Monday, November 16, 2009

Teaching about the Nazi legal assault against the Jews

A note before we begin: I use this lesson in my sophomore Challenge U.S. History class, which for the most part includes students who are mature enough to understand the material and discuss it in an academic setting. The students in my challenge classes, for the most part, are highly motivated learners and enjoy discussions. This lesson is recommended as age appropriate for students in 9-12th grade because they possess the critical thinking skills necessary to handle the material.

One of my favorite classroom activities is a lesson that involves comparing and contrasting Jim Crow Laws with Nazi laws such as the Nuremberg Laws. I love this lesson because it gives students a chance to understand the purpose of laws and why people need to be aware of how laws shape our values and norms. For example, most people believe that laws provide safety and security for citizens. Laws tell people what they should and should not do in order to protect themselves and protect others from harm. By passing laws, a “norm” is created that says “x” is dangerous because there is a law protecting a person from it. Encouraging students to see how laws promote certain social standards and beliefs helps students better understand why people acted as they did. The key is to illustrate that laws are both positive and negative. By having students compare and contrast Jim Crow Law with Nazi laws students begin to see how laws created the social norms and values that surrounded both communities.

For many of my students it’s the first time they actually understand what Jim Crow laws were and how they shaped the identity of the South. They also see that many aspects of life in Nazi Germany were not unprecedented or unique. Often the Nazis are illustrated as being “abnormal” when in fact all countries use their laws to create social norms. So not only do students become familiar with the actual laws, but they also become familiar with the purpose of law.

One key thing to remember is that when doing this activity, the idea is to compare and contrast the policies created through laws and how those laws were implemented. Please make sure that students do not try to compare levels of suffering. (Please reference #6 in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust.) This activity is not about which groups or individuals suffered worse under the laws, but about how laws are used to justify policies and actions and how those laws were implemented. As the teacher it is critical that you avoid letting your students make statements about who suffered more and control the focus of the discussion.

Sometimes a discussion concerning “race” and the treatment of minorities based on “race” can be uncomfortable. By the time my classes reach this activity we have already discussed the pseudo-science of eugenics and its impact on the social construction of race. Most kids are shocked when they read the materials. Be prepared for them to laugh out of discomfort at some of the Jim Crow laws and Nazi laws. They may also make comments about how “stupid” these laws are and how they can’t believe people actually followed the laws. Thankfully I have not had any problems with inappropriate comments or questions, and for the most part students keep the discussion on point. I think much of that comes from how I set up the lesson heavily emphasizing that this is not about comparing and contrasting suffering but looking at policy and implementation. I just make sure to be specific about the objectives from the start.

Also, sometimes students have gotten off –topic when it comes to the discussion on how the laws addressed marriage and relationships. Students will want to talk about current dating patterns and the idea of mixed marriage. While this can be relevant in terms of allowing students to connect the material to their own lives, I try to avoid letting the lesson become a discussion on current conditions. To keep this from happening I will sometimes offer students an extra credit opportunity to journal about how this links to current issues and to turn it in next class.

I think you will find that this activity engages students and brings about an intellectual discussion on the use of law. I have used this lesson for the last three years and many of my students tell me it was one of their favorite lessons. Please visit CLICK HERE to find this lesson - complete with links to all necessary materials and teacher instructions.

Jim Crow Laws By State - Click on each state for the laws

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