Project-Based Learning

Candor in the Class: Looking Back to Go Forward

The Facing History School doesn't sugarcoat our past. It confronts it.
Woman standing holding markers in front of a blackboard with easel paper taped on
Photo credit: Klaus Schoenwiese
Guidance counselor Jaime Poris leads a discussion.

It's Monday morning, and Emily Haines's ninth graders are talking about scapegoats. The class has spent the semester studying the Holocaust, particularly the conformity, fear, and prejudice of ordinary citizens in Nazi Germany. A soft-spoken girl named Alexa Felipe says that thinking about their behavior has opened her eyes to animosity toward Arabs in New York since 9/11. "I never realized it until I came to this class," she says. "Now it makes me angry."

The Facing History School -- a bold experiment to help teens find meaning in the unvarnished past in order to understand the present and the future -- opened in Manhattan last fall. Its goal is to produce graduates who have a vision for the world and the democracy they want to live in, and possess the skills, smarts, and confidence to make a difference -- high-minded ideals one doesn't always find in high schools.

The school has other things going for it, too: years of careful planning, specially trained teachers with an appetite for innovation, and a dynamic principal devoted to building a rigorous learning community. Providing crucial support are influential backers, including New Visions for Public Schools, an independent education-reform group with more than $50 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But Facing History also must confront the pressures that bedevil many well-intentioned schools. The pioneer class of 110 students arrived with complicated needs. About half struggled with basic reading or math skills or both -- never mind the complexities of civic engagement. Nineteen students spoke limited or no English. Many of the kids did not especially want to attend the school and made that clear to the faculty.

Many students did not want to go to high school at all; the entering class had an absentee rate higher than the citywide average. But in the first semester, absenteeism was significantly low. "I expected to cut whenever I wanted to," admits student Michael Estambul. "Then I came here, and it's like a little family. This school is great."

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese
In the Rhythm: Ebony Mauney (from left) and Travis Nieves try to keep up with teacher Harold Akyiampong.

Keeping It Real -- and Small

The Facing History School reflects two important trends in public education: One is the small-schools movement, a drive to replace massive, comprehensive, and deeply troubled high schools with intimate, accountable learning environments. New York City has created 196 small public secondary schools, about one-fourth of them charter schools, in the past three years. Nearly 50,000 students attend, and that number will climb as the city opens many more small schools while the existing ones add grades to reach full enrollment. (Such schools often start with a ninth-grade class only and offer tenth-grade courses when those students matriculate, and so on.)

The other trend is real-world learning -- the idea that by educating students about society's toughest problems, not a glossy textbook version of the facts, schools can inspire civic participation and leadership. The Facing History School is the brainchild of Facing History and Ourselves, a thirty-year-old nonprofit organization that promotes in-depth examination of history's darkest moments as a key to motivating young people to working for a just society.

The organization -- headquartered in Brookline, Massachusetts, with five regional offices in the United States and a growing presence in South America, eastern Europe, and Africa -- provides intensive teacher training, support, and curriculum guides. Although topics include American slavery and Turkey's early-twentieth-century Armenian genocide, the core is Holocaust education. It does not focus on the Holocaust as a Jewish story or dwell on Hitler and the death camps, but instead approaches the Nazi nightmare as a horrific, instructive case study in how a democracy can fall apart.

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese
By Example: Principal Gillian Smith is herself a graduate of an alternative school.

In Facing History courses, which have been taught in tens of thousands of middle school and high school classrooms over the years, students examine the use of propaganda, the poison of prejudice, and the choices average folk make in their daily lives: Why do some commit monstrous acts or stand by in silent complicity, while others risk their lives to resist? Teachers do not ask students what they would have done had they lived in 1930s Germany, but rather have them study the choices people had and the context of their decisions -- about obedience, protest, hate, fear, courage, and identity -- and apply the lessons to their world and their actions today.

Facing History's approach is more than curriculum, however; it's a method of inquiry. The emphasis is not on lectures or memorizing names and dates. Students read memoirs, write essays, create artwork, debate in class, take field trips, and meet activists and Holocaust survivors. They work on small-group projects to learn teamwork and keep journals to discover their own hearts, minds, and voices.

Underlying the content and the assignments is the notion that a classroom is a civic space -- potentially the best our country offers. Here, a diverse group of people with competing needs and clashing opinions must find common ground. "You're literally practicing democracy," says Margot Stern Strom, president and executive director of Facing History and Ourselves. "The content engages adolescents in meaningful ways of how we learn to live together."

For years, the organization flirted with the idea of building a school around Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, methodology, and values. New York City's small-schools initiative provided the right opportunity and partnerships. The group hired as principal Gillian Smith, a longtime teacher, administrator, and Facing History educator at the Satellite Academy, an alternative high school for older students who didn't make it at other schools -- including Smith herself, who graduated from Satellite.

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese
Reality Check: Facing History School teacher Kristina Wylie asks some tough questions in her Experiencing Literature class.

Democracy in Practice

Humanities classes at the Facing History School offer the most natural tie to the parent organization. In the first semester, students read Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson's novel of a ninth-grade outcast, and Friedrich, by Hans Peter Richter, the story of a Jewish boy during the Holocaust, as told by his best German friend. They discussed the fragility of democracy and the dangers of group formation. They drew political posters in the style of Dadaists, and they wrote letters to lawmakers about ethnic conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Facing History takes pains to avoid the trap of some themed schools, which force a concept into every class. "The last thing we want is to turn out Facing History acolytes, and then the kids all fail the tests," says Peter Nelson, New York regional director of Facing History and Ourselves. Still, every class bears the organization's hallmarks. Students in the Experiencing Literature course read Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck's classic about outsiders struggling to fit into society, and Fences, August Wilson's play about conflict and identity in a black tenement family. The Forensics class studied the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that uses DNA to overturn wrongful convictions, and discussed nineteenth-century physician Samuel Morton's flawed experiments on intelligence, brain size, and race.

Math students polled the student body not only on the demographics typical of such surveys but also on quintessential Facing History questions: Will the United States be better, worse, or about the same to live in when you reach your parents' age? (Thirty-nine percent said, "Worse," 36 percent replied, "Better," and 25 percent said, "About the same.") Are your parents involved in your life? (Forty-seven percent replied, "Very involved," 38 percent responded, "Fairly involved," 13 percent said, "Not too involved," and 2 percent said, "No.") What would you do if you thought a friend was going to start a fight? (Sixty-seven percent would try to prevent it, 22 percent said they'd do nothing, and 11 percent claimed they'd encourage the fight.) The students filled out the survey early in the school year, and Smith believes they would answer this question differently now. "They're beginning to get that they're part of a community, and they can make a difference," she says.

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese
No Dodgeball Here: Adam Gonzaga strikes a pose in aikido class as teacher Emily Walker observes.

The heart of Facing History is the daily advisory, a forty-five-minute session in which students discuss anything and everything: homework, home life, goals, college, street violence, movies, racism, sexism, friends. The approximately 15 students in each group will meet with the same teacher all four years. Advisories were painfully quiet at first; students felt uncomfortable talking honestly about themselves or saying anything that might be construed as snitching. But now they're abuzz with talk. One group moved from a computer lab into a guidance office so they could pack in close. "It's like a home away from home," says Ebony Mauney, a student in that group.

Facing History is a curious blend of nurturing and stern, progressive and traditional. Students wear uniforms -- white collared shirt, black slacks or skirt, solid black or white footwear -- yet they address teachers by their first names; Smith wants to give students a sense of power and to instill the idea that respect comes from relationships and responsibility, not titles. Teachers give tests, but students are also evaluated on portfolios, which they must present in class. If a student misses a single day or arrives late, his or her parents get a phone call.

The early results for New York City's small schools are promising: Truancy is down, and test scores are up. For Smith, those measures are just a start. She wants her students to develop the ability to analyze, interpret, and apply their classroom knowledge to their lives. She wants the Facing History experience to help them create high expectations for their adulthood. "They have work to do on skills," she says. "We all have work to do."

But progress is evident: Students who used to cut come to school. Teens who had never lifted a book finished a few meaty ones during freshman year. Young people are noticing the larger world and feeling the strength and confidence to say its problems make them angry.

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.