1. TAKE THE REALLY LONG VIEW
WHEN DAVID Burzillo’s students arrived for his high school class this September, they started talking about the big bang. Then they moved onto the formation of the stars polka-dotting the night sky. These are not topics students were used to covering in a typical history class.
Then again, nothing about Burzillo’s course — part of the groundbreaking Big History Project — is typical. The curriculum reaches further back than any course of its kind, covering everything from the formation of Earth to the evolution of life to the Industrial Revolution to the modern day.
Of course, that’s a considerable span for students to cover in one school year — 13.7 billion years, more or less — a feat made possible by a largely historical, rather than scientific, focus. “We’re taking the best evidence from physics and the best evidence from chemistry and biology, and we’re weaving it together into a story,” explains Burzillo, who teaches at the private Rivers School in Weston. “They’re not going to learn how to balance [chemical] equations, but they’re going to learn how the chemical elements came out of the death of stars, and that’s really interesting.”
The history of the Big History Project goes back only about two decades. That’s when an Australian expert in Russian history, David Christian, decided that budding historians needed a broader context to make sense of their individual specialties. He knew a big picture existed but that it was often overlooked by academia.
“There ought to be a whole of history somewhere, but no one really teaches it or talks about it,” Christian says today. So he developed a college-level course covering it all — from the first blast of energy that started the universe to the skyscrapers lining our city streets. “If you say to [students], ‘Let’s have a go at taking an overview of the whole damn thing,’ as crazy as that sounds,” he says, “they’re going to have a road map, they’re going to see how everything fits together.”
Christian’s lectures eventually caught the attention of Bill Gates, who approached him with the idea of introducing a similar course in high schools. Planning started 2½ years ago, and last year the program was piloted at eight schools — including the Rivers School with Burzillo. This year, more than 3,000 kids in roughly 50 high schools worldwide are participating in the pilot’s second phase.
In Big History classes, students engage with the course content through an interactive, video-heavy website; no textbook required. Burzillo believes this sort of approach lets students learn, rather than simply memorize facts. They understand why stars can power themselves for billions of years or why the agricultural revolution allowed for our modern society.
Big History promotes examining evidence, thinking critically about how we know what we know, and looking at problems from an interdisciplinary perspective — valuable skills for a generation growing up in a world of climate change, disease, and global economies.
“All the interesting questions that need to be answered — or that people want to answer — about life, the future, whatever, are going to involve collaboration between different disciplines,” says Burzillo. “This course . . . shows how that collaboration can take place.”
— Stephanie M. McPherson
2. HEY, KID, GET A JOB!
FOR THREE YEARS in a row, 100 percent of the seniors graduating from Cristo Rey Boston were accepted to four-year colleges, even though a majority of its students qualify for free or reduced-price federal lunches, two-thirds are being raised by single parents, and the average family income among students is just $26,000 per year. Part of a network of 25 Catholic high schools across the country, Cristo Rey’s work-study program, which begins freshman year, gives children from lower economic rungs opportunities similar to those of their better-off peers by cutting the $10,300 cost of tuition by 60 percent; private funding covers another 30 percent, so parents end up paying $1,130 a year.
Cristo Rey students work five days a month in a corporate environment. “Most of these kids have never been in an office,” says Jeff Thielman, the Dorchester school’s president. “The work-study program motivates them to stay in high school and go on to college, because they’re interacting with all sorts of professionals who have degrees. They’re seeing these people work and saying, ‘I don’t want to be the person doing the filing the rest of my life.’ ”
It worked for Phillip Benevides, who was valedictorian of his class at Cristo Rey in 2011 and is now a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. When he started in the medical records department at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge his freshman year, he thought he wanted to work in theater — but now he’s changed his mind. “After three or four weeks I just fell in love with it,” he says of his hospital work. Benevides has to declare his major at the end of this academic year, and he’s now seriously considering the medical field — possibly a career in pharmacy, nursing, or psychology. But even more than achieving the considerable goal of giving him career options, Cristo Rey’s work-study program helped Benevides grow up. “The first day I went in to Mount Auburn,” he recalls, “I was this scared little freshman who had no idea what I was doing, no idea what to expect. By the time I left, I was like ‘OK, interviews are not that hard; having meetings for work — piece of cake.’ And if I wanted to find another job, I just needed to have the confidence to go out into the world.”Continued...