Meeting the Common Core with Facing History in a Literature Classroom
How do you teach students to become better writers, readers, and critical thinkers? How can teachers meet the Common Core State Standards while still encouraging thoughtful and rigorous classroom discussion and student work? Facing History and Ourselves works with teachers, administrators, and school districts across the country to meet the Common Core English/Language Arts standards and Literacy in History/Social Studies standards while encouraging meaningful discussions and exploring questions that will prepare students to participate in building a more peaceful, tolerant tomorrow.
As a New York City high school social studies teacher, Stephen Lazar routinely turned to Facing History and Ourselves for teaching strategies and classroom resources. This year, while teaching his first English class at the new Harvest Collegiate High School, Lazar is turning to Facing History to find the primary source documents and writing prompts he needs to meet the Common Core State Standards.
“I didn’t have a name for the course yet,” said Lazar, who wrote the course curricula earlier this winter with help from his Facing History program associate, David Levy. “But I knew what I wanted the main themes to be – empathy and looking at things from multiple perspectives. I just knew there had to be Facing History material out there that I could use.”
Lazar took his first workshop, a five-day investigation into race and membership in American history, with Facing History six years ago after learning about the organization from his father, a former social studies teacher in Cleveland, Ohio.
“[The workshop] gave me a very concrete way to have my students interact with history as themselves, not just as students of history, but as human beings looking at other human beings making decisions,” Lazar said. Two years ago, he enrolled in a week-long, in-depth seminar, Holocaust and Human Behavior.
Lazar and Levy looked into the different teaching strategies, classroom activities, and primary and secondary source readings he could incorporate into a literature course that focused on making meaning of the diversity students face in their communities and worlds each day. The resulting class, which kicked off in January 2013, is called “Perspectives.”
“It’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” Lazar explained by phone recently. “About walking, reading, and writing in others’ shoes.”
“Stephen knew when he started thinking about the course that the big picture themes of Facing History would be applicable,” Levy said. “He was building a course that focused on identity, and throughout our texts are stories, or memoirs, or pieces of history that look at identity in different ways.”
The course started with a six-week unit called “You and I” that examined the notion of identity, exploring questions like Who am I? How am I perceived by others? How do both of these perceptions impact my choices? Next up was a six-week unit called “Us and Them,” which looked at issues of difference and incorporated Facing History resources on membership and society. In this unit, the students explored the history of the Weimar Republic as a way to set the stage for reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The course will end this spring with a unit called “The Meaning of Life.” It may be a lofty title for a seven-week unit, but it gets right to the heart of what the students consider – that meaning in life often comes from interacting with others, that each of us has causes and people that are of life and death importance to us, and that other perspectives can offer guidance for our own lives.
The backbone of the course is a solid syllabus of readings and assignments that have the students writing and reading personal narratives from multiple perspectives, researching, constructing effective arguments, and critically analyzing complex texts across a range of types and disciplines. As a result, the students are meeting the Common Core State Standards through a deep investigation of nonfiction, fiction, and essential questions about human nature.
“A challenge a lot of English teachers feel when trying to meet the common core is the struggle of integrating informational texts. For a lot of teachers, they think that they can either teach books or teach informational texts. But with Facing History, you see that you can integrate that,” Lazar said. “What Facing History has done with their resources is to organize them by theme, so I can go into a resource book like Holocaust and Human Behavior or Race and Membership in American History and go to a section about identity and find texts and books that meet my needs. I can go in and find or write text-dependent questions from that. It makes my life so much easier.”
Find out more about Facing History’s work in the New York area.
Facing History’s Julia Rappaport wrote this article. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.