Sunday, March 30, 2008

How do you teach the incomprehensible?


You have a total of 3 hours (in two 90-minute chunks, minus the usual housekeeping time) to teach your students about the Holocaust and other modern genocides. You have some state standards to guide you, but they focus on terminology (what is genocide?) and a laundry list of genocides to mention. Your students will come to the first lesson fresh from spring break.

How do you teach this weighty topic without trivializing it?

I don't have an answer. I struggle with this every time.

The hardest thing about teaching history, for me, is to do justice to the tragedies of the past without turning it into sensationalism. It seems there's a fine line to walk between glossing over what happened (11 million people died) and turning it into a horror-show (look at these pictures of concentration camp survivors) that, rather than building empathy and compassion, appeals to the enjoyment of the grotesque that so many of us have learned from tv and movies. How do you use the tools of modern media to tell a real story, with real people? (Now I'm starting to sound like Claude Lanzmann.)

My students, by the way, are fascinated with the topic. I don't know how to respond to that.

Part of my problem is that I spent an entire semester studying Nazism in college. It was a senior seminar, so we read a lot, had the sort of discussions that continue for an hour after class is over, and thought long and hard. Everything I do will seem too shallow after that, I suppose. I can't take the reading and discussion of a variety of "biographies" of Hitler and easily turn it into something my students can do in a block, and yet I want to. I can't show Shoah. (I'm not sure I want to, really.)

I'll probably do what I did last year, and piece together fragments of the things I'd love to spend more time on. I just know it's not good enough. It never is.


Charlie A. Roy said...

Schindler's List for Extra Credit or how about having them read Ellie Wiesel's night. There was a great speaker touring the country a few years ago a survivor from Auschwitz. Her talk might be on youtube.

Chan Bliss said...

There is never enough time to truly cover any subject taught. My hope is that I spark enough interest that the students continue to study and learn on their own.
I teach elementary art and by my calculations my students will have received 4 and ½ weeks of art instruction by the time they leave elementary school. After that the students in our district and state are never again required to take an art class. Not much time to teach a weighty and varied subject.
I now take the view that I can only “prime the pump”. I have to get the students started, pique their interest enough that they will seek out other sources of knowledge in the arts.
Unfortunately it is very difficult to quantify, to standardize, and to test what a student will be inspired to learn in the future what you have taught them in the past. How do you assign accountability of past teaching to future learning in the present? I’m sure no board of education wants to tackle that.

Intrepid Teacher said...

Maybe not for your students, but read Dave Egger's What is the What about Sudan, for yourself. It is a great read.

Penelope said...

Charlie-- They read Night in their 11th grade English classes (this is a 10th grade history course) so I know that they'll have that exposure next year. I could wish they synced up a little better. I've actually got a half hour video of interviews with three survivors that I'm showing for the second block. I debate about the survivor talks because I think a lot of students won't really listen, but I really don't know the complete impact they have on students, I guess.

Chan- you're right. There is never enough time. We talk about lifelong learning as the ideal, but I guess one of the reasons it's so little valued in the current system is how untestable it is.

I guess I get so concerned because I see how overly simplistic views of history are taught in our schools and I want my students to come away from my class understanding how complex it all really is. "There's no simple answer" is my favorite answer.

Jabiz-never heard about it. I will check it out. Thanks!

Tom said...

Actually, Pen, they read Night in 10th grade ... 11th is American lit. So it's very likely their fascination with the Holocaust stems from reading Night.

Beyond that, I don't know much except that I remember watching actual concentration camp liberation footage when I was in the 10th grade ... a year before Schindler's List came out (YES I'M OLD, OKAY?!). I don't know if you can get your hands on that, but it definitely has an impact.

Penelope said...

Huh. I could swear my juniors were talking about Night. *shrug* It didn't make sense when I tried to think about it, but I figured we teach the Holocaust in US History, why US lit? I blame tiredness.

I probably could get my hands on some actual footage given enough time. There's a little bit in the interviews I show.

Frumteacher said...

Found your blog through Miss Teacha's blog and your comment om lesson preparation sounded very familiar :-)

Teaching the Holocaust (or genocide in general) is challenging indeed. What I see as the goal of my lessons on the Holocaust is to show my students that both the victims and their murderers were real people with real feelings and emotions. Numbers and dry facts don't bring back the message.

I usally choose not to show graphic images such as the liberation of Auschwitz etc. since I feel my students don't need to be confronted with those images.

In stead, I prefer using diaries, letters and other eye witness material to show how people felt when they were forced to wear a yellow star, how students felt when they were forced to go to different schools, etc. I believe my students can only learn the impact of the Holocaust when they see the impact of those events on the lives of real people.

In case you do want to use video in your classes, the eyewitness project of Steven Spielberg is a valuable source, combining the personal and the factual without the grapic images.

Penelope said...

Frumteacher: Thanks for the well-thought-out response and the resource recommendations.

George P. said...

I'm a big fan of Wiesel's "Night" as well, but there is plenty of other Holocaust fiction and poetry out there that may help illuminate this difficult subject. I've found excellent resources on the Holocaust and other subjects at which has many helpful ebooks, too. Good luck!

Laura said...

I am thrilled a friend turned me on to this conversation. It's timely for me as I am attending a workshop the next two days titled "Teaching the Holocaust." I am sure many professionals will be pondering this same question at the workshop.
As for the Holocaust and my students the answer is simple (if simplicity is equated to patients, time and much discussion). Our answer is to examine the H. via our Reading classes...for a whole quarter!
I'll start with the end first. We use the Big 6 research process for students to utilize choice in order to select topics for research.
This allows for great flexibility and personalization for a variety of learners. We had projects that ranged from particular survivors of the H. to an essay that compared components of the H. to Star Wars. Don't get the wrong impression that the latter of the two commercialized or marginalized the H.--it was a strong arguement that connected the truths of our history to modern media.
Those culmination projects are the product of classroom hours filled with media presentations, biography examinations, timelines, examples of propaganda, literature ranging from Weisel's Night to Lowry's Number the Stars, Opdyke's In My Hands and more. In addition, its a common belief among those I teach with to NOT hide and ugly truths. I feel that students are assured of thier maturing minds when harsh realities are prefaced by a discussion and opportunities for questions.
Just short of inviting a H. survivor (which we've been lucky enough to take busloads to hear at a local University in past years)or touring the USHMM, we take this task quite seriously.
Oh, we also invite this fantastic speaker each year, Tim Scott. He is a WI native who has done much research on the H., has a powerful message for kids, and relates the topic to holocausts of today.
There is no easy answer. I've gone beyond the 90 min. block you've initially mentioned.
If I had 90 minutes, I'd do a simulation, connect it to bullying and brainwashing today (I feel that's the best way to connect it to middle school students), and give the kids a direction for personal research. AFterall, some of our greatest challenges as teachers today is to help students decipher truths and make good choices with the internet (because you KNOW that is the first place they will go to research the H., given the time.)

Love the topic, cant wait to read more.
discussion is powerful

Tracy said...

Three hours is not long at all for a topic like the Holocaust, but how long is enough, really? You could read some excerpts from Anne Frank's diary or show part of Schindler's List, perhaps. There certainly is no shortage of literature or film on the subject. I followed George P.'s link to and it has several great teacher resources on the Holocaust worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

A rather late add to this post, but along with my Holocaust curriculum I show the Band of Brothers episode 9 clip where they liberate the Kaufering work camp, a sub-camp of Dachau. Granted, I taped the episode on VHS so I could edit some parts for violence and language, but I see no issue with presenting the images to students. Seeing that human beings are actually capable of such inhumanity is something Americans do not take seriously enough. These actions should make us uncomfortable, and I want my students to see the mistakes of the past. Anything less is simply burying one's head in the sand.

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