Teaching Big History

Big historyI just registered with the Big History Project – an online course that weaves scientific and historical disciplines across 13.7 billion years into a single, cohesive, science-based origin story. I always was a big picture guy. Here’s a link to the course guide and more about about the Common Core aligned program from the projects FAQ

What is big history?
Big history weaves evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines across 13.7 billion years into a single, cohesive story. The course highlights common themes and patterns that can help us better understand people, civilizations, and the world we live in. The concept arose from a desire to go beyond specialized and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole. Big history explores how we are connected to everything around us. It provides a foundation for thinking about the future and the changes that are reshaping our world.

What is the Big History Project?
The Big History Project LLC (BHP) is an organization focused on bringing big history to life for high school students…. BHP is sponsored by Bill Gates, separately from his work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For more on the Big History approach watch “David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes”

How is the course delivered?
All of the content is available online. A completely web-based model ensures the content is up-to-date, relieves schools of the need for costly textbooks, and also helps teachers engage students by providing approachable, media-rich materials that can be used in different ways. Pilot participants and anyone who requests a username and password is able to access the course. Students and teachers are issued a personal login to gain access to a specialized site that houses all courseware and content. It is up to each individual teacher to determine optimal approach to using the site. For example, in-class time may focus on group projects or discussion, with students absorbing online content for homework, or the site may be used as a core element of the in-class experience.

How is my school supported and what does it cost? 
Our goal is to ensure that big history is taught effectively with no cost to schools. We provide, free of

  • All content and courseware
  • Free PD/teacher training program
  • Access to core project team for support, assistance and feedback
  • A teacher and school subsidy to cover any direct expense and provide support for teachers

Most importantly, a spirit of partnership imbues everything we do. Our singular goal is to get big history in the hands of educators and students, we promise to listen and collaborate accordingly.  In return, we expect schools to collaborate and communicate with us to improve the program. Specifically, this means: incorporating BHP courseware, content and assessments into the lesson plan, participating in professional development activities, and regularly updating the project team about what is happening in the classroom.

How is the course organized?
Big history is broken down into 2 sections and a total of 10 units spanning 13.7 billion years. Within each unit there are between 20 – 30 specific content modules covering specific issues, topics, projects and assessments.
Section 1: Formations and early life: Theories and evidence of origins of the Universe, planet formation, elements, and life.
Unit 1: What is big history?
Unit 2: The Big Bang?
Unit 3: Stars & Elements
Unit 4: Our Solar System & Earth
Unit 5: Life

Section 2: Humans: The development of humans, civilizations, and key milestones in our progress.
Unit 6: Early Humans
Unit 7: Agriculture & Civilization
Unit 8: Expansion and Interconnection
Unit 9: Acceleration
Unit 10: The Future

How-To Tips for Working With iBooks Author

I’ve spent the last month creating my first iBook – “Why We Fight: WWII and the Art of Public Persuasion.” It’s in the “approval” process at the iBookstore. (Look for a post when it’s available).
I learned a lot about making multi-touch iBooks the hard way – trial and error. I thought I’d share a few tips for using iBooks Author (IBA). This post is not an IBA step-by-step. It assumes you are already a bit familiar with IBA.  Note: I have collected IBA how-to’s at this Scoop-It.

Carefully plan your pages

Here’s one big lesson I learned in IBA  - you can’t move pages. Chapters and sections of chapters can be easily re-arranged in an iBook. Just highlight them and slide to new location. You can also right click a chapter or section and cut, copy, duplicate and paste. You can even use those commands to move them between two different IBA projects that you have open. BUT moving pages is not allowed. I should note that my book had very little text and loads of graphics and widgets. So, for example, if I wanted my current page 10 to become page 5, I had to recreate pages 6-9 as part of the process. Lesson learned – plan ahead! (This is not a problem if you have a largely text oriented iBook. You could easily cut the text from page 10 and insert it into into a place in the flowing text that would put it at page 5.)

Size matters

File size that is. I planned a multimedia-rich look at the US propaganda effort in WWII. Lots of videos, audios and poster art meant that my iBook file was quickly becoming too large. I used video files from Archive.org that that were in mp4 format. IBA only accepts m4v format and it’s very picky about the types of m4v it accepts. I tried converting mp4 files using Handbrake (a very popular free app). IBA wouldn’t accept Handbrake converted m4v files. I used QuickTime player to convert by opening the mp4 and using QT File / export, but for some reason QT greatly increases file size when exporting.

My final solution to growing file size was three fold. One – I invested in Apple Compressor to convert mp4 to m4v and compress file size. Two – I used iMovie to edit some to the movies to tighten them up. Three – My planned iBook eventually got split into 3 iBooks of smaller file size. One other solution you could use would be to not put the video file in the iBook, but to link to it on YouTube via an embedded widget. (You can easily create a widget for that at a free site – Class Widgets).

Who wrote my iBook? 

IBA allows you to preview your iBook by connecting an iPad and choosing File / Preview. It gives you the choice to either preview the entire book on your iPad or just preview the section you are working on. For the longest time, when I previewed my iBook it would appear on my iPad as “Author Unknown.” Finally, I figured out I needed to set the title and author in the “Document” section of the Inspector. Lesson learned.


I decided to use frequent stop and think prompts in the book to focus students on reflection. It was also away to reinforce CCSS skills throughout the book in a user friendly manner. I created a yellow post-it style text box and liked the way it looked. One I had the format I wanted I was able to copy and paste using the tool bar icons. BTW  - You can also edit / copy and edit / paste widgets. A nice way to move them around. 

Don’t mess with chapter image placeholders

My iBook was loaded with media content, so I used the “Basic” template offered by IBA. One of the first things I did was strip it down to blank white pages. My mistake was revealed when I looked at my iBook in the “Table of Contents” view. I noticed that my chapter start pages lacked the graphics I had put on them. I finally figured it out.

When you create a new chapter you are offered an image place holder on the right side of the page. Don’t delete it like I did. Instead, just drag your image into it. That way the image will appear in the ”Table of Contents” view. Once I deleted the image placeholders there was no way to get them back. You guessed it – I needed to create a “new chapter” and rebuild all the content. Ouch!

Customize layout for your widgets

I was going for a very clean minimal look that would showcase the content. So I wanted my widgets to have minimal styling.

To do that  - go to Widget in the Inspector panel. Choose “Layout” tab and deselect background. Lots of other options for Label and Caption. You can also show thumbnails (as I did on the left) by selecting them in the “Interaction” tab.

Sneaking up on hyperlinks and bookmarks

You can hyperlink from the iBook to external links or create Bookmarks to jump between content within your iBook. Use the Inspector to create them. Here’s a few tips. You can only hyperlink from text. No image hyperlinks. You can hyperlink from any body text or text within inserted text boxes to URLs outside your iBook. Be sure to copy / paste you new URL into the Inspector or you’ll be creating a hyperlink to Apple.

Bookmarks are a bit fussier. First you need to turn some text in your iBook into a bookmark using the Inspector  - select the text and click on the + sign to add new bookmark. Here’s the catch – you can only create a bookmark from body text – you cannot bookmark text in a text box. Once you have anchored a bookmark you select some other text in your iBook and use Inspector to hyperlink to your bookmark.

Working with hyperlinks after you create them is a bit quirky. If you click on a previously created hyperlink in your iBook, it work. In other words you’ll leave the iBook and go to the URL in Safari. So you have to “sneak up” on hyperlinks. Click your cursor into adjacent text and use your keyboard arrows to navigate into the hyperlinked text. It will go active and you can use the Inspector to make changes. 

Where’s the Find and Replace?

IBA has a some good editing tools. You can use Edit / Proofreading to get to a reasonable proofreading panel. I found it useful. Looking for the find and replace feature? Use keyboard Command – F.

How to Motivate Student Writers

My last post, What is Writing For?, concluded by offering three ideas for motivating student writers:

  • Let students make some choices about their writing.
  • Let them write for a more authentic audience than the teacher.
  • Use more peer evaluation and self reflection.

We read everything over to see if it made sense to our audience ~ 6th grader’s reflection

I thought readers deserved an example of these principles in action. Here’s a project I did that exemplifies choice, authentic audience and self-reflection.

I worked with a team of 6th grade teachers to demonstrate the power of comparison skills to help their students build vocabulary and content knowledge about the functions of various organs of the human body. (Based on Robert Marzano’s Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement and Classroom Instruction That Works). Additionally we wanted to enhance technology skills and demonstrate the power of student choice and self reflection in a PBL setting.

Students are motivated by writing for an authentic audience. “Publishing” helps students master content and develop project management and teamwork skills. The power of publishing enables students to think like writers, to apply their learning strategies and to organize and express their learning. It exemplifies the best of the information revolution – students as creators of content rather than as passive audience. 

Project overview:

  1. Students were tasked with developing books to teach the organs of the human body to third graders.They decided that the best idea was an ABC book - ”Traveling Through the Human Body with ABCs”
  2. Teams of students chose an organ and had to develop a description of function suitable for 3rd grade audience. Then they were asked to compare the organ to something that functioned in the same way and develop a comparison that 3rd graders would understand.
  3. All the content developed by students went through a peer review process for accuracy and suitability for 3rd grade audience.
  4. PowerPoint was used to layout graphics and text. Update: you might consider design and publication using iBook Author.
  5. Students and teacher were guided through a series of reflective prompts.
  6. The PowerPoints were converted to PDF files and used to publish a few copies of each classes book using Lulu print of demand. 

Teacher reflections included:

  • Students learn best from doing and from doing it together with support but no interference from adults. Students can explain concepts and ideas to each other in “kid-friendly” language more easily, sometimes, than adults can.
  • The lessons are more lasting because they happened in a social context rather than the “top-down” structure of a traditional classroom.
  • Project-based learning creates a student centered classroom with the students doing the real work of real learners. The teachers’ work is primarily off-line.

The book is available in print from Lulu as an iBook at iTunes.

Teaching Continuity and Change: Crowdsourcing My Lesson Idea


I've been invited by the education department at the Smithsonian Institution to do a guest blog post for the museum’s blog using resources from Smithsonian’s History Explorer. I have an idea for a document based question (DBQ) that explores the historic perspective of continuity and change. I thought I’d “crowdsource” my idea to my readers for some feedback. 

Note: the post went live at the Smithsonian blog on Oct 4, 2010  

Premise: The student get to be the historian

I think we often “over curate” the historic artifacts and documents we share with students. For more on that subject see my post:  "Essential Question: Who is the Teacher in Your Classroom?" I want to use documents that students could investigate without much background knowledge. Visual images offer the broadest access for students and I found a great collection of historic bicycles in the “Smithsonian Bicycle Collection.” My lesson would include images of about five bicycles with a brief description and key details. Text description would be limited to allow students to explore the images and draw their own conclusions. I think it makes sense to provide pdf download of historic bicycle the material. I’ve also considered displaying the content as a Prezi – what do you think?

Analytic approach: Exploring continuity and change

Students need experience using a variety of analytic approaches across the curriculum. Continuity and change is a perspective that has a central role in historic thinking. In this lesson, students would be asked to view a series of images of historic bicycles and develop a model for analyzing the features – the elements that changed (size of wheels, gears) and those that remained relatively constant (human powered, seated posture).

Multiple level of Bloom: Moving from low to high
Students would begin with the lower level comprehension skills – what am I looking at? But would quickly move to analysis – what design patterns do I see in bicycles? Evaluation – which are important to my model? And creating – can I develop a comparative model to share my learning?

Relevance: Authentic audience, variable product, peer and self-reflection
I think the target audience for this lesson is middle – high school. I will prompt the students to design a way to explain their model to 3rd graders. (someone other than the teacher that will require them to consider audience and purpose) I won’t provide a graphic organizer. That would mean mean that I, not the students did the comparing. I’d like to leave it opened ended for students to develop their own graphic or text model to express what they’ve learned. Student would be invited to develop different models of comparison and be offered the chance to compare and learn from each others conclusions.

Extensions: Thinking more about bicycles continuity, and change

  • Consider how contemporary bicycles fit your continuity / chance model. Example – recumbent, mountain, fixed gear.
  • Design a bike
  • Apply the continuity / change model in another subject or discipline – fashion, architecture, musical styles, advertising, fictional characters… I could go on, but I hope you see the potential for learning.
  • Technology extension – Student could also be invited to view the world's public photography archives at the Flickr Commons using a  search by "bicycle." They could help describe the photographs they discover by adding tags or leaving comments. The collection includes works from the Smithsonian and other leading international photographic archives.

A.S. Wieners with 1887 Rudge Racing bicycle
Smithsonian Institution, Negative #: 46-859

Ninth Grade Academy Planner: Skills + Motivation = Success

I'm proud to have been part of the creation of two small learning communities – a Ninth Grade Academy and a Summer Prep School for at-risk learners. In each case, we first assembled a team of educators to forge a common vision of teaching and learning. Then schools were organized to accomplish this vision.

As a consultant, I've had the opportunity to share my practical experience with educators from across the country. See my website Small Learning Communities that Work for more info.

Last week, I had the opportunity to work with a talented group of teachers and administrators from Helena-West Helena School District in Arkansas. We put the finishing touches on plans for a new ninth grade academy. Their development began earlier this school year with strategic planning and site visits. To get our work started, I sent them this NGA-planning-guide (40KB pdf) in advance.  Their responses were a great starting point for our two-day session. By the time we concluded, we had produced a detailed implementation plan as well as mission, "mantra" and key features. As I reminded the team, you need a concise response to the question you'll get in the grocery store, "So what's this new ninth grade academy?"

Judging from the session evaluations, participants felt ready for the academy launch. 

"This workshop helped us catch the "ah-ha's" that we never thought of."

"The best part was the collaborative efforts, insights and involvement."

"Thank you for increasing the momentum."

"Our roles and goals are now clearly defined."

Mission Statement – Our mission is to create a safe and supportive environment to enable students to make a successful academic and personal transition to high school. The NGA will provide students with the skills and motivation necessary to take increasing responsibility for reaching their college and career aspirations.

NGA Mantra:  Skills + Motivation = Success 

Ninth Grade Academy Key Features

1. Dedicated Space: Located in the 9/10 building on the first hall. Each room in the NGA contains a SmartBoard that will be utilized during classroom instructions. The space will provide a safe and supportive environment to assist students in transition to the high school. 

2. Team of Teachers/Administrators: The ninth grade academy will be led by the principal, Mrs. Davis along with the team of teachers. This staff will be trained and dedicated to working specifically with the incoming ninth grade class. The goal is that each teacher will become familiar with all students academically and personally. This will support the familial environment of the NGA. 

3. Student-Centered Approach to Learning: Teachers will be trained in instructional strategies that support students taking increasing responsibility for their learning. 

4. High Expectations: The NGA administration and teachers will hold students to a clearly defined set of high expectations, both academically and behaviorally. 

5. Curriculum Designed to Support Skills and Motivation: In addition to the state mandated curriculum, a new course designed specifically for freshmen will be instituted. This course will focus on skill development, life-long learning, and career exploration. 

6. Timely Communication to Parents and Community: Online Engrade updates will be available to parents and students. In addition, parents will receive regularly individualized student reports. Via the district website and other district communications, the community will be updated on the progress of the Ninth Grade Academy. 

Photo credit: Flickr: Leeroy09481

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