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HOLOCAUST EDUCATION

TEACHING



This piece was originally published in The English Pub (April 2020 Newsletter, pg 22-23).

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In March, in the middle of the virus onset, conferences I had planned to attend began cancelling. Papers I’d workshopped with friends were put on hold, and opportunities to reconnect with colleagues and reinvigorate my inspiration to teach evaporated. It was about that time that I remembered the Echoes & Reflections organization I’d learned about at an NCTE convention. I’m always shy about undertaking new adventures alone, so I talked it over with a friend who teaches mathematics and together we embarked on an April training course in Teaching the Holocaust: Empowering Students.

I know quite a bit about the British Civil War and Victorian cultural shifts, but I know embarrassingly zip about 20th century history, so I had a lot to learn. I’d never puzzled over the meaning of the term “antisemitism” before. I didn’t realize that Jews weren’t allowed to be teachers. I wasn’t aware that a vast archive of firsthand records and artifacts is available to those who incorporate Holocaust studies in their classroom curriculum.

In this course designed primarily for middle and high school teachers, I was able to identify the connections I need to make in my university classes—to Shakespeare plays, to William Blake’s Romantic poetry, and to John Ruskin’s declarations that architecture tells the story of a culture if we read it with care and attention.

I learned about “bystanders” and “liberators” and the importance of defining such terms for students who are investigating Holocaust history for what may be their first encounter. I made note of the Glossary of terms Echoes & Reflections provides. I dove into the vast video archive and watched Paul Parks tell his story about meeting a woman who remembered him and his kindness from when she was a little girl in Dachau concentration camp and he was a soldier in uniform come to save her. His words, quoting hers, “I know you by your eyes” still echo in my soul as testimony of the importance of showing compassion to every child we encounter.

I learned about the Kindertransport that saved Jewish children by tearing families apart. I found a ready link to the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. I examined the Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction and considered their insistence that teachers Use Primary Source Materials, Encourage Inquiry-Based Learning and Critical Thinking, and Foster Empathy. These sound pedagogical approaches adapt readily to all that ELA teachers in Arkansas attempt in our classrooms, so the effectiveness of this direction rings true.

I took part in these webcasts: “`Who Will Write Our History?’: A Special Conversation with Director Roberta Grossman,” “Mindful Exploration: Resilience in Times of Change,” and “Echoes of Night: Personal Reflections from Elie Wiesel’s Student.” I connected with IWitness, part of the USC Shoah Foundation, and learned to create assignments there enabling students to access a wealth of video testimonials recording the accounts of witnesses.

There was no way to plumb the vast extent of free resources available to teachers in the three weeks I had, particularly as one of them was spent dodging tornadoes and without electricity and the other two were spent navigating my students’ transition to online learning and modifying and implementing my formula for assessing their performance. Final grades, after all, were due before the work for my course was complete. Nevertheless, I got a glimpse of the possibilities, and I have the summer before me.

I made note of the upcoming webcast Sherry Bard will offer on July 1st, “Creating Context for Teaching Night” and have bookmarked the link to other upcoming webcasts sponsored by Echoes & Reflections. Whether we directly teach Holocaust studies in our curriculum or not, developing a sensitivity to the topic and a sympathetic means of introducing it to students is essential to helping them understand the importance of an empathetic response to the world they live in.

The information I gleaned from my participation in the course has implications in my own classrooms as I teach research skills, composition, world literature, Shakespeare, and other courses. It will help me discuss the importance of developing communication skills and the responsibilities that come with education. It will help me explore with my students the importance of recognizing and defending the humanity of every child. It will enable me to share with them the power of voice that a treasury of records and primary documents provides, and it will highlight the wonder of memory.

ELA classrooms in Arkansas, or their virtual cousins, can feel a world away from the gritty realities of concentration camps in World War II Eastern Europe, but we have local the relics of Japanese internment camps in Jerome to remind us and reason enough to thank God the outcomes of those moments in Arkansas history differed from those of the Jews during the Holocaust.

About the author: Dr. Kay Walter is a Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Monticello. She can be contacted at walter@uamont.edu



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CURRENT EVENTS

TEACHING



For me, like nearly every other teacher in the United States, March 11th was a fairly regular day. That week, my students had competed in their regional National History Day competition and my juniors had gone on a field trip to nearby Monticello. Although it was a Wednesday, I had scheduled time off for the next two days and told my students to have a great rest of their week at Staunton High School and that I would see them on Monday. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would see them for the 2019-2020 school year - at least in person.

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The next morning, I received notification early on that an appointment I had in Northern Virginia had been canceled due to accelerating COVID-19 cases in that area. As Thursday turned into Friday, as a Department Chair, I found myself in frequent contact with my Principal regarding possible release to spring break one week in advance. Still, nothing was certain, and it wouldn’t be until 2:40 PM on Friday, March 13th.

Staunton’s initial plan was to add an additional week onto spring break; however, on the first day of our “official” spring break, we received word that Governor Ralph Northam would be canceling traditional schooling for the remainder of the year. I knew that this would be a challenge for my colleagues and myself and quickly switched into planning mode. Additionally, as a regional consultant for Echoes & Reflections, I also began to think about how I could assist the school districts in my region to meet the challenge of delivering effective Holocaust instruction in this unfamiliar setting.

In my time teaching virtually, I have experienced a lot of highs and lows. My colleagues and I all missed interacting with our students in-person, and we spent many hours mourning for their lost opportunities. We also worried about those young people who live in less than ideal home-situations, and for whom school was a refuge. We deeply cared about finding ways to help our students and colleagues navigate life in quarantine. Yet, these experiences have forced me to grow as an educator and more importantly, as a human being, and to recognize “silver linings” in the midst of an overwhelming situation.

Overall, despite the craziness of the time, I have seen many students eager and ready to “take the reins” to keep learning and to pursue their intellectual and emotional curiosity in new and exciting ways. This includes hearing from an African-American student who encountered liberator Leon Bass’ USC Shoah Foundation IWitness testimony, and who shared that this was the first time she has seen “someone like herself” represented in this era of history. His impact went well beyond his experience in the Holocaust and translated into a voice of inspiration for this young person and several of her peers. Curious to learn more about African-American liberators, she asked for other testimonies to review. In many ways, the bravery and strength showcased by my students during this turbulent time was inspiring and gave me continued hope that despite the countless losses, humanity would ultimately survive in spirit and fortitude.

Another powerful moment for me was the opportunity to help a first-year colleague tasked to teach about the Holocaust for the first time via a virtual setting. He has a strong background for someone in his first semester of teaching and knew that he needed to take careful steps but was not exactly sure how to navigate the situation. Echoes & Reflections provided the perfect pedagogy and resources through which to guide him in structuring a meaningful educational experience for his sophomores, and he ultimately ended up sharing it with other colleagues because he knew it was working well. Even though I was physically distant from my colleagues, I was grateful that I still had the power to support others to succeed.

This time is also about seizing new opportunities to learn and build community with my educator colleagues. The quarantine has allowed us to rethink professional development and explore “in-person” virtual opportunities at a deeper level. My participation in the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher’s Program partnership allowed me and nearly 50 other educators to reunite without the cost of travel expenses and extended time away from families and work. We spent an incredible three hours learning together about Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust and further discovering how we can connect our students with this content in a virtual setting.

As we end the 2019-2020 school year, in many ways we also say goodbye to a distant world. Education will likely look different as we move forward and we will need to keep innovating, be willing to leave our own comfort zones, and take some risks. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that these unknowns, guided by our collective strength and dedication to this field, will unequivocally lead to success and allow us to positively impact our students’ futures.

About the Author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012. 



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HOLOCAUST EDUCATION

SURVIVORS



The following is a reflection from Leah Warshawski, producer and co-director of the award-winning film about Holocaust Survivor Sonia Warshawski, Big Sonia. Leah will be joining an Echoes & Reflections Connecting Communities webinar in July to introduce the film to educators for their use in the classroom.

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At this time when we are struggling through a global pandemic impacting our lives in the most profound and difficult ways, people are looking for models of resilience, unity, empathy, and hope. Sonia Warshawski, a 94-year old Holocaust survivor and my grandmother, is that kind of model.

In my film, Big Sonia, I sought to capture all of these emotions as Sonia shares her experiences with students, inmates, and her community - all from a small tailor shop in the bottom of a dead Kansas City mall.  While the film is a poignant story of generational trauma and healing, it also offers a funny portrait of the power of love to triumph over bigotry and the power of truth-telling.

As I believe all teachers hope to achieve when they teach young people about the Holocaust or other atrocities in history, we wanted this film to inspire positive change in the world.  That is why we ask viewers to spread the #SoniaEffect – to share what happens after people see the film and are fueled to action. Big Sonia has inspired people in ways we never imagined. Deeply moved by the film’s message, the Mayor of Kansas City declared an annual “Big Sonia Day” on December 21 to remind everyone of the power of kindness.

Making and distributing films is not for the faint of heart, but what keeps me motivated is the profound reactions from students.  One example was from 14-year-old Luke, who shared,

“My favorite part was seeing how she brought vulnerability to the students.  It is hard to be vulnerable as teenagers.  She showed them that they should stand up for each other and value differences in their self and their classmates.”

Big Sonia has become our way to open important and difficult conversations, and the project has become our beacon of hope when the world around us doesn’t seem to make sense. With antisemitism and hatred on the rise in so many communities and across the globe, there has never been a more important time for this film, its themes, Holocaust education, and for Sonia herself.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonia was forced to close her tailor shop and stay at home. Her attitude towards her enforced confinement is a model for all of us when she says in a recent voicemail,

“I am still a free bird. I am not in the camps. I am not in the gas chamber. So, I am not scared…we will make it.”

Sonia’s powerful words bring comfort and perspective during this time of social distancing and give us the opportunity to re-examine connection, prioritize relationships, and ask: who do you want to spend time with and how do you want to spend your days? Sonia reminds us that we’re all connected just by being human and that we should always choose love over hate, no matter our circumstances.

Learn more about Big Sonia and how the film can support Holocaust education:

  • Educators are invited to join Leah on July 16 at 4 PM EST for a webinar. Registered educators will receive a link to watch the 45-minute educational version of the film in advance and will receive a 50% discount to purchase the film and educational resources after participation.
  • After watching the film, students can engage in this Big Sonia IWitness activity from USC Shoah Foundation to reflect on the power of personal testimonies.
  • Kansas City area educators can register for a Big Sonia virtual program on June 10th hosted by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education here.

About the author: Leah Warshawski is an Impact Producer / Director with over 20 years of experience in the film/video industry. Learn more about her work here: www.inflatablefilm.com



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