Monday, April 19, 2010

Student tours of Deadly Medicine - a docent's perspective

I enjoy my interactions with students, teachers, other docents, and NARA & MCHE staff as a docent for Deadly Medicine. To docent the exhibit requires careful advance preparation in order to provide an effective and positive learning experience for both students and teachers.

For Deadly Medicine, MCHE, the USHMM, and the National Archives provided training about the content, the historical background, and the facility (National Archives) itself. While this training provided a brief overview, every docent with whom I’ve spoken felt the need to learn and research more—beginning with the exhibit materials and additional suggested resources.

I viewed the online exhibit at USHMM and the pertinent resources to Deadly Medicine on the museum site as well as sites recommended by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education as I wanted to have site recommendations for students and teachers that I knew would provide accurate information to questions that needed more in-depth responses than I could provide. I also attended a session of the trainings given for teachers so I would have an idea of the background/materials they would have available.

Since most of the school groups would be spending between 30-45 minutes in the exhibit, I created an abbreviated tour guide. Using the brief introductions and summaries for the three sections of the exhibit from the guidebook provided in training, I created a framework for the tours I would lead. The exhibit provides a very intense experience for even those with in-depth knowledge of the Holocaust. Most students come to the exhibit with a minimal background in Holocaust study. To fully view and experience each section of the exhibit would require hours. I did not want students and teachers to feel overwhelmed before we even started.

At the beginning of the tour, I give a brief, general overview of what the group will be seeing and how the information will be presented. I check the students’ understanding of primary sources and describe some of the types used in the exhibit. We also discuss the term “eugenics” and their understanding of it—this gives me an idea of how much preparation they have received for the tour. Each of the three sections will include:

1) overview of the section pre-viewing

2) description of one or two specific exhibits to be sure to view carefully.

I give them about ten minutes to walk through each section, read the accompanying information, and ask questions as they go. At the end of the section, I summarize what they just saw and ask them to respond to one or two questions to check for their understanding and clarify any misconceptions about that section.

The key concepts I cover in the tour are as follows:

Section 1 –
eugenics in the U.S. & Europe, in Germany

why “race science” needed/used by the Nazis

how policies were instigated

  1. through propaganda
  2. through laws
  3. through education

Section 2 –
application of Nazi eugenics policies/racial ideology - strong versus weak

emphasis on family, women, “pure Germans”

sterilization/marriage laws

Nuremberg Laws


Section 3 –
T-4 program

killing squads to death camps

Final Solution

involvement of medical professionals, scientists, etc./accountability

Again—this a lot of information presented in a very short time frame. But I believe it’s important for students to hear the terminology and see it in the context of the exhibit.

It is sometimes necessary to adjust the amount of time spent in a given section as students become particularly engaged in a certain display/video. At the end of the exhibit, we discuss again why/how the Nazis used eugenics, how they delivered their message, and how the Final Solution was the end result of Nazi policies. Oftentimes, students want/need additional resources to answer specific questions they have. I encourage them to use the MCHE and USHMM websites for accurate information.

As a docent, I see firsthand the effects of the exhibit on students and their teachers. High school students are obviously far removed from this period in history. Unfortunately most students do not study the Holocaust for more than a few days, if that. This exhibit helps show students a piece of that history. The exhibit engages students using learning styles and presentation styles that are most appealing to the students—posters, videos, photos, artifacts, and accompanying written descriptions that are brief and easy to follow. Due to state standards and testing, students do cover propaganda techniques. This is an effective concept to use as a connection to various aspects of the exhibit.

I have led diverse student groups through the exhibit. Some came very well prepared with an activity to complete while in the exhibit (available on the MCHE website). Some came with minimal preparation (prior to their study of the Holocaust). But all of the students became engaged in the exhibit at some point, and many asked questions about what they saw. One memorable moment was when a young lady realized that she would have been labeled an undesirable, “life unworthy of life,” because of her race/ethnicity. The exhibit took on a whole new level of meaning for her.

I am sure that most students (most adults as well) continue to process what they see and learn from Deadly Medicine well after they have completed the brief tour. As a former teacher, I know that these experiences provide wonderful springboards of learning opportunities—for the class and for individuals. I end the tour by encouraging the students to return to the exhibit with a friend or parent(s) and to visit the online exhibit.

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