dress code: tenue de ville, which means, step up your standard “teacher outfit” a little. How I got here needs a little more explaining though, so let’s do a little—very little—big history of Big History in The Netherlands.

How it all started and which thresholds we crossed
Early 2012, my colleague Joris Burmeister was faced with an almost impossible task: to search for ways to continue a course we started in the lower grades and make this course more exciting for tenth- and eleventh-graders. I didn’t know Joris very well yet, but really wanted to help him in this quest. In February, I stumbled upon David Christian’s TED Talk (“The History of the World in 18 Minutes”), which got me so excited that I immediately ran to Joris, almost screaming: “THIS IS IT! We should do Big History. It’s perfect!” Joris was quickly infected by my enthusiasm and we decided to explore this great opportunity. And so we crossed our first mini-threshold: deciding to teach BHP.

The thing was that the course website in those days was in “pilot mode,” meaning you couldn’t access it yet. So we decided to just boldly write an email to the developers asking them to please, please, please let us in on this terrific source of knowledge-still-under-development. After a long (and difficult, because my iPhone was getting really hot and the reception was not great) conference call, we got in. With that, we crossed our second mini-threshold: getting access to the knowledge we needed.

Ok. Now we had this great website with videos and articles about Big History, a few books, and lots of enthusiasm… great ingredients, but we were still total Big History newbies. The next step, then, to becoming able and confident to teach it was to become Big History students ourselves! Today, Big History offers online professional development (“Teaching Big History”) to prepare teachers for the course, but back in 2012 there was no such thing. Thankfully, we got the whole summer to prepare ourselves, and also prepare some lessons and student materials in Dutch. No holidays for me, but the travel through time and space I accomplished in my head with Big History really was worth it! And so, another mini-threshold was crossed: feeling confident enough to teach the course—or at least, confident enough to be the “lead learner” in my classroom as I prepared to take students on a journey through content that was still new to me.

And that’s how we became a pilot Big History school. The first in Europe, we were told. David Christian was so delighted BHP had set foot on the old continent, he decided to come visit our school for the big kick-off we planned for our students. That was on September 6, 2012. The threshold we wanted to cross? Getting the students excited. Well, leave that to David: the auditorium was packed with students, managers, teachers, parents—even the janitors attended. David talked about Big History and his TED talk, and then held a Q&A. The students’ questions kept coming and coming. Thanks to David, this threshold was easy to cross: the students were excited, all right.

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Now we had to keep them as enthusiastic as they were after meeting David. I’m not quite sure why, but it turned out that wasn’t so hard to do. All the Goldilocks Conditions were there: the content and story of Big History itself, the great course website, the intrinsic eagerness and interest of our students, all contributed to this course being a success. And so it has been for the last five years. Students are very positive about the course and often ask why they can’t have more BHP (we only have one hour a week at our school). In anonymous polls, we score very high indeed. In fact 100 percent of all students agreed last year with the statement: “BHP enriched my life.”

And since they’re so excited, we’ve been doing our best to spread BHP in The Netherlands. We feel that every high school student should have access to this great course. Joris and I have spoken at a lot of conferences and have made classroom visits. We’ve spoken to the minister of education, administrators , educators-who-educate-teachers, more administrators , the secretary of state, professors, science committees, and of course teachers, a lot of them. I even wrote a book (a Dutch student handbook), which got published, intended to make it easier for teachers to jump in and start teaching BHP. Today, about 35 schools in Holland are teaching Big History. I guess we crossed another mini-threshold: getting the word out about BHP. But we’re not there yet. Joris and I continue to make an effort to spread the word by hosting classroom observations, visiting other teachers in their clasrooms, and offering coaching and help where needed.
Back to the now

I don’t travel much, normally, and I’m certainly not often invited to palaces. I never thought Big History would change all that. At the reception, while having drinks with the royal family, former queen Beatrix said to me: “You’re from the Big Bang!” I wanted to answer: “We all are, your royal highness,” but of course she meant she knew I’m a Big History teacher. And I was proud to say I am, and that Big History is growing rapidly in The Netherlands. Cheers to that!

About the author: Constance van Hall has been teaching Big History since 2012 in Noord-Holland in the Netherlands. She co-teaches the course with Joris Burmeister; they were two of the original teachers of the course in Europe!

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.


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.