Teaching The Diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s wartime diary, The Diary of a Young Girl, documents her thoughts, feelings, and experiences between 1942 and 1944 while hiding with her family during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Friends of the family, Miep Gies and her husband Jan, Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskuijl, and her father Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl, helped the Franks and the others to survive for the two years they were in hiding. June 12, 2015 would have been Anne Frank’s 86th birthday.

Carol Martin and Sarah Brown are Echoes and Reflections educators with years of experience teaching about Anne Frank in their classrooms. As a central component of their curriculum, they have developed sound strategies for teaching Anne Frank, which they share below.

They emphasize the importance of providing context, understanding what it means to be a bystander, and providing a safe space to ask questions. “My students love it,” Brown says. “They get so much out of it and years later they tell me that the Anne Frank unit is what they remember most from 8th grade.” Martin adds, “I feel strongly that I have to help my students really understand what it must have been like for her. These were peoples’ lives.”    

Preparation and Providing Context

Martin starts with a timeline. “It is like a KWL chart. I do this activity with photos from 1933-1945 and ask my students to put them in order. Then we rate the events from most significant to least significant. I find that using photos of people help students make the connection that these were peoples’ lives and the events we are learning about happened to them. I want to help my students connect on a personal level and pictures work well.”

Martin also emphasizes the importance of framing the historical context. “I provide an introduction to Nazi Germany where we start with the Treaty of Versailles and then move forward.” Helpful resources from Echoes and Reflections Lesson 3: Nazi Germany include – The Weimer Republic and the Rise of the Nazi Party, Europe before 1919, and Europe after 1919. “It is helpful to understand that Otto Frank chose the Netherlands because during World War I it had remained neutral and he thought they would be safe. He chose it strategically. Echoes and Reflections is great because you can pull the resources you need and the procedures organize it all for you step by step.”

Brown adds, “I like to show an excellent documentary called Anne Frank Remembered. It incorporates survivor testimony and gives a lot of background information about what it was like in Germany and what motivated the Frank family to leave and go to the Netherlands. It addresses Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands and the integration of the Nuremberg Laws.”

In addition to helping students understand the political conditions that gave rise to fascism in Germany, both educators highlight the importance of helping students understand antisemitism. Brown shares, “It is really a study of racism and intolerance… Here in our rural district in upstate New York, I might be the first Jewish person my students have ever met so we get started with the basics.”

Both educators utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 2: Antisemitism resources including the Antisemitism Definition and Summary, and the map of Jewish Communities in Europe. Martin notes that she also references the illustrations from this lesson to demonstrate the use of propaganda. “I try and explain what the time period was like and help students consider what it might be like to hear antisemitic messages your whole life.”

Teaching Anne Frank: A Lesson in Taking Action

Building on the historical context, both Martin and Brown introduce their students to Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old girl who is roughly the same age as their students, by teaching the stage adaptation of the book. They find it better captures students’ attention and creates more opportunities for engagement.

Brown prints copies for all of her students and encourages them to take copious notes and write all over it as they work through the text together. “As we read it we emphasize the interaction between the people in hiding and that they could not have survived without Miep Gies. The people who helped the Frank family chose not to be bystanders. They chose to help because they believed that it was the right thing to do. We talk about this and contrast it to the majority of people during this time that chose to go along with the demands of the regime. What makes a person do what they do or don’t do? What was it in Miep’s values that caused her do what she thought was right and put herself at risk?”

To answer these questions, Brown and Martin utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 7: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance. In an article adapted from a speech given by Miep Gies after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Anti-Defamation League she talks about Anne Frank’s Legacy.

Martin highlights that she likes to emphasize the lessons in Anne Frank’s story as having a lot to do with the choices people make. She uses Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders directly from the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide and Salitter’s Report in which he talks about the deportation of Jews. “This ties back to the end when Anne gets deported. As a class, we go back and talk about it. We also do a lot of collaborative work. I put my students in groups and have them talk things through with each other. Echoes and Reflections does a nice job of setting it all up for me and making these connections.”

Questions and Discussions

Martin shares that as an educator in a Catholic school her students often want to know more about the role of the church during the Holocaust. “Students always ask, ‘What did Pope Pius XII say and what was the Catholic response?’ It can be really hard to answer some of these questions and help students work through this material.”

Her students often ask personal questions about Anne Frank as well. They want to know how her hiding place was revealed, what happened to her afterwards when they got to Auschwitz, and how she died. “These are hard to answer because for a lot of them we don’t really know. We talk about Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and what that must have been like. I use Echoes and Reflections Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” to help answer some of these inquiries.”

She said that in her classroom they have started using an anonymous comment box. “This is a great way to make sure all the students questions are answered and gives me a chance to think through how I can best prepare a strong answer to those tough questions.”

Brown says, “My students have a lot of questions like, ‘Why did they kill the Jews? Why did they target them?’ In some ways, our course on Anne Frank and the Holocaust is an introduction to what human nature can be. I try to minimize the atrocities of it in class and put emphasis on what we can learn and what these lessons mean for our role in society today.”

Conclusion

After years of teaching the Holocaust, Martin shares that she has found it helpful to start by having a meeting with parents. Engaging parents as partners in the process of teaching this difficult material helps them prepare for some of the tough questions their children might have. “I tell them everything that we will be doing, reading, learning, and suggest that if their children have questions to please write them down and I’ll be happy to answer them in class.”

As an additional complement to this unit, Martin encourages her students to apply to the Chapman University Art and Writing Contest every year, which focuses on themes central to both the Holocaust and to ethical decision making.

Sarah Brown has taught 7-12th grade in the AuSable Valley Central School District for 25 years and currently teaches 8th grade. Carol Martin is a 6th-8th grade English and History teacher at Our Lady of Fatima Parish School in San Clemente, CA. She has been teaching about the Holocaust for 12 years.

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