What if students could make history come alive?
It’s a question Facing History and Ourselves educator Emma Sevitt daydreamed about for years.
“I wanted my students to have an experience that would stir consciousness into their minds, would provoke students to be more aware of their actions, and would enable them to remember and pass on that memory,” Sevitt says. “I wanted them to create innovative history that will be passed down to future generations.”
With support from a 2013 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant, Sevitt turned that dream into a reality as she and her students created an interactive walking tour of Amsterdam during World War II. The project grew out of a self-guided walking tour of Amsterdam called “Persecution and Resistance,” which is organized by The Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum. Sevitt and her students took the tour for several years, before making their own, incorporating original research, reporting, and interviews. Sevitt videotaped the tour so classrooms around the world can also have a lesson in local history.
Learn more about Emma Sevitt and see her grant application video.
Sevitt has taught the Facing History and Ourselves elective at the American School of The Hague since 2008. In an effort to teach the mostly international student body more about Dutch history and culture, she created a curriculum that covers the causes of World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the events leading up to the Holocaust, as well as history and current events particular to Holland, including Dutch resistance to the Nazis, recent immigration, and the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
She incorporated the Anne Frank House/Dutch Resistance Museum self-guided walking tour to help her students connect more deeply with local history. The tour includes stops at both museums, as well as offices where fake passports were made for Jews looking to escape Amsterdam and homes where Jewish families hid during the war years. Sevitt wanted to go deeper, so she added her own touches. She read excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs of people who lived in Amsterdam during the Holocaust at tour stops and arranged for a Holocaust survivor (her mother-in-law, whose father kept a diary during the war) to join the tour and speak to her students. “I thought it was important for students to have more stories from people who had lived this history – to hear many voices,” Sevitt says.
As Sevitt began to collect resources from Facing History, her family, and from friends, she discovered how much history there was right at her fingertips. “Because this city is so small, you realize that everyone here, everyone has a story,” she says. “It’s not just Anne Frank, it’s all of these people who were hidden or who went to the camps and came back.” Why not get her students involved in the research process, she thought. Why not have them create their own walk to remember? “If there’s anything about teaching empathy, about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, this is it – walking in the places where history took place and interacting with someone else’s story."
To help turn her dream into a reality, Sevitt turned to Facing History, applying for a Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant. Awarded annually, the grants help Facing History teachers worldwide develop projects that transform schools and impact student learning. To begin, Sevitt’s students researched the history of Amsterdam during the war, with a focus on primary source documents. They interviewed scholars, survivors of the Holocaust, and those that participated in Dutch resistance, and turned those interviews into narratives that they eventually went on to read at stops along the tour route. The tour addresses themes of national and collective identity, stereotyping and conflict, judgment and memory, upstander and bystander behavior, and the choices we make that impact those around us. Sevitt hopes that the video of the tour will be shown in classrooms around the world to help teach students about Amsterdam during World War II. She also hopes the video will inspire other educators to do similar tours in their own cities and towns.
“I believe this project will enable students to really understand how important it is to pass on this history. Seeing for themselves the locations where these stories took place will help them answer questions about why people behaved the way they did,” she says. “I hope the students will empathize with the bravery they see and be motivated to participate and act in their own communities.”