It was little more than a year ago. On April 28, 2021, Gov. Tony Evers signed the Wisconsin Holocaust education bill into law. Starting with the new school year in September, Wisconsin middle and high schools are required to teach the Holocaust and other genocides.
Activists from the Wisconsin Jewish community and others lobbied for the legislation, which was unanimously approved in the Legislature. The moment was hailed as a major victory for Holocaust education and anti-hate efforts in Wisconsin. Now, the road paved for Holocaust education must be traveled.
Teachers can be nervous about tackling the challenging topic or not sure where to start. They’ll even utilize outdated or inappropriate teaching tools (see story). Fall is around the corner and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is moving quickly to get the state’s educators ready.
Teachers need help
“One reason that we’re helping the schools is that the schools are under financed,” said HERC Board Chair Mark Miller, who noted that the Holocaust education mandate comes with no state funding. “If you go speak to the teachers in general, they’ll say that I don’t have the time, don’t have the expertise and don’t have the money. And that’s where HERC comes in. HERC is the content provider, making it easy for these teachers to learn about the subject, giving them lesson plans built on a digital platform that they can go to at any time and pull lesson plans. We worked with Wisconsin Department of Education to make sure that it fits into their criteria.”
HERC educators are traveling throughout the state to offer one- and two-day workshops for social studies teachers and other educators. The workshops include a demonstration of the online lesson plan library Miller describes.
“We show them how they can custom build and save lessons into their own files. And that’s been very successful. They really appreciate it because it’s a prepackaged lesson. It’s ready to go,” said HERC Executive Director Samantha Abramson.
The state is divided up into 12 regions, or CESAs, (Cooperative Educational Services Agencies), and HERC has already led workshops in three of the 12 CESA regions. At least one workshop is to be offered in each region by the start of the school year, according to Abramson. And Holocaust education typically happens in the second half of the school year, so there will be time to offer more workshops.
“We are going into these different areas, with the hope that one teacher we train will then train other teachers in that area,” HERC Director of Education Sam Goldberg said. In fact, attendees at the workshops are often responsible for bringing what they’ve learned back to their school and changing the school’s curriculum, she said.
“We also make connections with them, and that they know that they can contact us, if their students have questions that they don’t know how to answer,” Goldberg added. The teachers are always “so thankful” that the HERC staff has come to them, she said.
“For some of them, I’m the first Jewish person they’ve interacted with, which is also just kind of amazing to me,” said Goldberg, who moved here from California for the job. Goldberg said she has been impressed that many educators have been “so dedicated to teaching this history,” despite a lack of Jewish students in the classroom, and despite some possible disinterest among their students.
Goldberg and Sara Sillars, HERC’s education and digital content manager, traveled to rural Fennimore, Wisconsin to lead a workshop on April 14, 2022. The pair presented to 26 social studies teachers and others at the CESA 3 building there.
“They loved it … they recognize good teaching when they hear it,” said CESA 3 Educator Development and Support Coordinator Brad Van Epps. The CESA 3 region is comprised of school districts in the southwest corner of Wisconsin. The largest city in the CESA 3 region is Platteville, population 11,224. Other HERC visits to CESA regions so far have included Turtle Lake and Portage.
“What I heard from people who were there was that the resources were unbelievable that HERC provides. They’ve got it organized. They’re prepared,” said Van Epps, a former teacher who also attended the CESA 3 session with the teachers. “It allowed the teachers to see things that they hadn’t seen before. It includes other genocides as well as the Holocaust. They are able to say, ‘Okay, here’s all these resources, and then sit with these other social studies teachers and talk about that.’”
“That was what I kept hearing back, that the combination of resources and collaboration was really important to the teacher.”
The 26 educators who were at the training are leaders at their schools, a significant number out of around 80 to 90 teachers who may be teaching the holocaust at the 31 districts of CESA 3. In fact, the workshop had the largest group of people in the CESA 3 building, in Fennimore, in the last three years, Van Epps said. This, despite a substitute teacher shortage that makes it hard for teachers to get away for training, Van Epps said.
The Holocaust education bill was passed into law when HERC leadership, with support and work from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, advocated for the bill. Now, HERC is working to make the law work for Wisconsin.
“Social studies teachers are brave people. They want to talk about things that sometimes make kids uncomfortable,” Van Epps said. “We just couldn’t get enough of the resources and the viewpoints that Sam and Sara were able to share. They’re going to march back to their school district and put it out there.”