National Writing Project

Rural Teachers Explore Ways to Teach the Holocaust

By: Jennifer Lemberg
Date: February 2008

Summary: In a summer institute sponsored by the Rural Sites Network in partnership with the Holocaust Educators Network, teachers immerse themselves in study of the Holocaust, write, and develop lesson plans designed to move students toward inquiry, empathy, and action.


Teaching the holocaust is a challenge for any teacher. How should a teacher engage students with difficult material such as hatred, prejudice, and state-sanctioned genocide? What role does writing have in moving students toward inquiry, empathy, and action?

In the summer of 2007, eighteen middle and high school teachers from twelve states gathered in New York City for a ten-day seminar to discuss those questions and more in the second summer institute of the Holocaust Educators Network. The event, held at an elegant Manhattan town house, the former residence of the late Olga Lengyel, was supported by the NWP’s Rural Sites network.

Lengyel, a Holocaust survivor who lost her husband, two sons, and parents at Auschwitz, left a legacy to establish the Memorial Library and Art Foundation of World War II. The foundation’s purpose has been to carry forward Lengyel’s desire to sustain hope by supporting education aimed at preventing future genocides.

How should a teacher engage students with difficult material such as hatred, prejudice, and state-sanctioned genocide?

Sondra Perl Steps Forward

With this goal in mind, the foundation’s administrators were fortunate, in 2005, to meet Sondra Perl, Professor of English and Urban Education at the Graduate Center and Lehman College, CUNY, and an experienced member of the National Writing Project. Dr. Perl had been teaching Holocaust courses at Lehman for nearly a decade and was excited at the prospect of expanding her work in partnership with the Memorial Library.

As someone who says she “grew up” in the NWP, Dr. Perl understood that the goals of the foundation could be advanced by the work of a community of teachers. In conjunction with members of the foundation, Perl put forward the idea of a summer seminar for teachers titled “Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Holocaust.”

Small Steps, Big Plans

In 2006 Perl started small, working for five days with teachers mostly from the New York area in a seminar to explore the rewards and challenges of teaching the Holocaust.

But both Perl and the foundation had bigger plans. They wanted to further Holocaust education on a national scale. Holocaust education had been more prominent in urban centers where more resources were available to advance these programs—but how could educators reach out to teachers living and working outside of urban areas?

NWP’s Rural Sites Network was to provide an answer, by soliciting applications from rurally based teacher-consultants.

Perl had other reasons for wanting to work with the NWP. She knew NWP teachers valued “writing to learn.” Further, she observed, “The model of the NWP is that education is spread through teachers teaching other teachers, so we could rely on our participants knowing how to take their training beyond their classrooms.”

The 2007 Summer Seminar

The teachers who came to New York in the summer of 2007 were committed not only to immersing themselves in the subject of the Holocaust, but also to providing inservice learning after they finished the program.

By the time the group arrived in New York, each participant had read Michael Berenbaum’s The World Must Know, a historical overview of the Holocaust that shows the gradual evolution of the war against the Jews from the perspectives of the victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, while dealing with the fundamental themes of the Jewish experience. Discussions about the book had already begun on a Blackboard site.

“Coming into this, the question that kept popping into my head was ‘How could this happen?’” Kim Grayson of Missouri wrote. “Reading the first part of The World Must Know helped me understand the events leading up to the Holocaust. . . . Above all, I now understand that racism allowed the persecution to happen.”

The curriculum followed a demanding schedule as teachers wrote and reflected on the impact of meeting survivors and engaging with difficult material, and on how these experiences might affect their teaching. They also worked together to create interactive lesson plans.

Teachers wrote and reflected on the impact of meeting survivors and engaging with difficult material.

Among the lessons they produced were “Depersonalization and Redemption: Teaching the Holocaust through Interviews,” and “Introduction to the Ghetto through the Eyes of a Child.” These lessons integrated strategies such as role-playing and forming a tableau with reading and writing assignments, and helped students learn about the conditions of the Holocaust while practicing critical thinking and developing an understanding of local issues of prejudice.

Tours of the city’s relevant cultural resources, as well as meetings with guest speakers, supplemented the program. Speakers included two Holocaust survivors and an expert on trauma who helped the teachers think in new ways about how to teach a subject that will in ways remain unknowable. The teachers also visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, where they experienced lectures on Jewish history and anti-Semitism and a tour of the museum’s collections.

Other events, such as a walking tour of the Lower East Side and a visit to the Tenement Museum enriched the participants’ experience of Jewish culture while providing needed time away from the difficult topic of the seminar.

A More Inclusive Context

Reflecting on the experience, participants wrote of how the seminar had increased their understanding of the connections between past events and contemporary issues, and how the emphasis on asking whom we see as “others” had renewed their commitment to developing empathy in their students and in themselves. “Not only are we taking new ideas to consider when we are constructing our units of study, but you have provided a broader more inclusive context for teaching human issues in a more humane way,” wrote Mary Hawkins of West Virginia.

Katie Elsener of Nebraska wrote, “[Holocaust survivor] Irving Roth said, ‘My parents survived because someone cared.’ We must care about our fellow human beings in order to mold our world into the place it is supposed to be. That is the message I will take to my students.”

The Discussion Continues

With two graduated classes and applications for 2008 submitted in January, Perl wants to see the Holocaust Educators Network remain a meaningful part of participants’ teaching lives. A listserv hosted by the NWP is bringing the 2006 and 2007 seminar participants together for book discussions and resource sharing. In addition, members of the 2007 group presented at the NWP Annual Meeting in November.

Perl considers her participation in this work “an amazing way to give back to NWP.” And, as many participants report significant changes to their curriculum, and an expanded seminar schedule is planned for 2008, it appears that Perl’s work, the work of the Holocaust Educators Network, and the work of the Rural Sites Network is just beginning.

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