Friday, November 8, 2002

Back and Forth

Memphis' Facing History and Ourselves turns 10.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 8, 2002 at 4:00 AM

On November 7th, Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) will celebrate its 10th anniversary in Memphis with a benefit dinner at The Peabody. The program, which brings a study of the history and implications of the Holocaust and other cases of social injustice to middle and high school classrooms, began in six Memphis schools and now reaches over 100,000 students in 299 schools throughout the region.

"It's unusual that Memphis has a regional office, if you think about the other offices that are in places like Boston, New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago," says Stephen Haynes, an active member of Memphis' FHAO advisory board and associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College. "Memphis was the first region to break out of that major-city mold. It's been remarkable that we've made it work here and become independent financially and so forth. And it's really all because of Rachel Shankman. It's her vision that got it going in Memphis."

Shankman, director of the Memphis region, has a very personal stake in the success of FHAO because her parents were Holocaust survivors. Working in a variety of capacities ranging from director of the Jewish Student Union at the University of Memphis to casework associate with Family Service of Memphis, Shankman felt FHAO united each of her interests into a powerful educational program. "I was always very driven to understand universal questions that come out of studying that history," says Shankman. "Facing History brought together all the elements that are very important to me: the teaching of history so that we can learn from it, work with adolescents, which is very important to me, and working with teachers. And beyond that, I think what I understood about Facing History was that it linked the classroom to the larger community, so it wasn't just learning in isolation."

FHAO was created 26 years ago in Brookline, Massachusetts, by native Memphian Margot Stern Strom, a graduate of Central High School, who now serves as the national director. There are seven regional offices across the nation and one in Europe. The program offers weeklong institutes to middle and high school teachers, during which educators learn not only the historical developments behind the Holocaust but also the questions the Holocaust raises about civic responsibility and the importance of the individual in a democratic society. These are precisely the questions that the program wishes to ask its students as they connect historical events to the moral choices they must make in their lives.

After attending the institute, teachers work with FHAO associates to introduce the material into their curriculum. Teachers keep in close contact with the regional office, which also provides them with access to an extensive library of supplemental material as well as coordinating visits by speakers ranging from scholars to survivors of social injustice. This February, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, spoke about her experience to East High School students and community members. Coming in January, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, South African activist and professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town, will speak about her encounters with one of apartheid's most brutal covert police operators. These guests, who are scheduled throughout the year either as classroom visitors or public speakers, allow students to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be actively involved in great social change.

"What we do is start with the teacher," says Shankman. "We feel strongly committed to their professional development. One of the things that's imperative for us -- and I think one of the reasons we've had 10 years of success in Memphis -- is that it's one of the few places where teachers can really build that kind of collegiality. In other words, teachers from Memphis public schools are in an institute with teachers from independent schools and Catholic schools and Shelby County schools. There aren't that many opportunities for teachers to share methodology as well as content. So the follow-up [after the institutes] is, I think, what has been our strongest commitment to teachers. We are in this with them for the long haul."

Although Memphis has a history thick with social injustice, one of the challenges for FHAO locally has been relating a history that may seem rather alien to its students. "Facing History and Ourselves is a natural for San Francisco or New York, where in a public high school you might have people speaking 20, 30 different languages," says Haynes. "Memphis is much more of a traditionally bifurcated city, where you've got black and white. To adjust the curriculum so that it can make sense to the Memphis public schools has been both a challenge and a success."

The universal nature of the implications of the Holocaust, however, are what FHAO feels makes it applicable to all students. "What's important for people to understand," says Shankman, "is why we do this. We're concerned about adolescent issues. And whether we're doing this in San Francisco or Memphis or Boston, those issues of peer pressure and loyalty are questions adolescents are really grappling with."

As for the next 10 years, Shankman's goal is not only to make FHAO available to more students but to strengthen the existing program. "I think that we want to grow and deepen," says Shankman. "So in the schools where we have perhaps one educator who's gone through the Facing History institute, we'd like that to be a team of teachers. If we're really going to help change -- and 'help' is an important word in there we're not a panacea -- a school culture, the more teachers involved in this, the more successful it will be."

For more information on the Facing History and Ourselves benefit dinner at The Peabody Thursday, November 7th, call 452-1776.

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