Spotlight on Organizational Partner Facing History and Ourselves

This month’s Organization Partner Spotlight focuses on Facing History and Ourselves. Student Leadership Council member, Emily Bailin Wells (EBW), interviewed Mary Robinson Hendra (MRH), Associate Program Director for Los Angeles and Organizational Innovation for Facing History and Ourselves.

EBW: When did your organization launch and why?

MRH: Facing History and Ourselves was created by educators in 1976 in Brookline, Massachusetts, to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. Facing History, then and now, envisions a word shaped by knowledge and compassion, not bigotry and hatred. The next generation can be taught the skills they need to create positive changes in the world before crises occur, not after tragedies take their tolls. Facing History teaches students to make informed, ethical decisions and sparks their desire to look beyond themselves and participate in the broader world.

From a single classroom in Brookline in 1976, Facing History and Ourselves has grown to become a global nonprofit organization that works with more than 48,000 educators each year and reaches more than 4 million students.

fhclassroom_bytomkatesPhoto credit: Tom Kates

EBW: What are Facing History and Ourselves’ main goals and projects?

MRH: Facing History integrates the study of history and literature with ethical decision-making, innovative teaching strategies, and best-in-class professional development opportunities and coaching for secondary-school educators. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, systemic discrimination, and mass violence, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives. Facing History students learn that knowledge plus empathy plus action will empower them to make a positive difference in the world.

Teachers who participate in Facing History professional development learn to use the tools of the humanities and social science — inquiry, analysis, and interpretation — to enrich the content they already teach, as well as how to implement a full unit or elective from Facing History. Once educators have completed a Facing History professional development course, they are paired with an experienced Facing History coach whose mission is to help teachers bring Facing History materials and methods to life in the classroom.

Facing History’s main projects include sharing and teaching original “case studies” — resources and study guides such as: Holocaust and Human Behavior; Race and Membership; Choices in Little Rock; Teaching Mockingbird; The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy; Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age; Crimes Against Humanity: The Genocide of the Armenians; Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools; The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War; and more.

EBW: What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?

MRH: Facing History is unique in that it is not a program of one-time professional development sessions that are all-too-easily forgotten, a packaged curriculum, or a prescribed set of lessons. Rather, Facing History provides a dynamic, long-term intervention, offering engagement and support to educators at every stage in their careers. It is designed — and proven by a broad array of evaluation studies — to have a lasting effect on the lives of students, teachers, schools, and communities. The national average in the United States for satisfaction with teacher professional development, as reported by the Gates Foundation, is 29 percent. By contrast, 99 percent of teachers surveyed would recommend Facing History professional development to their colleagues.

Facing History recognizes that quality teaching and engaging content are at the heart of educational success for students. Although the specific readings and activities in a Facing History class may vary, every course is built around a common and unique structure that moves students and teachers from consideration of identity and group membership through historical study to a fuller understanding of the individual’s role in society.

Facing History also works on a larger scale with principals, administrators, and department chairs in public, private, parochial, and charter schools so they can infuse Facing History school- or district-wide. When Facing History works with an entire school to offer curriculum sequencing, school-wide programming, and staff engagement, the result is a school that takes seriously issues of ethics, social responsibility, prejudice, and justice, and shares a common language to help identify and address these issues. Facing History provides membership in our Innovative Schools Network for schools implementing Facing History in every aspect of their broader school communities. The Innovative Schools Network was launched in 2008 with 12 schools. Today, the network includes more than 80 schools.

Photo credit: Tom Kates

EBW: Has Facing History and Ourselves completed new projects or resources that you would like to share with NAMLE members?

MRH: The shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that followed became a flashpoint for the discussion about race, policing, and justice. Using the information aftermath of Ferguson, “Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age” is a new unit co-produced by Facing History and the News Literacy Project that examines how implicit biases shape our understanding of the world, and how news literacy skills and concepts can help students find reliable information to make decisions, take action, and become effective civic participants in today’s complex information landscape.

Through 11 multimedia lessons, students explore the media coverage of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the protests that followed—driven to a large degree by social media. With exclusive video interviews with journalists who covered the event, the lessons help students:

  • Investigate the choices and challenges facing journalists as they report on a story,    including the importance of verification, sourcing, and other journalistic practices and standards;
  • Understand the role that confirmation bias, stereotyping, and other cognitive biases have a role in how we interpret events, news, and information;
  • Explore the impact of social media on the traditional news cycle, and understand the role it can play in influencing public opinion and the press;
  • Develop critical thinking and news literacy skills to help students find reliable information to make decisions, take action, and responsibly share news through social media.


Educators can access the free unit on Facing History’s website and participate in online professional development to support classroom implementation.

  • One-hour webinar is being offered on December 13. Click here for more information.
  • Online workshop is scheduled for January 23–25. Click here for more information.

Additional face-to-face workshops are being offered throughout the winter and spring in areas where Facing History has offices; up-to-date event listings can be found here.

In addition, staff from Facing History and the News Literacy Project, as well as one of the featured journalists, will be participating in workshops at the 2016 Annual National Council for the Social Studies Conference in Washington, DC, on December 2 (or visit us at booth 521) and at SXSWedu, March 6–9 in Austin, TX.

EBW: What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy?

MRH: Facing History classrooms look at how journalists covered events in the past — what choices were made regarding depth and placement of coverage, the role of politics and propaganda. In order to help students bring the same critical eye to today’s events, we need to expand their news literacy and provide them with new skills for analyzing the role of social media and citizen journalism, and to take that deeper understanding to make informed decisions about when and how to act, and who is in their universe of responsibility.

Media reflects and shapes society, and through the case studies that Facing History examines, we ask students to consider these roles. In our brand new, digital edition of the Holocaust and Human Behavior, we guide students through analyzing Nazi propaganda  and, we ask them to consider art as a form of social criticism. At the time of Weimar Germany, this included film, a relatively new art form, but today students can apply this to consider the various forms social criticism can take through our new forms of media.

EBW: Why is media literacy important to you?

MRH: Students today are media producers as well as media consumers.  This is a key skill in being engaged in a civic society. In past generations, media of the time was used to convey ideas and motivate action.  Whether looking at hate radio in Rwanda, journalists in Nazi Germany, or the televised moments of the Civil Rights Movement, students learn to analyze media and the message.

Our tagline is “people make choices, choices make history.” Often today those choices are connected to media: responses to media, circulation of social media, and connections made through media. We want students to be more responsible media consumers and media producers, engaging in today’s civic society.

EBW: Is there anything else you would like us to know about Facing History and Ourselves?

MRH: The divisive rhetoric of the US presidential election and its aftermath have shown us that we must figure out how to talk—and listen—with civility and respect. These skills are vital to the health of civil society and the future of democracy. Facing History and Ourselves has addressed the needs of teachers and students for resources and teaching strategies in the immediate wake of increased reports of fear, anxiety, hate speech, bullying, and intimidation in the past few weeks post-election. A compendium of these resources, including a link to a full-page New York Times ad promoting techniques for civil dialogue inside and outside the classroom, is available here.


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