Jeff Krieger stands in front of a group of 17-year-olds and asks them to look inside their shoeboxes. It's the 9th grade classroom at Ipswich High in Massachusetts and Krieger, the social studies teacher, has asked each student to bring in a shoebox filled with meaningful things that best identify themselves. Not surprising, the boxes are crammed with concert tickets, family pictures, hockey pucks, baseballs, t-shirts, music CDs, theater programs -- items that say to each of these teenagers, "This is me. This is who I am." The outside of the boxes all look alike, Krieger points out: "That's how OTHER people see us. But inside," he says, "inside the box is how YOU see yourself."
He's talking about identity. Krieger talks a lot about identity, how it's formed, how it influences behavior, how it shapes the way we see ourselves, we see others, and how others see us.
To advance his point, Krieger asks his students to imagine they're 17, Jewish, living in Krakow, Poland -- and it's 1939. "What's the inside of your box look like, and what does the outside look like to others in Krakow, 1939?" he asks his kids. "The outside is all the same monochrome because you're seen only as Jewish. Didn't matter if you were nice, or mean, funny or serious."
Krieger gets his class talking about choices individuals and nations make at pivotal times in history. And by pivotal, he's talking about some really ugly periods in the 20th and 21st centuries: the 1915 Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, America's civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and genocides in Rwanda and the Sudan. Heavy stuff.
For Krieger, this is NOT about the past as prologue to the future. It's about the past as a foundation for participating in the present. "The kids start talking about questions of right and wrong, bigotry, indifference," Krieger recently told me." They start making connections between history and their own daily choices and their roles in society."
Krieger will draw an equal triangle on the board for the class. "One side is historical evidence: Bosnia, Rwanda, Armenia, the Holocaust. Another side of the triangle is you," he tells them, "Who you are, what your role is in the world. The third side is the way you interact with other people. What is your responsibility?"
"I'm not talking about changing the world," the 44-year-old teacher told me. "During the course, we talk about those little events that happen in Ipswich. When you're walking down the hall at school and someone makes an inappropriate joke, a derogatory remark, what do you do? he asks his students. "Do you keep walking? Do you step back and laugh? Do you say 'I'm offended at that?' It's not my role to teach students that you always have to intervene. My role is to bring them to the point where they don't have to be bystanders. They can choose to participate in a constructive way."
"I'm not trying to raise social justice warriors either," says Krieger, who has an undergraduate history degree from Tulane, an MBA from Pepperdine and a master's of education from Northeastern University. Most kids begin his course thinking they're powerless to have an effect on their world, "If these high schoolers can start taking little steps, if I can open their eyes, if I can encourage them to participate in the world around them, this class is a success."
The class he's talking about at Ipswich High is a unique course called Facing History and Ourselves. Krieger is just one of a global network of 29,000 other teachers who reach more than 1.9 million students each year with curriculum, materials and resources developed by Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit, educational, professional development organization. Basically, they're teachers teaching teachers. In the educational world, this is a big-deal operation with nine offices in North America and an international hub in London. When all is said and done, the Facing History concept is quite simple: explore historical injustices to teach tolerance, understanding and participation.
Like thousands of other middle and high-school teachers, Jeff Krieger found Facing History and Ourselves online -- www.facinghistory.org -- went through their intensive five-day, eight-hour seminar on the "Holocaust and Human Behavior," and uses many of their ongoing resources and case studies when he teaches -- not just the Facing History class. He uses their teaching strategies in his World History and American Government classes as well. "I was just blown away by the seminar. It changed the way I teach, the way I connect with students," Krieger said.
Facing History and Ourselves has been working with educators for more than 30 years. The cost to teachers for the in-person, on-line trainings, seminars and workshops is often paid by school administrations and boards of education. But, a high percent of the teachers are on scholarships supported by Facing History's active fundraising. It's an easy sell for me, one donor said, "It works."
Facing History and Ourselves is not political or sectarian, Krieger explains. He's not offering a particular point of view that's in contention to what kids might be learning at home. Ipswich, Mass, is a coastal town of around 13,000 folks, more than 97 percent of whom are white. Aside from all the Ipswich clams around, there's not a whole lot of racial or ethnic tension to be seen. So why is all this significant for Jeff Krieger? "It's not just racial or ethnic diversity but socio-economic diversity as well. We can be 97 percent white but each one of us is different at any given time."
And given the way things are today, this might be the right time to start filling our own shoeboxes.