A bill requiring mandatory lessons on the Holocaust and other genocides is working its way through the Oregon legislature, after the state’s Senate voted to approve Senate Bill 664 in February. The bill is now in the House, and, if passed, would go into effect in the 2020-2021 school year.
Oregon would then join a rarified community, as just 10 states — California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — require Holocaust education in public schools. The Genocide Education Project notes, meanwhile, that 15 states mandate lessons on the Armenian Genocide — California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia.
More states may be joining this list — and soon — including North Carolina, where the state House in April approved a bill, which currently awaits a Senate vote and requires middle and high school students to learn about the Holocaust and genocide. Washington state also passed a law in April regarding teaching the Holocaust, but it only “strongly encouraged” schools to offer these lessons, rather than requiring them.
For those states where teaching about the Holocaust is mandatory — or those districts that want to ensure their students have this education — there are steps that district chief academic officers and others working in curriculum offices can take to ensure history lessons are accurate and not downplayed, glossed over, or trivialized. Experts say these approaches can help students not only gain a better understanding of the Holocaust and genocides, but also ensure content is age appropriate for each grade level.
Use good resources
When teaching these historical events, accuracy is crucial, particularly when selecting materials, textbooks and lesson plans. Sometimes, though, educators can make missteps or find what they’re working with in class may have problems. McGraw-Hill, for example, was called out for referring to slaves as “workers” in a World Geography textbook.
Other controversies have included educators having students play out simulations, with some in the roles of victims and others acting as perpetrators.
“We really discourage educators from doing that,” Laura Tavares, program director for organizational learning and thought leadership for Facing History and Ourselves, told Education Dive. “We don’t know what traumas children are living with. So they often simultaneously traumatize and trivialize.”
Instead, Tavares encourages educators and administrators to look to bring in stories told by individuals and communities so people can learn first-person accounts and also gain an understanding of what was lost. These narratives may also be “more developmentally appropriate, especially when we’re talking about 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders,” she said.
Letters, too, can help students connect more to what happened during the Holocaust, as well as the history surrounding it. Reading personal stories can develop a student’s sense of empathy and concern, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, has several letters from soldiers who liberated prisoners from Nazi concentration camps archived online. Additionally, the organization Echoes & Reflections offers a similar collection of resources, as well as an interactive timeline of the Holocaust.
Kevin S. Krahenbuhl, interim director of the Assessment, Learning and School Improvement's Doctor of Education program and an assistant education professor at Middle Tennessee State University, recommends remember.org, which features numerous stories of Holocaust survivors. Also helpful — particularly across grade levels — are novels, from Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” for older elementary school students to Carol Matas’ “Greater Than Angels,” for middle schoolers.
Krahenbuhl believes the Holocaust can be taught across all age levels, adding that the idea that the Holocaust may not be an age-appropriate subject for all students “is simply nonsense,” he wrote in an email.
“Even for young learners, they are no doubt aware of the fact that there seems to be something endemic in human nature that we struggle with in terms of our actions,” he wrote. “And historical study is one of the best ways to both learn about events of the past and ask some significant questions related to the great questions humanity has always grappled with — including what is good, for example.”
Educators may need some guidance and additional training on how to bring these lessons into classrooms, particularly to avoid missteps such as lessons that use re-enactments.
Anthony Pellegrino, an associate social science education professor at the University of Tennessee, notes that education on the subject “is ground in the thought that the Holocaust in an unthinkable event,” he told Education Dive. To him, that means educators need to develop practices around understanding the bigger concepts of what the Holocaust is, as well as be able to pull that apart with purposeful language.
A resource he believes can strongly support educators is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as a clearly worked, specific description of The Holocaust on its website: “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators."
Krahenbuhl believes students should actually be taught about the Holocaust throughout their education — starting in elementary school and going all the way through high school. That way they can develop their understanding early on, so they can start asking tougher questions later.
“This process would not only benefit them in terms of learning, through retrieving prior knowledge and reconstructing it with new and deeper engagements, but it would also ensure that this topic was recognized as being of importance,” he said. “A topic addressed only once in a K-12 experience has a very limited chance to make an impact as being ‘significant.’”
By utilizing experts from organizations like the Holocaust Memorial Museum, districts can ensure professional learning opportunities cover these bases and equip educators with the best practices for each grade level and classroom.
Teach the full history
Tavares understands school leaders may feel they may have limited time during a school day and that they might feel pressure around spending more time on the Holocaust and genocides during the school year. Facing History and Ourselves specifically works with schools and districts to organize a curriculum that can do just that — develop and offer lessons that ensure students are presented the full historical scope of events.
For example, the group is currently working with Chicago Public Schools to support the district with its curriculum on civil rights, the Reconstruction era and the Holocaust for middle and high school students.
To Tavares, it’s primarily crucial that educators explain the Holocaust as more than just a single event — instead, students should learn the full history of what happened so they can grasp why, for example, the concentration camps were built, and develop a contextual understanding.
“The camps did not come out of nowhere,” she said. “It’s important to ask, 'How did we get there? When did this begin?' And I would say some acknowledgement of the present is also important.”