Why Teach About the Holocaust? Holocaust education in Pennsylvania

Why Teach About the Holocaust?


About The Author

Cynthia Murphy and Randi Boyette

Cynthia Murphy (left) is the Director of Curriculum, Technology, and Resources at Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 (IU9), in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. She was the Curriculum Specialist at IU9 from 2008 – 2013 and taught 8th Grade Math and Algebra from 2000-2008. Murphy holds a B.S. in Mathematics, a Master’s degree in Secondary Mathematics Education, and a Pennsylvania Administrative Certification, Principal K-12. In 2006, Murphy received recognition as a PA State Keystone Technology Integrator.

Randi Boyette (right) is the Associate Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Regional Office. She serves as convener of the regional Consortium of Holocaust Educators in Greater Philadelphia, consulted on the Act 70 implementation committee, and has been an Echoes and Reflections program facilitator since 2005. Boyette is the co-author of Let it Burn, a book about MOVE and the city of Philadelphia, and holds a BA in History from Temple University. She is currently working on an MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.


Why do we teach the Holocaust? What are the key components of comprehensive Holocaust education? A new statewide initiative in Pennsylvania is encouraging educators to integrate Holocaust education into their curriculum.

Image from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

“Echoes and Reflections is so rich with primary sources that make you think and wonder about why people made the choices they made.” – Cynthia Murphy

Act 70 provides, “Children with an understanding of the importance of the protection of human rights and the potential consequences of unchecked ignorance, discrimination and persecution.” Pennsylvania has determined that, “It is a matter of high priority that children in this Commonwealth be educated concerning the Holocaust, genocide, and other human rights violations.”

Randi Boyette, Associate Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Regional Office, and Cynthia Murphy, Director of Curriculum, Technology, and Resources at Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 (IU9), talk about Pennsylvania’s efforts to prioritize Holocaust education through Act 70.


Enacting Act 70

As a consultant on the Act 70 Implementation Committee, Boyette shares, “The Department of Education has made a strong commitment to increase Holocaust, genocide, and human rights violations education in Pennsylvania… Act 70 is the document that says, ‘We think it is important to teach about the Holocaust, this is why, and we at the Department of Education are going to help you do it.’”

Pennsylvania consulted experts from across the country in the development of Act 70. Dr. Kori Street, Director of Education at USC Shoah Foundation, joined Boyette, along with representatives from the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, and more.

Echoes and Reflections primary sources support students in their learning about the Nuremberg trials

Echoes and Reflections primary source documents support educators in teaching about the Holocaust.

Murphy is working to implement Act 70 and will be providing professional development for teachers and administrators in IU9, which includes fourteen school districts in Pennsylvania. She shares that, “As educators, we have the responsibility to teach the Holocaust in a thoughtful, purposeful, and safe way for our kids. We have that opportunity, that obligation.”


Why Teach the Holocaust?

“Holocaust education is so linked to character education, civic engagement, and the kind of people students are – or can be,” Boyette shares. “That is the power of Holocaust education. It engages students intellectually while also appealing to their hearts.”

Murphy echoes that this is best achieved when strong pedagogy is coupled with compelling material. “When our teachers have a good understanding, our students get a good understanding. It is our responsibility to make sure that they know what happened in the past, and that teachers use this material in a way that fosters empathy.”

Photos of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Photos of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising help students learn about resistance.

Holocaust education presents the unique opportunity to contemplate hard questions about human nature, and challenges students to consider their own choices while learning about an important period in history.


Key Components of Comprehensive Holocaust Education

Act 70 outlines curriculum guidelines to teach the Holocaust effectively to students. “Echoes and Reflections, along with IWitness, are excellent examples of resources that meet the Act 70 guidelines in terms of its pedagogy. The Pennsylvania Department of Education sees Echoes and Reflections as a wonderful partner in offering teacher training programs,” Boyette shares.

Act 70 encourages the inclusion of the following subjects where appropriate in instruction:

  1. Discuss the breadth of the history of the Holocaust, including the Third Reich dictatorship, concentration camp system, persecution of Jews and non-Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish resistance, and Post World War II trials.
  2. Include the definition, history, response, and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Holocaust and any other genocide perpetrated against humanity.
  3. Discussion of human rights violations, antisemitism, racism, and the abridgment of civil rights.

“I think Echoes and Reflections is going to make it easier for Pennsylvania teachers to be compliant with Act 70,” says Boyette. “It is crafted to keep the focus on the lives of the victims and not the perpetrators, and it contextualizes the history while complying with Common Core.” Resources in Lesson Components on the Echoes and Reflections website relate directly to the guidelines in Act 70.

Examining the Holocaust challenges students to consider difficult questions. “How did people stand by and watch?” Murphy asks. “Echoes and Reflections is so rich with primary sources that make you think and wonder about why people made the choices they made. Listening to survivor testimony and hearing their stories is really impactful to students as well as teachers. You can’t put yourself in their place but it’s a question that will challenge kids to really think. What is the level of responsibility for people who knew and how do you determine the difference between guilt and blame?”


Professional Development in Pennsylvania


Primary source documents help educators teach the Nuremberg Trials.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has added Holocaust education resources to their website and will be offering professional development opportunities for educators statewide.

Are you a teacher in Pennsylvania? Echoes and Reflections is hosting professional development programs throughout the state in October and November 2015. Teachers will learn about the requirements of Act 70 and effective teaching strategies to help students understand what happened during the Holocaust, why it happened, and how it relates to different issues they face today.

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