As a slightly younger educator, I came into the classroom with excitement and high hopes for teaching about the Holocaust. I had attended a reputable university that prided itself on turning out engaging and informed teachers who had undergone rigorous coursework and tight scrutiny during student teaching placements. One of my crowning achievements was crafting a complete Holocaust unit that I was eager to implement with students in my own classroom, an opportunity I had two years into my teaching career when I was allowed to create an “Introduction to Holocaust History” elective.
At this point in my career, I had not had any formal training on teaching the Holocaust. I had the privilege of learning from an excellent Holocaust historian and had just enrolled in a Holocaust and Genocide Studies MA program at a nearby university. I felt confident and well-equipped to work with my students, a sentiment that I now shake my head at after over a decade and a half of professional development in this field. I couldn’t wait to implement the cornerstone activity in my unit – a simulation fostered by my skilled university education professor that crowded students into a corner of my classroom while reading a short piece that had them imagining they were in a boxcar.
I look back now on that memory and that situation with a mix of shame and revelation. I subjected my students to this experience the first two years I taught the course, and it was not until I met my future mentor, Elaine Culbertson, that I realized just how misguided this practice was. At that time, Elaine was the facilitator of a conference I attended, and she pointed out that simulations, using the boxcar example, were never appropriate in the context of Holocaust education. She challenged their promotion by saying that thankfully, our students were having these experiences inside of climate-controlled classrooms, with school lunches in their bellies and a measure of stability in most of their lives. She explained that our students couldn’t understand this scenario, nor should we traumatize them into thinking that they could.
This was a transformative moment for me, and I am grateful that Elaine and resources like Echoes & Reflections came into my life. Through the use of these carefully curated resources and further professional development, my outlook on teaching the Holocaust significantly changed. I placed at the core a mantra Elaine shared with me – my job as an educator was “to lead my students safely in and safely out of this topic,” each and every day. I could do this by choosing responsible, age-appropriate content to share with my students and make sure that I was presenting it to them with suitable methodological approaches.
Within this context, I learned that instead of sharing images of dead bodies, my students were just as impacted by a picture of empty, piled up clothing. The latter did not give them nightmares and turn them away, instead it compelled questions and thoughts about the human beings who wore those clothes, shoes, and wedding rings. I also learned that memoirs and visual history testimony captivated my students in a way fictional films and books never could. Instead of leaving my class thinking that they “knew how it was” my students left with questions that they wanted to explore further and for some, it sparked paths into lifelong learning.
As educators, we have a significant responsibility to our students to lead them safely in and safely out of Holocaust content. To help you avoid or correct some of the same mistakes I made, I offer the following suggestions:
- Avoid having students rationalize/justify the thinking of perpetrators. Instead, ask them to explore the roots of Nazi racial ideology and how it was spread to the populations of Germany and occupied Europe. Echoes & Reflections Unit 2: Antisemitism contains structured lessons to help students reach these understandings by posing inquiry-driven questions and asking students to examine primary sources such as speeches and propaganda illustrations.
- Remember to keep the social and emotional well-being of your students at the forefront of your planning and rationale when choosing resources. Consider having students examine photographs from the Auschwitz Album instead of showing them post-death photos. The victims did not give their permission to be photographed in either scenario, but in the former, they are clothed and shown as human beings versus as a mass of anonymous, frightening corpses in the latter.
- Be sure to consider the age level of your students. While students may outwardly project maturity at young ages, research by educators such as Simone Schweber, author of Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons from Classroom Practice, show that introducing the more difficult aspects of the Holocaust at too young an age can actually repel students from feeling comfortable studying it in the future. When working with students in younger age groups, such as the middle school level, consider focusing more on the prewar life of Jews in Europe or on topics such as how Jews lived in the ghettos versus focusing on the horror of the Final Solution. Echoes & Reflections recently introduced new resources on prewar Jewish life in Unit 1: Studying the Holocaust. Our Unit 4: The Ghettos has some powerful pieces of poetry and other imagery that is also more appropriate for middle school learners.
- Select activities that ask students to critically approach the history and build empathy through the use of resources such as testimony instead of suggesting that students “simulate” events from this horrific era. Don’t ask students what they would do but ask them how testimonies like that of the late Roman Kent share what was done and the difficult choices that came along with these decisions.
- As my mentor Elaine, an Echoes & Reflections trainer, taught me years ago keep the mantra that Echoes espouses, “lead your students safely in and safely out” of this history, at the forefront of your efforts.
Ultimately, know that you are not alone in teaching this challenging history. If you have taken a misstep like I did early in my career, it’s never too late to do it better the next time around. Today, I am proud to share my mistakes as the Curriculum & Instruction Specialist for Echoes & Reflections and to let you know that this program is always here to support you in that effort.
About the Author: Jennifer Goss currently serves as the Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Echoes & Reflections. A 19-year veteran Social Studies teacher, Jennifer holds dual MAs in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and American History.