Whether you have returned to the classroom, are embracing a hybrid model, or are entirely virtual, we can all agree that teaching this school year comes with more distance. As a former classroom teacher who now works with educators, I have heard and understand the many concerns teachers have about how to teach the Holocaust in these environments. Like you, Echoes & Reflections has been learning throughout the pandemic from students, teachers, and other educational experts on best practices for this new way of life. You can find some of these suggestions in a previous blog.
Although much has changed, there are many aspects of teaching the Holocaust that remain the same. Good pedagogy is essential although how we implement it may need some updates. Our rationale for teaching the Holocaust ought to be consistent with several of our principles of pedagogy: to foster empathy, to encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, and to make the Holocaust relevant to our students.
Primarily, it’s important to:
- Focus on salient themes that students can connect to using real examples from history, case studies, and the power of human connection using primary sources, especially testimony, which has been shown to have a profound impact on students’ development.
- Highlight powerful themes that are relevant to today and inspire action in students: resilience, resistance, and rescue, just to name a few. Emphasize agency, individual choice, and how lessons of the Holocaust invoke the need for positive action in the world today.
How do we do this in a classroom with more distance between ourselves and our students?
1. Ensure a supportive learning environment, what we call “Safely in and Safely out.” Topics such as the Holocaust elicit strong emotions, require deep reflectivity, and extensive debriefing. Providing opportunities for students to express their emotions comes naturally in the classroom but with more distance, teachers must be deliberate in facilitating these vital conversations. Utilize the time you have together, in-person or online, to connect with your students in conversation and to address questions. Structure social-emotional check-ins and activities often and encourage student reflection on the events of the Holocaust. Remember, emotion can be a powerful source of knowledge.
2. Focus on the entirety of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). We often focus on the “E” of emotion when we talk about SEL, but the “S” is just as important. In the classroom, it is natural to group students together or have them have a quick conversation with a partner. In a more distanced environment, we must structure these social learning opportunities more concretely. Asynchronous learning can be a great opportunity to foster these conversations in discussion boards, to task students with creating a shared product, or to engage in project-based learning. Grant students the freedom and flexibility to research, connect, and share new knowledge with you and their classmates in multiple modalities. Enable students to engage with this material in a meaningful and personal way to “leave something of themselves,” such as an artifact they can share with the class. We know that successful teachers imbue their lessons with elements of themselves; create opportunities for students to do the same.
3. Work to connect our students with us, with each other, and with humanity in general. Again, we look to our pedagogy to guide our instruction when we proclaim: “Teach the Human Story”. This principle is the fulcrum of Echoes & Reflections pedagogy, and in a more distanced environment only carries more weight. The human story should be a focus in developing and delivering lessons to students who must connect themselves to these narratives on an individual basis.
4. Rely on primary sources to highlight the events of the Holocaust. Highlight multimedia projects, videos, and other multi-modal sources such as artwork, poetry, diary entries, photographs, and especially testimony. Push students to interact with these sources in depth to read between the lines and foster empathy. For example, when viewing testimony, such as Kurt Messerschmidt’s recollection of Kristallnacht, challenge students to read his emotional reactions through body language, tone inflection, and facial expressions.
There is great concern that students are behind due to the upheaval caused by COVID-19. Although there is a desire to overload on content to “catch up,” we mustn’t allow this to cloud our judgment or change our rationale for teaching the Holocaust. Our role as Holocaust educators is to inspire our students to learn more, seek understanding, and grow as individuals to become more human. Knowledge can be acquired but empathy, compassion, and activism must be cultivated. That should be our focus as we enter a school year unlike any other. Teach the human story, teach it to the humans who so desperately need your support, and cultivate in them a desire to positively impact the world which so desperately needs their support.
To learn more, participate in the webinars in our new series on supporting Holocaust education in the virtual classroom:
- Responsible Practices in the Virtual Classroom: Dangers of Simulation Activities and Connections to Bullying (10/5)
- Making it Work: Tools for Effective Holocaust Education Online (10/14)
- The Use of Films Via Digital Learning (10/19)
- Teaching with Testimony: The Power of Testimony in the Virtual Classroom (10/21)
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.