Making Connections with History

March 16, 2013

Facing History and Ourselves was founded in 1976 by Margot Stern Strom and William S. Parsons, public school teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts, who designed a program to teach the Holocaust in such a way that students could make personal connections between the historical event and their own lives. The organization now has 170 employees and nine offices in the United States, and its programming has expanded to include other topics in race relations, intolerance, and mass violence. The last day of the Digital Media and Learning conference (#dml2013) in Chicago on May 16 featured a panel of Facing History staffers and a Chicago teacher who has been using Facing History curricula for the past five years.

Brandon Barr, an 8th-grade teacher at Chicago’s Nightingale School, said that his students “don’t know they are at an age when they are constructing their own identities. Talking about historical events in such a way that there is a safe distance in place and time gives them an opportunity to talk about their own lives” and how they might react to intolerance.

Another Facing History program, “Crisis in Little Rock,” consists of readings and multimedia presentations about the integration of Little Rock (Ark.) Central High School in 1957. Barr said he brought in one of the Little Rock Nine, Terrence Roberts, to speak to his class and asked the students to write short poems about how they felt. Reading those poems made him realize that many of his students got the connection between their own personal problems, such as bullying, and the experiences of those who have gone through much worse.

Facing History and Ourselves also offers interactive, multimedia exhibitions for public libraries, although at this time availability is limited to cities in which it has offices. The Chicago Public Library has hosted two of these, the most recent of which, “Choosing to Participate,” took place August 27–November 11, 2012. The exhibit featured stories on the Little Rock Nine; hate crimes in Billings, Montana, in 1993; a Cambodian refugee in New Hampshire; a black Puerto Rican man and a choice he had to make in the 1950s; and George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790. More than 20,000 people (including 5,000 students in school groups) visited the program. If you missed it, Facing History has posted the stories online. Plans for an exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library in 2014 are underway.

Barr said that each story demonstrates the “implications of decisions everyone makes about who will be part of what group, whether nations, communities, or individuals.” Teaching book smarts, he added, “does not translate into much if your students go out and join a gang.”

Facing History Chicago Office Director Bonnie Oberman said that the program resources show students and the general public that “history is not inevitable. You have choices that you can make. You don’t have to live in despair.”