Thursday, May 31, 2012

Another successful year

In reflecting on the past year, I feel that using the Echoes and Reflections curriculum with my 8th grade literature students was very successful.  This program is divided into ten lessons.  Each lesson provides a historical context for the topic as well as survivor testimony and primary source material, including photographs, diary entries, poems and historical documents.   It is an excellent resource for material to use in your class.  You certainly do not have to teach all of the units by incorporating the survivor testimony would be a great way to bring the individual aspect of Holocaust study to you students.

My students finished the lessons on studying the Holocaust and antisemitism.  They also studied the history of Nazi Germany leading to the unit on the Final Solution.  This program offers them an opportunity to analyze photographs and propaganda material.  I conclude each unit with a test over the material and an ending project.  

In addition to Echoes and Reflections, my students also read a variety of Holocaust literature.  Within their literature circle groups, they read The Diary of Anne Frank, A Coming Evil, the Boy Who Dared, Behind the Bedroom Wall, Torn Thread, Play to the Angels, Someone Named Eva, Yellow Star, I Have Lived a Thousand Years and All But My Life.

As a class they read Surviving Hitler by Andrea Warren.  This memoir chronicles the experiences of local Holocaust survivor, JackMandelbaum during his adolescent years in World War II Europe.  There is an excellent teaching guide for this memoir on the MCHE web site.

I used Jennifer Jenkin’s lesson on a wall of remembrance quilt with my students as a culminating activity.  This offered them an opportunity to reflect on the material they studied and choose something that personally affected them.  The other students in the school and many parents asked questions about the quilt squares and this lead to discussions about the importance of the study of the Holocaust.

NOTE: The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education will be offering a training, conducted by an educator from Yad Vashem, over the Echoes and Reflections curriculum on July 25, 2012. All participants receive a complimentary copy of the curriculum! Enroll now!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Common Core

With the transition to common core curriculum, teaching the Holocaust in an English/Language Arts classroom becomes even more justifiable.  There are a multitude of resources for teaching the Holocaust that can be used within the format of the common core curriculum.  First, there is more of an emphasis on non-fiction writing.  The resources for teaching the Holocaust have many non-fiction pieces; in fact, some of the best pieces for teaching the Holocaust are non-fiction.  There are memoirs, journal entries, historical documents, and so much more that could be used to teach the Holocaust and meet the requirements of the common core for English/Language Arts.  Second, the common core curriculum suggests teaching shorter pieces in more depth.  Teachers could take excerpts from those same memoirs, journal entries and documents to teach non-fiction.  Some of the documents are short enough to be used in their entirety.  The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education’s resource center has many of these resources that teachers in the Kansas City area can check out for free.  If a teacher is outside the area, many local libraries have some of the resources available to check out as well. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Only weapons: Notebook and Leica

The contemporary photographer Monika Bulaj states her aim is “to give a voice to the silent people.” After watching her TED talk, I am at once humbled and invigorated.  I am struck by her courage and conviction.  She has been traveling for over 20 years, reportedly armed with only her notebook and Leica, a wonderful little camera that she uses like a nomadic paintbrush to painstakingly recreate the light and vitality from what so much of the rest of the world might be tempted to term darkness.

Addressing the TED audience, she begins “I was walking through the [Polish] forests of my grandmother’s tales, a land where every field hides a grave, where millions of people have been deported or killed in the 20th century.”  She goes on to capture, through word and image, the places and faces she met where she simply shared bread and prayer.  And, fortunately for us, she documented.  Her stunning portraits of both person and place remind me of Georges de la Tour’s evocations in oil paint with browns and ambers, where candlelight becomes almost personified: a silent character in an intimate scene, breathing life into our primal need for hope.  Similarly, Monika’s lovely images are like hand-written invitations, to a party celebrating our humanity, inviting us to a royal feast where stereotypes are smashed, and the most humble among us are exalted and lifted up to be honored and praised for the wonders they truly are.

After showing Through Our Own Eyes,” the documentary created by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education which features historic footage as well as still photographs and local Holocaust survivors’ testimony, from the Kansas City area, I always give my students an open-notes quiz and ask not only why, in their opinion, it is important to “remember” the Holocaust.  But I also ask them to list 3 things they can do, personally, to help make sure the Holocaust is remembered. Two of the most common responses to this last question are 1) to watch movies or read books about the history; and 2) to learn about places in the world where these atrocities might happen again, so we can speak out about them and  not become complacent bystanders.

Monika Bulaj’s art work does just that.  Her photographs are beacons.  They bears witness to her personal quest for a universal understanding of what it is to be fully human.  Like Rembrandt, she literally shines light on the everydayness of human life. After visiting a school in Afghanistan where 13,000 young women hide the fact that they are going to school, underground, among the scorpions,  Monkia recounts “their love of study was so big I cried.”  Her reportage is easily accessible, moving and excellent.  Through the clarity of her still images, we become party to both struggles and tendernesses.  We see our similarities and are presented with a portrait of not just community, but humanity.  Ms. Bulaj seeks out individuals and spotlights their personhood.  She enlightens by looking for commonalities and showcasing them. “I have been walking and traveling, by horses, by yak, by truck, by hitchhiking, from Iran’s border to the bottom, to the edge of the Wakhan Corridor. And in this way I could find ‘noor,’ the hidden light of Afghanistan.”  Her photographs are like personal, intimate offerings, luminous altars, celebrating all that we can be, and they are indeed inspiring.

Teaching the lessons of the Holocaust through allegory

Being a middle school teacher, I have learned that there is a very fine line between how much my kids are ready for with the Holocaust, and what they are not ready to emotionally handle.  Sometimes, that even varies year-to-year.  I have found that there are ways I can teach the lessons of the Holocaust without actually going into depth about the brutality.  Also, one of our language arts objectives is to teach allegory.  I have found that using allegory when teaching the Holocaust is a great way to teach the lessons of this tragic event without having to use such heavy material all the time.

One way I do this is by showing the movie Chicken Run.  It is an animated “claymation” movie.  Unexamined, this movie is a light-hearted film made with kids and adults in mind about a group of overworked, underfed chickens trying to escape their miserable lives.  An American rooster who claims to be able to fly comes in to help them.  Once his lies are discovered, however, the chickens learn that they must rely on themselves to get out of their situation.  I originally saw the movie in the theater, thinking nothing of the Holocaust while watching it.  Once I was told that it could be an allegory for the Holocaust (although that was not the intent of the filmmakers), it was amazing to see how something childish and cute could also teach some of the same heavy lessons.  Every year I show it to my students and have them write a short essay about how the movie could be considered allegorical, comparing characters, events and themes.  Here are some of the connections we have come up with, although they come up with new things every year:
  • There is an aerial shot of the chicken coops surrounded by barbed wire that looks very much like the barracks in a concentration camp. 
  •  Within the chicken coops, the bunks are arranged much like the bunks in the barracks.
  • Chickens are only kept around as long as they can lay eggs; once they are no longer “useful”, they are slaughtered.
  •  The owners of the farm, The Tweedy’s, could be compared to Hitler and his men.
  •  They patrol the farm at night with their dogs. 
  • Any chicken caught trying to escape is punished.
  •  The American rooster who comes in could be compared to America, coming in to help, but ending up not actually helping the chickens/Jews.
  •  The Tweedy’s buy a chicken pie machine, which could be compared to the gas chambers and ovens in the death camps.
  • The chickens learn that you have to help yourselves and work as a team.
  •  There is a rooster named Fowler who flew with the Royal Air Force.  He tries to be in charge and uses his military service to prove points, but is really ineffective.  This could represent England and the other allies who fought in WWI, but can’t really help the Jews in WWII.
These are just scratching the surface of what the kids come up with.  Every year I read something that I have never thought of before.  This could be used with a variety of ages, choosing how much you go in depth about the Holocaust, while still teaching some of the important lessons and themes through the movie.  This is one of my favorite lessons of the year – we all enjoy the movie, and the kids who have seen it before are always amazed how different the movie is when they think about is as an allegory.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Meeting Common Core Standards with Echoes and Reflections

With much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, education is once again trying a new initiative – Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  CCSS hopes to make clear what our students are expected to learn as well as “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” (

It’s not the mission of CCSS that is making teachers moan, rather it’s the idea that we’ve all been down this road before and this is just the next, newest, brilliant idea.  As a library media specialist and Holocaust educator, I see the CCSS differently.  CCSS reading standards talk about creating a “staircase” of complexity in what students are able to read K-12 so they are ready for college and career reading.  CCSS presents an amazing opportunity to use primary sources from the Holocaust to provide students with the complex text to become better readers whether it’s diary entries, letters, poetry, or documents.  

In the Echoes and Reflections: A Multimedia Curriculum on the Holocaust and its companion IWitness, you can find a multitude of primary resources and ideas.  Search for topics from over 9,000 search terms.  Even better, there are 1,000 survivor testimonies and thought-provoking lessons to go along with all of these resources.  CCSS for reading gives teachers permission to use complex text to make students better readers.  “Echoes and Reflections” and “IWitness” provide that complex text as well as multiple perspectives through ample primary sources.  Both make the Holocaust more relevant to our students and ultimately to their success.  
The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education has been designated as an Echoes and Reflections training center. Echoes and Reflections is a testimony-based curriculum for educators of grades 7-12. Arranged into ten chapters covering the scope and sequence of the Holocaust, the curriculum is scalable and relies heavily on exploration and analysis of primary sources. A local training will be held on July 25, 2012 with an educator from Yad Vashem.

A teachable moment

I am the librarian of the only mostly middle class school in my urban district. My students expressed interest in the Holocaust, and it was near Dr. Seuss’ birthday, so I began with Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, by Richard H. Minear. I have had success using this text with the generational poverty and immigrant students I have worked with in the past, and I was looking forward to working with students who I knew already have a background knowledge of World War II, and who comprehend the larger themes of the works of Dr. Seuss, such as the equal rights message of The Sneetches and Other Stories. We began by discussing Dr. Seuss’ own brushes with antisemitism- he was German, and that was the language spoken in his home. Due to that and that he had a larger nose, many students at his college thought he was Jewish, and he was not accepted by a group (fraternity) that he wanted to join on campus, so he redirected his interests in to the campus paper.

We began by examining Dr. Seuss’s political cartoon on page 58, entitled “The Old Run-Around.” It depicts the struggle minorities had in getting war industry jobs. One label in the cartoon reads” Negro job hunters enter here.” One student, who happens to be African-American, sank in his chair and his expression changed from listening with interest to disbelief. I was thinking through how to approach him regarding his change of expression when he raised his hand. When called on, he asked, “If Dr. Seuss had experienced discrimination, why is he using an awful term for African-Americans?” I was surprised by his question, so I asked him to elaborate. In our discussion, I realized that, since the term “negro” has not been in use for many years, and since it isn’t one of the current preferred terms, he assumed that this was an indication that Theodor Geisel was making a derogatory statement about African-Americans.

Fortunately, my schedule permits me taking advantage of teachable moments! I asked the students to talk to parents, grandparents, and any other older relatives or neighbors about these terms before our next class. Many found connections to those living in the 1940s, and we explored discrimination and terminology. When we were ending our discussion, I asked the student who had the initial question about his view on the use of the word “negro,” and he said he understood- it was the accepted, polite term at that time. He volunteered that he learned a lot about his grandmother that he did not know, and others expressed similar sentiments. Even though the original intention was to explore the cartoons as an opening to Holocaust study, we all felt fortunate to have explored the student’s original impression. An unintended subject, but a valuable experience!