Challenging the digital generation

Steven Spielberg launches a new program aimed at sixth- to 12th-graders in the US and throughout the world that tasks them with creating a video essay on how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place.

Director Steven Spielberg 370 (photo credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
Director Steven Spielberg 370
(photo credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
LOS ANGELES – A 14-year-old New York high-school student sits in his classroom, watching the taped testimony of a Holocaust survivor.
In the video, the survivor recalls how he had to kill his family dog as he faced deportation to a wartime ghetto, where there would not be enough food for humans, let alone for animals.
After watching the testimony and letting it sink in, the student decides to volunteer at a neighborhood animal shelter.
It was the kind of reaction filmmaker Steven Spielberg had hoped for when he and his associates conceived the iWitness Video Challenge, aimed at sixth- to 12thgraders in the United States and throughout the world.
The challenge is to involve the students in the thousands of testimonies gathered from Holocaust survivors by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg created with the proceeds from his seminal film Schindler’s List.
Spielberg came recently to the campus of the Chandler School in Pasadena, California, to publicly introduce the iWitness challenge.
“The idea behind the iWitness challenge is the same idea that was behind Schindler’s List – that profound changes can occur when one person makes a positive choice,” Spielberg explained.
“So students will listen to testimonies from eyewitnesses, they’ll develop insight as to how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story how they made their community better and how they participated in making the world a better place.”
A second goal of the project is to give students the tools of “media literacy and digital citizenship in the 21st century,” according to Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation.
The concept underlying iWitness is as old as a teacher making a point by way of example and as new as the latest digital technology.
Instead of textbooks, the program’s basic instructional tool is a website that holds nearly 1,300 personal histories told by survivors, liberators and other witnesses to the Holocaust as well as to more recent genocides, mainly in Africa.
From these testimonies – selected from a trove of nearly 52,000 archived eyewitness accounts gathered by the Shoah Foundation – teachers are encouraged to create their own classroom lessons and homework assignments, and students can dig deep into the material by using 9,000 keywords that allow users to focus on their own specific interests.
Most importantly, iWitness is intended to encourage students in public, private and home schools to create their own videos using a special iWitness editor available on the website, which allows users to integrate clips from the testimonies with footage from other sources, as well as photos, voiceover audio, music and text.
The iWitness project is a direct descendant of Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning movie that in 1993 brought about a dramatic awareness of the Holocaust to members of a new generation and to those of their elders who had largely forgotten it.
As Spielberg has frequently recounted, “After Schindler’s List was finished, I would meet Holocaust survivors and each would say, in so many words, ‘That’s a fine film, but you’ve only told a small part of what happened. Now let me tell you my story.’” While even Spielberg could not make thousands upon thousands of movies about the Holocaust, he became convinced that each survivor’s story had to be preserved in some way.
As a result, within a month after Schindler’s List won the Academy Awards for best picture and best director in 1994, Spielberg and a small group of advisers launched the Shoah Foundation.
Its goal, seemingly impossible at the time, was to permanently record on videotape the testimonies of all Holocaust survivors willing to relive their traumas, as well as the accounts of liberators and other eyewitnesses.
In recent months, the Shoah Foundation expanded its mission to add testimonies from the victims of genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia as well as from descendants of Armenians who survived the mass slaughter of their people during World War I.
Archive is staggering.
Currently, the collection includes 105,000 hours of video testimony, representing interviews with 51,696 witnesses. This massive archive, the largest digital collection of its kind in the world, is digitized, fully searchable and hyperlinked to the minute.
With the help of such indexing, scholars and students can access any of the material through more than 60,000 keywords, 1.2 million names and 700,000 images, while clips and full-length YouTube testimonies are available for more casual viewers.
In addition to its historical contribution, the full visual history archive has been awarded 11 patents on digital collection management technologies.
On March 1, 1993, Spielberg started filming Schindler’s List in Krakow, Poland. Last month, to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of this venture, he announced not only the iWitness Video Challenge but also the release of a Blu-ray version of Schindler’s List, restored from the 35-millimeter film original.
The limited-edition Blu-ray combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment offers the contents in a variety of formats, including Blu-ray disc, DVD, Digital Copy and UltraViolet.
Joining Spielberg and Smith at the introduction of the iWitness Challenge, the Shoah Foundation brought in 18 students ages 13 to 18 from Los Angeles- area middle and high schools to represent the ultimate targets and transmitters of the project.
Addressing students individually and as a group, Spielberg defined the highest purpose of his project.
“We can use iWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to the community and the very idea that the best way to teach empathy is with examples of it,” he said, “so that maybe some day, kindness will be a natural reflex, and not just a random act.”
The students sit around three tables, each facing a laptop computer. Checking out the scene, Kori Street, director of education for the Shoah Foundation, observes, “Today’s students would rather watch than read. That’s the reality – we live in a digital world.”
This is a world in which students can pick, choose and blend together footage from the program’s 1,300 digital testimonies by Holocaust and genocide survivors.
Street believes this kind of exercise can lead to critical thinking, connection to a specific issue and, finally, concrete action by the students inspired by what they have absorbed.
One of these students is high-school senior Steven Colin, who is of Latino descent and has faced both subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in his life. As a result, he says, he feels a kind of bond to the victims of the Nazi regime.
Matthew Culpepper, a seventh-grader, has not had to face that kind of prejudice and can hardly grasp the testimonies on the video screen. “How could people do that to other people?” he asks.
Whether because of the iWitness project or just their inherent decency, both Colin and Culpepper say they recently stepped up and intervened when they saw classmates bullying fellow students.
Already, iWitness has reached some 2,000 educators from 35 countries and all 50 states, and 6,100 of their students are involved in the program. China is now showing interest as well, Street says.
“Our aspiration is to eventually reach 100,000 students,” Street adds, noting that “you don’t even need classrooms. You can create your own project at home or in a library.”
All current students will submit projects to their teachers, with each student completing a videotape, one to four minutes long, tying what she or he has learned from the survivors’ stories to a personal contribution to better their communities.
Street cites the project of one group of students who watched the testimony of a survivor who “lost his smile” in a concentration camp but regained it through the love of his family.
Inspired, the group set out to help unhappy or depressed classmates, aiming to “turn that frown upside down” by posting humorous notes and supportive messages around their school campus.
At another school, a student watched the testimony of a survivor who related that, despite the horrors of the concentration camp, some prisoners continued to sing to lift the spirits of fellow inmates. The student followed up by organizing a small choir, which went around serenading the elderly in retirement homes.
The students with the best video entries from six regions – five from the US and one from Canada – will be recognized, together with their teachers and parents, at the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Shoah Foundation. It will be held in March 2014.
To learn more about the iWitness program and how to participate in the video challenge, visit
For more information about the Shoah Foundation, see