Monday, April 2, 2012

Lessons From History

Today we went to the Jewish Heritage Museum. We have been learning about the Holocaust in Social Studies - a subject which is always challenging for me to teach. Expectations can really make a fool of you, and it seems that every year I am so invested in the success of this unit that I find myself deeply let down by their reactions to it. This year I was determined not to be derailed by their insensitivity - it was my job to break down their preconceptions.

Always I have to start by explaining what it is to be Jewish. Eager to please, they shout out what they already think they know.

"You can tell if someone is Jewish just by looking at them. Right? They all have those long beards and the funny caps."
"No, you can tell from their noses!"

I used to find myself intimidated and upset when they would throw out stereotypes about Jewish people. They would say Anti-Semetic things casually, and I took it seriously and felt offended in my first years. Now I know that they are speaking from ignorance, and they are not truly Anti-semetic - they don't have the slightest clue what it means to be Jewish, they are just trying to get a laugh. These jokes make people laugh in the same way that their gay jokes make their friends laugh - the comments are less rooted in real feelings of hatred than in deep desire for approval.

After these stereotypes have been addressed, we get to slightly more serious questions.

"What is Jewish?"
"What's a synogogue?"
"What do they celebrate?"

This is a great segway into the Holocaust, because I find it important to first drive home the fact that the Jewish people in Europe were not newcomers - rather they had been living their lives and practicing their religion there for a great many years. We talk about the culture, and at the end, I feel glad that they seem to have a more respectful understanding of the Holocaust.

Then, I begin to take them through the Holocaust. They are absolutely mystified by Hitler - why did he promote the Aryan race if he wasn't blonde. Did he hate himself? Why did he hate himself so much? This is where they ask the most questions - who was this man? Why did he believe what he did? How did he come to power?

I am surprised by their focus on this part of the story - but then I remind myself that they are hearing it all for the first time. They aren't blinded by the atrocities - so they can focus on the causes. They can ask why it happened, without yet committing to 'never again'.

They are also familiar with racism - they understand the idea of 'other' and the feeling of being stereotyped. They have faced prejudice in their daily lives, and perhaps that makes them even more concerned with understanding where it all came from.

I use pictures and videos to show the way that Jewish people were removed from society, forced to wear a Star of David, and carry identification papers. We talk about the different ways that they were humiliated. In this unit, aside from learning the key vocabulary words, they don't take many notes - they don't have to. These are the stories that children can remember.

They always giggle inappropriately at the emaciated bodies. They always react with their typical swagger when told about what was done to people.

"Yo - no way. I'd knock that guy out."

Where once this type of talk defeated me, now I find myself willing to wait it out, and provide rebuttal.

"You aren't there alone, your family is there - their lives are at stake as well. And you have no weapons, no strength. And you don't know what will happen - more than anything else you have hope - so you always believe that if you can make it through a little while longer you may get out alive. To fight may mean to give up on that hope." We do talk of the resistance, and look at those who helped the Jewish people, but to me it is mainly important that they understand that it wasn't cowardice or weakness that kept them from fighting.

There are so many lessons that they can learn from this unit - repect, empathy, compassion. I was surprised this year that they focused on the statistic that I gave them - that 85% of the people in Europe were bystanders - only 15% were victims or perpetrators. They latched onto this, and it led to conversations that were, of course, highly relevant to middle schoolers.

We are in a school where bullying occurs, and everyone thinks that they are innocent - but no one is really innocent, no one is exempt. Once you know that it is happening, and you choose to do nothing, that makes you one of those bystanders. What culpability does bystander have?

The discussion led us to all of the things that people should have done - and of course, back to our own school, where it's easier every day to do nothing.

There are big enormous truths and lessons to be learned when we study history. There are promises that are made to keep history from repeating itself. But the way that the students truly connect and remember something that they have been taught, is by taking it to the micro-level. What does the holocaust say about bullying? And what percentage do we want to be a part of?

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