Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Finding the Holocaust in other stories and histories

As an English / Language Arts / Communication Arts teacher, I am always looking for good books to read and pass on to my students. I am also always looking to read for pleasure, and as a member of a book club, I am always trying to “branch out” and read books that are not always ones that I would have been interested in on my own. Because of this, I have noticed that the Holocaust has become a topic in more and more fiction books as well as being connected to so many issues in history that I read about in non-fiction books.

For example, a few years ago I read Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos, a fiction book about the intertwining lives of people living in Seattle that had ties to the Holocaust. The link to the Holocaust was subtle, but it was there. I also read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a non-fiction book about an African-American woman whose cancer cells have been used by doctors and scientists to discover cures to diseases, help with cancer treatments, and a plethora of other research but who never received any compensation and little recognition. This book also tied into the Holocaust very subtly because of the medical ethics established as a result of the experiments in the camps.

Some other books that I have enjoyed (both fiction and non-fiction) that have related to the Holocaust include Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

In addition to these, there are many more books out there and the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education’s resource center has many that you may check out and read. I recommend these to my students who want to read more about the Holocaust beyond what we study in class and hope that they continue to learn about this important time period.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Concept of the "other"

I teach Sociology, as well as American history. Teaching an elective allows me the freedom to stretch my wings and look at standard history from different angles and through different prisms. I have become enchanted with the concept of “the other.” “The other” is anyone who is not like you. We all create a concept of the “the other” in our heads. When we group ourselves with like-minded people, whether based on performed race, economic status, performed gender, or countless other divisions, we band together because of some form of commonality. We find those whose values we share in some way. We join with others who reinforce our beliefs. Those who don’t share our beliefs are in one way “the other.” It is difficult for us to see the world through the eyes of “the other.” We assume that those we agree with view the world with the same eyes we do, those that don’t must not have anything in common with us. When we walk into a crowded room of people we don’t know, we look for someone that we assume is like us. It is a survival mechanism and quite natural. But it is also very base. By choosing others that we think will share our interests, we are pushing away those that don’t look like they will “get” us, hence we lump them up as “the other.” (As a point of clarification, in Sociology, we discuss the fact that we are all performers, acting out a role. We perform our gender to varying levels: hyper masculinity, as seen on football teams; hyper-femininity, as witnessed on the cheer or dance squads or in modeling; Eminem is a white man who performs black culture. President Obama has been derided as a black man who “acts” white. While culture is somewhat fluid, we must understand that we all “perform” or “act” out certain traits that we wish to personify to fit in to a group. As a white male, I perform to standards that are beyond my control as a father, teacher, role model, and husband.)

When I am teaching the concept of the development of racism to a predominantly Caucasian student base, I explain the difficulty in doing cruel things to someone that I may see as a potential mate, sister, daughter, mother, etc. When I look in the mirror, or at a family portrait, is this someone that could ever be a part of that? If yes, the bar is higher, and it is more difficult for me to minimize their feelings, to do them harm. If the answer is no, though, it is much easier to act without regard to them. They are the embodiment of whatever I am not. The Kansas City Star ran an article about slavery several years ago. In a part of that article, a historian said that if it hadn’t been for African slavery, the English colonists would have enslaved the Irish. I disagree from a sociological perspective. The Irish, with white skin, would not have faced the same brutality or lasted as long in bondage as did blacks. A good history teacher will take me to task on that and describe the conditions in Ireland at the time and the cruelty inflicted. Which will bring me to my next point: The concept of “the other” works best when you have a clear, visible, physiological/physical difference that can be exploited. It can be extrapolated to neighborhoods, class, religion, or any number of culturally created cleavages. Once these cleavages have been identified, they are often exploited.

Building on Dr. Gregory Stanton’s “Eight Stages of Genocide”, we can see the development of "the other" is a process of dehumanization. As much as we attempt to say that we respect all equally, often we place our concept, our values, our norms on others, assuming that what we hold true must be universal. When others don’t share those views, we can marginalize the target. The process of dehumanization is a slippery slope, and we too often engage in it without realizing. It is our duty to help our students guard against this process in everyday life through examples from the past.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Providing context for Anne Frank

I was careening through a Barnes and Noble store recently on a mission for something else when the image of Anne Frank on the cover of a book almost caused me to give myself a case of whiplash. I executed an abrupt U-turn and went back to the display table to take a look. The book that attracted my attention and made its way into my shopping bag that day was Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. Sid Jacobson is the author of the text and Ernie Colón created the graphics. This 149 page book reads like a graphic novel and appeals to middle and high school students – especially those who are reluctant readers.

The biography is divided into ten chapters that tell the familiar story of Anne, her family, and the other residents of the Secret Annex. However, there are many details in the book that I did not know. For example the first chapter tells the history of Otto Frank’s and Edith Holländer’s families; I learned that Otto Frank worked at Macy’s department store in New York City for a couple of years before WWI. The ninth chapter tells how the residents of the Secret Annex were arrested and what happened to them following their arrests. I learned that Otto tried to convince Peter Van Pels to hide with him in the infirmary at Auschwitz; however, Peter decided to evacuate the camp as the Russians drew close in January 1945. The tenth chapter tells about Otto’s life after the war, the publication of Anne’s diary, and the creation of The Anne Frank House.

Throughout the book, the creators have provided background information to help the reader understand Anne’s story in the larger context of WWII and the Holocaust. The second chapter is devoted to explaining the rise of Nazi party in Germany. Maps are provided in several places. There are pages titled “Snapshot” that illuminate in text and graphics concepts such as Germany in World War I, the Nuremberg Laws, Concentration Camps, the Wannsee Conference, and the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. There are smaller frames tucked throughout the book that give background information about other important events such as Germany’s acquisition of territory without war between 1935 and 1938, Kristallnacht, Operation Barbarossa and the Einsatzgruppen, and the evacuation of the Danish Jews. The last pages of the book feature a chronology and a list of print and web resources for further reading.

This book would be an excellent addition to school libraries and to the personal libraries of educators who teach about Anne Frank.

Jacobson, Sid and Ernie Colón. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Short Research Topic Lesson Plan

In teaching the Holocaust to any grade, especially Middle School, it can be tough to deal with such a sad topic for any period of time. I have found that, rightfully so, the kids get very down about it and get burned out easily. While that is one of the key elements of teaching the Holocaust, letting it be sad and depressing, I think it is also important to teach about some of the positive aspects of it as well, to balance it and to let the kids see the humanity that did come out of such a devastating situation. In order to do this, and to meet the objectives for doing a research project, I had my students choose 2 people who are on the Righteous Among the Nations List and do a short research essay about them.

Because this was their first research paper for me, I kept it limited and fairly simple. We focused on writing a thesis statement and putting things into their own words. I only allowed them to use two websites:

We began with taking notes. From the Yad Vashem website, they had to take notes on The Righteous in general. What kinds of people were they? Why did they help? What forms of help were common? Then they went on to the JFR website and browsed through the actual Righteous and their information. They were to choose two people who they found inspiring, but whom they had not already learned about in class (the Frank helpers and Sugihara). For each person they chose, they were to take notes on them specifically. Who did they help? How? Why?

Finally, they put their notes into an essay form, with three basic parts.

  • Intro paragraph, including basic information about The Righteous and ending with a thesis statement about their two rescuers.
  • At least one paragraph about each rescuer, including their opinion of the rescuer and their actions.
  • A concluding paragraph, putting it all together. They had to include their opinions about why they thought people helped and how these Righteous could be an inspiration to them and their generation.

I, personally, did not even have them type this. I didn’t make it a major project. After studying the Holocaust for about 4 weeks at that point, they weren’t in the mindset for a large project. Instead, I wanted them to get some inspiration at the end of such a heavy topic. Reading the essays, I was not only impressed with how well they wrote thesis statements and summarized in their own words (meeting curriculum objectives), but they really did seem to be inspired. They saw a light in this dark topic and could see how something that happened so long ago, in their minds, could be applicable to them. I had not done much research myself on the various Righteous and I learned so much from reading their essays. This project took about 4 days in class, and they had a weekend to finish it up, but I think it really made an impact on them.

Classroom Handouts
Thesis Statement
Heroes of the Holocaust
Grade Sheet
Sample Paper

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A student's tribute to a WWII liberator

While showing seventh-grade students MCHE’s survivor testimony about the Holocaust last spring, one of my students stated that her neighbor is in the video. All students’ ears honed in on the message of the four Holocaust survivors and the liberator, Col. Keith Schmedemann. Students continued to delve into the testimony. However, Col. Schmedemann spoke with the seventh-grade students last spring about the Holocaust and World War II. His story of liberating people in the Buchenwald concentration camp was a once in a lifetime experience for the middle school students.

When brainstorming for articles for this fall’s issue of our middle school newspaper, The Vellum, students wanted to interview and write about veterans. Col. Schmedemann came to the minds of current eighth-grade students as he imprinted a strong message to our future leaders. Thus, the following student article appeared in our fall issue. We are thankful for the gift of time, knowledge, and treasures of the many people who make meaningful connections of their history to our students, the future leaders. Thank you, Col. Schmedemann and many other speakers who share their story.

By Katie Donaldson

Hearts beating by the second these courageous heroes wait cautiously for the next gunfire. And when its shot, 1, 2, or maybe even 10 donate their life to save our country. Not only do they use their brain for strategies, they use their heart for determination. These champions are willing to sacrifice their lives for us. November is the month we honor saints and veterans. According to America, veterans are saints; saints for our country. They overcame their deepest darkest obstacles and dominated the impossible.

We recognize these advocates that may date back a while ago during the Holocaust or maybe recently in Afghanistan. Last year the fellow eighth graders witnessed an experience of a lifetime, they had the privilege to talk to a liberator in the Holocaust, Col. Keith Schmedemann. He was one of the protagonists that put his worries and selfish needs aside and focused on others. This man and several others are greatly admired for their work to our fellow brothers and sisters. God called him to offer up his life to the vulnerable. Col. Schmedemann remembers every little detail in the years he fought; from the anguish he saw thrust upon the victims in the concentration camps to the arrogant feeling he sensed when he felt victory. His words traveled on a journey, and the students felt every hill he had to climb.

He talked about how fate brought him into war. His father was in World War 1 and he happened to be born 1 year after that war; time after he would be matured enough to fight in his footsteps. Col. Keith Schmedemann started his presentation by making the statement, “We quit making automobiles, and started making tanks.” This point in history was when airplanes were modeled and new technology was being created. Soon enough he dug deeper and discussed his work in the army. With years after years of practice and training, and with the help of K-State, he accelerated from level 1 to the highest level. This hero was an infantry officer; which is a branch of army that is in the action and fighting. He was also involved in liberating a concentration camp called Buchenwald. “I crawled through the mud, dodged bullets, and leaped over creaks,” this is what this idol said about the things you see in movies that he did every day.

“I pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America……” Does this sound familiar? This patriotic leader honors these words every time they are said. He believes in respecting the flag and the country because that shows your pride. Sometimes when he says these words tears form in his eyes because it reminds him of the sacrifices his colleagues and other veterans faced to free lives. He admires all the soldiers and their love for their country. Col. Schmedemann declares, “I don’t think there are wars, it is simply a conflict between beliefs. There is never going to be a winner or loser, but there will be defeats and achievements, like our achievement in defeating Hitler.”

If he could give the students at Cure’ of Ars and the rest of the children of God one advice, it would be to make the most of your time and opportunities that are available to you and to realize that school and family are giving you these advantages. This earthly saint said, “If I could change one thing in my life, I would have jumped back in time and developed a hobby or skill that would stay with me the rest of my life. I practiced piano and wrote hymns, that I know all the words by heart to this day. I wish I would’ve taken the time to learn how to play the violin or be a wood carver.” During his work in the army he took pictures and wrote about his experience, soon he developed this into his story and delivered it to all of his children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. It took him about five years to complete this book!

To sum up is life in three words it would be: God, Country, and Family. A few years ago his second wife created a collage that depicted him. It had these three words on it along with sunflowers to represent his love for Kansas and three signatures that were his grandfathers, his fathers, and him. Mr. Schmedemann still has this collage hanging on his wall with other photos and memories of his life. He has lived life to the fullest and says that his greatest achievement was bringing humanitarian assistance to the Holocaust survivors.

Col. Schmedemann and all the other veterans teach each and every one of us to follow God’s call and put others in front of us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule. Not only do these words warm his heart, he fulfills them every day. Our journey reaches a point in life when all of our worries dissolve, when our tears are cleared, and when God takes us to his kingdom. This day will come, and the only way to get through the narrow gates is to love one another as yourself. And that’s just what these veterans did.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Making a difference

This has been a challenging school year. I am at a new school, again, and my district, the Kansas City MO School District, is facing a state takeover. Getting to this point has been a combination of many things, yet it’s fashionable to blame teachers for the ills of society -- even the ills of the school district. Even teachers in my region shudder at the thought of having to possibly take “those Kansas City” students. Not many teachers can do what we Kansas City teachers do- we look poverty, abuse, neglect, and ignorance in the face every day. I wouldn’t trade shoes with any suburban teacher- my students need me, and I change lives every day. My students readily grasp Holocaust lessons- they live with the ignorance and disdain that the Jews living during the Holocaust faced. They know life is tenuous, and they comprehend how important it is to understand and accept others.

The state of Missouri has been exploring options for improving the educational outcomes for my students, and one option is allowing students to attend suburban districts bordering our district. I was astounded when an area teacher who claims an interest in the Holocaust outright told me that she didn’t want “those" students. Her ignorance made me ill. In order to have a healthy society, we must view all children as ours. Didn't the core of being a bystander during the Holocaust involve thinking of society as an “us” and “them” proposition?

I know teachers who would die of shame if they had my job. I am proud of what I do. Kansas City teachers work many more hours than our suburban counterparts, and spend much more of our own money to ensure our students have what many suburban children take for granted. We work in neighborhoods most would not venture into. We comfort children who are homeless, whose parents are incarcerated. And yet our students are compassionate, accepting of others, and learn despite worries most children never face.

I have begun teaching the Holocaust to my new students. It is always astounding to experience the disbelief of what transpired during the Holocaust with a new group of students. I am always humbled by their unique insights, and know that I will learn as much from them as they learn from me.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Choosing resources that don't romanticize

This is one of the ten guidelines for teaching the Holocaust recommended by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult of the Museum’s guidelines to follow, but nonetheless, very important.

This is difficult for several reasons. Teachers are natural storytellers. We are constantly thinking of ways to present the information in a manner that grabs our student’s attention. Sometimes, because of that, we can be tempted to focus much of our attention on dramatic and/or gruesome details that do not capture the realities of an event, including the Holocaust. One such topic is rescue during the Holocaust. Many of these stories are compelling and do approach the topic of taking action, a social justice lesson many of us hope students take away from studying the Holocaust.

Teaching about rescue should be a part of a Holocaust curriculum, but not romanticized in a way that over emphasizes its part in the history. Less than one half of once percent of European non-Jews were involved in rescue efforts during the Holocaust. “Schindler’s List” is an excellent movie, and I show it for extra credit each year, but it should not be the only instruction students receive on the Holocaust, therefore giving students the idea that this is the typical story of the Holocaust.

As educators, we need to be cognizant of the films we show to our students. In our society, which is inundated with media and entertainment, there are many movies and pieces of historical fiction that tell a great story, but fail to tell all of the history or misrepresent it. Before showing a movie, we should ask ourselves “Why am I showing this? What do I want students to get out of this?” There might be a time and a place for “Life is Beautiful”, but as a Hollywood movie that misrepresents the history, it should not be used in an historical nature. The same can be said for movies like “The Boy in Stripped Pajamas” and “Jakob the Liar”.

There are many engaging and compelling stories that are historically correct. If you are looking for suggestions, feel free to refer to this list of movies and books and also MCHE 's annotated film list.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Accuracy of fact along with a balanced perspective on the history must be a priority.” I firmly believe that we owe this to our students in all studies of history and especially when educating about the Holocaust.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creating a Wordle lesson plan

One of the things that I have started doing with my students is having them create a Wordle visual based on a certain topic and then responding to an essay question with the Wordle. I think it is a good way to incorporate a little technology, visual learning, and writing all in one. I have included the directions I give to the students and a very general sample of a Holocaust wordle.

Holocaust Wordle Assignment
For this assignment you will be researching a topic related to the Holocaust. You will be using the Holocaust websites from the MCHE website. Once you have completed the research you need to create a list of the 15 most important ideas/actions associated with your topic. You will then use it to create a Wordle visual that demonstrates these ideas.

The link to Wordle:

How to make a Wordle:
Click on ‘Create your own’
Paste your list in where it says ‘paste in a bunch of text’ and paste or type in your list
Click ‘Go’

You may need to adjust your list several times to get your Wordle to look the way you want it to. Once you have completed your first Wordle you will follow the directions below for how to copy/paste it into Microsoft Word.

How to copy/paste the Wordles into Microsoft Word:
Once you have your final draft of your Wordle you need to click ‘Print screen’
Then open a Word document and paste it into Word
Double click on the image and then right click on the picture
Click on ‘Show picture toolbar’ and select the crop button
Crop out all of the excess stuff from your image

If you want a certain word to be more prominent than another word to represent its importance, then you should type it in more times. The more times the word appears, the larger it is in the Wordle visual. Also – if you want a set of words to be listed together (for example: many victim groups) then you should list them without a space when you type them in so that they will appear together in the Wordle (for example: manyvictimgroups).

I have included a sample below of a general Holocaust wordle so you will understand the assignment.

Sample Wordle:

Next Step: After creating each Wordle and pasting it into a Microsoft Word document, you will then write an explanation of your topic. The explanation should be a minimum of 10 sentences and based on your research.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I do this...

Every so often I am asked some variation of the question about why I continue to study the Holocaust. People seem to assume because I am a member of the Isak Federman Holocaust Teaching Cadre at MCHE and because I take most any class offered by MCHE that, by now, I should already know everything about the Holocaust. As anyone who studies history can tell you, you may possibly get to know the general facts but its the understanding that takes time and is never really fully nor satisfactorily achieved. In addition how can you possibly know all there is to know about an event spanning many years involving millions of people in all kinds of roles across an entire continent.

So why do I continue to study the Holocaust? The question of why is always hard to explain. It almost sounds morbid and wrong to say I like studying the Holocaust. Millions of people were involved and each one has a different experience or viewpoint. The moment you think you understand even some small part another piece is revealed. Some have been able to tell their story while others never had the chance. There is still so much more to learn about. Even in recently rereading books such as Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men, or in taking courses, I find something that helps further my knowledge and understanding.

Is it difficult sometimes to continue studying an event with such horrific consequences? Yes of course it is as you may well know. But the significance of the topic and the human stories, not just the horror but also those of hope, make it a topic that I plan on studying for years to come.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Using movie segments

With the time constraints placed on classroom teachers, any saved moments in preparation before the students is like gold. So, what if you could cut segments from DVDs and place them together in a constructive order, without having to fast forward or change discs? If you have the discs, I have the software. Thanks go out to Glenn Wiebe, at History Tech, for the ideas.

Here is what you will need: DVDs that you want to use segments from. It is imperative to own your own DVDs, as you can “rip” a copy, if you have purchased the original. To “rip” is to transfer the data from a disc (CD or DVD) to your computer’s hard drive. I recommend finding originals on Amazon. A lot of their used copies are perfectly good and are a super bargain. You will need a computer with a DVD player in it. That is just about any computer that is less than about five years old.

You will need specific software. I specifically recommend two from personal experience: Magic Ripper, available from the website This software will cost you a bit, but is worth it. Magic Ripper is only available for Windows based systems. If you are running a Mac, or just don’t want to pay the cost, the other option is Handbrake, available at This is a free download, and pretty simple to operate. Both programs will allow you to transfer the movie into a new format of your choice and save it on to a computer. From there, you can carry it on a jump drive, external hard drive, or other portable electronic device. Portability!!

Using either Windows Movie Maker (a free download) or iMovie (a part of iLife Suite that comes loaded on Macs, or is a cheap download), you can “trim” segments from the digital copies of your movies you have “ripped”. This is simple, and will take you no time at all to learn it. In Movie Maker, when you have segments you want in order, and are ready to use them, go to the file menu and click on “Publish Movie”. You can choose to create your finished project in a format playable on Windows based systems, or to put it on a DVD, playable in most players. I haven’t had enough experience playing with my new Mac to guide you through that, but Mac is fairly intuitive. You will need to use iDVD to create a finished DVD, similar to Movie Maker. Good luck, and if you have any questions, email me:

Ultimately, you can put together your most used segments from a series of different documentaries, movies, and videos. This is an incredible tool, and hopefully will allow you to condense your resources in one location. By having the video on the original disc, you have permission to make a digital copy for personal and educational purposes under Fair Use policies. Good luck.