Lisa Farese has been busy. The eighth-grade language arts teacher in 2015 made USC Shoah Foundation headlines alongside two of her students, who won the IWitness Video Challenge Competition for a project that had them writing personalized, anonymous notes to every student to spread kindness throughout their school.
But success hasn’t made Farese stagnate with her students at Robert Adams Middle School in Holliston, Massachusetts. This year’s eighth graders have read several books – including House on Mango Street, The Outsiders and Night – as part of her curriculum, which follows some of the steps outlined by non-profit educational service Facing History and Ourselves and uses the Institute’s IWitness tools for learning.
In September, Farese had her students watch last year’s IWitness Video Challenge winners’ project about identity maps and covered her room with large index cards that the students presented to their peers about who they were at that time.
“Fast forward to February and March and my students were completely engaged in our ‘Raise Your Voice’ research unit,” Farese said. Teaching persuasive strategies and the finer details of research and voice, Farese tasked her students with developing a major research project. “I had students learning more about environmental issues, social well-being concerns and reaching out to both local and national leaders to try to effect change.”
This project became the segue into Farese’s most recent unit, titled #AllStoriesMatter, which enabled her students to learn about hate and ethical editing by watching IWitness videos, and sent them to different corners of the school to discuss important issues.
“I provided the setting and some possible conversations starters like: ‘What is empathy? What can shake a person’s faith?” Farese said. “The focus of this day was to give my students practice with authentic conversation.”
The discussion groups welcomed in at least one outsider every time they met, so as to add voices from around the school: workers in the central and school offices, former teachers, administrators and Rachel Herman from IWitness, who joined the class via video chat.
“There was no quiz, no test, no right or wrong,” Farese said. “Just talk. Just dialogue. The unique, impromptu interaction of life and learning came when this day of talking fell on the same day my students chose to walk out of classes in solidarity with the students of Parkland, Florida.”
The next part of the unit continued dialogue and journaling with Night, allowing the students to complete the “Journey Through Night” Geo-Story activity and discuss connections between Night, IWitness and life in general. Through the end of the school year, Farese’s students independently worked on journal entries about Night– one of which culminated in a detailed drawing of a girl with a half-erased face surrounded by the words: “Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke,” a line from the novel.
Another student, instructed by Farese to write whenever emotions got too visceral, wrote in one entry: “The werewolf changes in the full moon. It is lucky. The werewolf has no choice to become a monster. But we did.”
To close out the final unit, Farese encouraged students to work on the “My Story Matters” activity in IWitness, giving them the opportunity to prepare to take a leadership role during their last “Day of Dialogue,” during which they were tasked with writing a group “belief statement.”
“My goal each year is to show students how to improve their best versions of themselves through the exposure of communication,” Farese said. “This all comes from the grassroots version of how they encounter the stories of the past. They are a generation of digital learners, and they know nothing else. IWitness helps me reach them where they are at, and I am always amazed at where they end up.”