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Lessons in Civic Responsibility

The program Facing History and Ourselves shows students how to make a positive difference in society


by Beverly Gray

January 7, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Five years ago, a school group from Oakland laughed and jeered throughout a screening of "Schindler's List." This fiasco convinced Steven Spielberg that many students needed careful preparation before viewing his film. So the director asked Facing History and Ourselves to develop appropriate study materials. Last fall, the Boston-based organization was tapped to create the classroom guide accompanying the new CD-ROM from Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

Facing History and Ourselves was founded in 1976 by veteran educator Margot Stern Strom. As a Jewish child growing up in Memphis, Tenn., Strom never learned about the Holocaust. Slowly, she came to realize that her teachers had never told her the truth about history and her place in it.

When she herself became a teacher in Brookline, Mass., she committed to helping her students explore social injustice, and how it affects their own lives. Her ultimate goal: to show teen-agers what it means to be a participant in history, not merely a passive bystander.

"I'm hoping," says Strom, "that we can walk in one another's shoes and learn from one another."

Facing History has developed a curriculum that uses the Holocaust as a starting point for showing students how to make a positive difference. The organization produces textbooks and audiovisual materials, but the core of its effort lies in the training institutes at which middle school and high school teachers learn to apply the lessons of history to their own classrooms.

In 1993, the program came to the Los Angeles area. Dan Alba, who directs the local office, estimates that 700 teachers from Southern California public and private schools have attended the week-long institute. Once they receive their initial training, the teachers become part of a vast support network that encourages creative uses for what they've learned.

One of the program's most enthusiastic supporters is Jose Ramos, who teaches social studies at East Los Angeles' Garfield High School. Ramos has put together a popular elective course for his seniors, 89 percent of whom are Latino. Ramos' course weaves together the lessons of the Holocaust with the kind of ethnic stereotyping they see in their own lives. It goes back in time to the Jim Crow South, looks at the questions raised by the crisis in Kosovo, and explores today's anti-immigrant sentiments.

The key, says Ramos, is that "the kids need to understand the common threads of oppression." By the end of the semester, when students visit the Museum of Tolerance and invite a Holocaust survivor into their classroom, they are newly sensitized to the meaning of that era in history.

But Alba is careful never to make judgments about which group has suffered the most: "You can't compare people's suffering. Pain is pain."

For Jan Stewart, who teaches humanities at Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley, the Facing History curriculum is powerful "because it helps students understand that no group has been able to escape another group's wrath."

Stewart, who is African-American, contends with a student body that blends Latinos, Anglos, Persian Jews, and immigrants from Southeast Asia. In her class, students have been moved to delve more deeply into their own ethnic heritage. But Stewart's larger achievement lies in inspiring them to find "the courage to do the right thing in your own way."

One African-American alumna, working at her first job, was brave enough to protest when her boss told anti-Jewish jokes. A major test of the program's values came when a Persian student was stabbed to death in a street crime with racial overtones. The initial fear on the Taft campus was that other Persians would be moved to retaliate. But a multiethnic coalition from Stewart's class announced, "We want to use this as a rallying point for peace, not more violence." Working together, the students created a memorial for the slain teen.

Though Facing History and Ourselves has largely focused on public education, the organization has recently devised curricula geared toward Jewish day and religious schools. A grant from the Covenant Foundation has allowed Jan Darsa, senior programmer in the Boston office, to develop a brand-new text, "The Jews of Poland." Darsa sees this text as a valuable tool for Jewish identity-building, as well as a resource for teaching the more universal implications of what happens when democracy fails.

To Darsa, her work "empowers [students] to think about their civic responsibility, but also about what it can mean to be a Jewish voice in this country."

She will be sharing strategies with Los Angeles' Jewish educators at a workshop slated for April.

Jan Darsa can be reached by phone at (617) 735-1613, or by e-mail at jan_darsa@facing.org. Call Dan Alba, program director of the Los Angeles office, at (626) 744-1170, or e-mail him at dan_alba@ facing.org.

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