Good evening. My name is Alison Kearney; I am currently the curriculum resource teacher for grades 4-8 at Bonita Springs Charter School, but for the last seven years I was an 8th grade ELA teacher in charge of planning our Holocaust studies unit. I’m honored to be here – I think it is so important to share how Holocaust Education makes a difference in students’ lives and, in doing so, will make a difference in our world at large, and so I jumped at the chance to speak when Amy reached out to me. That being said, I’m used to an audience of 14-year-olds, so this is a little nerve-wracking. Please bear with me.
Teaching the Holocaust has been critical for me as a teacher. When you teach English Language Arts, you’re not just teaching the mechanics of reading and writing. Literature is, for many students, the most accessible means of exploring and interacting with a world outside their own experience. My fellow 8th grade ELA teacher and I have aimed for the unit to be about more than cross-curricular studies and learning about writing memoirs through our concurrent book-study of Elie Wiesel’s Night; we have succeeded in making it a unit full of heart and hope. Our students have learned about the evil that can exist in the real world, and through that have learned the importance of finding their voice and being upstanders.
For the last 8 years, I have worked with the Holocaust Museum and Education Center as we navigate this sensitive and often uncomfortable topic. 8th grade students are at a crossroads in their lives as they prepare to leave middle school and enter high school. They know life will treat them more kindly if they attempt to fit in; however, through this unit, our students have learned that being courageous and being willing to stand out is worth the discomfort.
I have watched as, yearly, students truly absorb the history of the Holocaust and allow it to change the way they think, speak, and treat others. We provide them with a timeline of events and photos of the concentration campus as they stand today, as memorials; but it’s the trip to the Holocaust Museum that truly opens their eyes. Even in a world where video-game violence is ubiquitous, even after hearing details of how people were treated in the camps, they are often unprepared for the photos and artifacts they encounter at the museum. They always write a reflection upon returning from the trip, and every year the students ask the same questions: How? And Why?
Our unit allows the students to grapple with these questions and then tasks them with being the generation that will truly mean it when they say “Never Again.” They are the last generation that will meet and speak with survivors, which they do every year thanks to the Holocaust Museum.
These interactions are invaluable. Not long ago, our students heard Abe Price tell his story of survival. We were the last school he spoke to before he passed away; when he did, I was moved by my students’ grief. They coordinated together to carpool to his funeral, much to the surprise of their parents, and made a lasting impact on Abe’s family. They listened to his story; they truly heard it, and it affected them deeply.
I want to leave you with an example of the most obvious impact this unit has had on a student. While we see their compassion and empathy grow in small ways daily – we see them stand up for others, recognize and call out exclusion, and speak truth to power in the slam poems they write in class – we also see huge changes as well.
Hannah was my student five years ago. She was one of my quietest, the kind of student you know thinks deeply but rarely wants to speak up. I can still remember how nervous she was to present her final research project at the end of our year together. However, the Holocaust unit changed her. After leaving BSCS, Hannah secured a scholarship and went to boarding school in Salem, North Carolina. In school, she selected courses that dealt with issues of injustice and human rights. She began volunteering at the museum during school vacations. She has become an active and vocal opponent of discrimination. She decided for a time that she wanted a career focused on Human Rights. In 2016, she applied for a competitive abroad program for high school students to work with human rights organizations. She was accepted, and in the summer of 2016, she spent a month in Argentina working with orphans of various Argentinian conflicts and learning about how civil rights work is done. After her trip, her goals changed: after graduation this spring, she will take a gap year in Brazil to strengthen her foreign language skills and will then go to college to focus on political science, human rights, and international relations. She wants to work for the UN or be an Ambassador. Learning about the Holocaust in 8th grade completely changed the trajectory of her goals and awoke a passion she didn’t know she had.
And that, I think, is where the Holocaust Museum’s role in supporting our unit has been so important. Finding a purpose and passion changes you; learning about the world changes you; understanding that each small act of courage can impact others - changes you. The Holocaust Museum’s exhibit and its relationships with local survivors has helped the history of the Holocaust become real to our students, and that reality has changed how they view the world and how they view their place in it. It has helped to empower them and motivate them to be good people who do good things. These young people are our future; ensuring they learn from the past to go forth and make the world a kinder place is, truly, priceless.