Going Beyond the Textbook: Teaching with the Timeline of the Holocaust

I teach in a small community in the Midwest. Two years ago I found that many students were leaving our school without a thorough understanding of the Holocaust, one of the most unprecedented acts of inhumanity in modern world history. Located in a homogenous, semi-rural part of southwest Wisconsin, most of my students are unfamiliar with cultural and religious practices different from their own.

After attending a one-day Echoes & Reflections seminar hosted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, my colleague and I felt inspired and equipped to implement a Holocaust elective studies course that not only teaches the history but also challenges students to grapple with the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping that are increasingly embedded in our world today.

As an educator, it was important for me to find a sound visual representation of the progression of time during the Holocaust, in hopes that students would be able to easily grasp the overlap of these historical events. With this year’s release of Echoes & Reflections new interactive Timeline of the Holocaust, which was also their first student facing resource, I felt this would be an engaging tool to enhance my course and students’ understanding of how one decision, decree, or act of complicity could impact an entire population. As an English teacher, I appreciate the Timeline’s multimedia incorporation of photographs, primary documents, and personal testimonies to help humanize this complex period.

I first introduced the use of the Timeline through a scaffold process of guided note taking. I provided students with a digital template of the pre-war years and walked them through how to view and “read” the Timeline. I modeled what it looked like to take notes from the Timeline and we discussed the significance of the early years’ events.

Students were instantly comfortable utilizing this learning tool. They engage with not only the material, but also one another during what we refer to as “Timeline Time” as they interact with the online content and discuss the significance of the events. There is a plethora of primary sources available; we do not use a textbook. The students, who crave a tangible resource from which to study, have latched onto the Timeline as a means of creating their own sort of “textbook.”

It can be difficult for a student without a comprehensive world history background to understand all the puzzle pieces that enabled the Nazi rise to power and ultimately the implementation of the “Final Solution”. As a visual representation of years progressing, the Timeline enables students to easily grasp the overlapping of world events and how seemingly isolated events relate to larger scale history. Students interact with the photographs, poems, and audio recordings in a way that helps them build a personal, humanizing connection to the text and the individuals impacted.

The use of the Timeline prompts inquiry-based learning, where the class can question, discuss, and analyze events both in the context of the Holocaust and through the lens of broader world history implications. For example, when students learn that Dachau concentration camp was established in 1933, some ask “why didn’t the world intervene then?It elicits early conversations about the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and the roles other countries played throughout the war.

As the course moves from one unit to the next, students have more autonomy with the Timeline. Some work in pairs to read, discuss and analyze the events; others prefer to work alone offering their insights during larger class discussions. Exploring the Timeline and concurrent note taking encourages students to synthesize that information with what they have already learned.

This new resource provides the opportunity for students to read, listen, and connect with individual survivors and victims of the Holocaust. It encourages them to question complicity and celebrate acts of resistance. The interactive Timeline engages students with primary documents and personal artifacts at a level of understanding that no textbook can similarly accomplish.

As we wrapped up this past school year, I felt confident that my students now had a thorough understanding of the Holocaust and were equipped to carry these lessons beyond the walls of the classroom.

About the author: Natalie White teaches Holocaust Studies, 9th grade English, and Creative Writing at Prairie du Chien High School in southwestern Wisconsin. She is currently a member of the Echoes & Reflections Educator Advisory Committee. 

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