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Marc McAlley typically does a 9/11 lesson each September in his classes. This year, in History of Pop Music, he did something a little different. He wrote the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” on a large piece of poster board and hung it on the wall. The class took turns writing their reflections on Springsteen’s work next to the lyrics. They could also comment on other students’ notes.
"Their reflections became a jumping off point for class discussion—both on how we deal with tragedy in general and specific to 9/11,” said McAlley. “The activity allowed students to respond to a prompt in their own way. This important conversation became a whole lot bigger.”
This teaching strategy is called a Big Paper: Building a Silent Conversation. It was developed by Facing History and Ourselves, a curriculum that equips students to make connections between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.
Katonah-Lewisboro School District is using Facing History as a resource this year to help provide tools and strategies for teachers to discuss the difficult issues that arise, for instance, when students read the Holocaust memoir “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee which deals with issues of rape and racial inequality. The curriculum was recommended to KLSD Superintendent Andrew Selesnick by a parent and it also helped shape the district's October 11 Learning Café: When the News Enters the Classroom.
McAlley, a social studies teacher at John Jay High School, and Vicky Weiss, an English teacher at John Jay, both attended a Facing History training this summer, as well as Lisbeth Arce, an English teacher at John Jay Middle School.
Karen Scher, Program Associate with Facing History, came to John Jay High School in early October to follow up with a day of professional development for all high school English and social studies teachers.
“In Facing History and Ourselves’ curriculum, academic rigor and reflection go hand-in-hand,” said Candy Wilmot, the KLSD Staff Developer. “It ties events in history to injustices today and helps students to think more deeply about what it means to be an American citizen."
Weiss shared how she used a Facing History tool called an Identity Chart to go deeper into the school’s summer reading assignment on the theme of gender.
“Students wrote their name in the center of a page, and surrounded it with words and phrases they use to describe themselves as well as how others describe them,” said Weiss. “When they shared their identity charts with each other it stimulated discussion about how our society assigns gender roles.”
Scher led the teachers through several tools and strategies they could integrate into their classes to support respectful discourse. These included creating a Classroom Contract, and using a three angles structured conversation.
A slide on the whiteboard summed up the initiative:
“In a reflective classroom community, students work together in an engaging study of our past, and of our world today. Knowledge is constructed, not passively absorbed. And students, with both hearts and minds mobilized, are seen as subjects actively engaged in a community of learners. A trusting classroom atmosphere like this creates the space for deep, democratic learning. The creation of an environment like this requires a thoughtful approach.”
- Doc Miller, Facing Today, a Facing History Blog
John Jay High School’s summer reading was on the theme of gender.
Students were encouraged to choose one from a list of over a dozen books including "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood, and "The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma.
Discussion in English classes grew into a school-wide project, Humans of Katonah-Lewisboro—a collage of interviews and photographs around the ideas of femininity and masculinity. The exhibit is in the school’s main hallway.