David Hales’ dedication to IWitness has taken him from Michigan to Prague. Hales is the social studies consultant for Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, helping to bring best practices to classrooms in the 33 school districts in Wayne County, Mich., through teacher trainings, workshops and meetings. He was introduced to IWitness through USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness Detroit program, which launched in 2015 in order to expand the use of IWitness in Michigan.
Along with his counterparts Amy Bloom, social studies consultant at Oakland Schools Intermediate School District, and Sean McBrady, social studies consultant at Macomb Intermediate School District, Hales was invited to meet with USC Shoah Foundation Associate Director of Education – Educational Technologies and Training Claudia Wiedeman, Ph.D. in February 2016. Wiedeman wanted to discuss ways to introduce Detroit-area educators to IWitness.
At their initial meeting, Hales learned more about IWitness and how teachers in his county could use it to teach about the Holocaust, tolerance, digital literacy and more through the testimonies of genocide survivors and witnesses.
He was impressed by the way IWitness brings history alive for students, introducing them to the ordinary people who were affected by the Holocaust through a visual medium that they’re comfortable with. He also noted that it helps students connect the past to the present.
“Sometimes social studies is taught as something that is relegated to the past. IWitness doesn’t do that,” Hales said. “It demands that you take a look at yourself and what’s going on around you and that’s really powerful.”
So far Hales has been working to familiarize himself with the IWitness website and is planning future trainings for teachers in Wayne County to introduce them to IWitness.
In the meantime, he was offered a unique opportunity to see firsthand the impact of USC Shoah Foundation abroad. In a meeting with USC Shoah Foundation education staff, Hales mentioned that he would be traveling through Europe this summer. When he said he would be in Prague for a few days, staff suggested he meet up with Martin Šmok, the Institute’s senior international program consultant based in Czech Republic.
Rather than showing Hales a few museums or pointing out the main tourist sites of the city, Šmok quickly developed an English-language version of an IWalk in the Hagibor district of Prague in order to introduce Hales to USC Shoah Foundation’s hugely popular IWalk program. IWalks throughout Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine take participants on walks around historical sites guided by testimony clips from the Visual History Archive in which Holocaust survivors describe their experiences at those sites.
In the Hagibor district, the IWalk includes stops at the Jewish Old Age Home, the former Jewish sports club, and the site of the concentration camp there.
The IWalk was eye-opening for Hales, who said he was fascinated to learn about the history of the Jewish community in Prague from the perspective of people who lived there.
He could also see how powerful of a learning opportunity IWalk is for students to learn about history that happened in their own backyard – and show them that the people affected by one of the worst genocides in history were not so different from themselves.
“The most powerful thing to me is everybody naively thinks they know the ‘Holocaust story’ and when you do an IWalk you realize just how close to home it is,” Hales said. “These were ordinary people just like we are, and [you see] the tragedy that happened to them and how they tried to make the best of it at the time. It brings you face to face with that.”