When the world found itself on the brink of a pandemic earlier this year, there was an upswing in interest in stories from the 1918 flu pandemic; everyone wanted to see what its curve looked like, and find out how well people complied with mask mandates and other preventative measures. A similar pattern has emerged in the wake of the ongoing protests against police brutality. We’ve looked to the civil rights protests from the 1960s—and voices like Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin—to reveal how today’s racist systems evolved from earlier ones, and show us what we still need to change.
For many educators, especially history and language arts teachers, drawing these connections between the past and present is an integral part of their jobs. Not only does it keep students engaged and interested in sometimes centuries-old events, but it also helps them understand what values they themselves should emulate.
Facing History and Ourselves is an organization that provides middle and high school educators with the resources necessary to do this work, from lesson plans to teaching strategies and everything in between. It was founded in 1976 by Margot Stern Strom, a Massachusetts history teacher who felt that grade school students needed to learn about the bigotry that led to the Holocaust so they’d know to fight it in their own lives. As the operation grew, she and her colleagues began branching out into other parts of history, too.
In short, its mission is to frame tough topics in sensitive ways that extol humanitarianism and condemn bigotry, while letting students examine the finer differences for themselves. In one unit, for example, students explore how the Allies carried out justice after the Holocaust without having any international law to guide their process. They’ll learn about Nazis who claimed they were simply following orders; and they’ll talk about how justice is possible when crimes have occurred in massive numbers. In a unit on student activism, a lesson on the 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott segues into a discussion about how students advocated for gun control after surviving the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Then, students will use what they’ve learned to come up with a plan for effecting change on an issue they care about.
Naming just two examples fails to capture the breadth of Facing History’s repository of resources. There are entire sections on global immigration, race in U.S. history, justice and human rights, genocide and mass violence, and more. And while students may have heard about some of the events already, Facing History focuses on highlighting pieces that are often overlooked—like the Catholic nuns who participated in the 1965 voting rights marches in Selma, Alabama. With an understanding of what’s already happened, the next generation of leaders will have a clearer idea of how to break destructive cycles.
“History is with us whether we look at it or not,” Facing History president and CEO Roger Brooks tells Mental Floss. “A perfect example is the vote—a crucial element for maintaining just and democratic societies. At the moment, there is a broad conversation on the right to vote and barriers to voting; and the vote has loomed large in our history. There is a great deal to learn about the impact of civic engagement from past historical battles over the right to vote and the hard-won victories like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If we don’t look at the lessons of history, we contribute to the continuation of systemic racism.”
When COVID-19 began its rapid spread, the Facing History team realized educators would soon be looking for assistance in navigating at-home learning. According to Brooks, they added a slate of new resources for teachers and parents—book club guides, activities to help kids manage anxiety, etc.—within a week of school closures. They wanted to ensure that these new virtual classrooms would still be places where students could process the public health crisis.
“We know that in times of societal stress or upheaval, bias tends to rise,” Brooks explains. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we witnessed the horrible uptick in virulent (and sometimes violent) racism targeting Asians and Asian Americans. It was critical for our Asian and Asian American students to know that the classroom was a safe space for them, a brave space for conversation to examine the racism that seeks to diminish their humanity.”
With a community of more than 100,000 educators that reaches from Colombia to France and beyond, Facing History is teaching millions of students around the world how to be “upstanders,” or people who won’t hesitate to act if they witness hate, bigotry, or violence. And that’s really the point of the whole endeavor—to transform history from static facts and stories into something that students can use as a roadmap for ethics and civic engagement. Facing History program director Laura Tavares tells Mental Floss that each unit ends with the same question for students: “How does this history educate me about my responsibilities today?”
Educators can create an account to access Facing History’s collection of free resources, and there are also a number of professional development webinars and courses that they can register for online. (Many of these are also free, and Facing History can help educators find grants and other funding for those that aren’t.) If you’d like to donate to the organization, you can do so here.