Taking a Stand: Relevant History
Some knew where they belonged immediately. Others shifted from line to line unsure of where they fit in. Another switched places, after discussing his initial choice with his teacher and classmates.
This group of high school students was asked to determine how they would have reacted after reading a newspaper article about the very first day of violence that was to become the genocide in Rwanda. As a teenager in the United States with little, if any, knowledge of Rwanda’s history, would they have “done something” or would they have “done nothing” at the time? Their teacher, Greg Deegan, instructed them to place themselves along a continuum that stretched across the front of the classroom: “Stand toward the right if you would have taken action and toward the left if you think you would have done nothing at all.”
The exercise forced the students to ask themselves some serious questions. The point was not to judge individual responses but to start a dialogue. This is just one of many strategies Deegan, a Facing History and Ourselves teacher, uses to involve his students at Beachwood High School in Cleveland, Ohio, in the study of history and to challenge them to think about how it might apply to their lives.
“We’re asking kids to think about themselves and the choices they make while studying history,” said Deegan, who teaches an elective course called Human Rights and Conflicts. “This is a class where we really wrestle with difficult issues. We’re engaging in conversations so the students can clarify their own thinking. At times it can get uncomfortable or more heated than we expect.”
For the past 12 years, Deegan has worked with Facing History to engage his students in an examination of topics including racism, prejudice, and antisemitism, and to connect the lessons of history to the ethical decisions they make today. Facing History has been involved in five counties in northeast Ohio since 1999 and has trained more than 900 teachers through its various programs.
“Our work is to do professional development for teachers,” explained Mark Swaim-Fox, director of Facing History in Cleveland. “[Through them] we engage students in these issues so that they become thoughtful, moral decision-makers. And we use [historical] content to do that. We take this approach: How is that story relevant to our lives today, and how can we apply it to other places?”
This past summer, with a grant from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, nearly 40 middle and high school teachers in northeast Ohio attended one of two week-long Facing History seminars. The first examined the legacies of race and racism in the United States; the second explored how democracy could devolve into Nazism and genocide.
“The seminars are our entry point for teachers. They spend a week with us and they become immersed in our pedagogy and our content. And then they take the resources back to their classrooms,” Swaim-Fox said.
He and his staff teach a mixture of content and pedagogy during the summer sessions. There is a curriculum, but they model practical teaching strategies, too. For example, while Swaim-Fox may “lecture” on the Weimar Republic, he also demonstrates how to involve students in a discussion of the broader issue: What causes people to follow or go along?
This past summer’s sessions drew 39 teachers from 34 schools. Jamie Sorge, an 8th grade social studies teacher who attended the Holocaust and Human Behavior seminar in July, participated in the workshop because he really wanted to enrich his curriculum. He found the case studies to be particularly powerful tools when examining the Reichstag elections and the issues that eventually gave rise to Nazism. He also liked being able to talk with other teachers about what they were learning from the perspective of a student.
An important component of the Facing History program is ongoing professional support. “We stay in touch with these teachers,” Swaim-Fox said. “We meet with them, plan with them, and think about how to integrate the content and strategies into their classrooms.” He said Facing History devotes at least three full days to each workshop participant throughout the school year. Some teachers ask the staff to model lessons; others want help creating an entire course. It’s all based on how much of the curriculum the teachers choose to implement.
Facing History has a variety of curricular resources available to program participants as well. There are 3,500 videos in its lending library and 60 different teaching strategies explained on its website. Many of these resources are available to any interested teacher.
Swaim-Fox said he notices a change in the participants over the course of the week-long workshops as they practice making their lessons more student-focused. “I hope they walk away thinking about their practice in a different way and find that they have the tools to engage their students in new and innovative ways,” he said. “I think so much of our work is about taking content and making it relevant to kids’ lives. So if [the teachers] walk away from this seminar feeling empowered to do that, I’ll feel really thrilled.”
“I want my students to see themselves as people who matter–whose opinions and actions matter,” Deegan said. “My course is about taking personal responsibility for who you are, what you think, and what you do–seeing yourselves as someone who can make a difference in your life and someone else’s life. And we use history to do it.”
A version of this article first appeared in the fall 2012 edition of the Martha Holding Jennings Foundation publication Pro Excellentia. It has been reprinted here with permission.
Facing History's Julia Rappaport edited this article. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.