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.

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