Margot Stern Strom, a former schoolteacher who in the mid-1970s turned her dismay over her lack of knowledge about the Holocaust into a nonprofit educational organization that develops anti-hate curriculums for teenagers, died on Tuesday at her home in Brookline, Mass. She was 81.
Her daughter, Rachel Fan Stern Strom, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Ms. Strom was teaching seventh- and eighth-grade language arts and social studies at the Runkle School in Brookline in 1975 when she and a colleague, Bill Parsons, attended a workshop on the Holocaust. It was an unsettling experience, which made them realize how little they knew about the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.
She and Mr. Parsons, she was quoted as recalling on the website of Facing History & Ourselves, the organization they went on to found, felt that they had been “victims of the silence on the Holocaust.”
“And now, as teachers,” she added, “we were perpetuating that silence.”
It was the seed for their creation of Facing History, which uses injustices like the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation, apartheid in South Africa and the George Floyd killing to help guide eighth to 12th graders’ understanding of the motivations behind racism, extremism and antisemitism, as well as their moral implications and the power of people to shape history’s course.
“She believed it was important, and possible, to connect the early development of adolescents with some of the larger issues of human experience,” Martha Minow, a Harvard Law School professor who sits on Facing History’s board of scholars, said by phone. “As a teacher, she recognized them as people who could have important reflections on different subjects.”
In 1978, two years after starting Facing History, Ms. Strom said that she understood that teaching the Holocaust was a risk because it raised issues about antisemitism and was not being taught much at the time.
“Good education has to talk about prejudice and racism and conflict, but it is easier not to,” she told The Boston Globe’s Sunday magazine, New England, in 1978 — voicing a view that resonates today, with disputes raging in some states about what schools should teach about those issues.
The Holocaust curriculum was used, for example, by a high school class in Chelsea, Mass., “as a case study in why it is we shouldn’t turn our backs on someone who is homeless,” Carol Resnek, the class’s teacher, told The Globe in 1995, and “why we should help people when something is happening that shouldn’t be happening.”
Ms. Strom faced opposition from the United States Department of Education when she sought federal grants from 1986 to 1988. An outside member of a review panel complained in 1986 that Facing History’s curriculum did not represent the views of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party. The next year, the panel labeled the curriculum “leftist,” “antiwar” and “offensive to fundamentalists.” The conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly opposed it.
Ms. Strom said the Nazi films and documents that were used in Facing History’s curriculum amply demonstrated the horror of the Nazi position. “What in the world is the view of the Nazis, that it’s good to murder people?” she asked in an interview with The New York Times in 1989, after the organization’s funding had been denied for a third time. “Facing History does not teach that that’s an appropriate point of view.”
The issue arose again in 1995. Weeks after being hired as the historian of the House of Representatives, Christina Jeffrey was fired by Newt Gingrich, the House speaker, after he learned that she was the review panelist who had criticized the Facing History panel for not giving balance to the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan points of view.
“It’s old history,” Ms. Strom said at the time, “and I never expected it to return.”
Margot Stern was born on Nov. 10, 1941, in Chicago. She was 5 when her parents, Lloyd and Fannye (Wener) Stern, moved to Memphis, where they owned a furniture store.
As a girl, Margot came to understand the realities of living in Memphis, where a sign showed where “coloreds” could enter the zoo; only one Jewish teenager a year was allowed on her high school cheerleader squad; and water fountains were marked “colored” and “white.”
“If you’re a child, of course you choose ‘colored,’” she told The Globe in 1986. “‘Colored’ means rainbows, blue, red, pink. It’s a lot more interesting than white water … yet you follow the rules of the world. You get pushed toward the white fountain.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1964, then taught middle school in Skokie, Ill., before moving in 1968 to Tampa, Fla., where her husband, Dr. Terry Strom, was serving as a captain in the Air Force. She worked as a model for two years, appearing in print advertisements for Pepsi and other products, then moved to Massachusetts in 1970 and resumed teaching, at the Runkle School. In 1977, she received a certificate of advanced study from a program on moral development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
From the start, Ms. Strom placed an emphasis on training teachers in Facing History’s curriculums rather than simply providing the course work to school districts. In 1977, with the program already being taught in Brookline schools, the organization received a $58,000 three-year federal grant to train about 400 educators throughout Massachusetts.
As Facing History grew, it provided training to teachers in workshops and seminars and online. The organization says that an estimated 150,000 teachers around the world regularly use its curriculum, as a discrete course or as elements in other courses. It also posts new classroom lessons online as events unfold, like the massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
“Margot knew that to teach a subject like the Holocaust you had to deal with teachers,” Carol Gilligan, a professor of humanities and applied psychology at New York University who serves on the organization’s board of scholars, said by phone. She added: “If you can teach the Holocaust to children, you can teach anything. The horrors are so great.”
Ms. Strom remained the group’s executive director until her retirement in 2014. Mr. Parsons, who was the program director until 1988, later became the chief of staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Strom is survived by her son, Adam; four grandsons; a sister, Paula Stern; and a brother, Gerald. Her husband, a researcher in organ transplant immunology, died in 2017 at 76.
Ms. Strom said that young people must be trusted to examine some of the most difficult eras in human history.
“It’s scary to walk in someone else’s shoes,” she told Ed., the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s magazine, in 2015. “But you can imagine it if you’re taught about it. There’s a need for truth telling and widening perspectives.”