In December 2007, the public school system in Jefferson County, Kentucky, took on a daunting task: an overhaul of its mandatory 9th grade social studies course. Developed in the late 1990s, the course, called Survey of the Social Sciences, included units on government, civics, economics, and geography. It was heavy on testing and big on memorization. While the survey course met state requirements, teachers were frustrated and, according to Rick Daniel, the district’s social studies curriculum and assessment specialist, students were not thriving.
“A lot of our kids were, for lack of a better phrase, just bored out of their minds,” Daniel said in a recent telephone conversation from his office in Louisville “They had no voice in the curriculum, no ownership in the types of conversations taking place.”
The district had recently hired a new superintendent, Dr. Sheldon Berman, who was excited to change things up. “We wanted to develop students that were thinkers,” recalled Daniel. Just as Berman began exploring the overhaul, the state of Kentucky passed a bill that required that all students receive Holocaust education in the classroom. It was then that the teaching methods and resources of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that Berman was familiar with from his previous work as the superintendent of a school district in Massachusetts, entered the conversation.
“The [Facing History] curriculum confronts young people with the human potential for passivity, complicity, and destructiveness,” Berman wrote in a statement at the time. “It raises significant ethical questions and sensitizes [students] to injustice, inhumanity, suffering, and the abuse of power. At the same time, it is academically challenging and helps complicate students’ thinking so they do not accept simple answers to complex problems. Students are challenged to confront their own potential for passivity and complicity, their own prejudices and intolerances, and their own moral commitments.”
The district needed support in creating a new course to take the place of Survey of the Social Sciences, and turned to Facing History. The Facing History office closest to Louisville is in Memphis, Tennessee, a six hour drive away. The Memphis staff was not about to let a long car ride get in the way. They saw a need, and agreed to sign on to help the district create and carry out a new civics course that all freshmen would take.
“Ninth grade is a pivotal time in childhood education, especially in urban schools,” said Michele Phillips, associate program director of Facing History in Memphis. “It’s an adjustment year. And in urban school districts – whether in Tennessee or Kentucky – you need to be aware of that. Like Memphis, Louisville has some really good schools and some schools that aren’t as strong. Some students have a lot of parental support, and some just don’t. Having a strong, content-rich curriculum that is shared across the 9th grade – no matter the school, no matter the parental involvement – is vital. It provides teachers with a toolkit and allows students to ease into the important discussions that need to take place in the classroom and outside of it.”
The course was originally conceived as a pilot project, set to debut in four or five classes in the 2008/2009 school year. But when Senior Associate for Urban Education and Organizational Initiatives Steven Becton drove to Louisville to conduct the first teacher training, 35 teachers from 20 of the district’s 23 high schools were in the room.
The new course, called Exploring Civics: Facing History and Ourselves, kicked off when school started in fall 2008. “The teachers just embraced the Facing History philosophy,” Daniel said. “Our kids just absorbed it. They loved it.” After that first year, more teachers signed on. The Facing History staff traveled to Louisville to conduct more trainings with teachers and offered online follow-up support and workshops throughout the school year. The content of the course was based upon Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, Facing History’s core text that explores the consequences of discrimination, racism, and antisemitism through an investigation of one of the most violent times in world history – the 1930s and 1940s.
In its second year, the district expanded the content covered by the course and incorporated a Facing History unit called Choices in Little Rock. This unit looks at the history of the civil rights movement by focusing on the 1957 effort to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. “Louisville has a history of race relations that at times was very heated, and the community is still dealing with the legacy of that today,” Daniel said. “Because of that history, we really wanted our kids to understand that education is a solution – a way to help ease tension.”
The material resonated with students. “We were able to use that one event in civil rights history to really open up a dialogue for students to talk about how they feel about issues of race, discrimination, and poverty,” Daniel said. To help bring these histories alive, Facing History and the district worked to bring Holocaust survivors and guest speakers such as Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton into classrooms to speak with students and educators.
Last year, indicators confirmed what Daniel suspected: the content and approach in the Facing History course was engaging and influencing students. In 2011, the students that were freshmen when the course launched took their junior year state tests, mandatory in Kentucky. According to Daniel, the students performed as well overall as the students who took the test in previous years – before Exploring Civics was introduced. When tested on issues of culture, society, and historical perspectives, the Exploring Civics students tended to score higher than previous students. In addition, it appeared as though the Exploring Civics course was helping to create a safer, more tolerant school culture in Louisville. School suspensions for those students that were freshmen when the course launched continuously declined, as did instances of student-on-student violence. “You could see the difference in student achievement and academic achievement,” Daniel said.
The results are not, of course, tied solely to the introduction of one new course. The launch of Exploring Civics was coupled with additional efforts from the administration to promote safe, caring, and inclusive school culture. Increased professional development was offered to educators, the old advising structure was overhauled, and students were able to partake in leadership skills opportunities, as well as extracurricular activities that focused on civic participation and character development. The new Facing History course, however, was a big piece of the puzzle. “We’re teaching students to see multiple perspectives, to think outside the box. We’re teaching them that they can make a difference and that they have the responsibility to make a difference,” Daniel said.
Now in its fourth year, Exploring Civics reaches over 10,000 students from 28 high schools. In addition, a handful of district schools also offer a Holocaust and Human Behavior elective that is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
“I’m really passionate about the work we’ve been doing with Facing History,” Daniel said. “It really gave our teachers the opportunity to see their students in a slightly different light. It helped them to see that students can and do think deeply and intently on social issues.”
And it has helped students engage with the world around them in different ways. “After hearing what some of my peers had to say during discussion, I know that I am not the only one who had been pushed to think in new ways about new things, and come to terms with a new outlook on history and the world,” wrote one student from duPont Manual High School.
“I look forward to a long relationship with Facing History,” Daniel said, before hanging up the phone to get back to the important issue at hand – running a social studies department for the public school students of Jefferson County. “I look forward to seeing what’s to come.”
Learn more about Facing History’s work in and around Memphis.
This article was written by Facing History’s Julia Rappaport. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.