Saturday, March 22, 2008

Teaching the Holocaust

If you teach anything beyond 4th grade (and especially if you teach Social Studies), there's a good chance that at some point, you come across World War II. One of the major events of that period was definitely the Jewish Holocaust of 1939-1945. But how do you approach these events in a way that is appropriate for the age level of students that you have? If you teach high school, this isn't as much of an issue, your students are capable and ready for a more 'head on' approach.

If you teach in an Elementary of Middle School, it's not so easy. Many teachers don't teach the Holocaust out of fear that it will be inappropriate or that someone will complain.

Yes, it was a terrible series of events, and many people don't want to say that horrible word in their classroom: Hitler. But there are ways to do this and do it appropriately for even pre-teens.

Let's start with some great Holocaust literature and discuss its merit in your classroom:

The Book Thiefby, Markus Zusak: This book is ideal for your advanced 5th graders and beyond (Amazon recommends it for grades 9 and up, but trust me from personal experience, it will work with younger kids), even up to adult age groups. It's narrated by Death, and follows an orphaned German girl during the Nazi time period and the Jewish Holocaust. It's a great book that sets the stage for the pain and suffering of the Jewish peoples, but is told from a German perspective. It's imaginative, engaging, and will keep them reading. It's long though, so it might not be appropriate as a read aloud.

The Broken Mirrorby, Kirk Douglas: The story of a Jewish boy who is the only one in his family left alive at the end of the war. He tries to hide his true Jewish identity and tells everyone he is a gypsy, but is faced with an identity conflict. It's short (under 100 pages), is appropriate for grades 4 and up, and yes, it is written by the Kirk Douglas. It's a good book, very appropriate.

Nightby, Elie Wiesel: This story has been around for some time, but recently gained notoriety when Oprah put it in her book club. It's a heart-breaking story of survival in a concentration camp. This book brings into the open questions of the evil that lies in the human heart, the questions of the existence of God in the face of horrible events, and personal anguish. It's appropriate for middle school (probably grades 7 and up), but is more common in high school. It isn't the easiest read, in fact it's brutal and almost icy in its presentation.

Maus I & Maus II by, Art Spiegelman: These now classic graphic novels depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, specifically Auschwitz-Birkenau, have an extremely unique angle, the characters are animals. The metaphor is powerful, the images are very real, and the story doesn't hold anything back. I did read the first Maus with my 5th grade class, and felt like I was walking on egg shells. However, in the end, it was an extremely rewarding experience, and many of the students who read it said it was the most powerful literary experience they've ever had. This is one book that you need to experience for yourself before throwing it to your students, because some will find it appropriate, and some won't.

The Devil's Arithmeticby, Jane Yolen: This book is more or less, as I originally saw it described on the website, 'Schindler's List for kids.' It really is that biting. It's the story of a young girl living in the late '80s who is transported back to 1942 as a Jewish girl in a concentration camp. Be prepared for a difficult journey, and a lot of questions from your students. This book is, however, appropriate for 5th grade and beyond.

Obviously there are many many more books out there for you to use. I left out Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girlbecause it is an obvious choice. What I would do with this book is read something shorter with your class, either a picture book or a shortened version, and watch a documentary or movie about Anne Frank, as the entire diary is quite long. It would be more appropriate to read it with an older age set, but it's up to you, I've seen students as young as 4th grade love this story.

What we as educators need to remember is that the Holocaust is a very important world event that shouldn't be ignored. There are many examples of prejudice and racism out there, but this is one that obviously stands out as an example of what happens when racism is allowed to run free. Ignoring it will do no good, and from a standpoint of the critical pedagogist, it must be taught head on.