Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Surviving Hitler through Common Core

Last school year the middle school language arts departments in my school district were allotted money to purchase instructional materials. Our directive was to fill gaps between the materials we were currently using and the increased demands of the Common Core Standards – particularly in areas such as non-fiction. One of the texts my colleagues and I chose for our 8th grade students was Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren. I just began teaching this “new” book last week.

Surviving Hitler is a biography by Andrea Warren, a Kansas City area author, about JackMandelbaum, a Holocaust survivor who rebuilt his life in the Kansas City area after WWII. Incidentally, Jack is one of the co-founders of the Midwest Centerfor Holocaust Education. The book has won many awards including the William Allen White Award and Children’s Choice Literature Award; it also was named an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book. It is available in print, e-book, and audiobook form. Teaching materials and classroom sets of the bookare available from MCHE (registration required). The suggestions in this teaching guide are helpful but were created before the implementation of the Common Core Standards; they are probably in need of an update. Jack’s video testimony is available from MCHE and he is featured in the DVD The Holocaust: Through Our Own Eyes produced by MCHE.

In addition, Andrea Warren has recently written The Author's Guide to Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps and its Alignment with the Common Core Standards. It is available as a paperback for $9.99 through and Barnes & Noble. It is also available everywhere as an e-book and retails for $9.99. In her Author’s Guide, Warren explains the process of writing the biography and decisions she made as a writer. Throughout her guide Warren addresses Common Core Standards from the writer’s point-of-view; I found it invaluable.

As I prepared to teach the book, I needed to think about how to align my instructional methods with the Common Core Standards. In the “old days” I would have started a biography of a Holocaust survivor by giving the students lots of background information and pre-teaching vocabulary. However, that doesn’t seem to be best practice under Common Core. I felt like a duck out of water for a while; I just didn’t know how to begin. I found a way through my problems in a book titled The Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core by Harvey F. Silver, R. Thomas Dewing, and Mathew J Perini. This slim, 86-page volume published by ASCD is a research-based guide to six instructional strategies grounded in the Common Core. I decided to let this be my primary toolkit as I teach Surviving Hitler this year.

I started Surviving Hitler with a strategy described in The Core Six called “Inductive Learning.” Students worked in groups of 2 or 3 for about 30 minutes to categorize and label the following terms pulled from Ch.1 of Surviving Hitler:
Gdynia, Poland
full-time housekeeper
collected stamps
went to the movies
Nazi dictator
hot cereal with milk and butter
entertained friends and relatives
sweet fried pastry with pockets of jelly inside
Baltic Sea
bar mitzvah
big mahogany dining room table
stripped of their citizenship rights
bicycle races
silk dresses
latest styles from Paris
handmade waffle cones filled with delicious, rich cream
twelve miles from the German border
public school
spacious apartment
indoor plumbing

The students were told that they would need to explain the reasons why they grouped terms the way they did and why they chose the labels they did for the categories. Next, they were asked to write at least two predictions about Ch.1 based on the terms they sorted. For example: Do they think the terms came from fiction or non-fiction text? Specific genre? The topic of the text? Setting? Details about main character(s)? Conflict?

During the next class, reporters from each group shared their team’s category labels and predictions. I recorded the predictions for each class on chart paper. We talked about these as we went and made generalizations about them at the end of the group sharing time. The following table shows most of the predictions made by the five sections of language arts with which I did this activity:

·         Jewish people surviving the Holocaust
·         “common luxuries”
·         location near Germany
·         WW II
·         wealthy before war began
·         Ch.1 - before the war
·         historical fiction or non-fiction
·         Jews in hiding
·         in Poland
·         girl main character
·         boy main character
·         speak Yiddish
·         action happens in a concentration camp
·         main character having a bar mitzvah
·         Nazi dictator discriminates against Jewish characters
·         enjoys life before Holocaust
·         during 1930’s – 1940’s
·         family working at a pastry shop
·         near a beach in Germany
·         characters stripped of citizenship
·         pretended not to be Jewish to keep rights


Before we dismissed class the second day, I asked the students how they felt about the book we were about to read – were they curious and interested or not so much? Almost all of them said yes, they were curious – more so than if I had simply handed out the books. I did not tell them the title of the book at this point. At the end of the day, I hung the sheets of chart paper on the wall so that each class could see the predictions of the other classes.
When the students returned to class on the third day, I handed out the books. We took about ten minutes to survey the book – to look over the front and back covers, the title page and photo on the facing page, the table of contents, glance through the book at photos and captions, and read a paragraph or two to get a feel for the difficulty of the text and author’s writing style. As we conducted this survey, we talked a bit about the clues we were gathering about the text that supported or refuted our predictions – now posted for all to see. Then I gave directions for the next step of the “Inductive Learning” activity from The Core Six.  I asked students to create a three-column table with the headings shown below. I have filled in example evidence for one prediction that actually came from one of my classes.

Support – Evidence for

·         pg across from title pg – photo of Jack Mandelbaum, age 18
·         quote from Jack’s son at front of book
·         p. 7 “…Jack recalled, remembering his childhood.”


prediction added at this point - biography

Refute – Evidence against
After working through this example, I asked students to continue looking for evidence that supports or refutes predictions as they read the introduction and first chapter. 

This is all I have to report at this time; my students are still in the midst of this activity. However, my sense is that we are off to a good start. My students have started reading the biography as information-seekers and problem-solvers.

Because I did not start by teaching a whole lot of background information, I am expecting questions to arise as we read. That will give us the opportunity to practice a whole plethora of other Common Core skills. I wrote a framework for myself before I started – subject to revision as I go. I will attach it for your benefit and update it again later. I will also try to post again and let you know how the unit is progressing.

This is my 29th year of teaching. I thought by this point I would have a few things down pat. Instead, I find that I feel like a “baby teacher” all over again. I have to admit that it adds stress. On the other hand, it keeps me learning and trying new things. I guess that is what being a lifelong learner is all about. I suppose if a teacher should be one thing most of all – he or she should be a learner.


CLICK HERE to continue reading and for Laura's lesson plan.

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