In Massachusetts, Using Catholic Social Teachings to Study History


A new class at Mount Alvernia High School, a Catholic girl’s school for grades 7-12 in Newton, Massachusetts, is combining social studies with Catholic history and theology in order to help students examine difficult moments in human history and understand how their own actions can inspire tolerance and peace in their communities and around the world.

Called Catholic Social Teaching in Action, the class got its start when history teacher Jennifer Staysniak decided to try something different. When asked to teach an elective on psychology, Staysniak instead floated the idea of creating a totally new class about universal rights and important moments in history through the lens of Catholic social teachings.

“Our students are exposed to the language of Catholic school teaching every day, but they don’t really have an opportunity to study the historical movements that Catholic social teachings inspired,” she says. “I wanted students to learn about the leaders of Catholic social teaching throughout history, and how those people used their knowledge, passion, and faith to challenge, support, and change social, economic, and political systems around the world.”

Staysniak received support from Mount Alvernia school administrators, as well as from Facing History and Ourselves. For the past four years, Mount Alvernia has worked with Facing History to bring teaching strategies and resources into social studies, English, and theology classrooms in order to encourage critical thinking skills and social emotional learning. This work is part of an ongoing partnership between Facing History and the Archdiocese of Boston, which has enabled Facing History to provide free professional development programs and classroom resources to over 200 educators in Catholic high schools and middle schools over the past five years.

“The work of Facing History and Ourselves enhances the mission of Catholic schools,” says Christopher Flieger, Associate Superintendent for Academics and Mission Effectiveness at the Archdiocese of Boston. “Our Catholic schools believe deeply in the idea of social justice. In this vein, one of our goals is to produce upstanding citizens who, with their Catholic values, participate and lead in a democratic community. We want our students to choose to participate and be willing to serve. This program encourages them to be engaged in their communities.”

“Catholic schools already have a real devotion to issues of human dignity, compassion, peace, and justice,” says Facing History Senior Program Associate Laura Tavares, who met one-on-one with Staysniak as she developed the class and helped find survivors of the Sudanese conflict to come and speak with her students this fall during their unit on the refugee experience. “I think what Facing History offers are opportunities to more deeply and creatively infuse those ideas through the students’ academic experiences and a forum for educators to explore the meaning of those ideas together.”

Staysniak’s class uses texts like They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees, a memoir by Jesuit priest Gary Smith, who spent six years living among Sudanese refugees, as well as the poetry collection I Promised I Would Tell by Holocaust survivor Sonia Schreiber Weitz during a unit on the atrocities of World War II.

The first project that the class completed was a collaborative one that introduced the history of universal human rights. Together, the course’s 24 students – juniors and seniors – studied the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the history of how it came to be and its impact on tolerance and dignity in communities around the world. They then drafted their own “Human Dignity and Respect Pledge,” a contract for how to treat all students and staff at the school. The students presented the pledge to the whole school at an annual Feast of St. Francis mass. To reinforce its message, the students posted the pledge on a bulletin board outside of the cafeteria and asked their peers to sign it.

“Within hours, the board was just full of names,” Staysniak says. “And students – not just the ones in my class, but throughout the whole school – are constantly exposed to its messages. They walk by it every single day.”

Mount Alvernia Head of School Eileen McLaughlin sees the impact Facing History has had on students – and teachers. “It invokes not just greater learning and engagement, but compassion and mercy and the unity of our human nature,” she says. “Facing History gives our students and our teachers so many opportunities. While most of our curriculum is text- or film-based – a second-hand recounting of history – Facing History gives us this opportunity for firsthand storytelling through its print and online resources and speakers. I’ve seen a huge increase in creativity among teachers. Teaching can be a fairly isolating career. You go into your classroom, shut your door, and do what you do. These resources helped foster interdependence among our educators. And for our students [Facing History] has launched opportunities for independent learning and has connected them to survivors and other people who lived through important moments in history. The students get to ask questions about how they, generations later, can continue to live this history and learn from it.”

Staysniak says that as a new teacher – this is only her second year in the classroom – Facing History was an invaluable resource. “Facing History has lessons and resources on the subjects you want to cover, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And the support comes from people who really understand reflective classrooms and what students need to be successful,” she says. “There’s never any assumption that you don’t know what you’re doing. Rather, there is always the assumption that you’re doing a good job, there’s just always more that each of us can always do. On a personal level Facing History has kind of given me a channel to take my own passions for human rights issues into an educational format.”

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