Ryan Hurley teaches US History to middle schoolers in Cleveland, Ohio at Urban Community School. Urban is one of nearly 150 schools across the United States, Mexico, Canada, South Africa, and Great Britain that belong to the Facing History Partner Schools Network (PSN).
For 10 years Ryan has had a front row seat to the PSN as an educator at two participating schools. In his time as a teacher, he has witnessed how the ideals and pedagogy of Facing History brings schools together, creating a happier, healthier space where academics flourish alongside social-emotional development.
Ryan recently spoke with me about how operating within the PSN opens up opportunities for students and teachers alike. He was kind enough to go into detail about the many ways our programming and PSN services are integrated into the Urban community. We think Ryan’s enthusiasm for Facing History speaks volumes.
Jessica: How did you first learn about Facing History and what's it been like teaching Facing History?
Ryan: When I was looking for positions, there was a school in Cleveland that really stood out to me. It was Saint Martin de Porres High School, a member of the Christo Rey network of schools, a kind of independent Catholic school driven by the mission of providing an excellent education for students in urban America. This was a school that was committed to using Facing History materials and resources. I was hired at Saint Martin in an administrative position as an instructional coach that also required me to teach a senior social justice class. I didn't know anything about Facing History at the time, but when I accepted the position, I was signed up immediately for Holocaust and Human Behavior as my first Facing History course followed by Race and Membership.
I was immediately thrown into Facing History and I was so glad that I was! The materials, the pedagogy, the coaching, and the resources that I got from Facing History allowed me to really craft a pretty phenomenal social justice course. And that course was co-created by my students: my students’ voices were in the forefront of everything that we did in that class. They generated the topics in the case studies and I did the research to look for readings and materials that we would use for our discussions in class.
I was at St. Martin for about six years when I started looking to step fully back into the classroom. One of the Facing History Partner Schools in Cleveland—Urban Community School—had a job posting for a middle school US history teacher. This was a school that I definitely aligned with and I wanted to be a part of their mission, but what really drew me to the position was their commitment to being a Facing History school.
That was in 2020 when I started at Urban Community School. This is my fourth year and it has lived up to all the commitments around social justice and Facing History that I thought it would.
Jessica: What are some of the Facing History tools that you find most valuable?
Ryan: First, I've got to mention the professional development. Our three English language arts and two social studies teachers have all been through Facing History PD both in person and online. That is a huge resource for us. One of the things I love about your professional development is that it’s content specific—there are topics like Holocaust and Human Behavior, Race and Membership, the Reconstruction Era—but you can send any teacher to any one of those trainings and they’ll find new and better ways to operate within class. The professional development is as much about the content as it is about classroom activities that really infuse a sense of culture, identity, and community.
Another way Urban Community School leans on Facing History is through its texts. Our social studies classes especially rely heavily on the Facing History texts. There are fantastic books from Facing History, but additionally there are so many resources that are online. We're constantly downloading readings and materials for students.
In our English language arts and our social studies classes we begin the year with a lot of introspection, guiding our students through identity work, understanding who they are, who we are as a class, and how we need to operate within this class to form a sense of community so that we can dig into the hard parts of history. So before we begin a lot of heavy content, we focus on bringing student individuality into our community and celebrating one another and getting to know one another. All that identity work is shaped by Facing History’s pedagogy and Scope and Sequence.
We also have Facing History point people here in Cleveland. They don't hesitate when I send an email to ask for support for a teacher who might be new. They meet with me regularly at the school and help develop goals at the beginning of the year for how we want our teachers to engage with Facing History that year. It definitely allows a lot of our newer faculty to kind of take a deep breath and exhale a little bit knowing that there's someone who's done this before who can help.
Another opportunity our kids have is to participate in the Student Leadership Group. We have a small group of students all year long who meet together and discuss social justice topics. Sometimes they come up with the topic, sometimes teachers will generate the topics and have them wrestle with them. But then Facing History helps to organize meetings of our students with other students across the Partner Schools Network in northeast Ohio.
I venture to say that the Partner Schools Network Leadership Group is the most diverse group of student leaders that I've ever experienced or seen in my career in education. And these students from across Ohio, when they’re all together, they don't hesitate to participate in the leadership group meetings facilitated and sponsored by Facing History. They break bread and eat together and dive into some really difficult topics and discuss potential solutions to problems they’re seeing in our immediate community. At the end they do a bit of a celebration and showcase the things that they've learned.
Jessica: How has deep commitment to Facing History shaped your school culture?
Ryan: What I've found in my experiences of being in a school that's using Facing History for a number of years with fidelity—it’s not just sending teachers to professional development, but it’s actually having teachers go to professional development, utilize the program directors for coaching and support, and infusing those things that they bring back into class regularly throughout the year. What I find is that those schools develop Facing History as a part of the culture and the community.
Because Facing History has been a part of our school community for close to 10 years now there are things that we do every day that we don't even realize where they came from or how they developed. We just do them because it's who we are and because it's a part of our Urban School community.
Each year as we recommit to the asks of Facing History, such as having regular advisory, providing safe spaces for students to talk about challenging issues, and allowing students to be accepted and have a voice, we can see the levels of belonging and community go up in our school. We're proud of that. It's very inspiring as a teacher to be able to say, “Yeah, I get to be honest with my students every day and show them that they're loved and accepted in this classroom.”
Jessica: How does being a part of the Partner Schools Network sustain the difficult work of being a teacher?
Ryan: It's been a tough few years to be a teacher. Our profession has been attacked, both in terms of the respect that it garners, but also in terms of people pushing in with different agendas as they try to shape content in curriculum that they feel is appropriate. And for educators that pushing in sometimes feels dishonest or disingenuous.
Being a Facing History school allows us to say, “Not only can our students handle this difficult content, not only is this difficult content appropriate for our students, but our students are becoming better people to each other because of the difficult past that our country has waded through.”
We're in this in-between place as a country where we have values and beliefs that we hold true, but are not yet fully achieved. And students understand that—they see it in the world around them.
Facing History allows us as educators to say, “We're gonna tell the truth. We're going to do it in a way that forces us to walk with and alongside students through difficult topics so that we, along with our students, come out of conversations, experiences, and readings better able to connect with one another and more able to provide space and opportunity for one another that maybe didn't exist before we knew that hard history.”
Jessica: What insights would you share with administrative teams interested in embarking upon collaboration with Facing History to build or transform their school?
Ryan: I would say start where you are. So, you know, find two or three champions within your school who are already bought into the notion of this work and already understand its necessity in our students’ lives and learning. Then when you find those folks, I think, you create a team and a community within that school that can begin the work.
When you start from within, you're able to then point to those teachers along the way when others are asking why students coming out of a certain class seem really connected and engaged. And then you're able to explain, “Well here are some different things that this teacher has chosen to be trained in and here are some materials that this teacher has chosen to utilize. And here's some professional development that that teacher volunteered to attend.”
Jessica: At a recent PSN Gathering you said, “For me personally, being a member of the Partner Schools Network means connection, courage, and collaboration.” Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
Ryan: So, connection first. What I do as a history teacher is share the full story, warts and all, of American history. When what I do is being attacked it can be very lonely. So being a part of the Facing History Partner Schools Network allows me to feel connected to people and not be alone. The PSN helps me to remember that I’m not the only one who thinks that this education is necessary. I'm not the only one who is seeing students light up in class as they feel more empowered to move forward and be more inclusive and be more of an upstander. Facing History means that I'm not alone. There is a whole network of folks that are championing the same things.
Then courage. I think because I know that I'm not alone, I can be courageous in providing my students with an excellent, well-rounded education that is grounded in truth telling. So I've the courage to say, yeah, we're going to read this difficult text or we're going to listen to this story that sometimes isn't told because it's challenging to hear. I know Facing History has my back.
And then collaboration. I have a whole phone full of numbers and emails of folks that I can text at any moment to help me do this work. There could be a topic that I'm not sure how to address and within hours I can get resources and answers from people who are doing the same work in their schools across the country. I have courageous educators that I am close with from coast to coast because of Facing History.