Facing History and Ourselves
Everyone’s always in a hurry, but though it’s tempting to refer just to “Facing History,” it’s important to invoke the full title of this unusual international educational and professional development organization for educators. It’s “Facing History and Ourselves,” (FHO) as the director of the NYC office, David Nelson, points out. The essential idea behind the 30-year old program is living history—to get middle and high school students to relate what’s going on in the world and in their local communities to their own experiences in order to understand and, it is hoped, effect change that will mitigate intolerance and violence. FHO programs focus on ways in which educators can create and adapt curricula that will prompt students to examine the nature of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.
The 2-5 day FHO institutes, which meet all over the country, and abroad, are organized by on-site staff who lead discussions on print and mass media materials and, depending on specific districts and particular requests, make these resources available to classroom teachers. All the institutes subscribe to the same mission, regardless of their geographic location. The goal is to encourage “the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development and lessons of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.” Nelson, who has held the position of director since 1993, came to the position by way of his own deepening commitment as a teacher and advisor in math and social studies in various alternative schools in the city. The child of parents who were indirectly victims of the Holocaust in Germany, Nelson says he always wanted to put his teaching experience to work in ways that might make a difference in changing attitudes about human behavior. In FHO he found a natural home, an organization that “treasures classroom teachers as artists.”
Typically, FHO staff members visit 20-50 schools a year. Nelson himself visits many more, including schools in Westchester and Nassau Counties and New Jersey. Where others speak of particular individuals as mentors, Nelson speaks of the organization itself—its consultants, its staff, its publications, including an FHO staple, the book, Facing History & Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, a continually updated collection of case studies. Other institute features include promulgating pedagogy research and disseminating study guides and lesson plans, fostering community engagement and instituting special initiatives. There is also, of course, Facing History High School, the result of a partnership between the NYC Department of Education and New Visions. The school, located on west 50th Street (Region 9), has just completed its first year. FHO doesn’t try to effect change by just studying history, Nelson emphasizes, but by engaging students through their FHO-trained teachers to connect humanities, social studies and language arts with their own lives, their own neighborhoods, themselves. If a student sees someone slam another student into a locker, what is the moral obligation to respond? What should that response be? How might others be brought in to support the student who may feel alone or powerless, fearful of doing the right thing? What does history say? What does it mean to stand up now?
Although there are over 40 FHO institutes in the U.S. alone, Nelson would prefer to concentrate FHO energies, sharing resources online, rather than see FHO expand into more states. Besides,“we’re not out to reinvent the wheel. We steal what we can,” he says with a laugh, meaning, of course, that FHO connects with other institutes and with like-minded organizations—museums in the city, the Wiesenthal Center in L.A., for example, and imports what it can to advance its mission. Such connections could also mean using a Bill Moyers series on American history or a rebroadcast of “Eyes on the Prize.” “Whatever is good out there, we will run a best practices workshop on it.” FHO just held its annual meeting in the city. Approximately 30 educators attended, chosen out of an application pool of 80. As always, participants can sign up for life, if they wish, keeping in close touch with FHO program staff who will help them customize resources and who will visit schools and speak with other teachers and with administrators. Meanwhile, FHO continues to grow–fuller, richer and, most significantly, online. www.facinghistory.org.#