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Holocaust Education Program Gets High Marks

BOSTON — Nearly four decades ago, a Holocaust education program started in Brookline.

Now, a new study supports what millions of students and parents already knew: The program, called Facing History and Ourselves, is very effective.

From Auschwitz To Schindler’s Factory

One of the program’s oldest volunteers, Rena Finder, has taught many thousands of New England middle school and high school students.

Her lesson plan always starts in 1939. And it’s a personal one.

Rena Finder, left, has been teaching thousands of students like Dorchester's Asia Suttles about the Holocaust. (Gabrielle Emanuel for WBUR)

Rena Finder, left, has been teaching thousands of students like Dorchester’s Asia Suttles about the Holocaust. (Gabrielle Emanuel for WBUR)

“I was 10 years old,” she says. “I was getting ready to go to the fifth grade. I even got a new dress.”

Finder was a Jewish child in Krakow, Poland, when she watched the Nazis march in.

“I was standing on the street after all the air raids,” she says. “And after hearing the shooting and then we were told the Germans are here.”

For Finder that meant moving to the Jewish ghetto. From there she was shuttled between concentration camps and work camps. And after time in Auschwitz, she was taken to Schindler’s factory in Czechoslovakia.

“I work[ed] on a small machine that was making shells for ammunition,” she says.

Made famous by the Steven Spielberg film, “Schindler’s List,” Oskar Schindler was an industrialist who saved his Jewish factory workers from death at Auschwitz.

“And Oskar Schindler actually requested 150 women were added to his workforce,” Finder says. “And most of them were young children because he needed skinny fingers to polish the shells. Of course, that’s not really true, but that’s what he made the Germans believe.”

Schindler rescued more than 1,000 Jews. Rena Finder and her mother were two of them. Nazis killed the rest of her family.

“I lost my father, my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles,” she says.

After World War II, Rena Finder was on the first boat of displaced persons to arrive in Boston. She rebuilt her life here.

And now, at age 85, she is one of the only survivors on Schindler’s List still living.

The History Of Facing History

While Finder is far away from Nazi-occupied Europe, she revisits those memories each day as a volunteer for the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves.

Facing History started 38 years ago when a teacher asked a question: “How do you teach about the Holocaust to adolescents?”

Marc Skvirsky, chief program officer at Facing History, says to answer that question educators developed an approach that tries to make history lessons relevant to students’ lives.

“We start off with the student,” he says. “And think about questions of identity and what shapes how we think and behave in society. And then we move from there to thinking about membership, group membership and when are groups included and excluded.”

Next, the students examine case studies. Not just the Holocaust, but genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and Armenia.

“These very complex issues not only have to do with the past,” Skvirsky points out, “but have to do with issues of violence in their own community and issues of racism or anti-Semitism.”

This approach started in 1976 with two Brookline teachers: Margot Stern Strom and Bill Parsons. Over the years, Strom has grown Facing History into a global operation. From China to Mexico, South Africa to Northern Ireland, it reaches an estimated 3 million secondary students a year.

Now, just as Strom transitions away from the executive director role — a move the organization announced in February — a new study supports the program’s approach.

Crunching The Numbers

Last month the Columbia University journal Teachers College Record published new data that show Facing History is a very effective program — for both teachers and their students.

“We set out to find clear causal evidence that improvement in outcomes was caused by the Facing History professional development and not by some sort of other factors,” says Beth Boulay of Abt Associates, which helped conduct the independent study.

Professor Robert Selman, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, also worked on the study.

“It takes a lot of courage on the part of an organization to do something like this,” he says.

It takes courage because many of the past studies on educational programs have shown that they do not have a positive effect on students and teachers. For those studies “the results were un-staggering,” Selman says. “There was very, very little evidence of impact.”

But this study of Facing History was different. “This study was significant in a lot of ways,” Selman says. “We did find some really interesting impact.”

In the study, researchers gave half the teachers the Facing History training and materials; the other half taught their regular curriculum.

The teachers in the Facing History program reported higher “self-efficacy.” Selman says that measures whether a teacher has “confidence, competence and motivation.”

And their students were better at analyzing history. And while Facing History did not seem to impact students’ racial attitudes or sense of civic duty, it did seem to make students more tolerant of other people’s perspectives.

An Investment For Teachers

That sums up Brendan Malanga’s experience. He’s a teacher at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester and has been using the Facing History methodology for the better part of a decade.

“The discussions they have now are light years beyond where they were five or six years ago,” Malanga says, “and I credit a lot of that to Facing History.”

He says the course is an investment for teachers.

“While it involves a little bit more work, it’s also much more rewarding,” he says.

The rewards come from seeing growth in his students.

Asia Suttles, 17, is one of those students. She sees links between history and her own life in Dorchester. This was clear when Rena Finder visited her class earlier this year.

“I was losing faith in a lot of things,” she says. “My mom had passed, a friend had passed, so when she came to our school it made me — I started to appreciate the things around me even more. But hearing her story and how she overcame all these things made me feel stronger as a person.”

That’s why the 85-year-old Finder keeps visiting classrooms. She says she wants to teach adolescents just one thing: “They have the power to make changes,” Finder says. “That they have the power to stand up to a bully. We want them to be upstanders and not bystanders.”

It’s this lesson that Facing History and Ourselves is trying to instill in adolescents. And, at least one study says, it’s working.

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