Teaching the Holocaust for 10 years changed my life, part 1

It started during my student teaching semester when my cooperating teacher handed me a thin novella and told me that I would be responsible for teaching it to three sections of high school freshmen students. The text was titled Night and although the reading level was accessible, the content was horrific. It’s the memoir of a teenage boy, Elie Weisel, who watched his Jewish family and community in Transylvania (Romania) become increasingly marginalized, dehumanized, and eventually confined and killed in concentration camps.

Early on, I relied on other people’s curriculum to teach this text–vocabulary, quizzes, reading questions, activities–all very typical of how we traditionally approach literature. But this always unsettled me. How do I provide a reading comprehension quiz on the story of genocide and a boy watching his family be murdered?

Each year, a field trip to the United States Holocaust Museum accompanied this text. The logistics of this were always stressful and the experience of monitoring 300 freshman in a place with such historical weight was daunting. Nearly seven years ago, I reflected on my internal conflict and relationship with that annual trip.

Year upon year, I tried new structures to help myself and my students grapple with this text, with the real history it presented. Year upon year, I felt that I failed to adequately teach or even facilitate this text. I never felt like I appropriately honored Mr. Weisel’s story. But I did feel that I was getting closer and closer. As I reflected on my own experience, I began to ask the right questions, questions that helped me finally begin to articulate the WHY. WHY I was asking my students to engage with this text, with the overwhelming concept of genocide, with the darkest parts of our humanity.

In my final year in the classroom, I had been teaching this text for 10 years, and I had visited the US Holocaust Museum nine times. In another post, I can outline the teaching strategies and pedagogy around my evolving practice. In this reflection, I want to talk about how teaching it changed ME.

Early on I noticed a detachment in my students when they engaged with Wiesel’s story. It was just too gruesome, too historical, too distant from anything they could connect it to in their life. That bothered me because I didn’t feel that way at all. When I read the text, it scared me. To me, I was seeing what was possible for our societies, our families, our world. I was forced to confront the very worst of our humanity and reckon with the fact that I was connected to it. Part of this difference between my student and I was simply age. As an adult, I had a greater context to experience the story. My students’ lives were mostly sheltered from the level of trauma they encountered.

But as a teacher, the disconnect became my teaching focus. How could I help my students connect this story to their own lives?

So I began doing my research, delving into psychology. It was there I discovered a concept called the bystander effect. I began to incorporate parallel readings to Night, articles and videos on bystander effect and an essay on the murder of Kitty Genovese  in the 1960s. We watched What Would You Do? videos which are set in modern day and read excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell’s work Blink around implicit bias. I had them define and find examples in Wiesel’s story of prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, marginalization, and dehumanization. I pushed them to demonstrate their understanding of how those mindsets and actions were different, but inter-related. Then I asked them questions like the following:

  • How does the Holocaust happen in a society that previously lived peacefully with its neighbors?
  • Where does hatred start?
  • How does it progress to genocide?
  • Why do good people allow this to happen in their towns and turn a blind eye or stay silent?
  • Who is the most to blame for the Holocaust?

And because I was asking my students, I had to come up with satisfactory answers myself. What I found through the catalyzing story of Night, through the other works of Holocaust survivors, and through the answers to these questions changed the way I operate in the world forever. It’s connected to why I post controversial things on social media and ruffle feathers both in person and online. It’s why I am constantly struggling with my role and place in unfolding dynamics that surround me. It’s why I struggle to disconnect from politics and news on a daily basis. It’s why I am unapologetically confrontational about certain things even when it causes me to lose friends and potentially damage relationships.

It’s what I’m going to explore in my next post, part 2. If you’re staying engaged with me here, please feel free to comment with any of your experiences that are resonating or any questions you are wrestling with yourself. I’m writing this for myself to process, but I’m always open to the opportunity that sharing my own process starts a conversation.


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