Teaching With Testimony in the 21st Century

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Language: English

USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director, Stephen Smith along with guest speakers, Kim Feinberg, USC Shoah Foundation Regional Consultant in South Africa and Founder and CEO of the Tomorrow Trust, and Freddy Mutanguha, Director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda, address the importance of using testimony in education from a global perspective. This video is excerpted from the keynote presentation, Teaching, Testimony, and Transformation: Understanding the Global Landscape, at the Institute’s Teaching with Testimony Master Teacher Program Best Practices Workshop in August 2012.

What is testimony?

Testimony from USCSF Visual History Archive is a fully searchable collection of more than 55,000 video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of of the Holocaust and other 20th-century genocides, in Armenia, China, Cambodia, and Rwanda. The first-hand recollections provide a unique eyewitness view of some of the darkest recesses of history. Watching audiovisual testimonies of survivors sharing their harrowing stories and observing the emotion on their faces is a powerful way to teach about the human cost of intolerance, hatred, and indifference from a deeply personal perspective.

Testimonies give warm human faces to the cold, abstract numbers of genocide. Students can see abstract “victims” for what they were: mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters — people, just like them. Watching and listening to first-hand testimony can be uncomfortable, but it compels students and other viewers to connect with survivors as people, and to form deep, personal connections to the memory of genocides.

Why teach with testimony?

Testimony from USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive provides educators around the world with access to a groundbreaking collection of more than 55,000 audio-visual testimonies from witnesses to history. While the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Nanjing Massacre and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, all occurred before today’s students were born, survivors’ stories of dislocation, suffering and resilience are universal and can be a powerful teaching tool.

When used appropriately in the classroom, video testimony can: 1. ) provide a human face to the past, 2.) engage students to critically think about universal themes of tolerance, diversity and justice from an individual perspective, and 3.) sensitize students to the importance of story as a valuable source of knowledge.

Specifically, the use of testimony in the classroom helps educators to:

  • Teach vivid historical details of the Holocaust, Rwanda, etc.
  • Address academic standards for learning.
  • Promote transliteracy — the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, from writing to television to digital social networks.

The stories of witnesses to genocide that are presented in the testimonies also allow for transformative learning about universal themes of the human condition. In so doing, viewers — students — do not passively hear stories, but reflect on their experiences and consider a better future.

Testimony, for example, can be an effective means to engage recent immigrants and native-born students who may be disenfranchised. Discrimination, marginalization and violence are all too often present in their lives, and seeing people from other backgrounds tell their stories can encourage them to see why the past matters, and maybe spur them to share their own personal histories.


The methodology we apply in our work in education combines four core elements: testimony, theory, outcomes, and localization. Together, they allow us to harness the universal cultural tool of “story” through the testimonies in the Visual History Archive to engage students in authentic and powerful learning experiences.

While other organizations may use one or some of these tools in their work, our use of testimony from the Visual History Archive in combination with the all four elements provides a unique opportunity for the audiences we reach.

Our methodology is outcomes-based, designed to deliver clear learning experiences that can be assessed and designed to help us measure the effectiveness of our work. The outcomes include knowledge, transliteracy skills, critical thinking, empathy, and a motivation to act — identified specifically as necessary elements of responsible participation.

That is the foundation of the Institute’s Theory of Change, which states that allowing people to engage with testimony can change their attitudes and behaviors and make them more likely to contribute to civil society by refusing to tolerate racist ideas, prejudicial treatment, and acts of hatred.

How to teach with testimony

Today’s young learners are deeply engaged with visual and digital media  The Institute builds learning tools that leverage the unique resource of the testimonies and the interactivity of the Internet.

The flagship educational website IWitness, is the Institute’s premier educational website and central portal for testimony-based educational content designed for educators and students worldwide. It gives secondary school teachers and their students digital access to the Institute’s Visual History Archive, including 2,515 full-life histories and the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses to genocide. The multimedia-lessons in IWitness are built around short, curated clips of testimony and complement curriculum across many subject areas — including, for example, history, social studies, English language arts, foreign language, and government — and address academic standards for learning. Because the testimonies are full life stories, they also lend themselves to the study of universal themes, such as heritage, justice, family, identity, and standing up for others.

For effective use of testimony in education, we have created a set of guidelines that provide educators with the knowledge to be able to teach with testimony in meaningful and ethical ways.


We also provide face-to-face and online/hybrid professional development programs. Through various formats, our professional development helps educators to learn how to teach with testimony in their classroom.

USC Shoah Foundation’s Teacher Innovation Network fosters collaboration among teachers around the world who have intersected with the Institute’s education programs. It enables teachers who have benefited from the Institute’s seminars on effective use of testimony in the classroom to converse and further refine their teaching practices.

Value of teaching with testimony

After years of dedicated study, we have developed a model for understanding how the use of testimony in education can lead to important changes in the way people think and act.

Our basic theory is that by working with testimony, students will become what we define as a responsible participant in civil society — that is, it will make them more likely to stand up in the face of hatred.

Our monitoring and evaluation programs use a mixed methods model, which reflect best practices in social science research. We observe teachers in action, interview them after class, survey students before and after they take the course, conduct focus groups with students, and review the work that participants do. Scholars regard this as one of the most effective ways to understand the kinds of change that the Institute’s programs are making.

This evaluation process helps us to to understand if our programs are effective and aligned with our mission.

What to teach with testimony

Our work reaches wide and diverse audiences because our materials can be tailored to fit many different educational environments and geographic regions. This flexability is one reason why more than 21,058 teachers and 115,892 students in 85 countries have registered on IWitness, USC Shoah Foundation’s interactive educational website, since it was introduced in 2012.

Teachers have used testimonies in formal classroom settings and informal venues like after-school programs. Age-appropriate testimonies have been incorporated into primary-school, secondary-school, and university courses.

The Institute’s outcomes-based learning tools do more than teach about the Holocaust and other genocides. They also help students explore universal themes of the human experience that resonate with diverse students worldwide — themes like identity, family, fear, hope, and survival — as well as core subjects such as:

  • Holocaust and other genocides
  • Character education/Leadership
  • Humanities
  • Media & digital literacy
  • Psychology
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Sociology
  • Visual/Performing Arts
  • World Cultures and Languages
  • World History

Resources for teaching with testimony

Through the IWitness Educators program, USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education makes available educator professional development programs, including:

  • Teaching with Testimony Workshops: An intensive, advanced level interactive program that brings a cohort of teachers together for two workshops over the course of a year.  Educators are expected to develop a deep understanding of how to use and integrate testimony, as well as develop an activity or lesson.
  • ITeach Seminars: Subject specific, intermediate level programs of between one and three days that introduce educators to the use of testimony as an educational resource and helps them find ways of deploying it in their educational environments.
  • IWitness Educator Programs: An introductory level program of less than a day that concentrates on demonstrating how to teach with testimony through one of the Institute’s resources, primarily IWitness.
  • IWitness Professional Development Webinars: These free monthly webinars provide a more in-depth and interactive approach to learning how to teach with testimony.

In addition, the Institute has posted on its website 50 testimony-based lesson plans in 10 languages.