Holocaust educators who travel Wisconsin to train the state’s teachers have noticed something – their lessons are needed.
“There’s a lot that’s being taught that isn’t necessarily right, and we want to make sure they get it right,” said Mark Miller, board chair of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “We’ve set in place a lot of really positive things. And it’s exciting because we’re going to be one of the best in the country at doing this.”
When the state Legislature passed the Holocaust education bill last year, with bipartisan support and the governor’s signature, a requirement to teach the Holocaust and other genocides was created for Wisconsin middle and high schools.
To help, educators from HERC have been traveling the state to train social studies teachers and others. Dozens of teachers from dozens of school districts can attend a single session. The learning happens in conference rooms and school auditoriums in places like Turtle Lake, Portage and Fenimore.
The teachers often come to HERC training sessions with great dedication to their profession (See story). But they can also come without deep knowledge of Holocaust education, and HERC educators can learn of their prior missteps during class or conversation.
Examples of missteps
“I’m always careful to say, when I come across some of these big ‘oopsies,’ that I don’t ever blame the educator,” said HERC Director of Education Sam Goldberg. “I think that it’s almost never done maliciously.”
HERC educators, for example, have had to encourage teachers to avoid reenactments. The practice creates a false experience for a Wisconsin student and is disrespectful to victims, said HERC Executive Director Samantha Abramson.
Sometimes, educators who want to make history come alive will show graphic images, to get a reaction. “That’s not what we want to do, and I demonstrate that while I’m doing my lessons and I ask them at the end, when we talk about methodology, ‘did you see any graphic images in the entire two days that you were with me?’” Goldberg said. They did not.
“They didn’t even realize that they didn’t see it, because there was still a huge impact. They still got so much. I still showed emotion. And they got it,” Goldberg said.
Some old Holocaust lesson plans will put students in the shoes of a victim or a perpetrator. This type of learning has been discredited, according to HERC educators. “It takes them to that place that you don’t want to take anyone,” Goldberg said.
Several real Wisconsin lesson plans that Goldberg has learned about went something like this: “A woman is angry at Nazis in a Polish ghetto. The woman is going to throw rocks at the Nazis, and this will bring their wrath down on the whole ghetto. Should residents kill the woman to stop her? Say yes or no and explain your reasoning.”
A better option for bringing history closer to students would be to have them act as a historian, digging through artifacts and finding answers. Or have them be a time traveler, looking at things from a third-party perspective. Or “interview” a survivor by watching an online testimony. Have them learn, rather than put them in an uncomfortable driver’s seat that doesn’t truly help them understand.
Other mistakes include looking at the Jewish student while teaching the Holocaust or concluding that Holocaust education is not needed because there are no Jewish students in the school.
Also, HERC educators don’t care for a popular teaching tool, the novel, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” The book and movie have been given to many schools, Goldberg said, but the theme is not from the best point of view. You wind up feeling for the Nazi family. There are better books.
Errors aside, it has been wonderful to see that many Wisconsin educators have been teaching the Holocaust, Goldberg said
“Whenever we have a teacher approach us, first, we thank them. We know that teachers who are coming to our workshops, who are reaching out to us, they care,” said Abramson, the HERC director. “They care about what they’re doing. Education is such a hard field to be in right now. So we don’t want to shame them. We want them to feel that we’re here to help them.”
Some teachers worry that they’ll present something that will become controversial. That’s the current political environment; it’s easy to become controversial today, Abramson acknowledged. HERC staff offers to troubleshoot those sorts of challenges with the teachers.
“There might be students in some communities, and we’ve seen this even in Milwaukee, who go home and talk to their families about what they’ve learned. Then, a parent or uncle says, ‘Well, the Holocaust didn’t happen’,” Abramson said. “We prepare the teachers for that, because they’re going to encounter that as they’re teaching this content. And we put a whole system in place. So they know that they can call us when there are antisemitic incidents in their classrooms, which also can happen during Holocaust education.”
“HERC is on the front lines in detecting and bringing awareness about Holocaust education and antisemitism in schools,” Abramson said. “Once we uncover situations in schools, we are able to bring in resources from our own orbit as well as our colleagues such as the Jewish Community Relations Council.”