Humanities teacher Ann Whiting packed her bags – making sure to toss in her passport – for a week-long trip to London. She was excited. While many people head to the United Kingdom to visit Big Ben, sneak a peek at Buckingham Palace, and savor afternoon tea and scones, Whiting, who teaches at an international school in Malaysia, was off to join 26 educators from around the world at Facing History and Ourselves' annual international seminar. For Whiting, it was a reunion of sorts with an organization she first encountered a few years earlier.
“One day I was on the internet looking at resources, thinking, ‘We’ve got to find a way to go beyond just telling kids facts about this history of the Holocaust,’” Whiting says by Skype from her home in Kuala Lumpur.
At the time, she was teaching a middle school course that compared different world religions.
“I stumbled upon the Facing History site and was just thrilled,” she continues. “What I found – the information, the links, the teaching strategies – it wasn’t just about facts and details. It was about human behavior.”
As an educator at an international school, Whiting did have access to professional development opportunities, but often those opportunities consisted of afternoon sessions or weekend workshops.
“The opportunities for professional development tended to be hours here or there, and I was a little sick of that because what you end up getting are snapshots, snippets of history or literature or technique. It doesn’t really have a lot of impact,” says Whiting, who, after finding the Facing History website, enrolled in an eight-week course on the Holocaust and human behavior in history and today. “When I saw the listing for this online course, I saw that it was eight weeks long and knew that I would have the opportunity to really read and delve into quite deep and heavy material. I knew I would be given the chance to engage really deeply with that material.”
Whiting and another educator from her school, the International School of Kuala Lumpur, joined nearly 40 teachers and administrators from around the world for the 2010 online course – one of eight that Facing History offers each year, in addition to a full schedule of webinars and in-person workshops and seminars. The Holocaust and Human Behavior course examines Facing History's core case study, and provides an overview of the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust, as well as an in-depth look at some of Facing History's teaching strategies, primary source documents, and resources. Themes such as bystander behavior, obedience, rescuers and resisters, and civic participation are examined in history, literature, and the arts.
For educators like Whiting, an online course like Holocaust and Human Behavior provides an opportunity to discover new publications, texts, and teaching methods, and be in conversation with Facing History staff, a Holocaust survivor, and other educators from a variety of school settings.
“Because it was online, I could do the course at my own pace – after school, in the evening, or before work,” Whiting says. “I had the time to go back and read other peoples’ responses, things I hadn’t thought of, or an interesting direction I hadn’t considered. I was always saying, ‘Look at what people are doing here.’”
Of course, it was still additional work.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Whiting says. “At the same time that you’re taking a course, you’re teaching. You’re working every day and then you’re going home and trying to add something of value to a discussion. You’re kind of drained and you’ve got marking to do. But what I found with this course is that the material and the community kind of creep up on you – it becomes so that you’re not just fulfilling the requirements of the course, you’re becoming really immersed in the questions and are excited to wrestle with what is being asked.”
Even before the eight-week course ended, Whiting and her colleague began bringing new resources like video clips and primary source readings and new teaching strategies like the "Identity Chart" activity into their classrooms.
“It’s so interesting to have the students put these charts around the classroom and then walk around to see what their classmates have done," Whiting says. "Some students include religion, some put music that they like, some put their nationalities. Coming from an international school, some students put all of the places that they’ve lived in. We revisit the charts over the course of the year, and it’s also an exercise that we’ve then done with fictional characters in the books we’ve read.”
Today, the middle school humanities at the International School of Kuala Lumpur incorporates many materials and teaching strategies Whiting first encountered in that online course.
“My colleagues and I redeveloped the essential questions we use to frame each year following the course,” Whiting says. Her 7th grade students frame their year with the questions What do you value? How do you choose? and When should difference matter? “The course gives us strength to make global issues a compulsory part of our wheel cycle, so today all students engage with this material for at least a trimester,” Whiting continues. “We now can bring into a humanities classroom issues that are taking place all over the world, so students are talking about issues of leadership, of dictatorship, of democracy. It’s exciting.”
Two years after taking the online course, Whiting traveled to London to take her first in-person Facing History professional development opportunity.
“With these Facing History courses, you’re provided documents, you use primary sources, and you’re asked challenging, tough questions that, and this is what I love, puts both teachers and students on the same footing. You begin to co-learn with your students. You’re struggling to find the same answers,” she says.
At the end of every school year, Whiting has her students write a reflection. She reads them, and sees in them the impact of her work with Facing History.
“The water in the river of History is always moving, bringing the new and [washing] away the old,” wrote one student from her most recent class, who had only learned English two years earlier. “Who am I? What shapes myself? During the personal journey we learned better of ourselves. Through the projects we did, I found places of myself in my family, in my school and in the society. I learned how to collaborate with my peers and form friendships with others. I also learned how to annotate the text to understand better, to question what I know and to think more.”
“Facing History seemed to be what I was looking for and then what my colleagues were looking for,” Whiting says. “What’s so engaging about the material, and what I loved about bringing it into my classroom, is that you as the teacher begin working equally with your students. You become a co-learner with them.”