Teaching Tips: Genocide Awareness Month

As we enter Genocide Awareness month in April, we offer our community an inside perspective on how to approach the important, yet challenging subject of the Holocaust in the classroom. Seasoned Echoes & Reflections teacher Lori Fulton, English 11 & Technical Reading and Writing instructor at Mattawan High School in Mattawan, MI, lends her perspective and approach to inspire students with these lessons from history to prevent future acts of hate.

 

Why do you feel it is necessary to teach about the Holocaust?  

Teaching students about the Holocaust should be the responsibility of instructors in all secondary schools.  As a high school English teacher, I am amazed at how little my students know about this subject.  Sure, they know a little about Hitler and gas chambers, but they have no idea how the Versailles Treaty connects to the Nazis, most of my juniors assume all the death camps were in Germany, and none are aware of the 10 Stages leading to genocide.

More importantly, the Holocaust requires studying to prevent genocide from happening again.  We are raising a generation of students who will one day rule the world. They are subjected to the constant noise of social media, which unfortunately at times, is accompanied by hate speech.  They all have a sort of cyber-courage that makes them vulnerable to saying things online they would never say to anyone in person.  As a result, there is almost a sense of acceptance of anything online.  With that potentially comes the notion of denying the Holocaust, something that must be addressed as wrong and dangerous.

We live in a world where words breed hate, not just on the internet but from the mouths of our politicians.  We see vandals desecrating Jewish cemeteries and tagging buildings with swastikas, as well as Americans in parades wearing Nazi-like uniforms; we hear of news of a person going into a synagogue and killing innocent worshippers.    Our students see and hear all of this and need to know that hate didn’t end or begin with the events of World War II.

Why should I teach the Holocaust?  If I don’t, who will?  Who will provide students with the resources, the knowledge, and the ability to help them make up their own minds about that horrific time in world history? It is my duty and my desire to help students realize genocide can happen again and, as the next generation of Americans, they must do everything in their power to stop it.

What are some recommended strategies for teaching such a sensitive theme? How do you approach this important yet complex topic with your students?

We must approach the subject of the Holocaust with students in a sensitive manner to help them understand, remember, and hopefully eliminate future genocides.  This means sharing the stories of those who faced life-and-death situations simply because of who they were.  We cannot replicate their experiences through simulations, but we can learn from the experiences of others.

I start by introducing the idea of antisemitism.  From there, we study pre-war Jewry, the Treaty of Versailles, then how Hitler rose to power, steps leading to genocide, the Final Solution, resistance, liberation, and what happened to European Jews following WWII.

Furthermore, personal stories are essential ingredients in the teaching of the Holocaust. The testimonies on the Echoes & Reflection’s website and USC Shoah Foundations’ IWitness powerfully say what I cannot say.

Holocaust Films, as well as literature, are also great tools to reel in my students.  Most of them are visual learners, so having new resources available to meet their learning styles is important to teach this complex subject.

I have traditionally shown Schindler’s List when teaching about the HolocaustI cannot think of a better movie for my juniors to really set the stage for deeper learning and truly connecting to the story of Schindler and the Jews he saved.  We discuss many questions that arise from the film:  Who else is considered  “Righteous Among the Nations” in the eyes of Yad Vashem–and what does that mean?  What would have happened if Schindler’s ultimate objective to save Jews was discovered?  What happened to the survivors after liberation?  Would I have the courage to save someone if it meant my possible death?

Finally, I take my juniors to the Holocaust Memorial Center and Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  For some of them, they have never been much farther than the next town over.  A docent takes us through the museum to study the artifacts, as well as (again) the stories of individuals.  This comes to the penultimate point of the unit where a survivor speaks to my students about his or her experience.  This is life-changing for my students.  Many are in tears by the end of the survivor’s story.

If students are emotionally drawn into this experience, I feel I’ve done my job.  They have seen a bigger picture of the Holocaust and genocide than they have ever seen before.  History has come alive for them, but more importantly, they have come full circle in their learning experience.  Most of my students will say the unit is the one they will never forget and graduates who return to visit express similar sentiments.

What specific resources would you especially like to highlight that support you in teaching about the Holocaust?

After spending several weeks last summer in Jerusalem as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem, I have gained deeper insight into resources that can support classroom instruction on the Holocaust. These include:

  • Echoes & Reflections’ new timeline helps show the events leading up to when the Nazis came to power, as well as what happened as a result of it.
  • Echoes & Reflections’ companion resource for Schindler’s List, which includes survivor testimony, new handouts on historical context, and a series of discussion questions and writing prompts add to the unit and unpacking the film.

Nothing, however, is more important than the testimonies of survivors as far as I’m concerned.  Their recollections bring a perspective nothing else can– not books, not films, not internet sources.  The pathos of survivors’ experiences motivates my students to keep learning. Overall, the resources available from Echoes & Reflections and their Partners help enhance my unit on the Holocaust and genocide, making it relevant and inspiring to my high school juniors.

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