Riveted by the Stories: A Teacher's Perspective on using IWitness in the Classroom

Posted by Eileen O'Kane on June 13, 2013

Three years ago I had the amazing privilege of joining Facing History and Ourselves as they developed their Digital Media Innovation Network (DMIN). Through this small group of educators and Facing History staff, I have learned about and challenged myself with using digital media and technology to not only engage students and deepen their learning, but more importantly to encourage them to use technology to give voice to the voiceless in our society.

During the 2012-2013 school year, the DMIN offered educators an opportunity to use, explore and implement lessons using the USC Shoah Foundation's IWitness program. IWitness is a website that allows students and educators to listen to and explore thousands of testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Through the site, students can not only listen to these incredible oral histories, but also interact with these testimonies to create and share student created videos that serve to honor the survivors and educate people about this complicated and difficult history.

I am a firm believer in the power of oral history and its ability to help students connect to people, events and history that may otherwise just be another unit of study. As Holocaust survivors continue to grow older, it is increasingly more imperative that educators find ways for students to connect with the survivor stories. The IWitness website and its tools allow students to take ownership of a survivor's story or of a particular theme, moment in history, etc. Also, since the videos are published on the IWitness site, the project becomes more than just another task that the teacher is making them do, but rather the stakes are higher as a larger audience will be the ones assessing their work.

I asked a small group of 10th grade Modern World History students to embark on this IWitness project adventure with me. I had only had webinar training with the IWitness site and am only moderately adept with video editing technology. This was an incredible journey with plenty of snags and places for improvement, but my students not only became more knowledegable about World War II and the Holocaust, but also they felt as if they were experts on this history and had a special connection with the survivors they featured in their videos. I was, of course, looking for perfection and was disappointed by some of the projects. We had issues with some of the technology from slow downloading and connection problems to snags with the video editing. (Since then IWitness has had a video editor upgrade). In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time on the art of storytelling and I would have made this an individual rather than a group project. However, I decided that I needed to let go of the imperfections because the students were learning and they were connecting. They were learning in ways I could never have imagined and they were teaching me too.

I am absolutely going to have my students use the IWitness site again because the learning benefits were great. The stories of upstanders and bystanders allowed students to truly understand these terms. My students could give me concrete examples and details about what happened on Kristallnacht and how this showed the concept of universe of obligation. We were having spontaneous discussions and debates on the role of government, the choices of individuals and the responsibility we have to each other even if we are strangers. They learned how people created friendships and community in the midst of hell and how even some of those meant to be perpetrators showed compassion. Students challenged their own knowledge and assumptions and they were riveted by the stories. The IWitness site and the educational tools and opportunities it provides is a gift to any educator but especially to those who are continuing to grapple with how to teach the Holocaust without in-person survivor testimony.

Topics: Media Skills, Holocaust Education, DMIN, Online Learning, Facing Technology

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