EdFix Episode 33: Teaching Difficult History in Troublesome Times
It's really just about reflecting on these important moments in history and helping students navigate what they're learning and incorporate it into their own thinking about themselves as people.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Welcome to EdFix, your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. I'm your host, Michael Feuer. I'm the Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, and today I have a special treat in store because we're going to have an episode with two very wonderful guests, Abby Weiss and Dimitry Anselme, from an organization called Facing History and Ourselves, which is headquartered in Boston but with offices in other places.
Abby is the Smith Family Senior Vice President and Chief Officer for Program and Thought Leadership at Facing History, and Abby leads program implementation, including professional development of program staff and educators along with the development of innovative classroom resources. Abby comes to this work after quite a wonderful early career in organizations such as JumpStart. She then helped launch something called the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been involved in a little bit of the political side of education, having managed Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's Child and Youth Readiness Cabinet, which put her into an opportunity to collaborate with district leadership, especially in impoverished communities across Massachusetts. Hi, Abby.
Dimitry is the Executive Program Director for Professional Learning & Educator Support at Facing History. In this role, Dimitry oversees online learning, staff development, and Jewish education. Dimitry also manages the partner school network, and is involved in the international aspect of Facing History, and I know we're going to talk a little bit about that. Dimitry comes, originally, from Haiti and grew up in Zaire, which is the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been living in Boston since about 1985.
Wow. What a treat. Welcome to EdFix to both of you. I'm going to get right to. Tell us about Facing History and Ourselves.
Well, thanks for having us. This is a treat for us too, and I'm excited about the conversation and to talk about our organization. Facing History and Ourselves has a mission to use lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. And so, we do that in a variety of ways, really working directly with teachers across the country and really around the globe, providing them with professional learning opportunities and then rigorous content that helps students navigate the world that we're living in and really reflect back on the moments of history, and the choices and behaviors that led to where we are today and then really incorporate them into their own thinking about themselves, as our founder, Margot Stern Strom, called them as moral philosophers and really entrusting students to wrestle with these moments in history and think about their own civic participation and civic agency.
So we are working with educators, hundreds of thousands of educators actually, across the globe. We have regional offices in urban places across the country, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Memphis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Bay Area, and then we've got two other entities, we call them one in the UK in London and the other in Canada in Toronto. So we are kind of all over the place and really trying to lean into this work right now. At the moment, we're in our own current political climate, navigating, ensuring that kids have access to full teaching of history.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Say a word about what motivated the founder of this organization way back when it got started.
I may lean on Dimitry for this answer because he actually worked with the founder who actually recently passed after founding the organization and being with us at the organization for 38 years prior to my arrival, and some of it is about her own personal story growing up in Memphis and her experiences there. But Dimitry, I'm going to ask you because you knew Margot and have a much deeper understanding of the foundings of the organization.
Thank you. And I'm also glad to be here, as Abby has mentioned. So Margot Stern Strom, the founder of Facing History, talked a lot about her inspiration for founding Facing History, grounded in two things. One was her experience growing up in Memphis as a white woman in a segregated world where she would sit through civic classes and classes about the democratic traditions of the United States and our history, and yet, from that same classroom, she could look over into a segregated world and that reality was never discussed in the classroom, was never brought up. She had no vocabulary to talk about that particular experience or the disjointed experience of being taught that civic democratic values and yet was living in a segregated world. The other piece that was of high interest for Margot is, she was also studying, at the time, on adolescent development and really looking and thinking deeply about the moral and ethical development of young people and really thinking around, how do we create learning experiences that taps into the moral imagination of young people and also offering them opportunity to wrestle with moral and ethical dilemmas? So those two things are really the inspiration for starting Facing History.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
So what was the next step, then, in taking that reflection and that experience and thinking maybe we can organize something to do better? Were you involved with her at the early stages of thinking about that?
I joined the organization in 1993, so it was already an established organization when I joined. However, I had the opportunity to work with the founder and many other people who were there in the early days. I think what drove the educators who founded Facing History, and still do today, it's a network of over 400,000 educators globally, both in the United States and outside. I think it's a deep respect and love for working with young people. I think a Facing History teacher is, by their natural affinity, is wanting to find ways to give young people a voice and agency in their own learning. We know that young people today continue to have that cognitive dissonance, that there are lived experiences from the cultures in which they live, in the homes that they traverse, that doesn't necessarily, oftentimes, finds space in the classroom or in the school sites that they have to go in. And so, many students have to do some form of code switching.
We work with a psychologist, John Amaechi, who is based in the UK. We talked a lot about having to put on a suit in order to enter the school building. I think that cognitive dissonance continues to happen today, and I think that's why we're Facing History and Ourselves. That's the Ourselves challenge. So how do we create schools... How do we create a pedagogy of teaching and learning that will begin to allow students to be themselves, that the classroom learning will tap into what they know and then build upon what they know and actually activate, also, the things they do not know, develop that curiosity for learning even more.
Can I just add one thing? That's beautifully said and the only thing I would add is that I think our place in that, in addition to our resources that we can talk about, that we've had for a very long time, looking at the Holocaust, looking at reconstruction at these kind of big moments, the Armenian genocide, but we also take seriously the responsibility for helping teachers navigate what's happening in the world right now. So we have a pretty robust current events cycle where we produce materials for teachers about things that are happening in the world right now, and we also have a rapid response current events machine so that when something big happens, teachers actually know to come to us either the same day or the following morning before they're in their classroom and we guide them through both having conversations with actually themselves, with their colleagues, and then what to do in the classroom.
Because often, I know with my own three grown children, they would come home from school after something big would happen, and I'd ask, "Have you talked about that in school today?" "Nope." And so that, I think, makes it difficult for kids to navigate the world often and also for teachers to have a resource where they can help because often, some of these things are pretty emotionally hot or traumatizing, especially in the last few years, to give them the resources and the tools they need to help navigate those moments.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Maybe this will sound a bit exaggerated, but I think young people, passionate about the potential for teaching and learning and its role in the civic quality of our society, are also facing themselves, if not history, they're facing headlines, which must give them pause. And maybe paradoxically, they are facing headlines about school violence, about the politicization of teaching and learning, about the stresses on the education system, on schools and schooling and just when we need them most, they are facing very difficult challenges.
Does Facing History and Ourselves, does your organization, view itself... Do you view yourselves as providing a little bit of a protective coding for prospective teachers so that they know they're not going to go into this environment and suddenly be completely on their own, that they've got help on the way? Is that part of the ethos?
It is very much part of the ethos. I think when I started teaching, it was literally 40 years ago, in the nineties, in 1993. At the time, we were having lots of conversation around the country about the need for professional development for educators, and still, today, 40 years into it, professional development continues to be underfunded, continues to be an afterthought in our work, but it's incredibly critical to the practice of teachers. So whether you're a prospective teacher, you are new to the profession in your first five years of teaching or you have been a veteran teacher, practiced and established, you need professional development, ongoing professional development that allows you to reflect on your practices, gives you opportunity to learn new moves, new approaches, and learn to adjust your lessons. Adjust your lessons, your practice, the kind of questions that you are asking young people because things are changing for them.
And we know, from research, that the good teacher is a good learner. It's that ongoing learning is actually part of the craft of teaching, that is part of what makes effective teaching, and yet we haven't built an ecosystem where it is a consistent loop for professional learning for educators, and I think that's where we come in and that's what we're trying to provide. So for prospective teachers, we would say, yeah, you attend professional learning from Facing History, whether they're summer seminars, online workshops, online courses, because you need that professional learning that, A, is going to give you your content, give you grounding, enriched academic content because a teacher is only as good as they know the content in the discipline in which they teach, so we need to provide you with that. Second, we also need to provide you with access to teaching strategies, pedagogies, ways to engage students, the skillset of learning to understand students', voice, agency, their lived experiences, developing equity mindsets. Those things are not natural. Those are things that us, as educators, we learn to do and we learn to be better at this over the years.
So that's where professional learning comes in for educators. So content is important, having the lesson plans, having the teaching move is important, but you can't do them alone. So we have built demands on the online learning center for teachers where they can access classroom videos, they can access the teaching strategies, the content, but to do it just by yourself is not sufficient. We really believe you need that community of educators. So that's why it's important to jump into a webinar or you join an online workshop or if you can, if Facing History is close by, you attend a face-to-face summer seminar because then you are in a community of practice with other educators. And as I've mentioned, we do this work internationally as well. So whether you are teaching in Mexico, El Salvador, or you were in France, Northern Ireland, South Africa, we believe that that kind of learning community of educator is important to your craft, to your teaching, that's what makes you a better teacher.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I'm taken by the phrasing, Dimitry, that learning is a very integral part of teaching. But I wonder whether that's an attitude that is shared by a lot of people who are very influential these days, either in opinion writing, in school boards, in the political surround of all of this.
And I know Abby, for example, you must have to deal with this a lot in terms of the way the press picks up on some of your work, but say something about... Use that as an opening to how things are today. Yeah.
I have said, more times than I care to admit, since I arrived at Facing History three years ago, three plus years ago, that this is just an incredibly hard time to be a teacher. It's a hard time for us to be citizens who are watching the world as well sometimes, but to be a teacher, to navigate what's happening, I use that word again, to what's happening outside of the classroom that has a pretty significant impact about what's happening day-to-day in a classroom. I feel for teachers, I deeply respect them and want, as an organization, for us to do everything we can to support them and not make their jobs harder, but to actually make them easier and ways for them to really support their own learning agency and also how they're working with their own students. Our approach has been to listen to teachers, as I said, to think about what it is that they need as opposed to what we think they need, which takes discipline, and then to also keep our eye on the ball.
Our work is really kind of stands on its own. We have 40 years of incredible evaluation data that say that it improves teaching practice, that teachers actually have more professional satisfaction from participating in our professional learning experiences, which is huge right now since teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and that students actually come away from the courses, the Facing History materials, really understanding their own place in the world and understanding multiple perspectives, being able to talk across difference. So we really try to focus on that, focus on our mission, focus on the fact that we're helping support the growth of these young adults to come into society as adults, talking across difference, understanding that we don't have to live in this extremely polarized world, that there's a way to talk, to understand, and, frankly, to listen better and understand where people are coming from and make their own judgments about who they want to be and how they want to show up.
And so, if we keep focused on that and worry less about the politicization of our materials and resources, which actually, frankly, I think because we lean so heavily on primary sources, we've been able to really, I think, walk through this time relatively safely for teachers and not making it overly complicated or difficult for them, in most places, to use our materials and resources. So that's been our approach. It's not easy every day, and it is an every day conversation and calculation, frankly, about how we show up and what we do, but the work we do is, I think, unimpeachable and is not political, and it's really just about reflecting on these important moments in history and helping students navigate what they're learning and incorporate it into their own thinking about themselves as people.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
So I want to get back to this distinction between the pedagogical side of what goes on with Facing History and the content side, because you've both made a strong case for teachers needing to have a rigorous grasp of the fundamental content, but that what you're really working on here is developing the skills in pedagogy as much or more than trying to, shall we say, compliment or supplement whatever content knowledge teachers may or may not have.
To what extent do you, in Facing History, view that distinction and overlap as critical to the way you design programs and evaluate success? In other words, on the balance between pedagogy and content, what's the emphasis mostly on?
I’m curious, I want to hear Dimitry’s response. I’m wondering. I think I know what he’s going to say, so you go first.
I think it’s a hard one for us at Facing History to distinguish, because we view it as two interchangeable and interrelated processes. That balance between content and practice and pedagogy goes back and forth, especially for what we are asking students to study and look. So for example, one of our signature case study is looking at the history of the Holocaust. So it's asking students to look at a time period in the 1930s where you have a fragile democracy that comes apart, you have a rise of an Nazi dictatorship and then a slow march to mass murder, to the mass murder of European Jewry or one third of European Jewry of the time. Now, that requires a lot of knowledge and content. You have to know this history deeply and well to understand when students will have questions, when you will need to pause, and when you can accelerate, let's say.
But you cannot teach the history of mass murder without pedagogy. You have to learn to know how to... As you were talking about, what is that protective coding? How do we safely go in and safely go out? For example, what are appropriate connections and what are not appropriate? There is something that is particular about that history, and there are things that are universal. A teacher needs to know, well, what is particular about what happened in this particular history that cannot be universalized, but what are the universal questions you can ask, and when? So it is hard, I think, and maybe having worked at Facing History for so long and having taught at it, I'm in the water, that it becomes like a fish and water. It becomes really difficult to distinguish how to separate content and pedagogy because we think those two things is what leads to the magic of learning.
I a hundred percent cosign and say that what's interesting to me is also how we bring our pedagogy into current events, for example, and really start with this place where we're asking students to, we call it the head, the heart, and the conscience, how are you? What's happened? How are you feeling about what happened? And then what are you going to do about it, if anything? And so, that actually translates into these very short lessons we have on pretty complicated things that are happening in the news to help sort of provide a frame and a way in. So all the things that Dimitry's talking about a safe way in, a safe way out, our pedagogy threads throughout. So yes, it's really important to have deep knowledge of these important historical moments. And there are these shorter bites that are also pretty deep and require skilled teaching, which we support, and also for teachers to really manage their own feelings about what's happening on January 6th or when there's a mass shooting or whatever.
I think the other thing that I would say, that I'm proud of, is as much as we'll do these rapid responses, and we sort of know it when we see it, when there's a moment that's happening in our country where we feel like we need to provide teachers with something to help them through the next day in the classroom, but we also do it in a really careful way. So for example, we produced some materials on police violence and it took us actually several months to do, and we ended up, instead of doing one lesson, that's just not enough, we did four and packaged them together as a mini unit, sort of saying, you know what? This is complicated and we can't just do this in 20 minutes. And I keep saying 20 minutes because we hear from teachers that that's about all they have to sort of manage a lesson on something that's happening in the news. So this requires more, we understand that there are students and there are teachers who are coming from families where they have a family member who serves in the police force or some other connection.
And so we wanted to do that in a way that actually invited everybody in as opposed to sort of vilifying any particular group of people. So we take that responsibility pretty seriously.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I guess the bad news is that we have, over the past maybe five or more years, been confronted with so many challenges to our civic fabric. That's bad news. The good news is that it has led to a very robust revival of interest in the ways we teach, prepare, educate ourselves to do better. And it sounds to me as if Facing History is an example of an organization that had a good head start, and now you guys must be super busy thinking of ways to maintain some of the momentum or the revival of whatever and however you might define this word, civics, as such a core component of education at all levels.
And before we end, I just want to ask each of you, say, in a minute, if there was an example from your childhood or earlier life that you recall as maybe having been something that launched you into this kind of work in education, in issues of equity, in issues of social justice and in the civic responsibility.
I grew up in Washington DC and attended DC public schools K through 12 and grew up with a father, in particular, who was very civically engaged and had a real commitment to social justice and instilled, I think, in each of the five of us, there were five kids, I'm the youngest, this real responsibility for, and it's a little cliche now, but to leave the world better than you found it. So there was always this expectation of being deeply grateful for what I had and the benefits of having grown up in the household that I did and also doing more to make the world better.
I was keenly aware of the differences as a middle class, white, Jewish girl growing up in DC public schools where, at least in my high school, it was about 10% white, and I was very aware of the differences in terms of privilege and opportunity with me and my classmates, and I think my siblings were as well. And that's all it took, was my growing up in that household with that father and in that educational setting for me to feel like I could do something, that I needed to do something, really, in the education sector to try to close those opportunity gaps. So that's been the driver for me for my whole career.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I think my experience was, in the fall of 1985, my family immigrated to the United States, and in the fall of 1985, I started high school in a small Catholic high school in the city of Boston, and it was a radical experience of learning for me. I got into a school building where the teachers shook your hand, they introduced themselves and they told you that they were so glad that you were here. Prior to that, I had grown up in the Congo and went to a French school with a lot of colonial legacies, so teachers did not shake hands on students. And the idea that an educator in Kinshasa would've told me that they were glad that I was in a building, that just wasn't the way schools happened. And then in classrooms, I was being asked my opinion, like classroom debates. If you read a text, you had to tell them what you thought of the author. And even more blasphemous, the teachers would ask you whether you agree or disagree with the author. These were not things I had been trained to do.
Again, my experience had been, if you're in a classroom, you remain quiet, you take notes, you never ask a question because the question means that the educator has not done their job well. So I was shocked. I was shocked by that kind of learning, and I think that really excited me and I wanted to figure out ways to make that learning more accessible to even more students. And I think that's what started me on that path.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
Thank you for you, both of you, for sharing some of the important background that makes a big difference to the way we think of our lives and what we do.
MICHAEL J. FEUER:
I want to thank you both ever so much for a truly stimulating conversation. I wish you both continued success in this. It's been a pleasure talking about it.
To our listeners, let me just say that if you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe to our EdFix podcast, which you can do on Apple Podcast, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, or wherever else you might listen to your podcast. We also have a website, EdFixPodcast.com, where you can download and listen to any of our episodes. With that, I will just say a special thanks to our guests, Abby Weiss and Dimitry Anselme, and a special thanks to Touran Waters, our executive director, producer, technical engineer, expert, and timekeeper.
Thank you both very, very much for a wonderful conversation and good luck in all this hard work.
Thank you so much for having us. Appreciate it.