JCPS Facing History – Western High

[Archived from March 6, 2009]

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

The teachers at Western High School will tell you many of their students face real life challenges. A large portion of the student body qualifies for free or reduced cost lunches, which means they come from economically challenged families. Many students also deal with a variety of other problems prevalent in poverty-stricken homes: parents unavailable for them, having to fend for themselves, hunger, abuse, teen pregnancy, drugs, poor reading skills and much more.

With so much external pressure, some students find it hard to function in school. Problems in the classroom and in the halls are common.

There are some things, however, that make a difference, including the Exploring Civics: Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, introduced in most of the Jefferson County Public Schools high schools by Superintendent Sheldon Berman this school year.

Facing History uses lessons from the Holocaust to stimulate dialogue among students and to encourage them to examine their own roles in the community, looking beyond their own issues.

A recent visit to Western High School bears out the value of this program.

During second period, nearly 30 freshman honors students crowded into Melanie Santiago’s classroom. She was ready for them.

They had just 10 minutes to create a personal “sponge” – a chart identifying 10 of their own characteristics. They did this exercise early in the year, as they began to work with the Facing History curriculum. They repeated the exercise, Santiago explained, because the students have changed and matured since September.

The teacher read a brief excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s Night, led a discussion, then divided the group into pairs to read a selection from Sonia Schreiber Weitz’s Holocaust memoir I Promised I Would Tell. The student teams then created “sponges” for Weitz, identifying her characteristics as a child in Germany before World War II.

Every student in the room was engaged and on task as Santiago carefully drew them from their own world and the myriad problems they face on a daily basis, into an appreciation and understanding of people and problems different than their own.

Students Jonathan Tomco and Jalen Boyd both said, “It is interested to learn about what happened to the Jews.” Jonathan said it is sad and he didn’t know about it before. “Blacks have been treated bad,” Jalen added, “but the Jews were treated worse.”

The Facing History curriculum “changed how I think about the world,” Jonathan continued. “We have freedom and can fight for our rights. We have a great life.” Others, he observed, are not as fortunate as we are.

“It’s changed my perspective on life,” Jalen added. He wondered if something like the Holocaust could happen in the U.S. “We have to make sure it does not happen again.”

Another team of students, Cynthia Doyle and Taylor Cundiff also enjoy working with Facing History. “I like to learn about history – how people were treated and how we have evolved,” Cynthia said. She comes from a strong family that emphasizes fairness. “I know not to treat someone like that because of race or religion,” she said.

“Ever since the fifth grade, I’ve wanted to learn about the Holocaust,” Taylor commented, “how one man managed to take over a democracy and do what he did – genocide.”

This program, he continued, “affects how I look at people” not judging them just on looks and religion. It forces him to think about how we treat others.

Santiago is even more positive about the program. “Before, we only taught survey courses,” she explained, “geography, U.S. government and economics.” These were fact based courses using textbooks.

“Now the class is based on how the kids feel,” she continued. “The class is discussion oriented.”

By starting with the Holocaust, the students are not dealing with dry facts. The curriculum gives them the opportunity “to think for themselves and sympathize with others,” she said. For many of these students, this is a new experience.

While Santiago’s students do read books like Night and I Promised I Would Tell, the curriculum is not text based. “We pull from all kinds of sources,” the teacher said, “resource books and personal accounts” and much more.

The program encourages students to come up with their own ideas. The result, Santiago reports, is a noticeable growth in maturity and students try to relate the experiences they are learning about to their own lives. They are also learning that it’s OK to be different.


Teachers find plenty of support for the program, too. Santiago uses a variety of techniques to deal with her students’ varied reading levels. She can also access the Facing History web site for lesson plans and teaching technique suggestions as well as a wide variety of resources.

JCPS provides resources as well, and opportunities to network with other teachers to consider what works and what doesn’t in their classrooms.

Superintendent Berman is the driving force behind bringing Facing History to the district. When he first came to Louisville, he examined the district’s curricula, and almost immediately began pushing for the high schools to adopt the Facing History curriculum, which he had used at schools in his previous position.

Introducing the program in the public schools involved securing the materials and training the teachers in how to use the program. The expense was beyond what the district had available, so last May, Berman approached the Jewish Community Federation’s Foundation for Planned Giving for help.

The Foundation made a $10,000 grant and a $7,500 matching grant to JCPS for the Summer Institute to teach teachers how to use the curriculum and to secure the necessary materials. Rabbis Joe Rooks Rapport and Gaylia Rooks also provided $10,000 for the Summer Institute.

Federation President Ed Cohen and Foundation Director Frances Skolnick also visited Santiago’s class to see how the grant money has been used.

“The opportunities this program presents to help children understand are great,” Cohen said. “They use the Holocaust as a way to bring enlightment to these students, to help them understand their environment.”  It helps them figure out “how they would react when they see prejudice and descrimination.” They also learn “how innocent people sat on the sidelines and watched what happened.”

“I’m excited the Federation was able to participate and help fund this,” he added. “There will be the need to fund it for another few years to complete all the training.”

“Kudos to Melanie Santiago … and the others who are having great success with this program.”

“We saw one teacher teaching one class,” added Skolnick. “She does this in five classes a day and there are four or five teachers doing that at Western. Multiply that by 23 schools in the district and you can get an idea how many kids this is impacting. That’s pretty powerful.”

“I was thrilled to see this. It is the kind of thing we want to do with our grant money and the kind of impact we want to have on the community.”

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