Mass-Based Organization Challenges Students to Put Themselves in History's Shoes
Every day she went to school and every day she saw the zoo, which bore two signs: “Colored Day Only on Thursday” and “ No Whites on Thursday.”
The visual stayed with Strom, who by the mid-’70s was a middle-school history teacher in Brookline studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A conference on teaching the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and genocide left her with a realization — that she had been taught a very sanitized version of history — and a connection that lead right back to her experience growing up in Jim Crow-era Memphis with its separate water fountains, waiting rooms and visiting days at the zoo.
Those twin lightning bolts lead to the 1976 creation of Facing History and Ourselves, a now international non-profit educational and professional development organization for teachers. Headquartered in Brookline, its mission is to provide teachers with the resources and tools so their students can examine morally tough topics such as racism, anti-Semitism and prejudice through the first-person lens of historical events. The goal: to develop youth into informed, humane citizens. A movement that started to better equip teachers and students with moral justice teaching resources in Massachusetts has now expanded to middle- and high-school students around the world.
“Teachers were never given any support or major inspiration regularly, so Facing History is the opportunity to convene people, not in ‘Let’s find out how to meet the newest standard,’” Strom notes. “The real idea is to be inspired, to hear the students and to see them as the moral philosophers and to see that you’re doing the art of teaching, of learning.”
Facing History’s inaugural course, “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” and the accompanying Strom-authored resource book for teachers — not a textbook or curriculum — went beyond traditional history teaching methods, using first-person accounts of events, student discussions and group exercises. In what became the organization’s central pedagogy, students first examine themselves, then the events, inevitably placing themselves in the time and place they’re studying to better analyze the choices that were made.
“The ‘ourselves’ is a really important part of the impact,” notes Sherri Krasin, a seventh-grade humanities teacher at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Wilbraham. “They face history but they have to face themselves.”
She notes this example she poses to her class: “Eight million kids joined Hitler Youth. Looking at the stats of the school, this means this many of you would have joined. What would you have done? Where are you in this history? How does it affect you?”
“Whatever you’re teaching – and Facing History does this really well - kids are able to understand they’re connected to it, whether you’re teaching about Ferguson to a bunch of white kids in the suburbs or the Holocaust or Civil Rights, it connects them because they make choices every day of their life,” Krasin adds.
“It’s just ordinary people making choices. They can see it.” As the organization’s motto states: “People make choices. Choices make history.”
Over the years, Facing History expanded to 10 offices worldwide and nearly 200 employees. While constantly revising its seminal Holocaust and Human Behavior book, the group has expanded to offer online and face-to-face workshops, courses and seminars for educators, as well as an array of print, video and web resources on the Civil Rights movement, the Armenian genocide, The Nanjing Atrocities, To Kill a Mockingbird, bullying and much more.
In addition to professional development, Facing History’s blog (facingtoday.facinghistory.org) offers free, up-to-date resources, tools and analysis to help educators teach and facilitate discussions on current-day events, such as the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, the Ferguson Riots in Missouri or the Eric Gardner case in New York. “It’s an important tool for teachers to be able to access information and know it’s going to be accurate information,” Krasin says. “Facing History gives students the tools to understand these big issues so they can make sense out of current events and hopefully be the change.”
Adds Strom: “What Facing History is trying to do is show these global connections so there are issues that are particular to your own experience and moment in time, but they’re universal themes that don’t change: human behavior, race, religious liberty and freedom and difference, and how people treat one another. It is a current event. Facing History finds the universal thread in these stories.”
Moral dilemmas and uncomfortable, challenging issues of moral justice, such as genocide, racism, anti- Semitism and more, have traditionally not been entrusted to middle- or high-school children, she notes, or when they are they’re addressed at 30,000-foot, broad views.
“We know what kids need. They need to be trusted. They need to let their questions come. They need real material that isn’t watered down,” Strom says. “They need to be held to very high standards of reading and writing and thinking and perspective-taking.”
“This is very tough stuff, it’s raw and there’s no way out of it,” Krasin adds. “Facing History is great for bringing real, accurate, important sources to the classroom; it has a way of making history very personal. Using the standard book, if I tell kids 11 million people were killed [in the Holocaust] it doesn’t mean anything.”
Adds eighth-grade Wayland Middle School teacher Jacob Montweiler: “It insists on the asking of difficult questions and kids are really taught to resist easy answers.”
“I remember as a kid someone came to Snowden Junior High School and they opened the big, red curtains and out walked a man with a Stradivarius violin. That was the most important thing that happened to me in grammar school,” Strom laughs, the memory of that visit not fading a degree even decades later.
Facing History delivers its “Stradivariuses” — its primary, impactful sources — via first-person accounts from those involved in the historical event at hand. It could be a video, case study, narrative, art or poetry, or in the case of some Facing History students and teachers, an in-person visit from Holocaust survivors.
“When kids hear people from Rwanda, Holocaust survivors, what they hear are truth-tellers about trauma and these kids want to touch these speakers,” Strom says.
One such speaker is Rena Ferber Finder, a Polish Jew who speaks regularly with Facing History students and teachers, worked in Oskar Schindler’s factory and was a name on the now-famous Schindler’s List.
Notes Strom: “There isn’t a time when she speaks to children or adults when they aren’t totally changed forever.”
In fact, the organization has another link to Schindler’s List, director Steven Spielberg once noting: “Facing History came to my rescue in 1994 when I wanted to show Schindler’s List free of charge to middle schools and high schools.” The organization’s contribution, which eased the way for the film to get into schools, was a study guide it wrote to accompany the movie.
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While “history” is part of the organization’s name and mission, that doesn’t meant its use is relegated to only history or social studies classes, supporters say. The courses and resources are interdisciplinary and attract educators who teach art, English, library science and more.
Eliza Beardslee teaches tenth-grade Spanish at Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield. Instead of using solely a traditional textbook and “repeat after me” instruction, over six weeks she employs Facing History’s
“Stitching Truth: Women’s Protest Art in Pinochet’s Chile” series. “Stitching Truth” tells the story of poor and oppressed women — through their words and work — who stitched brightly-colored patchwork pictures onto burlap, known as arpilleras. The artwork told their stories of oppression and fear and of their husbands, sons and brothers who disappeared under Pinochet’s dictatorship.
“It’s a way of using text and authentic materials to teach about these arpilleras, tapestries that tell stories,” Beardslee says. “They read and watch short videos, read poetry, listen to songs and look at pictures to get background knowledge.”
From those primary materials, her students design and sew their own tapestries to tell a story, write an artist’s statement about it and then translate one of their peer’s statements. Beardslee says translating original works pushes her students’ Spanish vocabulary comprehension, and using art as a way of communicating resilience and resistance makes them think.
“They’re definitely more empathetic,” she says. “Actually creating the product helps them to imagine what it might have been like to be a single woman whose male family members have been taken away.”
Wayland’s Montweiler says that when he attended his first Facing History workshop 15 years ago “it felt like I had come home.”
“I felt like these are the people who think about teaching and learning in the same way that I do,” he says. “People who recognize that ethical reflection should be one of the centerpieces of social studies curriculum.” The group’s work exceeds traditional textbooks and teaching methods by embracing choice as a central theme, he says. “I think at its best Facing History inspires because so much of the work is focused on choice, so kids are analyzing the choices of people in the past,” he says. “And Facing History insists when we look at the past we’re looking at ordinary people who make decisions and fundamentally they’re like us. If we understand history as the study of choices then that can really empower kids when they look at their own lives, ‘Oh, I am making decisions every day. When have I been a bystander?’ That’s what engages kids, that’s what sticks with kids.”
Adds Wilbraham & Monson Academy’s Krasin: “They’re making choices, the language they use and implication of that language. For example, using ‘gay’ as a derogatory: let’s look at that and connect it to this history. They’re making choices in their daily life, of who they let sit with them at lunch, who they leave out.
Or if they hear something that’s not right, do they speak up? Do they speak up if it’s a parent that says something that’s not right? The ‘ourselves’ part of Facing History is the impact. If you do it right, kids leave feeling like this matters.”
While Strom has been the founder and face of the organization for nearly 40 years, she is quick to credit the artists, educators, scientists, writers, scholars and others who have expanded the group’s mission, depth, scope and geographical reach. She stepped down from her post as executive director last December, moving to the position of President Emerita and Senior Scholar, where she continues her work.
“Education, telling these stories now, will make a difference,” she says. “We will have the kids who will become the policy makers. I really believe that.”