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An Interview with Facing History and Ourselves

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School


Figure 1
Eftihia Danellis

Figure 1
Dan Alba

    Two models of history education have battled for attention over the past two centuries: one which asserts that history can illuminate high moral purpose; the other that history can consolidate "habits of mind," sharpening analysis. To the extent that the two views actually conflict, those who teach with moral purpose worry that simply teaching names and dates achieves limited higher ends, while those who teach "the facts" worry that a moral agenda will advance an explicit political agenda, compromising the intellectual integrity of historical study.
    One organization that pushes fiercely for a moral history is Facing History and Ourselves. Founded in 1979, Facing History grew out of teacher Margo Stern Strom's commitment to involving her Brookline, Massachusetts students directly in the moral choices preceding the Holocaust.
     With more than twenty-five years of experience, Facing History now has one of the world's most extensive databases of classroom-tested source materials on 20th century human rights issues. World history teachers at every level can acquire this material from the Facing History website, putting it to immediate use. However, Facing History staff and teachers have also organized their "case studies" into instructional templates, a "journey" for those who embed the documents in longer lessons or units.
    Facing History offers, at no charge, workshops for faculty as well as consulting for workshop attendees working to find appropriate materials to structure lessons in their own schools. Field offices offer most workshops, but teachers and professors distant from these offices can arrange to take online workshops. These too are free of charge. 4
    Recently, WHC's Tom Laichas spoke with Facing History's Dan Alba and Eftihia Danellis. Alba, Los Angeles Regional Program Director, came to Facing History following many years teaching history and developing programs for at-risk youth in Los Angeles schools. Danellis, a Los Angeles language arts teacher particularly interested in literacy strategies, has been a Program Associate for the past four years. 5
    Laichas conducted the interview on August 27, 2005 at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.

WHC: How did Facing History start?
ALBA: Our founding director, Margo Stern Strom, was teaching the Holocaust to students in Massachusetts. She wanted to find ways to engage them more personally in this history.
    The program is based on an adolescent moral development model. Basically, Facing History is about helping kids discover their own voices. It's looking at the complexities of history and human behavior. It's drawing connections to that language, so that kids can navigate through their own adolescent development.
DANELLIS: Margo felt it was so powerful to start where the students are, which is what they care about: Who am I? Where do I belong? What will I become in life? Everything is interpreted through that lens. So if you're looking at a history which is long ago and far away, with people who no longer exist, the important thing is to connect back to the students.
    So we start with identity, and then we move to "we" and "they" – which is essentially how we divide up into groups, the "us" and the "them," which is so much a fixture in world history. We try to get students to understand why nations turn against nations and, from a personal level, why students fight with each other on the blacktop, at lunch, or why they sit in different areas of the school. We're trying to understand "we" and "they" up close and personal as well as in history.
    Then we move into the historical case study, a case study of injustice that allows students to grapple with how ordinary people could become perpetrators, how people could do horrible things to one another. We try to give victims a voice because in a small way it is a restoration of dignity which might have been taken from them.
    But we spend most of our time in the case study looking at bystanding behavior. There are fewer numbers who will resist or rescue, or, according to Samantha Powers [author of A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide] who would be "upstanders." Bystanding behavior is something that's very interesting to students. They witness it, they do it all the time.
   Why might you bystand when someone's in trouble? 13
WHC: The historical reality is that bystanding is the majority position: most people aren't Nazis or partisans.
DANELLIS: Right, right, exactly.
ALBA: And you flow into those positions. You find yourself in that role – a bystander, a perpetrator.
DANELLIS: Right. I think that's why "Schindler's List" is so interesting. Schindler was not a good man by every standard. And yet there were circumstances which allowed him to become an "upstander," a rescuer. 17
WHC: Like the Biblical description of Noah: a good man for his generation.
DANELLIS: Right! So we're looking at how every society requires a certain amount of obedience and conformity that are necessary to make us function, but if wrongdoing is happening in this society, how do some of us manage to overcome all the pressures to obey, the pressures to conform, and to stand up, to take action, and not simply go along. We look at the role of propaganda in ensuring a level of conformity.
WHC: Once we move beyond getting students to think about themselves and others, how do the historical documents you provide provoke these questions in students, in a historical context? 20
ALBA: Facing History provides complex pictures of the past. Life is not black and white. We have to give kids a lens to ask essential questions. That's a habit of mind essential for civic discourse.. 21
    We also know that democracy is fragile. It takes informed decision-making to make it work. Facing History has a methodology that gives kids a confidence in their voices and gives them a place to grapple with complicated issues. 22
WHC: How do students formulate that complex picture? 23
ALBA: Well, what Facing History provides are original documents. So you hear the original voices and the perspectives at the time. It raises a lot of questions about the time period. For example, the choices available to Germans in 1933 were certainly not the choices available in 1938. When students look at the range of actual choices, it raises a whole lot of questions. It challenges them to think about the range of choices. What kids get from that paradigm is an understanding of the complexities of life. They come to understand that the choices they make are complex as well. 24

DANELLIS: We don't ask students to say what they would have done in that situation, because that's fallacious: who knows what we would do? The question we ask is why did this actor do this thing in this situation? And we get them to ask, have I ever encountered a situation that is in any way analogous? What was my own thinking? So we're inviting students to reflect on their own behavior.

WHC: Is this relativistic then? Are you encouraging students to come up with their own moral standards? 26
ALBA: No. There are standards. There are people who did do the moral thing. That's our bias: social justice and moral judgment. 27
    Nobody wants to be judgmental, and yet at the same time, there are times we have to make some kind of judgment about circumstances. These kids are always thinking about fairness and what happens when certain things aren't right, what happens when certain groups are victimized. But they don't always know how to work through their feelings and thinking. 28
    Facing History gives students a moral vocabulary to navigate the issues that come up every day in their lives. And it complicates their notion of forgiveness and other responses. Not only in relationship to genocide, but to wrongs in their own lives. It provides them with a range of possible responses. 29
WHC: So you're making a space for students to think through the meaning of justice. 30
ALBA: I think that kids already have a sense of right and wrong. The thing is, there are a lot gray areas too. What we do is provide complexities. If you provide a complex case study, you're requiring that kids work to interpret events. 31
WHC: Give me an example of those complexities. 32
DANELLIS: In the Transitional Justice module, there's a range of possible ways to respond in the aftermath of collective violence. Why might a judicial response work for a particular country, while a truth-seeking response or an act of reconciliation, or institutional reform might work somewhere else? 33
WHC: Link that up to personal behavior. 34
DANELLIS: A the first stage of the process, "Ourselves", students might discuss, in journals or in class, about times when they've been wronged or have wronged others. What would they have wanted to see happen? What would be just or fair for them? What do they owe to someone else if they have wronged them? 35
    The last stage of the scope and sequence is "Choosing to Participate." Just because kids know about something doesn't mean they won't repeat the mistakes of the past. One has to translate thought into action. So: what does it mean to participate positively in our society? What would that look like in my life? What would it look like interpersonally, in my community, in the nation? 36
        Many "Facing History" teachers like to engage students in service learning where they get to put what they've learned into practice. 37
WHC: Has "Facing History" ever been taught in any area with a history of collective violence?

DANELLIS: For ten years, Rwanda had not been able to find a way to teach the genocide in Rwandan schools. They're just now beginning to find ways to do it. "Facing History" is being taught in 5% of schools in Rwanda right now – probably a higher proportion of schools than we reach in the United States! 38
    We're also in a number of schools in the former Eastern Block countries, and in Northern Ireland. We also have been pulling together educators and thinkers from a number of countries over the last few summers for what we call "global symposia." We're asking participants whether the case studies work in their own countries. We're also asking what local documents and resources we should make accessible to people in the US. 39
WHC: It sounds like conversations about responsibility and bystanding could get pretty uncomfortable for some kids as they think about their own lives. Do you have difficulty drawing out some students? 40
ALBA: We get students to struggle with difficult issues. The histories – the case studies – are distant from students' lives. The distancing makes it safe to talk about those issues. By emphasizing the case studies, we give kids permission to talk about those difficult issues. 41
    I find that, if anything, Facing History is liberating for young kids. It empowers them, giving them a way to process their own experience. 42
DANELLIS: Let me give you two concrete examples. We sometimes show a video on David Cash. David Cash was the young man whose friend assaulted a little girl in Las Vegas and killed her. David was a bystander. He didn't get involved. When we show the video, students are morally outraged. How could he do this? 43
    My colleague was telling me about one time when one student said "I'm not sure I would have acted any differently than he had." Of course, the whole class looked at him, and if it hadn't been a safe classroom, it would have been easy to just say "David Cash is bad, and you're bad, and it's just as simple as that." In this classroom, the student was able to say he might have been a bystander. Rather than shout him down, students asked why. What would have kept you from doing the right thing? From there, students got into a complex discussion: why don't we always do what we know is right? 44
    The second example is from our last institute [for teachers]. We were looking at attitudes towards undocumented workers. One female participant said, "I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable with having a large number of male workers in my community." It would have been too easy, if there wasn't safety in the group, for someone to call her a racist. Instead, participants asked her "Why do you feel that way?" The participants gave each other permission to admit the things we sometimes think and sometimes do, but we don't usually tell people because it's not PC. 45
WHC: So you have a clear moral agenda, but reach it by keeping the conversation open. 46
ALBA: Often, it's the impulse of educators to get to the heart of things and say, well let's talk about this right now. Yet the very thrust of some of these issues is tied to our identity, to our experience, to the very fabric of who we are. How you do provide that safety to really tackle these issues? 47
WHC: Facing History offers a number of case studies. Rather than list them, since they're on your web site, just tell me: what is your favorite? If you had to go back to the classroom, what would you be most eager to teach? 48
ALBA: I would probably look at the American eugenics movement. It's a forgotten history. And yet it's had tremendous implications for education, racial policies, and medicine. Even standardized testing had roots in eugenic ideas. To uncover this forgotten chapter in American history seems to me very important. 49
    You know, ideas don't just "happen." They're a history. Eugenics itself started in England with Francis Galton, and found fertile ground here in the United States because conditions lent themselves to considering eugenics as a solution to immigration problems and the problems of the "weak" or "feeble-minded" having more children than the people who were of more "older stock." 50
    This is a story that doesn't appear in history textbooks. And yet, at one time, two-thirds of our college textbooks in college and high school biology textbooks had a chapter or unit devoted to eugenics. 51
WHC: And, of course, this idea found supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Japan. 52
ALBA: Right. There were international eugenics conventions, where the world's eugenicists came together to share their body of understanding, knowledge, and applications. 53
WHC: Efithia? 54
DANELLIS: I came to "Facing History" through the module on the Holocaust, the original case study. I taught urban students in Los Angeles, and many of them didn't know anything about Jewish people – they didn't even know if they knew any Jewish people. But there was something so compelling to students about this story. How does a country like Germany, with its cultural heritage and democratic constitution, lose its democracy? That was very, very compelling for them. 55
    From a personal point of view, students connected to every single story they read. Personal decisions made in the 30s and during the War had such deep consequences. I found that students learned empathy through this case study. They began to question themselves and their own behavior. After a survivor came to speak to them, they wrote poetry to memorialize the event. They were moved to action on their own campus because they said "We can't be passive. We have to act." 56
    This was powerful and moving. 57
WHC: Has anyone done Facing History in a college course? 58
ALBA: Yes. We have what is known as the "Education for Democracy" program, where we work with preservice teachers and university professors, and do training with them. 59
    At Chapman University, there's one professor who has incorporated the Facing History curriculum into his curriculum on the Holocaust. And there are others around the country doing the same thing. [Editor's note: the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education ( ) at Chapman University also collaborates with Facing History on Holocaust educational initiatives.] 60
WHC: How do people actually use the material in these case study modules? 61
ALBA: Teachers and our own program associates have developed one-day lessons, lessons over two-day periods, six to eight week courses, or semester-long courses. On our web site, there are a number of lessons on various issues and topics. We also post teaching strategies on the web. Some of these strategies, for instance, are built around the recognition that some kids, because of their limited English proficiency, need scaffolding to access the material.

WHC: You mentioned "pathways." Can you tell me what a "pathway" is? 62
DANELLIS: At our on-line campus, we have seven modules, each of which is largely a collection of primary source documents related to a topic: the Weimar Period, the Eugenics Movement, and so on. 63
    But teachers can pick and choose readings, charts, songs, or various types of artwork from each module. They can sequence these modules in a "pathway" of their own, posting instructions for their students. Students can use lab or home computers to complete this teacher-designed investigation. 64
WHC: So a teacher interested in a particular theme could organize a collection of documents drawn from three or four modules, posting both the documentary collection and instructions on the Facing History website. 65
DANELLIS: Right. Some teachers do "jigsaw" assignments, creating four or five collections. They divide students into groups; each group gets its own path and becomes expert on the documents in it. One group might look at primary source documents that relate to the economy, while another looks at the Treaty of Versailles, for instance. Each expert group can then educate other students. 66
ALBA: This becomes a way for kids to teach each other. 67
DANELLIS: Teachers who don't have the technology at their school will sometimes download those primary source documents, or will put a document or chart on a transparency or poster. 68
WHC: How do you create and refine these units? 69
DANELLIS: There isn't a "unit" per se. There's a scope and sequence and there's a collection of materials. Because every teacher uses what works for their students in their classroom, there isn't a canned curriculum. 70
WHC: But you do have a sequence, a process, for introducing these sources to students. You have an end result in mind. So you've collected materials; how do you know you're done? 71
DANELLIS: We're never done! (laughter) 72
ALBA: The true teacher, the best teacher, is of course a student. We're always learning about new resources. Facing History has so many resources; the idea isn't to use all of them. See this? (Alba lofts a thick, paperbound case study) It isn't a textbook. It's a resource book. 73
    This book by itself does very little without follow-up. After a workshop or institute with teachers, we sit down with them and reflect on what we experienced. We think about the teachers' own students, school culture, curriculum that we teach, goals, and objectives. Then we say, okay, what did we do here that would help enhance these themes and ideas? 74
    We have faculty work with a program associate who knows the materials, resources, and lessons available. If you say, "I need a lesson on obedience, because I'm dealing in my classroom with the difference between consent and conformity," the program associate would find resources related to that theme. Then we work together and map out a journey for students. 75
    All Facing History journeys begin with issues like the personal component, move through the case study, through evaluation and judgment. They end with this question: "What do I do? How do I participate in this process of democracy? How do I have access to it? What is my responsibility?" 76
    So follow-up is a critical piece to translating our materials into lesson plans. 77
DANELLIS: Teachers who come to the institutes take resources away with them. You don't have to attend an institute to take resources off our web site. But if you do attend an institute, even if it's online, there will be follow-up. We will follow up whether there's an office in the area or not. 78
WHC: So you're really more than an editorial office, a resource warehouse, or a training institute. You are a support staff for teachers. I would imagine that takes a lot of your time. 79
ALBA: It does. It's labor intensive. But I think that that piece is what's critical. 80
WHC: And all of this is free. 81
ALBA: Right. We don't charge for institutes, workshops, follow-up or, if you've attended a workshop, for borrowing materials from our library. And you can download any materials without charge from our website. 82
WHC: Facing History has seen a lot of expansion in the last few years. Where is Facing History headed? 83
ALBA: I know that we're not going to grow offices. I think that growth will come from investment in technology. I never thought we'd host online institutes for an international community of educators. Now we do. The richness of perspectives in those institutes probably can't be found at traditional face-to-face regionally-based institutes. 84
    We are invested in learning directly from other countries. Our national board recently went to South Africa. Being in conversation with the people there was very valuable.

DANELLIS: We also have online forums. We will have a particular topic – last year it was Armenian Genocide. We invite not only educators but students as well. Sometimes, we get grants which will allow us to unite young people from different parts of the country or the world. 85
    For instance, the students at the Boston Latin School recently had conversations with students at a school in Prague around their Facing History projects. Last year, students at twelve US schools joined a conversation about Bill Moyers' video on "Becoming American." Students partnered through the internet, using the Chinese experience to understand the immigration experience. Then they created materials which now constitute an online "Becoming American" museum. Connecting educators and young people like this is very, very powerful for us. 86
WHC: Let's say a teacher has come up with a new module. How would that teacher get to you? How would they develop it? 87
DANELLIS: A lot of our resources come to us because someone's made a film or a documentary, or written a book. They get grant funding and want a study guide, or want to see that this finds a home so it can be distributed or incorporated in institutes or workshops. The same is true of people who develop lessons or units. They come to us. We have templates and an internal review staff to see whether proposals reflect the Facing History scope and sequence. I'm sure "Transitional Justice" was just an idea in somebody's head five years ago. Every idea we've got came from one teacher or another. 88
WHC: In a word, the purpose of Facing History? 89
ALBA: We're all about prevention. 90
DANELLIS: By the time you're facing collective violence or genocide, it's too late.
Facing History is all about making sure we don't get there.
Visit the Facing History and Ourselves website at: 92
Biographical Note: Tom Laichas is co-editor of World History Connected and teaches world history at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California. 93

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