Teaching students critical thinking skills, helping them express their ideas, encouraging their natural desire to be engaged in society — these are all goals of 21st century education. They are also goals of the unique curriculum developed and taught by Facing History and Ourselves, an international nonprofit organization. Their program, used by over 28,000 educators in schools across the United States and Canada, engages students in an examination of racism, prejudice, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust through a study of history and its bearing on the problems of today.
Since 2006, the New Learning Institute has worked in partnership with Facing History, to bring 21st century skills to students while helping them grow up to be part of an informed, humane citizenry. The NLI has offered digital arts professional development workshops to dozens of teachers in the Facing History network of educators. Working with those teachers, the NLI has been able to offer digital arts residencies to hundreds of young people in high schools in the Boston and New York City areas. And as part of this partnership, the New Learning Institute contributed mobile computer labs to seven schools that use the Facing History curriculum in Boston and New York City.
Giving Young People a Voice
The NLI approach to learning, which emphasizes creativity and personal expression, is a perfect fit with Facing History's unique curriculum, which focuses not only on investigating the past, but also on helping students develop their own voice in the present. Gillian Smith, the principal of the Facing History High School in New York City, explains it this way: "Digital storytelling works really well for Facing History. Students transform and they become the storytellers, history now becomes theirs because they are now telling the story. And because of the technology their voices can be heard around the world."
In Facing History classrooms, digital technology helps students to deepen their exploration of the role of the individual in times of historical crisis. The 21st century literacy skills taught in these residencies offer students a new way to find meaning in history and to give voice to their discoveries and viewpoints.
Working with NLI professionals, students in Facing History classes started with their curriculum, and found ways to bring personal expression and meaning to it. They produced films that are thoughtful examinations of history, and what it means to become a moral individual and a responsible member of society. The films also examine issues of identity, overcoming personal challenges and cultural differences.
For example, a student who was a recent immigrant from West Africa produced a film titled "The Land of a Thousand Hills," the true story of one individual who tried to stop genocide in Rwanda. Another recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic detailed her personal story in a film called "My Life Experience Living in a Shelter." Students have used their films to relate the biographies of world leaders, tell their family histories, examine social problems like gang violence or intolerance, or express their feelings about life through poetry or song.
"The students became actual historians, documentary film makers, researchers, writers, producers, and editors," says Jacy Edelman, a Facing History teacher at Fenway High School in Boston. "They are getting professional experience and that goes right along with the Facing History curriculum and values in terms of activism and media activism."
The Digital Legacies Project
In addition to classroom residencies and professional development workshops, the NLI and Facing History have collaborated on the Digital Legacies Project, a groundbreaking four-week program that took place in the summer of 2007. The project brought together ten students from varied backgrounds in the Boston area to work together and explore key moments in the struggle for civil rights in Boston.
Students in the project filmed interviews with leaders of that movement, some of whom are still active. Under the guidance of Facing History staff, aided by a team from the New Learning Institute, they used their interviews and research to create stories that serve as a record of those movements and as educational tools for other students. The finished films of the Digital Legacies Project are now part of the Boston Public School curriculum.
The New Learning Institute continues its partnership with Facing History and Ourselves by giving young people the digital media tools and life skills they need to investigate history and make their voices heard today.