Looking Back on Two Years of IWitness Detroit

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 5:00pm

As it nears two years of official programming, the IWitness Detroit program has changed the face of testimony-based education in Michigan.

IWitness teacher trainings are still being held regularly in Detroit and the surrounding Macomb and Oakland Counties, with a one-day ITeach seminar scheduled for June 27 in Oakland County. The one-day training will introduce Detroit area educators to IWitness and strategies for using testimony in the classroom, including how to integrate testimony across the curriculum and how to create testimony-curriculum plans for their individual classrooms.

IWitness Detroit is essentially a push to permanently widen student access to IWitness, a free educational website from USC Shoah Foundation that uses testimonies – personal stories – from survivors and witnesses of genocide to teach students the importance of compassion and bringing about positive societal change. It will also serve as a model for bringing IWitness to other urban schools throughout the United States.

The program launched in 2015 at USC Shoah Foundation’s Ambassadors for Humanity Gala at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, which honored Ford Motor Company CEO Bill Ford, Jr. IWitness Detroit is a partnership between USC Shoah Foundation and Ford, and Ford also sponsored the 2016 and 2017 IWitness Video Challenge.

A few months before the gala, in the summer of 2015, USC Shoah Foundation began hosting teacher training workshops in the Detroit area to introduce local educators to IWitness. It also piloted a new IWitness activity, Finding Your Seat on the Bus, with local middle- and high school students at the Henry Ford Academy, a charter school housed in the Henry Ford Museum.

“Finding Your Seat on the Bus” covers the story of Rosa Parks, whose refusal in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus for a white person in Alabama energized the Civil Rights movement. The activity also incorporates several clips of testimonies from Holocaust survivors and liberators who discussed Civil Rights in their interviews.

On the day of the gala in mid-September, 15 of the students who’d piloted IWitness’s “Finding Your Seat on the Bus” activity over the summer returned to Henry Ford Museum where the gala was held. Working in a classroom at Henry Ford Academy they again completed the activity, which involves authoring a poem about goals, obstacles and determination. To their surprise, the classroom demonstration was even attended by Ford and USC Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg.

Immediately after the gala, USC Shoah Foundation began hosting regular ITeach trainings around Detroit and the surrounding Macomb and Oakland counties.

One of the biggest champions of IWitness Detroit has been Sean McBrady, K-12 social studies consultant for Macomb Intermediate School District. From the first time he met with USC Shoah Foundation Acting Director of Education Claudia Wiedeman in early 2016 about organizing IWitness teacher trainings in his district, he was hooked.

“The video testimony is clearly so powerful that I knew teachers would see the potential for engaging students both intellectually, and emotionally,” McBrady said. “As teachers we are always looking for those powerful experiences to offer students to make an impact on their brains to encourage interest, attention, and eventually memory and learning.  The video clips in IWitness can do just that.”

In mid-August of 2016, nearly a year after the gala, USC Shoah Foundation launched the ITeach Institute, a three-day seminar at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, a Detroit suburb. Teachers left the seminar with innovative, ready-to-use curriculum for their classrooms, including an exploration of tattoos in an English language arts classroom, as well as exploration of the undocumented student experience, the exploration of ghettos and the phenomenon of “white flight” in contemporary communities in a history classroom.

Kim Kerwin, an English and religion teacher at St. Fabian Catholic School in Farmington Hills, said the ITeach Institute gave her resources that will help her meet the state’s new mandate to teach about genocide, in an impactful and memorable way.

“Testimony is hugely beneficial for making those lasting connections” for her students, Kerwin said. “Me telling [students] the story is not as impactful as them hearing the story as seen through the survivors’ own eyes.”

Tiffany Taylor, director of Teach for America – Detroit, said IWitness was proving to be an eye-opening experience for local students, who were making deep personal connections to the struggles of genocide survivors described in the testimonies.

“For Detroit to prosper, we need our children to rise up and lead. The IWitness experience can change students’ lives,” Taylor said. “There are moments when someone may ask that one question, propose a new idea, or encourage a child to think about something in a new way.  This program could inspire so many students in this way and chart a new future for our children and our city.”