Monday, January 31, 2011

Connections for Black History Month

I am a BUSY school librarian in the inner city; I am at a new school this year. I love it, and yet many things (such as, unfortunately, getting exercise and thoroughly reading the paper) have fallen by the wayside. During a series of snow days I found myself able to read the local paper cover to cover. I had not had time this school year to read the opinion pages, but I read “When it comes to history, blacks can learn from Jews’ response” by Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald. Pitts discusses how the strenuous work of Jewish and historical organizations has been successful, and how important it is to know history; he states that the Holocaust went from a little known subject in the 1970s to being a part of curriculums around the world. In knowing that knowledge can build bridges and possibly prevent catastrophic events, he believes that the African American community should be as vigilant in knowing, relating to, and sharing its challenging history with others.

I enthusiastically agree. Having been an inner city teacher for 14 years, one of the biggest surprises for me was finding that my African American students don’t feel a connection to the civil rights movement and other important periods and issues associated with this history. I was really excited the first January that I served a school with a population that was mostly African American. We had studied different aspects of the Holocaust together after some students read such books as The Devil’s Arithmetic and Number the Stars; we examined nonfiction sources and the students’ ability to empathize grew; I thought that our studies of the civil rights movement would be even more profound for them, sure that at least some of them had relatives who participated. My parents were involved in the civil rights movement, and I was eager to share my family’s part and to hear about their family’s involvement during February. I was completely thrown when my students told me that they didn’t know of anyone who participated in the civil rights movement, not even local sit-ins, etc. I am rarely stunned to silence, but after finding my voice again, I asked all of them to go home and ask about their family.

The next day, I was sure I’d hear of students’ new found knowledge, but not one found any connection. I found that one of the casualties of the disjointed families of generational poverty was a loss of family history and memory; the shorter time spans between generations made the 1960s a very distant time. I diligently opened dialogues with students in order to help them connect to the history. We worked together to understand the courage one would had to have participate in the marches, demonstrations, boycotts, etc. The students initially thought that only African Americans were involved with and participated in the civil rights movement, but we worked together to learn about the participation of many different groups, including many Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors. I continue this arduous task each year, and this the movie Boycott will become one of my new resources this year; it truly conveys the uncertainty, worry, and how stressed those who organized and participated in the Montgomery bus boycott must have felt.

The Jewish community has been arduous in keeping our society connected to the Holocaust, and I hope someday to find that this is true of the history of African Americans, too. I hope that Pitts’ words urging those involved to “bear witness” stir action to change this disconnect.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A resource for encouraging character development

I think one Holocaust topic that is often overlooked is a discussion of rescuers and the character development that can be learned from those individuals. I recognize that for most teachers the reason this area of the Holocaust is overlooked is due to time constraints, but I do think there is something important in making sure this topic is at least recognized. I think it helps remind students that even in what is one of humanity’s darkest hours, there were good people who tried to help.

Now I’ll admit that I do not have time to actually do a whole lesson on this subject, but I do have a copy of the poster set created by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a non-profit organization that recognizes and offers financial assistance to rescuers. JFR publishes a poster set that explores the character traits of rescuers such as compassion, moral leadership, courage, integrity, and social responsibility. JFR believes that rescuers are, “not just heroes from the past, but also role models for the present” and wants students to realize that rescuers are not unique but have the same character traits that young people can and do have.

I keep the posters up in my classroom throughout the year and I watch as students read over them throughout the first semester. During second semester, when I teach the Holocaust unit, I will discuss the posters directly and talk about the importance of these character traits. I keep the posters up the rest of the year so that students are reminded, visually, of those characteristics that make up the best of humanity. Again, I don’t have time to do a lot with this lesson because like all teachers I live in a world where one week is considered a lot of time on one subject, but I think having the posters up year round and then addressing them directly helps remind students that people have been - and are - capable of being good and just.

This poster set and the accompanying Teachers Guide is available for free loan from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education's Resource Center. The posters are also available for purchase in English and Spanish (“Poster Set on Rescue: Traits that Transcend”) directly from JFR.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Holocaust fatigue in students

As a High School teacher, I often hear “Why do we have to learn about the Holocaust? We already know everything!” or “I’m so tired of learning about the Holocaust. It is so depressing.” Although this attitude can be frustrating, I take solace in the fact that their middle school and freshman teachers are doing their job.

Because these students come to me with pretty good background knowledge of the Holocaust, I’m able to expose them to so much of the history which they know little or nothing about. I see it as a challenge to make sure they leave my class saying, “I didn’t know about __________” or “I learned so much more in your class.”

So much of their prior knowledge revolves around the camps, hiding, and the ghettos. In my two week unit we also cover: the history of antisemitism, Jewish life before the Holocaust, other victims, the progression of events (Nuremberg Laws, the T4 euthanasia program, and the Wannsee Conference), Einsatzgruppen, and rescue and resistance.

Students also read All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein, whose writing takes a different approach than most of the memoirs/diaries they’ve previously read. If there is time, I always like to conclude the unit with a lesson over contemporary genocides so they can see exactly WHY we’re spending so much time on this historical event- because it can happen again and unfortunately it has happened repeatedly since 1945.

When my students state they already know everything about the Holocaust, I reply “I’ve been studying this history for fifteen years and I’m continually learning more. It is my goal to take you above and beyond what you’ve already learned.” After the unit, they still say it is depressing but I’ve never had a student say they already knew the material. Enrichment is the cure for Holocaust fatigue.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Essay Contest resources and advice!

Last year was my first to tackle the White Rose Student Essay Contest. The colleagues in my informal PLC, Gay Ramsey from Trailridge Middle School and Jen Jenkins from Westridge Middle School, were invaluable to me. They shared their project plans and calendar. They explained how they taught various aspects of the research process to their students. We solved problems and shared frustrations together. We met at MCHE the day the final essays were due, turned in our students’ papers, and then went out for dinner . When the winners were announced last May, Gay was holding my hand, literally – just as she had held it figuratively through the entire process. Honestly, I could not have done it without them!

This year we added another member to our group, Kristin Ridgway from Hocker Grove Middle School, and started planning at the end of 1st Quarter. The documents associated with this blog entry are a result of that meeting. Many of them have my name in the footer, but they are the result of the cumulative effort of the four of us. Each person in the group reserves the right to make changes as needed for her particular group of students and her school schedule. Some of us spend a bit more time on one step of the process than another. Of course, we all must monitor the learning of our students along the way and make necessary adjustments. Nevertheless, the Project Description and Calendar provide a guide for the teacher and students from the start of the project about the tasks that must be accomplished and the time allotted for completing them. The Topic Approval Form is designed to prevent research project pitfalls before they happen: students who pick a topic that doesn’t truly interest them or about which they can’t obtain enough information.

Gay, Jen, and I decided to begin the White Rose Project this year with an introduction to the Kansas City area survivors. MCHE has provided us with two unique resources for this task. First, The Holocaust: Through Our Own Eyes is a wonderful video that provides an overview of the Holocaust in the length of one class period. It was produced by MCHE and features the testimony of KC area survivors. Second, Mosaic of Memories is a PowerPoint presentation created by MCHE that can be used in the classroom in 2-3 periods. (Gay and I allowed 3 days on the calendar because we talk too much!) Mosaic also tells the story of the Holocaust from the point-of-view of KC area survivors. We think that these two resources will be instrumental in helping the students choose the survivors whom they would like to research for their projects.

The Survivors Chart associated with this blog entry is an adaptation of MCHE's White Rose topic list for 2010-11. Gay and I have added columns cross-referencing the list of survivors with The Holocaust: Through Our Own Eyes, Mosaic of Memories, and The Memory Project (another MCHE publication).

Finally, Gay, Jen, and I feel that it is important for our students to gain a solid foundation of general Holocaust knowledge in the course of this project. As 8th graders, this is probably the first time most of our students have learned anything about the Holocaust. We want them to have facts rather than myths and misconceptions. They will have other opportunities to learn about the Holocaust – in high school English and history classes. We don’t need to teach them everything; we want to teach broadly and leave them curious to learn more. Their White Rose essays – no matter the topic – will be stronger if they understand how their piece of the puzzle fits into the larger picture. An excellent text for providing this general overview of the Holocaust is Tell Them We Remember by Susan D. Bachrach. That is why it is required reading in the beginning steps of the White Rose project. The reading guide that I used with students last year and intend to use again is also attached for your use.

If you are lucky enough to have colleagues in your school district who have participated in White Rose, I urge you to seek them out. Band together and work as a team. It makes the process much less stressful and more enjoyable. If you are alone and tackling the project for the first time on your own, contact Jessica Rockhold at MCHE. There are people who are willing to help you!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Emotional impressions of A Film Unfinished

I recently had the chance to see the just released movie “A Film Unfinished” at the Glenwood Theatre. Because of my commitment to the subject of the Holocaust I have seen many, many movies on this subject. However, this movie was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to watch.

For those of you that don’t know the movie, it features four film reels that are all titled “Das Ghetto.” They weren’t found all together and the most recent one was Reel #4 found in 1995. Hidden away in an underground vault in East Germany, “Das Ghetto” chronicles 30 days of filming in the Warsaw Ghetto. The film was done by the Nazis to use as propaganda.

After reel #2, I realized that we were going to go through all of the reels, all four of them. I wasn’t really sure that I could sit through all four reels. To watch the black and white footage and realize that you were seeing human beings that more than likely were dead three months after filming was very disconcerting and disturbing. Not to mention the fact that the producer kept showing you four survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto watching the film at the same time you were. The light of the film reflected off their faces as they cried and grimaced at the images that were real to them some 60 years ago.

The most memorable line of the entire film was given by one of these women survivors. As she watched the corpses thrown down a slide into a pit and the Nazi cameraman change position in the pit to get a better angle she said “I can’t watch this now. I’m human now and I can’t watch these scenes.” For the entire 88 minutes of this film you kept thinking to yourself “How could you live in this place and be sane?” or “You would have had to feel like you dropped through a black hole and were without a doubt in hell or in a psychotic state of hell.” The survivor’s statement made me realize that you did go into another dimension in the Warsaw Ghetto and in that dimension you weren’t human. Plain and simple, humans could not have survived this experience. The only way to survive was to morph into an inhuman state.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Teaching Anne Frank and the Holocaust while preparing for assessments

In this day and age of testing, it can be very hard to teach the subjects we are passionate about. This is particularly true teaching middle school in Kansas, where students are given the reading assessment in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. However, it is important for us as educators to still teach those topics that we feel are essential for students going forth in their education. The Holocaust is one subject I feel this way about.

Most middle school students read The Diary of Anne Frank. In many districts, the story (diary, excerpts or the play) is in the language arts textbook. It is possible to teach the key points of the Holocaust while using Anne Frank's story.

Before reading the story, take a class period to explain the major details of the Holocaust. It is hard for students to understand why the Franks are going into hiding when they don't know what was happening in Europe. It is possible to give an overview in one class period and students will start the story with excellent prior knowledge.

In order to tie the subject in with state tested standards, you can teach your unit on persuasive techniques before teaching Anne Frank, and then discuss Nazi propaganda during the unit.

While reading the story, be sure to use context clues to discuss vocabulary and ask questions which require the students to use inference, again tying the story with state standards.

Anne Frank can be an excellent tool for character study and the elements of character which are tested on the reading assessment. Motivations, character changes, environment changing the characters and character drives are all done very well in this story.

If reading the actual diary, it can be a great chance to discuss author's viewpoint and position. As with all stories, plot structure can be analyzed in this story as well.

Personally, I have found it hard to come to terms with the fact that high stakes tests are going to have to take precedence in our classes. However, I have also come to the realization that I can still teach the things I love while also tying those things to assessment goals. They do not have to be taught independent of each other.