Thursday, March 29, 2012

Age Appropriateness for Teaching the Holocaust

Back in February, my sister copied me on an email to her daughter’s teacher. My niece, who is in 4th grade, was having nightmares about Hitler and the concentration camps. She had woken three nights in a row, trembling and crying. My sister was curious why this was being taught in a 4th grade classroom to students who are not developmentally ready for this information. To the teacher’s credit, she was not teaching the Holocaust but a group of students had been reading a graphic book, complete with photos, which had been checked out of the school library.

Thank goodness this was not a part of the curriculum! My niece’s reaction is a great illustration of why the Holocaust should not be taught until middle school. Our children seem so grown up in so many ways these days, that it might seem that they can handle these realities. In actuality, most children cannot rationalize that these events are not going to play out in our country and that they and their families are safe from these atrocities. It is absolutely important that we teach our youth this history so that they know it CAN happen if we don’t protect the rights of every group but it needs to be done in a responsible way and at an appropriate time.

The following is what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says about Age Appropriateness:

Students in grades 6 and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of this history, including the scope and scale of the events. While elementary students are able to empathize with individual accounts, they often have difficulty placing them in a larger historical context. Such demonstrable developmental differences have traditionally shaped social studies curricula throughout the country; in most states, students are not introduced to European history and geography—the context of the Holocaust—before middle school. Elementary school can be an ideal location to begin discussion of the value of diversity and the danger of bias and prejudice. These critical themes can be addressed through local and national historical events; this will be reinforced during later study of the Holocaust.

Hopefully, as a response to this incident, the librarian has been alerted and replaced the book with age appropriate materials. I love the thought that there are so many well-meaning teachers out there, excited to teach their younger students about the importance of inclusion and the dangers of exclusion. My hope is that these lessons will be taught in ways that are appropriate for the age group.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Never Again" hasn't held up

Never again hasn’t held up. Eighteen years ago, I was a senior, preparing for graduation, eating at McDonald’s before going to my after school job. I can remember reading in the Kansas City Star articles about two tribes in Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi. It sticks out to me because it was so difficult in my mind to keep the two straight. This stays with me because I teach Rwanda in my Sociology class. Of all the genocides that the United States has failed to react to in time to prevent, this is the one that drives me. So, I share with you some text resources that I believe will help you better understand the conflict.
First off, in my opinion, the best overview piece on 20th century genocide is by Samantha Power. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, is a chilling critique of America’s failures to take action to prevent genocides. Her sweep is incredible. Her first four chapters deal with the creation of the term genocide and the ramifications it should hold from a legal and government perspective. Once she has established the international role in identifying and prosecuting genocide through the United Nations, she delves into specific areas where the United States failed to act. If you teach genocide at all, you must read her first several chapters to fully appreciate the history of the term and the international response to the Holocaust.

Power’s chapter on Rwanda deals largely with the American bureaucracy and its attempt to shift responsibility. There is no hero in her book as the American government, still stinging from a media failure in Mogadishu, doesn’t properly address the issue in Rwanda. Her book does not provide one with an effective background and this chapter can be cumbersome to those seeking to personalize the actions. For a government course, though, her writing demonstrates the shaping of policy and the role of the bureaucracy in carrying out the action, or inaction, of a government and its leadership.

In contrast, Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil is the story of a Canadian general put in command of the UN force sent to Rwanda to act as mediators of the peace accords (Arusha Agreement) that presaged the genocide. This book should not be read as an introduction to the genocide, but instead as a memoir and a personal journey of one unable to do enough. Dallaire’s memoir spends the first chapter building up his personal history and how he came to Africa. Another large portion of the book is dedicated to the politics played between the two sides as he attempts to build a government under the new agreement. Not until chapter ten do we read of the spark that ignites the powder keg that he has built for us. It is at this point that the memoir pays off and the reader realizes that all his words to this point were an attempt to build a picture and to cleanse his soul. This tale is deeply personal for the general and he makes it very clear how much of himself he put into the mission, but the real story is not about him. He does not ask for sympathy but his words ring with so many signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that one can’t cut his story out of his recounting. Rather than being a distanced critique of the events, the failures of governments to act and of a detached westerner, instead, this is the story of a proud man brought to his knees and crippled by his lack of ability to do his duty. This story cannot be taken in snippets. There is no section that can be lifted without losing the power of his entire ordeal. The book is over five-hundred pages, and at times can drag. But, it is also deeply personal. Put together with the book by Power, a westerner (First Worlder, North American, European) gains insight into the failures of man to take care of his brother. There is no rainbow at the end of either book and instead, both leave the reader feeling distraught and angry. Or they should.

The third selection, Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We will be Killed with our Families, is a collection of stories told by a reporter who went to Rwanda a year after the genocide. He visits the sites of the massacre, tells the stories of the survivors, and personalizes the event, as best he can. He was not there when it happened. Instead, as a reporter, he enters and tells the story of the Rwanda that survived. Not an easy read, and again, he lays the out responsibility for continuing failures on the major western powers, especially the United States. With this book at the end of the other two, one gains as close as one can get to a full perspective of the events. It’s interesting that all three are written by westerners for westerners.
Personally, I don’t like highly personalized stories. It has never been my interest to read biographies. That continues through this final story. As a Catholic school teacher, though, I must offer up two more books that shed light on the Rwanda genocide, and I would only recommend these after reading at least one of the previous three I have mentioned. You must have a big picture perspective of the events in Rwanda before attempting to tackle personalized stories of those in it.
Left to Tell is the story of Immaculée Ilibagiza and her survival in a bathroom protected by a family. Her story is very much a tale of her religious devotion and a faith journey. The Catholic bishops in the United States have been quick to sweep her up as a face of faith. Rwanda was approximately 95% Christian when the genocide broke out. This crime was committed not by outsiders but by self-identified believers.

Only after understanding fully the overview of the genocide in Rwanda, and the role of religion in the region, should one chance to pick up Genocide in Rwanda: Complicity of the Churches. This book is a collection of essays from different authors dealing with the role of religion in the genocide. This is not an easy read, both because of its scholarly nature, but also because it demands questions be asked of the faithful that are not comfortable. Too often we have a tendency to cut off those who don’t agree with us. It is too easy to deny their faith, and claim that ours is the correct one. Too often, we separate ourselves from the perpetrators reflexively, but this book challenges a very deep tenet. Does religion make us a better person? Do we shift responsibility for our actions too often to a higher power (god) and to what consequences? It would be too easy to write off the Rwanda genocide as crazy Africans - child-like primitives, Christians in name only (rote, cafeteria, surface), or some other schema that makes them “the other”.

How many Rwandan lives are worth one American life? That is a good question, because 800,000 Rwandans died while no Americans did. I go back to the Primo Levi poem, Shema. “Whether it be a curse or a question, there is no question that it is a call to action that too many of us ignore.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

An image is worth a thousand words... at least

Lately I have been working with photos more and more in the classroom. (I was inspired by a recent conference I attended.) I like taking a photo or painting and separating it out into many sections. I literally print out the image and cut it into multiple sections.; maybe 5 or 6 pieces. (I will print out the image 5 times and cut each printout into the same 6 different pieces so each student can have a section of the image.) I try to pick photos that are complex and have a lot going on in them.

I suggest the image below that could be used for dissection. In fact, if you CLICK HERE, there are enlarged sections of this image ready for you to print off.

You could ask students things like:
What is going on in this section?
How are people dressed?
Who do you think painted this image?
What is the mood of the section?
What is the quality of the art?

I put each section up on the Powerpoint, one piece at a time, and ask those students who have that piece to talk about what they saw. In the end I put the entire photo up and ask if there is different meaning with all of the pieces put together.

I think this might be an interesting way to introduce the Holocaust. This photo is actually a mural that was in the common area of the children's barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

You could talk about what type of supplies might have been readily available to paint this mural. How is the painting of this mural a form of defiance? How might this be a way for the young people to cope with their situation?

An activity like this can usually be done in less than 20 minutes as an introduction to a lesson or unit of study. It is a real attention grabber and students tend to mentally associate the image with the lesson.