Hundreds of teachers from around the state gathered for the annual conference of the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies, the organization’s first since a law mandating Holocaust education went into effect, marking a critical juncture for an ongoing effort to get educators acclimated with the challenging topic and its relevance.
During the three-day conference in Madison held during the second weekend in March, Samantha Abramson and Sam Goldberg from the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation held several sessions with social studies teachers. Sessions were on how to teach the Holocaust and the resources the center has made available at no cost to schools.
“There was not one social studies educator at the conference who walked away thinking Holocaust education isn’t important,” said Abramson, HERC’s executive director. “They all got it. At this point, it’s a question of capacity and resources, and how do we make sure those educators get the resources and support they need.”
Lawmakers in 2021 passed Wisconsin Act 30, a law requiring schools to expose students to Holocaust and genocide education at least once in middle school and once in high school. The law went into effect starting this past fall at the beginning of this academic year.
“There’s a lot of flexibility and variance in how much time a school is spending on the Holocaust and other genocides they may or may not be bringing into the conversation,” Abramson said. “There’s a wide range. Some school districts might spend two or three days on Holocaust and genocide education, some spend two or three weeks. Occasionally, we hear two or three hours.”
Since the passage of the legislation, Abramson, Goldberg and other HERC staff have held workshops and have attended conferences throughout the state in an effort to get teachers and educators accustomed to teaching middle and high school students about the sensitive and complex topic.
At the WCSS conference, Abramson and Goldberg held a “Teach the Holocaust, Change a Life” session that focused on how to teach the Holocaust with an emphasis on testimony. The pair told the teachers about several occasions in which students interacted directly with Holocaust survivors through HERC’s speakers bureau, and the lasting impact of those experiences.
“We also touched on rising antisemitism and how that has played a major role in Holocaust education moving forward, and the importance that education plays, not only to increase those opportunities for empathy in critical thinking, but also to combat rising antisemitism that we’re seeing,” said Goldberg, HERC’s director of education.
During another session in partnership with Echoes and Reflections, Goldberg walked teachers through HERC’s digital toolkit for teaching the Holocaust and building curriculum at TeachHolocaust.org, a website that features 115 lesson plans. Although teachers appreciate the HERC resource, they are clamoring for more lesson plans and materials, Abramson said.
“These educators are all counting on us. It’s an honor and it’s a tremendous responsibility,” she said. “There is so much more that we can be adding that will have a real benefit for educators across the state.”
Since the law was passed, some schools have used the topic of the Holocaust as a springboard to discuss other genocides throughout history.
“Educators are looking for resources on the Armenian genocide, on the Rwanda genocide, Cambodia, and other genocides as well,” Abramson said. “We as an organization are going to be looking more at partnerships and how we can be collaborating with the experts in those genocides so that we’re not reinventing the wheel, but that we’re helping bring those discussions into classrooms to support educators.”
The reception from the teachers who attended each session was extremely positive, Abramson noted, adding that both HERC and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction would like to get a firmer handle on the Holocaust education Wisconsin students are currently receiving, how much time districts are devoting to the subject and where teachers are getting their resources. At the conference, DPI and HERC unveiled a new survey to collect this data.
“We had QR codes all weekend and we were encouraging teachers to scan the QR code and do the survey. It’s very much grassroots data collection happening here. And that’s exciting.”