The purpose of this lesson is to help students:
Reflect on this guiding question:
What do we need to happen in this class to make it a place where we feel comfortable sharing our ideas and asking questions?
Practice these interdisciplinary skills:
Expressing ideas in writing, especially in a journal
Developing new vocabulary
Working with others to reach consensus
Deepen understanding of these key terms:
Facing History and Ourselves
To deepen your understanding of the ideas in this lesson, read this introduction to Holocaust and Human Behavior.
Why teach this material?
The purpose of this lesson is to help the classroom community develop a safe, productive environment to support the learning and sharing of ideas that will take place throughout the unit. Prior to exploring the historical case study of this unit—the collapse of democracy in Germany and the steps leading up to the Holocaust—it is important that students and teachers spend some time reviewing class norms. Throughout this unit, students will be talking about how sensitive topics, such as prejudice and discrimination, have impacted historical events and students’ own lives. Facing History teachers have found that establishing and nurturing classroom norms of respect and openmindness is one way to help students have productive, safe conversations about these concepts. This lesson provides an opportunity to reinforce the rules you may have already established, as well as the opportunity to develop new expectations. While we urge you to consider the language and expectations that are most appropriate for your classroom context, in the appendix of this lesson, we have provided ideas of the kinds of class norms Facing History teachers have used to support a reflective classroom community.
What is this lesson about?
Facing History conceives of its program as a journey—a journey that provides a unique and engaging way for students to study history and the world around them. Describing their experiences taking the Facing History journey, students have remarked, “Something about our Facing History class felt different. We were studying the very things I was afraid of: being singled out, teased, and bullied; stereotyping; neighbors against neighbors in Nazi Germany. Students couldn’t react angrily to how people treated each other in history and then turn around and do these very things to me.” When reflecting on her Facing History experience, another student shared, “I’ve had 13 math classes, 20 English classes, 6 or 7 science classes, art, P.E., Spanish but in all the time I’ve been in school, I’ve had only class about being more human.” We have written students a letter to welcome them on this journey, and to help them understand that the goal of this journey is to touch their hearts and minds. Through helping students develop as moral philosophers, critical consumers of information and civic agents, we hope to change the way they see themselves as individuals in a larger society.
It takes a particular kind of learning environment to help students achieve these objectives. We conceive of these environments as “reflective classroom communities.” In reflective classroom communities, teaching and learning is a shared endeavor where a healthy exchange of ideas is welcome. Students are encouraged to voice their own opinions and to actively listen to others; to treat different perspectives with patience and respect; and to recognize that there are always more perspectives and more to learn. These characteristics may be helpful in teaching many different units of study, but they are essential to teaching Facing History and Ourselves.
The habits of behavior found in a reflective classroom community—attentive listening to diverse viewpoints, voicing clear ideas, and raising relevant questions—not only help students deeply understand historical content, but also require them to practice skills essential for their role as engaged citizens. Philosopher John Dewey wrote that classrooms are not the training grounds for future democratic action, but rather places where democracy is already enacted. Perhaps this is why Professor Diane Moore has argued that “encouraging students to take themselves seriously and inspiring in them the confidence to do so are two of the most important roles of an educator in a multicultural democracy.”1
The main activities of this lesson provide suggestions about how to help students and teachers write a class contract, or review an existing class contract, with the goal of nurturing a reflective classroom community. Before beginning these activities, students need some context about why this unit requires students to commit to norms of respect and community. Therefore, we suggest starting this lesson by explaining to students that they are about to begin a unit called “Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.” Write this title on the board. Then, introduce students to this unit by asking them to read the “Letter to students” written by Facing History’s Executive Director, Margot Stern Strom, and the director of the Memphis office, Rachel Shankman. Alternatively, you can write your own letter to students introducing them to this unit. We suggest asking a volunteer to read the letter aloud. As one student reads, ask the class to circle or highlight any words or phrases that stand out to them.
Then pass out journals to students. The journal is an essential part of this unit and provides an opportunity to mark this unit as unique and special. (Refer to the introduction of this unit for ideas about how to use the journal to enhance students’ literacy skills and historical understanding.) Ask students to react to this letter in their journals. Specific questions you can use to prompt students’ writing include:
What does the title “Facing History and Ourselves” mean to you?
What does “Holocaust and Human Behavior” mean to you? What do you know about the Holocaust? What does it mean to study human behavior?
What do you think the student meant when she said that her Facing History class was about being “more human”?
What does it mean to have to use both your head and your heart while learning?
What does it mean for a classroom to be a “community of learners”? In what ways is your classroom like a community? What might help it feel more like a community?
Give students the opportunity to share what they have written, if they want to. This is an appropriate time to establish the expectation that journal responses do not have to be shared publicly.
It is particularly useful to go over the phrase “head and heart” before writing your class contract because having clear guidelines about respectful behavior is especially important in any classroom experience that hopes to engage students both intellectually and emotionally. Explain that before students begin exploring new material, the class needs to agree on some rules, norms, or expectations. You can strengthen students’ vocabulary by spending a few moments asking them to define one or more of these terms. Students can record definitions in their journals. When a community agrees on norms or expectations for behavior, these are often articulated in a code of conduct or a contract. Students can add the term contract to their working definitions. A contract implies that all parties have a responsibility in upholding the agreement. Students can think about what it means for a classroom to have a contract.
To prepare students to develop a class contract, ask them to reflect on their experiences as students in a classroom community. You might use a prompt like this one to structure students’ reflection:
Identify when you have felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions in a class. What happened in those moments to help you feel comfortable?
Identify when you have had ideas or questions but have not shared them. Why not? What was happening at those moments?
The handout “Have you ever . . . ?” included at the end of this lesson provides another way to help students think about their experiences as part of a classroom community.
Facing History teachers have found that useful class contracts typically include several clearly defined rules or expectations and consequences for those who do not fulfill their obligations as members of the classroom community. There are many ways to proceed with developing a classroom contract. For example, you can ask small groups of students to work together to write rules or “expectations” for the classroom community. We suggest keeping the list brief (e.g., three to five items) so that the norms can be easily remembered. As groups present, you can organize their ideas by theme. If there are any tensions or contradictions in the expectations that have been suggested, you can discuss them as a class. While the process is inclusive of students’ ideas, ultimately it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the ideas that make it to the final contract are those that will best nurture a safe learning environment.
Another way to help students develop a classroom contract is to have them envision what they would like to have happen during certain scenarios. Scenarios could be drawn from students’ own experiences. They might include situations such as:
When we have an idea or question we would like to share, we can . . .
When we have an idea, but do not feel comfortable sharing it out loud, we can . . .
When someone says something that we appreciate, we can . . .
When someone says something that might be confusing or offensive, we can . . .
To make sure all students have the opportunity to participate in a class discus-sion, we can . . .
If we read or watch something that makes us feel sad or angry, we can . . .
To show respect for the ideas of others, we can . . .
To initiate the classroom contract, you can have students participate in a celebratory signing ceremony. Students can sign their own copies or a large copy that is posted in the room. You might allow for brief remarks from students about how they think the con-tract will help provide a safe, productive learning community. If possible, you could share some festive treats as well. In addition to sharing a class document, rituals also provide groups with a sense of community. This celebration might begin a ritual that you extend throughout this unit.
Another important way to follow through with this introduction to the unit is to have students bring the “Letter to parents/guardians” home. You can use the letter we provide or write your own. Ask students to discuss this letter with their parents/guardians. Being sensitive to parent/guardian schedules, be sure to give students several days to complete this assignment.
The activities in this lesson exemplify one of the core principles of Facing History: students’ ideas and experiences are a central part of the curriculum. You can end this lesson by asking students to return to the journal entry that they wrote at the beginning of this class. After this lesson, what more do they know about this unit? What other questions have been raised? You might also have students write about how it felt to be part of a discussion about classroom norms and why they think you have taken the time to include them in this process. One way to phrase this question is as follows: If you were the teacher of this class, how would you involve students in setting a classroom contract? Why?
Having a final product that can be posted on the wall lets everyone know that the class had achieved the goal of this lesson. The real measurement of understanding, however, resides in students’ effort to abide by the contract throughout this unit.
Informally reviewing students’ journal entries can help you know the questions that are on students’ minds about this unit and can also help you correct any misconceptions about what they will be learning.
Students’ journals are an essential component of this unit. Since a major theme of this unit is “identity,” you might invite students to personalize their journals with images or words that represent their identities. Journals can be decorated with markers or by pasting pictures from magazines. We suggest setting some limits around what may not be appropriate to put on a journal. Referring to your school’s dress code may provide some guidance. In Lesson 3, students begin talking about their own identities. This provides another opportunity for the personalization of journals.