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The Choices We Make: What I Learned from Anne Frank and My English Teacher

The Choices We Make: What I Learned from Anne Frank and My English Teacher

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The Choices We Make: What I Learned from Anne Frank and My English Teacher

Deborah A. Batiste was one of the lead authors of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide (2005 and 2014 editions) and has served as ADL's Echoes and Reflections Project Director since 2005. In that capacity, she is responsible for many of the day-to-day operations of the program, including conducting professional development programs for educators around the country; presenting at regional and national conferences; and developing print and online support materials. Prior to her tenure with ADL, Deborah taught high school English and supervised student teachers in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She holds a BS in Secondary Education and a Master’s degree in Psychology.

06/08/2017

Turning sixty-five can be a time to think back on one’s career while also considering whether it might not be time to retire and get to that mountain of books that have been gathering on the nightstand and spend more time with the grandchildren. For me, receiving my Medicare card has also been a time to reflect on the important people who have shaped my journey as an educator and as a person. There are many, of course, but two are at the heart of my story. One, Anne Frank, I met only through her Diary; the other Ms. Riley, was the English teacher who introduced me to Anne’s Diary, and who was instrumental in my becoming an educator.

Anne FrankMs. Riley introduced me and my 7th grade classmates to The Diary of a Young Girl in 1964, the year that was to become known as “the year that changed America.” I remember vividly the race riots in major US cities; three Civil Rights workers being murdered in Mississippi; President Johnson declaring a “war on poverty”; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed into law; the US contemplating entering a war that a year later one of my brothers would be drafted to fight in; and the murder of Kitty Genovese prompting inquiries into what became known as the “bystander effect.” All of this was taking place to the soundtrack from a new group out of England—The Beatles. In her Diary, Anne writes, “I live in a crazy time.” Looking back, I guess I could say I did too. It was with this backdrop that I read the Diary of a Young Girl and began to think about many of the questions that would follow me into adulthood.

I can’t say that I remember reading Anne’s Diary and thinking very deeply (if at all) about her being Jewish or that the terrible events that caused her to go into hiding were the result of a systematic assault against Jews. I didn’t know anything about Jews, or Judaism, or antisemitism. The Diary certainly wasn’t presented in the historical context of Nazi ideology, the Holocaust, or WWII. It was taught as a diary written by a young girl who was facing a very difficult situation and chronicling her thoughts and feelings. This is not a criticism of Ms. Riley’s teaching; in fact, as Professor Jessica Landfried writes, “When the Diary was published in 1952, there seemed to be a response that universalized Anne into a non-Jewish person that could represent all victims of racism. However, in the 1990s Anne reemerged as a Jewish victim and became the symbol of the Holocaust” (Landfried, 2002).

I remember the classroom discussions about Anne Frank and her Diary even though they were over fifty years ago. Ms. Riley, a young teacher, sitting on the edge of her desk, encouraged us to think about difficult topics like fear, and loneliness, and fairness. Perhaps it was the times in which we were having these discussion that has made them all the more memorable; perhaps it was just the fact that middle school students are often trying to make sense of the world in which they live and have a strong, if not idealistic, sense of fairness in human relationships. The most memorable discussions were the ones that focused on those who helped the Franks and the others in hiding. Ms. Riley asked us to think about what makes a person help another even at great risk. On January 28, 1944, Anne writes, “The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they’ll find themselves sharing the fate of those they’re trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we’re too much trouble… That’s something we should never forget: while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.”

Deborah Batiste was enthralled with Anne Frank as a young girl

“I remember the classroom discussions… even though they were over fifty years ago.” -Deborah Batiste

These discussions had a great impact on me in two ways. One, I wanted to be just like Ms. Riley and teach great pieces of literature and have students discuss complex themes and grapple with questions like the ones Anne’s Diary posed. My journey to becoming an educator began in 1964. The second is more complicated. At the end of reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Ms. Riley challenged us to ask ourselves if we would have helped Anne Frank. A sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust does not ask students to imagine what they might have done, as no one can ever truly answer such a question from the comfort of the present, but this was 1964, and there was no “pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust.” There was just a young, idealistic teacher asking soon-to-be teenagers to think about the kind of people they wanted to be. I carried that question with me throughout my life. At various stages I thought I knew the answer but then something in my life would change and I would have to admit to myself that I was back to not knowing. The most memorable was when I had my own children and realized that my answer was “No, I would not help Anne Frank if it meant putting my daughters at risk.” And then my daughters became adults and I thought, “Yes, I would help Anne Frank.” And, round and round for over 50 years I struggled with the question Ms. Riley had posed to us.

Not long ago, I came across a quote that is attributed to Anne Frank, and even though I am unable to verify she was the author, I like to believe she was. The quote, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. First we make our choices. Then our choices make us,” helped me understand what Ms. Riley had been asking us. I believe the question she asked was not meant to be literal, but symbolic; it was an opportunity to begin to explore what it means to be a good person, a fair person, a person who takes risks, and a person who refuses to be a bystander. She was also impressing upon us that the choices we make as young people begin to guide our lives, as one good (or bad) choice leads to another and another until they have simply become who we are.

My choice to become an educator resulted in working with thousands of students and hopefully helping them love literature, to think deeply about what they were reading and the human relationships that literature helps readers explore. Working with students led me to other choices in the education field including working closely with teachers and developing curricula, including Echoes and Reflections. My choice to keep the story of the Holocaust relevant for generations to come and to keep Anne Frank’s story alive was a choice that was borne out of a deep respect for a young girl who, in one of her last diary entries before being arrested by the Nazis, wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” At every juncture of my personal and professional journey, I have made choices and over time those choices have made me.

As for teaching about the Holocaust, I have been in big cities and small towns in every region of the country. In some places teaching the history is mandated and in other places teachers are taking a risk to teach this content—some of their students are hearing that the Holocaust never happened from social media or even in their own homes. These teachers have made a choice and over time that choice has made them.

Your students live in their own “crazy time,” and are trying to make sense of their world. Let’s do all that we can to help them make brave and caring choices—choices that will eventually make them brave and caring people.

Join the conversation! We invite you to share about a teacher or book that had an impact on your life, or specifically, share what Anne Frank has meant to you.

12 comments

  1. I think that the true power of The Diary is not in its’ historical context (although that holds value also) but in the journey that it begins for so many people to discover more about both the Holocaust and humankind. Reading it at different phases in one’s life definitely brings forth different meanings. Thank you for sharing it’s role in your life!

  2. Randi Boyette says:

    Reading your blog about what Anne Frank meant to you — when you were a young girl, and still — gave me a new appreciation for this diary. Knowing that you were introduced to this diary without focusing on the historical context, is, of course, a little troubling, and yet the diary became an open door that you walked through. As I re-read Anne’s diary recently, I wondered how she would feel knowing that so many people were reading her largely un-filtered adolescent thoughts, but I think that she would be moved by how her diary motivated you to think about what kind of person you would be in the world. Whether Anne said it or not, I love the quote about our choices making us. Thanks so much for your thoughts and your words.

  3. Kim Klett says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that the first time I read Anne Frank was to my oldest daughter. I don’t remember if it was assigned to her or if she chose it, but we read together often. I remember wondering if I should skip parts that might be too mature for her, and although I was a teacher, didn’t think about its use in the classroom. Now, knowing how widely it is used, I wonder how many teachers use Ms. Riley’s approach and how many actually put the book into context with the historical events of the time. I’m hoping more do the latter. Thanks for sharing, Deborah!

  4. Elissa Zylbershlag says:

    Thanks Deborah for sharing this part of your journey with us. As I was reading, I was wondering (and secretly hoping) that you have shared Ms. Riley’s impact on you, with Ms. Riley. What I take from your words is that we need to let people know the impact they have on us. As we know, impact can very often matter more than intent. We aren’t able to let Anne know her huge impact on us, but we can certainly let the “Ms. Rileys” of the world know. Thanks for reminding me!

  5. Cindy Howgate says:

    In our little district in New Jersey, we cover the Holocaust in 8th grade Social Studies while we are reading Anne Frank in LAL. Students also choose a book, some fiction some non-fiction, related to that time period for small group reading. In the last few years, we culminate the units with a visit from a Holocaust survivor. It is a powerful unit and I believe our students come away changed. I remember when I was in 5th or 6th grade learning about the Holocaust and watching actual footage of the camps. It was disturbing yet it definitely helped define who I am today.

  6. Matthew Good says:

    The first time I read Anne’s diary was prior to directing a stage production based upon her writing. I had some limited knowledge of the Holocaust but wanted more context to understand her story. I had no idea where that journey would lead. Context is important to understanding her story and how she begins her writing. Anne’s story is the entry point for so many students studying the Holocaust and genocide.
    Thanks for sharing your story and promoting others to share theirs.

  7. Thanks for your essay on choosing to help in a crisis. I am glad the diary inspired you and so many others to teach. Making choices is really important, but the Holocaust created (and any genocide creates) lots of “choice-less (or impossible) choices.” It’s hard to be brave enough to stand up as an individual in a crisis, especially when the crisis is global. It’s even harder to stand up (as an individual) to a global threat when it is far away, not at our doorstep or in our neighborhood. The US during WW1 is an example of this. We must all work together to stand up against injustice. When an injustice affects a young girl, it’s easy to see and sometimes do the right thing. ‘We want to see you be brave.’ We also want to teach about injustice in ways that help people develop character and purpose. Good work, everyone!

  8. Liz Spalding says:

    Thanks for sharing your story so honestly and openly, Deborah. Over the years, so many English teachers I have worked with have told me how affected they were by reading Anne Frank’s diary. For many, this was their first encounter with the Holocaust. More than one teacher told me about trying to find a safe hiding place somewhere in the house after reading the diary. Anne’s diary connects with readers on so many levels. She was both a “typical teenager” and an exceptional young woman. One thing I think we need to remember today is that Anne’s Frank’s diary remains for many students their first encounter with the Holocaust. Not in history class. In English class! So we English teachers need to make sure we not only talk about the big issues as Ms. RIley did with you but provide adequate historical context so that students understand the events that shaped the diary–and shouldn’t have to worry about finding hiding places for themselves.

  9. Bernadette ward says:

    This book is so important as most of my students have not heard about the Holocaust and are actually shocked to hear about this event in World History, U. S . History and/or English. I have taught it in all of these classes with non-fiction and fictional books depending on the age. I have been asked by educators why I teach that and my answer is that “we have never learned and continue to utilize genocide.” I would like my students to determine truth if it is possible if ever in such a position. I would hope each of us could do what is “right” and to develop compassion for mankind in our daily lives. This change begins with each of us in our everyday lives and how we treat each other. That idea is so exemplified in our lives. This year due to some surgery I did not teach this and my students, many of whom have several years of the Holocaust ripped me a new one in the evaluation that I have them fill out. Students graduating this year said that the Holocaust was one of the most important things I have taught and it makes them think. I was not exposed to this at school but from a grandparent who left Germany before WWII and felt this should never be forgotten. Personally the Holocaust along with Stalin’s destruction of Lithuania and Latvia should be required. I have always asked myself “what would I do” and I always hope it would be the “right” move. If my students have compassion for each other I hopefully have made a positive influence. Anne Frank does this in a diary that is hopeful among such a dark and demonic time in history.

  10. Evelyn Loeb says:

    Thank you Deborah, for sharing your story with such honesty and thoughtfulness. I love the quote about how choices make us the people we are. In these uncertain times, it is ever more relevant to teach students how to make choices that demonstrate Anne Frank’s belief that people are “Truly good at heart”. As I read her diary again as an adult, I am even more amazed at her wisdom and insight at such a young age. Reflecting on her rescuers, I am also so impressed with Miep Gies who always insisted that she was not a hero; lest we humans believe that the simple act of helping another human being would then always be seen as unusual and heroic.

  11. Jody Shugert says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! Although I never read Anne’s diary until I became a teacher, I wanted to make sure my students understood the sacrifices others made for Anne and her family. Students researched topics of the Holocaust and W.W. II. Several interviewed their grandparents who were soldiers in W.W. II. We took a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and wept as we read the passports. Over the years we have been fortunate enough to have had courageous Holocaust survivors speak to our middle school students. Our local Holocaust Center in Pittsburgh has offered classes and a wealth of information. Several of our teachers have visited Anne’s secret annex and shared their experiences. We have also had several visit the dreadful Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. Dr. Yolanda Willis, Mrs. Violet Weinberger, Mr. Jack Sittsimer, Mrs. Dora Iwler, and just recently Mr. Judah Samet shared their life stories. Nothing can compare.

  12. Elisa Di Simone says:

    Anne Frank has made an enormous impact on my life! I have directed the production five times and used the proceeds to benefit Holocaust museums, centers and educational endeavors. I am also an educator in a Private Academy that has students of all faiths, but is a Catholic school. My students in grade nine, not only are required to read Anne’s diary, but they must also keep a journal all year and Judaism is studied along with Christianity. The students also will study anti-Semitism, its history and how it is is still part of the fabric of current narrative throughout the world. Since I have a Masters in Holocaust Studies and genocide the Holocaust is studied and examined as well. Anne’s life, words, and spirit live each day in my classroom (wherever I teach) and on the stage (wherever I direct), but most importantly her spiritual resistance lives on in the lives of those she touches! G – – Bless each of you, Shalom.



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