Monday, October 19, 2009

Book talks and young readers

As a library media specialist, I feel comfortable talking about books. Books about the Holocaust are normally very well written and have great appeal to my students if I book talk them. These book talks can be one on one standing by the library shelves or with whole classes that have come in to check out their historical fiction novel. Our Communication Arts/Reading classes, grades 6 – 8, have different genres that students are responsible for with outside reading. I make sure that when I book talk these genres I check with the social studies teachers to see where they are in class on the American History timeline. This means I do a lot of Civil War and Holocaust book talks throughout the year! The Holocaust books generally come in two forms: historical fiction and memoirs. The tricky part is steering my students towards books that aren’t too mature and graphic while at the same time matching them up with just the right book to keep them coming back for more. When I talk to whole classes I make sure to give them a reading level for each of the books (found on Novel List) and a maturity level that I personally decide on after reading the books.

For young readers, I’ve found asking them first what they’ve already read is a good place to start. Some have read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and a few have heard Eve Bunting’s Terrible Things. Where do you go from here? There are several good possibilities: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Many middle schools do novel studies and read Devil’s Arithmetic in 7th grade and The Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade. If your CA/Reading classes don’t do Holocaust novel studies these are both good wrungs up the Holocaust literature ladder to offer your younger students.

The hardest student to find Holocaust books for is the adolescent male! I’ve found a book that most boys can really sink their teeth into though. It’s probably because it’s written by an adolescent boy – Leo Bretholz! The book is Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe. When you tell students that the author decided to write his memoirs because he found his name in a Nazi book of Jews from France killed at Auschwitz- they’re hooked. There’s adventure on every page and not Gary Paulsen-like adventures but adventures that are fatal if you’re caught! We always borrow multiple copies of this book from our feeder high school. But don’t be scared, your 8th grade boys can handle this book.

Another excellent boy book is Andrea Warren’s Surviving Hitler. It won the William Allen White award several years ago and is the biography of Jack Mandelbaum, one of our local survivors and co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. Students who want to know how people actually survived the camps will appreciate Jack’s story. The book is full of amazing primary source photos too.

Several years ago our teachers started using literature circles to allow students more choice of titles. What we’ve found with Holocaust books is that most students end up reading more than one of the titles and sometimes all of them! Students book talk to each other and share the titles! I always book talk Han Nolan’s If I Should Die Before I Wake and start with a warning about the language used at the beginning of the book. Like Devil’s Arithmetic the main character is thrust back to the past and forced to live life as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. You will have to throw out reality and use your imagination to appreciate these stories, but it will be worth the trouble. I also talk to the students about I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton Jackson. She gives a view of the camps that one could only have if they’d actually been there. I particularly like this book because the author describes in detail what it was like when the Nazis first came and the process that was involved before the Jews were moved to the camps. You don’t get this perspective very often. Also, The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang is amazing in its detail of the train ride to the camps. Truly, the entire book is about what it was like to be in a cattle car for a 14 year old Jewish girl and her grandfather. The surprise ending will break your heart.

Finally, in the past several years I have purchased new Holocaust titles that are appropriate for middle school students. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy about life and death in the Lodz Ghetto is a perfect example. Be sure that you read the inside cover to students when you book talk it. The statistics they give about the ghetto and how many Jews came through it and survived it are staggering especially when they tell you how many children survived, and the author’s aunt was one of them!

These are just a few of the many wonderful books available for young people on the Holocaust. I’d love to blog with you about other titles I know and maybe titles you know as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

White Rose Student Essay Contest

How do you create a short research assignment that requires students to not only provide a narrative history but also self-reflection? When it comes to the Holocaust this task becomes even more difficult if the assignment is to have any true value. Thankfully the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education created the White Rose Student Essay Contest.
There are a number of advantages to using this contest as a class assignment when studying the Holocaust.

  1. The contest adheres to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust. Specifically, in researching and writing for the contest students will recognize individuals, including victims and perpetrators, as human beings capable of moral judgment and independent decision making. Best of all the essay enables students to translate the statistics of 6 million killed into an individual experience. While the contest theme changes every year it does require students to focus on an individual within the larger context.
  2. Students are challenged to think about what they have learned through the course of their research. The essay includes a requirement that students write a short self-reflection.
  3. The assignment is relatively short at 1200 words maximum.
  4. Students are required to do research. This is a key skill found in both the Kansas and Missouri Social Studies standards. For those worried about what students may find on the internet regarding the Holocaust this can be controlled by using the list of recommended resources provided by MCHE for the contest theme. While not exhaustive the list is provided as a way to ensure students get reliable information. Many of the resources are also available through MCHE.
  5. Students are required to write for a wider audience. Most assignments are only created for the teacher to see. With this essay students need to be aware that they are writing something that others may see and judge. As a result students will probably take more care and deliberation in what they write.

While I teach 12th graders in International Baccalaureate History the essay contest can be used in any History or English class studying the Holocaust. Since I teach advanced students I do not have to take the time in class to teach research. However, this would be a great assignment to use as a means to teach research.

I have used the essay contest in a number of ways over the last 10 years. Initially I used it strictly as an extra credit assignment. Then I made it an option students could choose for their written assignment on World War II. The past few years it has become the required written assignment for World War II. Like most teachers it is difficult to find the time to teach many topics. I know for me the Holocaust is one such topic. While I spend some time teaching aspects of the Holocaust the essay contest enables me to extend that time while students also practice the skill of research.
While I require all students to write the essay, the contest only allows each teacher to send up to ten essays within each division (8th-9th and 10th-12th). I grade all the essays for my class and then choose the best to enter the contest. Sometimes this is the full allotment but often not. Those offered the opportunity to enter the contest can receive extra credit. In order to receive the extra credit the students selected must meet with me to discuss any changes needed to be made to their essay. In addition they must fill out the required paperwork and complete any other criteria by the deadline.

Overall, the White Rose Essay Contest is an easy to use assignment with a great number of advantages. I know everyone reading this can find some way to incorporate it in to their curriculum. You will not regret the effort. All your students will certainly be better off for having researched and written on the Holocaust.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meet the Cadre

Welcome to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education's Educator Forum. MCHE is a Holocaust education center located in Overland Park, Kansas. Much of our work focuses on preparing classroom teachers and other educators to accurately and effectively share this history with their 7-12th grade students. We do this through professional education courses, student programs, and providing age-appropriate resources.

One of MCHE's longest running and most successful programs is the Isak Federman Holocaust Teaching Cadre. This is a group of 18 dedicated and highly trained classroom teachers who work with MCHE on a volunteer basis to create educational programming and teaching resources. The group takes an active part in writing lesson plans and curriculum units, serves as peer educators and mentors in MCHE professional development courses and as ambassadors of Holocaust education in the teaching community.

This forum offers the cadre an opportunity to reach out to other Holocaust educators and to share their experiences and expertise. Cadre members (and the periodic guest blogger) will be sharing their reflections on resources, survivor testimony, effective teaching methods, general pedagogy, and actual classroom experiences.

We encourage all interested educators to follow this blog, interact, ask questions, and make this a true forum where you can get and share new ideas. Please check back regularly!