Retreat empowers teachers with a better way to educate on social justice issues

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Sasha Reinhardt, a language arts teacher at Bath County Middle School, wipes a tear after learning about Irena Sendlerowa during "Social Justice-Centered Classrooms: A Writing and Thinking Retreat" at General Butler State Resort Park. Sendlerowa was a Polish woman who hid Jewish children during the Holocaust.  Photo by Amy Wallot, June 25, 2015
Sasha Reinhardt, a language arts teacher at Bath County Middle School, wipes a tear after learning about Irena Sendlerowa during “Social Justice-Centered Classrooms: A Writing and Thinking Retreat” at General Butler State Resort Park. Sendlerowa was a Polish woman who hid Jewish children during the Holocaust.
Photo by Amy Wallot, June 25, 2015

By Mike Marsee
michael.marsee@education.ky.gov

Six million is an awfully big number, so Stephanie Smith says one is a much better place to start.

Telling the story of one person – for example, one survivor – is a better way to teach the lessons of the Holocaust, during which about 6 million Jews were killed, and other modern genocides and applying those lessons to current social justice issues, Smith said.

And it’s one of the objectives of “Social Justice-Centered Classrooms: A Writing and Thinking Retreat” focusing on social justice education that was held last month in Carrollton. Smith and Cassandra Owens, the two teachers who led the five-day seminar, want to make sure that the teachers who attended know what should be done – and what shouldn’t – to best educate their students about such events.

“We try to equip teachers with resources and pedagogically sound materials to have conversations with students about the Holocaust and other modern genocides in order to enable them to address their local context in terms of social justice issues,” Smith said. “One of the presenters said, ‘We don’t compare pain.’ That’s one of the very profound things, and it’s a mistake that many teachers make. We don’t do role-playing, and we don’t use graphic imagery. You put names and faces to it. We humanize. Six million, that number doesn’t mean anything to our students, so we have to make those human beings.”

Smith said that’s also true in the case of current events, such as the mass shooting at a Charleston, South Carolina, church in which nine people were killed in what authorities are calling a hate crime that took place only a week before the seminar.

“It’s really, really important that we don’t turn the Charleston nine into “The Charleston Nine,” she said. “We need to know their names and their faces. Everyone at this table needs to know that three of them are educators just like us. Our students need to understand that one of those victims was a teacher and a coach. It could have been one of us. So we need to contextualize those things for our students.”

Sasha Reinhardt, an 8th-grade language arts teacher at Bath County Middle School, said there are similarities between large-scale genocides that occurred in places such as Auschwitz and Sudan to events of a smaller scale earlier this year in Charleston and Baltimore, and teachers at the seminar examined those similarities during an exercise using the Pyramid of Hate, a curricular tool developed by the Anti-Defamation League.

“It shows how prejudices begin through what we consider very small acts, from not standing up to people when you hear them telling belittling jokes or accepting stereotypes, and it builds all the way up to making those jokes yourself and perpetuating and sharing stereotypes up to violence and genocide,” Reinhardt said.

“You can draw so many parallels. We started talking yesterday about Charleston and the parallels as far as where these things fall on that pyramid of hate. It’s an interesting concept to take this resource that was designed for the Holocaust and apply it to all these things we see going on around us.”

That’s just what teachers such as Reinhardt, who teaches an enrichment course centered around the Holocaust, and Tamara Cady, a 10th-grade English teacher at Carroll County High School who uses Night, a memoir by Jewish writer Elie Weisel based on his experiences as a prisoner in three concentration camps, in her classroom.

“I try to get my students to make those connections with actual people who were in the Holocaust and get them to draw parallels between what happened then and the current world situations and just try to get them to improve their critical thinking skills,” Cady said.

Smith, a Madison County teacher who taught last year at Middle College at Eastern Kentucky University and who also teaches at the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning (Barren County), and Owens, a teacher at Glasgow Middle School (Glasgow Independent), are part of the Holocaust Educators Network, a group of teachers trained by the Memorial Library of New York to train other teachers in their home areas in historically and pedagogically sound methods of teaching about the Holocaust and other recent genocides, including those in Africa.

The Memorial Library partners with writing project teacher consultants – Smith and Owens are part of the Kentucky Writing Project statewide network – to deliver the seminars. The library is founded and its work is funded by the estate of the late Olga Lengyel, an Auschwitz survivor who Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz, which was published in 1947 as one of the earliest testimonies to depict the barbarism of the Nazis.

Owens and Smith have been leading seminars in Kentucky and Ohio for five years. About 12 educators attended this year’s seminar, most of them secondary English or history teachers, which Smith said is typical. But there were also elementary and middle school teachers, as well as a college professor, and Smith said what they teach can easily be modified for classrooms below the high school level.

Smith said some teachers who have attended the seminars are well-versed in the Holocaust, while others, including many of the 12 or so teachers attending this year, were not even aware that the Kentucky General Assembly addressed Holocaust education with a 2008 resolution that directed the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) to make curriculum materials on the Holocaust and genocide available for optional use in public schools.

“Many of them had no idea. They didn’t know what it was called or how it originated, that students were behind it,” she said. “They now have some leverage if there is any pushback from the community or the students, which, unfortunately, sometimes there is. Some people don’t understand why we need to study the Holocaust.”

She said what they teach also fits well within the Kentucky Academic Standards.

“There may be a need to justify this kind of study, so we equip our participants with rationale. This content lends itself very much to persuasive and argumentative writing, to critical thinking, everything related to college- and career-readiness. All of those elements can be used to justify why this is an integral part of secondary education,” Smith said.

Amy Treece, an instructional coordinator in the Henry County schools who previously worked with KDE as an instructional specialists to help develop social studies standards, attended the seminar and convinced two of her colleagues, an 8th-grade language arts teacher and an 8th-grade science teacher, to attend as well.

“When I saw this opportunity, I knew it would be a great integration piece,” Treece said. “We’re looking at using this as an opportunity to springboard into a project-based learning experience within the district, and we’re real excited about the collaboration.”

The retreat is far from an ordinary professional development session. There is considerable reading – one long table was covered with books that could be used as resources – and discussions following frank presentations.

“Very vigorous, very intense, very fierce conversations,” Smith said.

The participants spent most of the five days at General Butler State Resort Park but also traveled to Cincinnati, where they visited the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education and attended a Shabbat service at a Jewish temple. They also heard from a Holocaust survivor and from a professor from Rwanda on the genocide in that country in 1994.

Reinhardt said one of the most moving parts of the retreat was a discussion on identity on the very first day.

“We had an identity building exercise in order to better understand the process of getting that stripped away from you during something akin to the Holocaust. That was very powerful,” she said.

Treece said she hopes the message teachers pass on to their students is just as powerful.

“They don’t see themselves as part of a world where it can happen and where they have a voice to stop it, whether it’s a super-local situation in their school or in their own personal lives or something larger, and we’re just trying to find those application opportunities,” she said.

“That’s the reason we study the past,” Cady added, “to make application for the future.”

 

MORE INFO …

Stephanie Smith and Cassandra Owens kyholocausteducators@gmail.com

Sasha Reinhardt sasha.reinhardt@bath.kyschools.us

Tamara Cady tamara.cady@carroll.kyschools.us

Amy Treece amy.treece@henry.kyschools.us

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