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Ten Considerations for Teaching About the Holocaust
“How do you teach events that defy knowledge, experiences that go beyond imagination? How do you tell children, big and small
, that society could lose its mind and start murdering its own soul and its own future?"--Elie Wiesel (1978)
Tackling Holocaust Education ThoughtfullyTeaching about the Holocaust presents numerous challenges. To avoid some of the pitfalls in teaching such a complex and emotional topic, we present methodological considerations, based on Michael Gray’s book Teaching the Holocaust: Practice Approaches for ages 11-18. Drawing on extensive research in Holocaust education, author Michael Gray published Teaching the Holocaust: Practical Approaches for ages 11-18 in 2015. Gray holds a Ph.D. in Holocaust education, is a member of the International Network of Genocide Scholars and the British Association of Holocaust Studies, and has published widely on the subject. He has taught in three different schools in the UK and is currently Academic and Universities Director at Harrow School in London. The book emphasizes taking a mindful approach when teaching about the Holocaust and offers ways to do so. Gray provides advice for navigating the controversial aspects of Holocaust education, helpful tips for preparing and delivering thoughtful lessons and suggests how to leverage technology in teachings. Each chapter is concise and focused. Lesson plans and other teaching resources are included in the book. Gray’s book advises teachers to discuss moral issues in Holocaust education “as and when they arrive.” Chapter 2 examines why Holocaust education should be taught. It provides the history and context to build lessons on and details what to encourage and avoid in the classroom. Chapter 9 outlines how to exercise caution when comparing and contrasting Holocaust education with other genocides. In both chapters, there are several key points to consider.
What to Encourage in the Classroom When Teaching About the Holocaust:
- Help students think about why people made the decisions they did during the Holocaust and encourage empathy. Historical empathy will help students understand the complex issues that surrounded the Holocaust and the time-period in which it took place.
- Draw out historical themes of the Holocaust through precise and detailed evidence. Use factual evidence from books, primary sources, and other resources to support lessons and answer questions.
- Help students build an awareness of coexistence and understand the roots of racism, stereotyping and prejudice. Encourage dialogue in the classroom about these issues and make students feel comfortable asking questions.
- Make sure moral lessons are grounded in the history and context of the Holocaust. It is important to present historical details about the Holocaust accurately and make sure moral lessons are based on facts and not forced.
- Encourage students to analyze how the use and abuse of power of individuals, organizations, and nations can lead to genocide. Encourage students to analyze the events which led to the Holocaust and use critical thinking skills to understand why it happened and why other human rights abuses have happened in history.
What to Avoid in the Classroom When Teaching About the Holocaust:
- Don’t compare the Holocaust to other genocides without noting the differences as well. There were aspects of the Holocaust that were unique and should be highlighted clearly. For example, one aspect of the uniqueness of the Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of Jews. Therefore, the Jewish context of the Holocaust should never be marginalized.
- Don’t compare or measure suffering. Do not make statements that the victims of the Holocaust experienced more suffering than other victims, such as those who suffered on a slave ship during the transatlantic slave trade. It is better to examine historical themes or links that can be measured by detailed evidence. Individual suffering is something that cannot be measured.
- Don’t distort or oversimplify the past to make it fit with a specific moral goal. Such tactics can lead to a superficial understanding of the Holocaust. Moreover, when educators engage in overt moralizing of the Holocaust, they can cause students to disengage from learning.
- Don’t be insensitive to those who make comparisons between the Holocaust and other violations of human rights. Allowing students to make comparisons helps them to engage with the topic more readily and may generate an awareness of the Holocaust's contemporary relevance.
- Avoid making politically or ideologically driven comparisons about the Holocaust. Conscripting the Holocaust for political or ideological purposes can trivialize and undermine the Holocaust.