Facing History and Ourselves is a Brookline-based nonprofit that was founded with the aim to provide resources and professional development to K-12 educators for educating students to be good citizens and active participants in a democracy utilizing history, social sciences, and literature. Since its humble beginnings in 1976, Facing History has expanded into an international presence, understanding that the importance of creating an informed citizenry and encouraging civic engagement did not have to be limited to schools in the United States. They now have offices in Toronto and London as well as partnerships in South Africa, Mexico, China, and Northern Ireland.
Young people who connect with Facing History today become part of a larger community of responsible, ethical decision-makers creating a better world for the future. Facing History provides teachers with the tools they need to engage in a deeper, more human analysis of significant milestones in history like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the American Civil Rights Movement.
Like many other Facing History employees, staff developer Laura Tavares is a former schoolteacher. She characterizes Facing History as a mission-driven organization, steered by the staff’s shared set of values.
“Schools are places where a strong society is built, where kids learn to be citizens,” Tavares explained. “But it can be difficult for teachers to facilitate intense conversations about racism and genocide.”
Facing History’s professional development training and literature assists teachers to create a comfortable environment in which to learn about these difficult subjects.
Facing History has proven to have had a positive impact on students who engage in their curriculum both academically and emotionally. From an academic perspective, students study primary source material in a Facing History class that builds up their reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, but the organization also seeks to enhance students as social and emotional beings as well.
“School-age students need to feel that their teacher values them and that it’s safe to ask questions,” Tavares said. “It’s safe to be uncertain.”
Tavares believes this kind of intellectual confidence is a gateway to all other forms of faith.
“Learning to think about big ideas becomes a lens through which to view other things,” she said. “They are not just ingesting facts but have the tools to analyze and interpret those facts.”
The impact of Facing History’s work goes deeper than intellectual capabilities. Tavares pointed out one particular local student, Mohammed Sayed, a Cambridge-based student who came to the United States as a refugee from Afghanistan. While learning about the rise of Nazism in a Facing History class, he met a Holocaust survivor and made a connection with him. They obviously had religious and cultural differences but what they shared was a streak of resilience. This is just one example of how a Facing History class made it possible for a student to make a connection with a moment in history and a person from that era. Sayed related to the sense of survivor’s guilt the Holocaust survivor felt and also chose to use this guilt as inspiration to become an activist for those with disabilities. The organization also holds an annual essay contest where the winners are eligible for college scholarships.
The organization faces obstacles as a result of the increasing demands on public schoolteachers. With the heavy emphasis on testing, teachers are under more pressure than ever and incorporating Facing History content into their already heavy course load has been an ongoing challenge. The organization is doing their best to address this tension by closely aligning their content to Common Core standards and building ongoing relationships with educators. Facing History seeks to not just simply train teachers but to create reciprocal relationships with them.
The 2016 election and the current political climate has made Facing History’s mission a more urgent one. There has been a troubling uptick in harassment and hate crimes sweeping the country.
“This election has revealed a division in this country and an inability to talk across differences,” Tavares said. “Facing feels a tremendous sense of urgency. Schools really want to know how they can create a safer culture in their schools.”
The organization is working hard to assist schools in how to build productive dialogue surrounding the recent events in this country. Some of the resources can be found on Facing History’s website.
Tavares hopes that Facing History courses helps students to see themselves as not just high academic achievers but as agents for positive change. Facing History emphasizes that real ordinary citizens have been able to make a difference even during history’s darkest periods. This is because they were able to think big and past the everyday divisions and conflicts that can disempower people from standing up for themselves and others. Facing History and Ourselves hopes its academic offerings provides the tools for future generations to learn to become not only great students but great citizens as well. An excellent education is a lot more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic.
“They are learning with their head, heart, and conscience,” Tavares said.
Facing History will facilitate a Q&A with internationally renowned Holocaust testimony expert, Lawrence Langer and the film’s director, R. Harvey Bravman, following the screening of Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project on January 26 at the Coolidge Corner Theater. The film is based on 80 plus hours of video interviews with local witnesses to the Holocaust conducted over 20 years ago and never seen before by the public. Tickets are available now on the Coolidge’s website.