Facing History and Ourselves: An Authentic Social Study

A program strives to help students understand the present by exploring the past.

A program strives to help students understand the present by exploring the past.
Facing History and Ourselves

Each year, Boston Latin students create multimedia presentations on a selected Facing History topic.

Credit: Boston Latin School’s LearnToQuestion.com

In a crowded school hall in Oakland, California, teenagers share personal stories of racism and bigotry and describe their ongoing efforts to combat intolerance in their schools and communities.

In Boston, Massachusetts, and Prague, in the Czech Republic, high school students tap into an online forum to exchange Web resources and raise questions about a joint project on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In classrooms in Brooklyn, New York, and Berkeley and Pleasanton, California, students explore issues of race and identity after watching Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, a collection of monologues related to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Finding Commonalities

Although their life circumstances vary considerably, these students and teachers share a connection that spans differences in race and religion, class and national identity. Their link is the result of a common commitment to exploring what one teacher calls "hard history" -- the history of racism, prejudice, and persecution in the twentieth century.

Facing History and Ourselves

Winners of an annual multimedia competition on Facing History receive cash scholarships funded by Boston Latin alumnus Sheldon Seevak.

Credit: Boston Latin School’s LearnToQuestion.com

With the help of Facing History and Ourselves, an international educational organization, these students and teachers take an unwavering look at the past to better understand the complicated times we're living in today. They examine how history has been shaped by the action -- or inaction -- of individuals and groups as a way of understanding their individual and collective responsibilities to their families, their schools, their communities, and to the larger world.

"History becomes powerful only as it resonates through us," says high school teacher Wendy Garner, who is part of a worldwide network of teachers benefiting from Facing History's wealth of resources. Founded in 1977, Facing History and Ourselves offers workshops and institutes for middle and high school teachers. The organization publishes its own textbook and study guides, and conducts research into such topics as the Holocaust and the American Eugenics movement. Through its regional and national offices, Facing History staff also serve as a year-round resource to teachers, arranging guest speakers, lending materials, and even teaching classes.

Marc Skvirsky, Facing History's national program director, describes the organization's approach as an effort "to unpeel the onion ... to see history for all of its complexities." Although much of the "unpeeling" of history comes in the form of readings and discussions, the dialogue extends well beyond the confines of an individual classroom. Teachers routinely bring in guest speakers and increasingly use online forums to bring together students from throughout the country and around the world.

The Boston-Prague Connection

Judi Freeman and John Crane teach on opposite sides of the Atlantic, but their curricula are as closely linked as that of two teachers whose classrooms are down the hall from one another. Freeman teaches history at Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the United States. Crane is a history and psychology teacher at the International School of Prague. Through their work with Facing History, Freeman and Crane have forged a connection that has enriched their teaching and expanded their students' views of world issues.

Although the two teachers began sharing ideas during the 2000/2001 school year, their collaborative efforts switched into high gear this year, when they began aligning their curricula. Now, when Freeman's students are studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, their counterparts in Prague are doing the same. They share research and ask questions via an online discussion board, part of Boston Latin's student-designed Web site devoted to issues of racism, genocide, and human rights. With recent visits by the Prague students to the United States and the Boston Latin students to Eastern Europe, the ties between the two schools have grown even stronger.

These connections have been particularly powerful in the post-September 11 world. "People in other parts of the world see things through different lenses," says Freeman, noting that her students have been exposed to a global perspective of world events. "Our weekly post-9/11 discussions have a more balanced flavor," says Freeman. "Now my students ask, 'What does the BBC think about this or that?' or 'What is the Jerusalem Post or Pakistan's The Nation saying about this?'"

Examinations of Self and Community

One of the most powerful aspects of the Facing History curriculum is the way it links the study of history with the exploration of what it means to be a full participant in a democratic society. In Dana Moran's Berkeley High School class, that examination included an exploration of Anna Deavere Smith's television performance of Twilight: Los Angeles, for which the Facing History staff has created an extensive study guide.

After viewing the performance and discussing it in class, Moran's students, along with students from Foothill High in Pleasanton, California, and Newcomer High School in Brooklyn, participated in an online dialogue in which they explored issues of race, self, and community. Over the course of several weeks, recent immigrants from Pakistan, Cuba, and Ecuador shared their thoughts with students who were born and raised in the United States. Latino, Asian-, and African-American students shared with their white peers the reality of being a minority in a majority culture.

For many of Stacey Miller's predominantly white students, the online discussions revealed stories of racism and injustice that they'd never experienced themselves. "Many of the immigrant students from Newcomer High School had a lot to say about Twilight and the riots," says Miller, who teaches at Foothill High. "They related personal stories of discrimination that my kids had no grasp of."

In one of the final postings on the Twilight: Los Angeles discussion board, a student who had recently emigrated from India shared her thoughts on the experience this way: "I am very happy after expressing all my thoughts to many people. I hope that we learn something from this and as future citizens we must prevent future breakouts like this. Until the next discussion -- bye."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

This article originally published on 9/10/2003

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