Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
The purpose of this first lesson is to help the class develop an environment that is conducive to learning and sharing: a reflective classroom community.
Throughout this unit, students will be talking about sensitive topics, such as prejudice and discrimination, and how those concepts have impacted historical events and students’ own lives. When students feel empowered to contribute honestly and wrestle with multiple perspectives besides their own, such discussions can be positive and even life-changing.
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 establishing and nurturing classroom rules and expectations of respect and open-mindedness. These “habits of behavior” will equip students with the skills to engage with each other in important and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.
In this lesson you will review the classroom rules you may have already established, as well as create new norms and expectations generated by the students themselves. While we urge you to consider the language and expectations that are most appropriate for your classroom context, the handout Sample Facing History Classroom Expectations provides examples of the kinds of classroom norms Facing History teachers have used to support a reflective classroom community.
Facing History and Ourselves 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. As one student 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.
By 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. A reflective classroom community is a place where students are encouraged to voice their own opinions—even when their ideas are unpopular—and to actively listen to others; to treat different perspectives with patience and respect; and to recognize that there are always more perspectives and there is always more to learn. Psychologist John Amaechi explains:
Teachers have to create this emotional space where it is safe but challenging, where people can be themselves, where people can take chances and fail, where people can tell stories about themselves and reveal things about themselves without risk of derision, without fear of being marginalized. Without safety, there is nothing, there is no learning.1
Journal writing is also an integral part of the unit. See the teaching strategy Journals in a Facing History Classroom for important suggestions about how to incorporate journals.
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 believed that classrooms are not the training grounds for future democratic action, but rather places where democracy is already enacted. 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.”2
These characteristics may be helpful in teaching many different units of study, but they are essential to teaching in a Facing History and Ourselves classroom.