Thursday, May 10, 2012

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.

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