I came to the teaching profession with big ambitions. Like many readers of this blog, I imagine, I’ve always loved learning, and I enjoy the effervescent and unpredictable company of kids. As a first-generation college graduate, I know firsthand how education can transform an individual’s life. But I also entered the classroom with the conviction that schools have a communal and civic purpose, too—that they are the root and heart of democratic societies.It’s one thing to hold these lofty beliefs and it's something entirely different to know how to teach towards those civic aspirations every day, lesson by lesson and semester by semester. There’s so much to teach—such big swaths of history and literature, so many facts, dates, and vocabulary words, not to mention how to read a primary source or write a research paper. The pressure of passing along all this knowledge can leave little space for wisdom.
After a few years in the classroom, and especially after I connected with Facing History and Ourselves, I began to find ways to connect my daily practice of teaching with my larger sense of purpose. One of the most powerful tools was also the simplest to use: asking students the right questions. Nearly everything we study in middle and high school classrooms, no matter how remote or particular, opens onto some larger question. In high school US History and European History survey courses, my students and I could explore, “What are the conditions for creating a just society?” In a middle school literature course, reading Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Romeo and Juliet, we could ask, “What are the forces that shape a young person’s moral growth? How do we learn to tell the difference between right and wrong?” When students can orient their learning about generative questions like these, they make powerful connections between school, self, and society. And they begin to ask their own big questions, too.
Each year, Facing History and Ourselves holds an essay contest built around a great question—the kind of question that makes a bridge between knowledge and wisdom. The contest is a chance for students to practice skills, create a polished and thoughtful product, and maybe even win a scholarship or prize. But our contest, too, has a larger purpose, because we see writing as a tool for thinking, a process that helps students to reflect, to discover their own ideas, and to enter into a conversation with both classmates and strangers.
This year’s contest centers on Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s observation about ethical decision-making: “Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. Often because of one story or one book or one person, we are able to make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life.” We invite students to write an essay about a person, story, or book that has influenced their own thinking about ethical decision-making and civic participation. We hope teachers will share this contest with their students and use it as a way to meet some of their own larger purposes in the classroom. Most importantly, we hope young people take the opportunity to explore their own voice and to be inspired to always ask big questions about the world around them—especially after they move beyond school walls.
Want to bring the 2017 Facing History Together Student Essay Contest to your classroom? Read the official contest rules and visit the contest site for more information. Student submissions will be accepted starting March 1 at 9:00 a.m. ET through March 15 at 9:00 p.m. ET.
Photo Credit: John Howard