Empowering students to think critically about history

In a year of roiling news—from Black Lives Matter protests and the insurrection at the Capitol to accusations of fake news and even John Jay's own mascot change—the prescient syllabus for Facing History and Ourselves, a new senior elective co-taught by English teacher Vicky Weiss and social studies teacher Marc McAlley, has been a roadmap to deeper understanding.

Through required reading of select historical documents, essays, articles, documentaries, non-fiction and fiction from diverse writers, students study history and connect choices made in the past to those they are confronting in their own lives. “Students have been tremendously invested in discussions of race since the beginning of school,” said Weiss. Units include Native American identity and understanding immigration.

Beyond being a two credit Social Studies and English elective at John Jay High School, Facing History and Ourselves is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to using lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate.

John Jay High School first tapped the organization’s resources after swastikas were found on school property in 2017. The district also began working with the Anti-Defamation League after the incidents; Weiss and McAlley have led ADL’s No Place for Hate initiative at John Jay High School for the last three years. Both teachers are committed to equity and participate in the All In Action Group, a gathering of district educators seeking to bring relevant conversations about race into the classroom.


“After leading work regarding equity around the high school for many years through clubs, committees, curriculum work and staff development, this course allows me to bring that sense of civics and duty to the classroom in a more direct way by addressing issues of social injustice,” said Weiss. 

"Students yearn for a place to deeply explore the issues and humanity of race, gender, class and marginalized identities with empathy and understanding and an eye toward leadership in creating a better future.”