From left to right: Freeholder Alexander Mirabella, Frank Stebbins, and Dr. Hank Kaplowitz.
In a recent interview, I spoke with acclaimed educator Frank Stebbins about his path to teaching, unique approaches in the classroom, and how Facing History has been instrumental in his development as an educator. Stebbins was recently named the 2019 Hank Kaplowitz Outstanding Human Rights Educator of the Year by the Human Rights Institute at Kean University.
KS: What initially inspired you to become a teacher and how long have you been teaching at Arthur L. Johnson High School?
FS: In high school, I worked with some after-school programs and at a summer rec program. Just being able to try to make an impact and teach students about topics that they didn’t know was always something that I found rewarding… I went to the same high school that I teach at now. So it’s one of those small-town connections… It’s my 10th year at Arthur L. Johnson but it’s my 17th year in district. I began my work at the high school as a Special Ed teacher but then was able to obtain a certificate in teaching the Holocaust and Prejudice Reduction which allowed me to introduce the idea of a full-year elective at the high school.
KS: Can you talk about how you began engaging with Facing History’s resources and how it has informed your practice of teaching?
FS: Recently, I have delivered two presentations to first-year teachers and college seniors going into education and discussed the two biggest influences on my career—my two children and being introduced to Facing History. I know the organization has been around for 40 years and I wish I would have known about it longer, but I think it was probably 3-4 years ago now when I was taking a graduate class at Kean University in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The teacher there was a Facing History enthusiast and she introduced us to the organization. We met with our program representative and I saw...how it links content to personal experiences using historical case studies to allow students to reflect upon their lives.
I was immediately sold on the resources and the model. I’ve done every possible form of professional development with Facing History from the summer program to webinars to the online graduate courses. I really tried to increase my knowledge of the methods and strategies used so I could implement them in what ended up being my future class: the full-year Holocaust and Genocide Program… Any time I have a question, the organization’s willingness to offer feedback and resources has been phenomenal…
KS: How did you feel when you learned you had been selected as the 2019 Hank Kaplowitz Outstanding Human Rights Educator of the Year?
FS: I was extremely humbled to be recognized by the Kean University Human Rights Institute, an organization that offers wonderful programming to students and educators alike. The Institute and the Holocaust Resource Center have assisted me greatly in my teaching over the last few years, so their recognition along with Dr. Kaplowitz was tremendously rewarding. Dr. Kaplowitz is an inspiration to all human rights educators, and having attending the conference in the past, being linked to the previous recipients was such an honor.
KS: I understand that you received the Hank Kaplowitz Award due to the incredible work you have done around Holocaust and Genocide Studies, in particular. Can you speak to some of the unique approaches to teaching this material that have set your work apart?
FS: One of my programs that they highlighted was the Hidden Child Program which was a day-long experience that brought together students, administrators, and teachers. The program featured a “hidden child” of the Holocaust, and used multiple strategies from Facing History to engage participants in dialogue about our school culture and climate... Through the use of an identity chart and a universe of obligation, we started an authentic conversation about the inclusiveness of our school, as well as groups that may be “hidden” or marginalized. It really was an amazing day of learning… One of the comments that stayed with me was: “Even if we have one hidden child here, that’s too many.” I think with all of the talk about social-emotional learning and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the rise of teen suicide...we often walk the halls without realizing who we’re walking the halls with...
Additional pieces of my work that I am extremely proud of are participating in the Raphael Lemkin Summit for Genocide Prevention in Washington, D.C., a three-day advocacy summit, and the work of its parent organization, the Enough Project, throughout the year. Connecting with like-minded educators; allowing students to advocate to end human rights violations on Capitol Hill; and fostering civic engagement are all areas any educator can be proud of.
KS: I am also aware that you serve as a Special Education teacher within the Clark Public School District. Can you speak to how you balance your work in these areas?
FS: I had my Special Education degree coming out of college and it has provided a wonderful perspective... As educators, it is so important that we address the actual identities of our students as opposed to the perceived ones. It is crucial that a classroom environment has an inclusive student voice that represents all students. Having a diverse student population...in Holocaust and Genocide is always something I approach gingerly especially when we get to some of the resources about how the Special Ed children...were some of the first victims, though that doesn’t really get talked about in a lot of textbooks. Teaching about all groups targeted during the Holocaust is an extremely important lesson as it shows students how human life has been valued differently during certain times of history. A lesson I try to bring into my Tomorrow’s Teachers class, too, is...you don’t teach just content, you teach people. If we focus on the fact that we teach people, it makes some of the struggles that we experience as educators a lot more worthwhile.
KS: Can you speak a bit about the Tomorrow’s Teachers Program that you lead?
FS: The Tomorrow’s Teachers Program is a class for high school seniors who want to go into education. It’s a full-year course where we go over content, methodologies, and educational philosophies. Then the students are paired with a teacher from the district to complete an internship. Being able to teach about teaching to high school seniors is really a rewarding experience, and hopefully shaping the next generation of educators. As a parent of two young children, I realize how crucial it is for educators not just to be able to deliver material, but also the need to teach citizenship skills as well as character regardless of the subject.
KS: For educators who are eager to teach their students more effectively, what resources or strategies would you recommend to them?
FS: I know this is going to sound like a plug for you but I think that once you take your first Facing History workshop, whatever the topic, the skill set that you’re going to have is going to increase... One of the most valuable strategies I encourage educators to look at is active participation of student voice in the classroom. This doesn’t always mean that students are going to be talking. Amazing strategies that promote this are Four Corners and the various Barometer activities. These are especially valuable if you are discussing touchy topics...
As an educator, a lot of times we worry about numbers, but I think that as we start shying away from numbers and concern ourselves with impact, that’s probably the place to go. Accessing the resources of Facing History made it much easier for me as an educator to start having some of those difficult conversations with students to get them to think.
KS: Is there anything that you feel is important for our audience to know that we haven’t touched upon?
FS: ...My wife often asks, “how do you not get sad by teaching these topics related to Holocaust and Genocide?” There are so many stories of strength and human character that come out of this period of human history. It is so important for students to recognize the power of choices in their lives, and the impact those choices have not only on themselves but also others... Students want to become involved in their local and global communities but often may not know how. If they are introduced to a skillset that allows them to advocate for something important to them, then we have started to achieve civic participation. As educators, we cannot make decisions for our students or our children, but we can help give them the resources they need to succeed.