Member Spotlight - Facing History and Ourselves
Program Director for Organizational Learning and Thought Leadership
Q: Most of the readers of this newsletter know Facing History and Ourselves, but tell us about the program.
Facing History and Ourselves is a global education nonprofit that uses lessons of history to challenge teachers and students to stand up to bigotry and hate. More broadly, our approach to humanities education helps young people become more equitable and engaged, and more responsible decision-makers, who can help to build more just and inclusive societies. We've been around for about 44 years. Throughout that time, we've integrated the study of history and literature with civic learning using resources and case studies that help teachers to address moments in history from the Reconstruction Era and Civil Rights in the US to the history of World War II and the Holocaust in Europe. We also offer professional learning and ongoing support for teachers in schools. We currently have about 100,000 trained educators in our network, and many more who are accessing resources online.
Q: So how does this translate into the classroom? What does a Facing History lesson or program look like in action?
Most of our work focuses on looking deeply at moments in history and works of literature that tell stories about the fragility of democracy. We're called Facing History and Ourselves because the moments we look at are typically hard moments, when neighbor turned against neighbor, when human rights were violated, when democracy fell apart. What that looks like in the classroom might be a teacher in a US history course teaching a three-week really deep case study about the Reconstruction Era, for example - which is a history that has been often mistaught or too little taught in schools. Our approach connects a deep learning of that history with students thinking about questions of justice and belonging and participation in our own democracy today. Facing History units always begin by exploring students' own identities and big questions about the relationship between the individual and society. Then we look deeply at the historical case study or at a work of literature. It could be a memoir like Elie Wiesel's
. It could be a novel like
To Kill a Mockingbird
. Afterwards, we ask “how does this study of history and literature educate me about my responsibilities today?”
Q: How do you define that as civics, or rather, how does that fit into the civics framework?
Civics is not just about how governments work, about levers of power, about systems and structures. Civics is also really about the relationship between citizens. It's not just how citizens relate to the government, but how people relate to each other within societies. I think all of our case studies are really designed to help students think about the complexities of history and the complexities of how democracy works. Not just in the abstract, but actually the social and political context in which governments function, and the role of individuals in making change and upholding democracy and standing up for basic rights.
We really believe that civic education begins not just in curriculum, but with how teachers approach the classroom, how they create a learner-centered environment, how they are able to value students' identities. We invite students into learning in a way that students are not just receiving information, but actively constructing knowledge, looking for meaning, and understanding their own agency. All of our work drives towards that bigger goal of helping students understand the importance of individual choices in history and, therefore, the importance of their own decision-making in our world. We’re building not just knowledge, but the skills and dispositions of citizenship.
Q: We live in very polarized times. There are a lot of difficult moments right now. Talk about how this type of program is important right now.
Everyone understands that democracy is at risk right now, not only in the United States but all around the world. When we ask why democracy is at risk right now, it's not so much because people don't understand how governments work. It is because of polarization. It's because of inequality. It's because people have failed to understand the history that has shaped the challenges that we face in the present. Through studying history and literature, and with Facing History's approach, students are not only learning history but they're also cultivating some really essential civic skills like perspective taking and toleration for different viewpoints.
We actually did a randomized controlled trial a few years ago that showed that students, after studying with Facing History, had tolerance for different political views, increased capacity for civil discourse, and this belief that they can make a difference. I think we see right now a lot of disenchantment with democracy, or cynicism on the part of young people. I think having experiences in school that show you that your voice matters, and that you can make a difference, are really essential to the health of democracy.
Q: What are some of the most-used Facing History lessons right now?
We keep close track of what our educators are doing. What's popular right now is not only the study of history, but also educators really wanting to teach about current events. We launched this program to support teachers to teach about what's happening today and understanding it in light of the past and historical legacy. We've seen a huge demand for that. We created a new collection of resources that's growing all the time. We have a lot of teachers who are subscribing, coming to webinars. Teachers right now are really interested in finding tools not just to teach about the past, but also help their students engage with the complexities of the present.
Q: Social Emotional Learning is a big part of what you do. Could you talk about that?
That really grew organically from the fact that Facing History began with teaching difficult histories. We always knew that you can't study difficult histories just with your head. Your heart is also going to be implicated. Paying attention to students' emotional engagement with learning, helping them to develop historical empathy and also empathy in the present, as well as ethical reflections, has always been part of our work. We see that our programs have a lot of impact on students' self awareness, social awareness, and responsible decision-making, which are some of the key pillars of social emotional learning. I think what that really means in the classroom is that teachers are paying attention to how they use classroom contracting, for example, to create a space where students can ask big questions, can share their opinions, can be open both intellectually and emotionally to engage with the complexities of the past, and really have the ability to practice perspective thinking and practice civil discourse.
Q: Can you give an example of what that looks like in a classroom?
We have a civics case study called Choices in Little Rock, which is about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. When we begin the study of that history, we look not just at the legal factors that led to integration, like Brown v. Board. We also look at the personal experiences and stories of young people, both members of the Little Rock Nine, but also white students who went to Central High School who were bystanders, students who were bullies or perpetrators, and also ones who defended and were allies to the Little Rock Nine.
When you read those personal accounts, for example, Elizabeth Eckford's story about the first day of school in her own words, you hear her sense of that she was engaging in something that was a fight for justice. It was about making history. You also hear her saying things like, "I was also wondering about my dress that I was going to wear, my outfit for the first day of school. Did I look okay? Who was I going to sit next to at lunch?" We encounter these figures in history as people who, in some ways, are not that dissimilar from us. Of course, these historical figures were teenagers just like the students who are studying the history.
I think, in that way, students are really able to emotionally connect with the study of history, understanding it as a human story, which is a bridge to social emotional learning. Then they begin to be able to ask questions about their own decision-making, when they think about how students in Little Rock Central High School were motivated by fear, by peer pressure, by conformity. These are all things that are a bridge between the past and the present that help students understand, how did those forces play out in this moment in history? Also, how are they playing out in my own environment and my own decision-making?
Q: Let’s talk about your work with the NEH Educating for American Democracy program. Why did you decide to join the Steering Committee?
Having just come from the first convening in Baton Rouge, it's an incredible opportunity to work across different disciplines, across different entry points into the fields of civics, across different ranges of opinions and approaches to civic learning to create something that I think really can have a national impact. What Facing History sees in this partnership is a chance to really leverage the expertise, not just the nonprofits like us, of scholars, of historians, of political scientists. The presence of active educators on the Steering Committee is critical too. I think this effort is likely to be successful in creating something which can be used and embraced by teachers all across the country.
Q: What are your first impressions of the project after the first convening at LSU?
One of the big questions that we face as a working group, is thinking about who is the “we” in U.S. history? How do we integrate a more inclusive story of the American past than perhaps has typically been told? How do we integrate multiple perspectives and untold stories while still creating a common story? That's a big task. It's one that, I think, is really crucial and also really exciting. Being with the group at LSU, and seeing that we had representation from all over the country from different types of organizations and perspectives, makes me hopeful that we will find a way to offer a framework of U.S. history that has an entry point for all of the students who are in our schools.
Q: Is there anything else that you want people to know or any thoughts you want to share?
It's exciting to see with the CivXNow Coalition, organizations and individuals from all over the country who are really putting our heads together about the importance of teaching civics right now. I think if we at Facing History have learned anything from our study of history, it's that democracy is a really fragile enterprise and it's never done. It's not a product. It's a process that is always ongoing. I see the work of the Coalition and the work of Educating for American Democracy collaboration as a really important part of that ongoing democratic process.
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“Civics is not just about how governments work...Civics is also really about the relationship between citizens. It's not just how citizens relate to the government, but how people relate to each other within societies.” -@facinghistory #CivXNow
“actively constructing knowledge, looking for meaning, and understanding their own agency...helping students understand...the importance of their own decision-making...We’re building not just knowledge, but the skills and dispositions of citizenship.” -@facinghistory #CivXNow
"we see right now a lot of disenchantment with democracy, or cynicism on the part of young people. I think having experiences in school that show you your voice matters, & that you can make a difference, are really essential to the health of democracy.” -@facinghistory #CivXNow
“Teachers right now are really interested in finding tools not just to teach about the past, but also help their students engage with the complexities of the present.”
"@HistoryCivicsEd is] an incredible opportunity to work across different disciplines..different ranges of opinions&approaches..to create something I think really can have a national impact..which can be used&embraced by teachers all across the country." -@facinghistory #CivXNow
"democracy is a really fragile enterprise and it's never done. It's not a product. It's a process...I see the work of @CivXNow and the work of @historycivicsed collaboration as a really important part of that ongoing democratic process."