With the recent increase in antisemitism and hate crimes in America, teachers must find ways to engage gifted students in appropriate discourse about traumatic historical moments. This post explains a variety of ways to teach history and English Language Arts using first-hand accounts of victims and survivors of the Holocaust, in order to inspire empathy, critical thinking, and to ensure history no longer repeats itself.
How do you teach the Holocaust? Share with us below.
Why We Teach the Holocaust: Bringing Gifted Students In
“The Holocaust provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral issues. A structured inquiry into this history yields critical lessons for an investigation into human behavior. It also addresses one of the central mandates of education in the United States, which is to examine what it means to be a responsible citizen.”– United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Gifted students need to know the why. Often, a book about the Holocaust appears before them, and suddenly they’re studying a historical moment for a few weeks, with one book determining the scope of understanding. If we begin the study of the Holocaust with the why, as stated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, we engage students differently. We can explain to students that understanding our pasts lets us not only remember history, but also take action whenever people are persecuted. We are less likely to turn our back on others if history is more than materials for a test. If history is a way to show patterns and cycles, we can explain to our students how it’s imperative they become citizens who are informed and can help change the future for the better.
The farther away the history, the more challenging it is for students to connect. Resources that connect students directly to history will not only create more educated citizens but also more empathetic ones.
Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It
Reading words of those who lived history is a powerful tool. The first-hand account provides varying perspectives, allowing for deeper discussion and historical connections, the type of thinking gifted students crave. Primary sources add a much-needed dimension to the narratives of history. Poetry, interviews, oral histories, poems, pictures, and art provide students with a view into victims’ and survivors’ experiences. As the Library of Congress website notes, “Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period” (“Why Use Primary Sources?”).
When we share a variety of materials, students gain multiple entry points for understanding. This approach allows them to connect emotionally and personally with the topic, and creates an atmosphere for questioning, researching, and making connections. In their article, “When Teaching the Holocaust, Heed These Three Recommendations,” authors Jeffrey Parker and Laura Tavares shares that “rich primary sources—not just textbook overviews—are crucial to this deep learning.” Supplementing one’s text resources with photographs, testimony, and literature can be not only a great way to create cross-curricular lessons, but also to deepen understanding and discussion of topics. Below are several recommended resources.
“Survivor testimony should not be explored in a vacuum; students get the most out of this experience when it is an integral part of a unit of study.” Facing History
Not only does survivor testimony take history from impersonal time periods to personal stories, it also allows students to develop empathy. It provides students with various perspectives on difficult parts of history and unfathomable decisions people had to face.
Both the Yad Vashem and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offer several diverse testimonies for students to examine. The USHMM notes how testimonies, in what they call “Echoes of Memories,” allow students to connect with history in a way that a traditional textbook can’t.
This approach also allows students to see how hate can lead to other injustices. The Anti-Defamation League provides an infographic on the Pyramid of Hate how just biased attitudes can lead to hate crimes and expand to genocide.
We can use this to teach students about the escalating consequences of everyday hatred and intolerance. If you use this with survivor testimony or literature, students can see how the survivor/victim’s original experiences began at the bottom of the pyramid and how things escalated. Students can cite specific examples from the text and match them with various pyramid levels.
The International School for Holocaust Studies suggests teaching the Holocaust as a human story. They suggest that teachers should use poetry and memoirs to make take the Holocaust from a massive history to a series of events and experiences that affected a person. Providing context and emotions not only removes bias but also can create more impactful learning. As Parker and Tavares explain in their article, “Although many educators choose to present the Holocaust through fictional texts taught in English Language Arts classes, we believe that actual stories—found in diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts, and memoirs—do better justice to this complex history.”
Quality historical fiction literature also works. There is often extensive research included. For example, author Ruta Sepetys, who in her website biography is described as “passionate about the power of history and story to foster global dialogue and connectivity.” is a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants who shares the history of Lithuanian Jews in her excellent books Between Shades of Gray and Salt to Sea.
With the use of quality curriculum and quality resources teachers can convey a complex history in a thoughtful way that would allow for students to hear multiple perspectives and interact with discourse and high quality resources.
View recommended readings here.
Inquiry-Based Learning and Research
Using Inquiry-Based Learning is a great way for students to explore their own questions about the time from 1933-38. Often when faced with complex issues, one is just left with more questions than answers. The Holocaust leaves students asking: How did it happen? How could it happen? Why didn’t people who were targeted just leave? Why didn’t they fight back? Why didn’t bystanders get involved?
But with these questions, there is no simple answer. It is a series of answers to be unraveled, ones hard to explain with one text, or one interview, or in one day. Therefore utilizing research time to investigate these questions or even specific topics can allow gifted students to explore their thoughts as well as share their research with others on a level of depth and complexity they can attempt.
Timothy Lintner and Arlene Puryear in their 2015 article in Teaching for Higher Potential describes how inquiry-based learning allows for not only differentiation but allows students to have a deep understanding of topics. Additionally, it deepens student curiosity and engagement. Teaching students to vet quality online and print resources is an important skill and can be used as students complete inquiry-based learning/research.
This infographic is a great way for students to guide their research and resource can be found in Kuhlthau, C., Maniotes, L., & Caspari, A. (2007). Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. London: Libraries Unlimited.
Students can use this Research Organizer to dig into their questions.
Consider also using this vetting resource in conjunction with the organizer for students to check the credibility of a source.
See recommended research websites here
Creating a Holocaust Unit for a Classroom
When creating units, there can be almost too much information, so the good news is that there are some quality research-based and student approved lesson ideas created by national museums and organizations. These can help a teacher organize a unit from beginning to end or provide a jumping-off point for more personal understanding and/or of pedagogical strategies.
View those resources here.
If inquiry and personal stories drive the curriculum, our students will bring their personal lens and voice to the co-creation of learning. They will be more personally invested in the realities of history.