By Ashley Venegas
Jr. High Language Arts Teacher
RIVERSIDE—Concepts like genocide, scapegoating and fascism are hardly the typical conversation at lunch for most eighth grade students.
In fact, embarking upon our Holocaust Unit was a large and, at times, daunting undertaking. We began our journey as a class with a single word: choice. That one term eventually led us to discussions about the choice to accept personal responsibility in our everyday lives, the choice to stand up for what is right in the face of adversity, and even the choice to continuously educate ourselves about the ongoing injustices in the world so that we can be active, informed and compassionate global citizens.
As their Language Arts teacher, I worked in conjunction with the History/Religion teacher so that together we were able to take a cross-curricular approach to this sensitive subject matter. The class began by studying the historical context surrounding the events of the Holocaust, with a focus throughout on the moral and philosophical implications these events have for us as conscientious Catholics. Exploring the concepts through a historical, literary and religious lens enabled students to see the effects of these atrocities on the macro and micro-level, in theory and in practice, within their own lives and in the lives of people around the world.
Weighty concepts like genocide, racism, prejudice and discrimination can understandably intimidate even the most stalwart student. The Common Core State Standards emphasize the need for students to delineate arguments and reasoning presented to them on complex matters such as these.
It was also important at all times to keep at the forefront of our minds our personal faith as Catholics. Upon analyzing various personal narratives from the likes of Miep Gies, Elie Wiesel, and Anne Frank, students were offered a multiplicity of compelling perspectives on how these historical events had lasting and significant effects on the lives of everyday people.
A consistent theme throughout these works is the inevitable questioning of one’s faith in the face of such abhorrent tragedies inflicted upon man by other men. In his autobiographical account entitled Night, Mr. Wiesel often discusses his faith outright and is told in one instance by his spiritual adviser that, “Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him,” adding that we should pray for “the strength to ask Him the real questions.” In much the same way, I tried to encourage the students’ inquisitiveness and critical thinking skills by reminding them that in studying a topic as substantial and momentous as this, they should leave the classroom each day with more questions than answers.
Inspired by our school-wide focus on what it means to be a community of faith, knowledge and service, the eighth graders have found ways to connect the concepts presented in their Holocaust Unit to their own lives. In tying together the ideas of choice, responsibility and compassion students were able to lead their own conversations on what it means to be active leaders and upstanders (as opposed to bystanders).
The class officially adopted the name “Upstanders” in order to show our dedication to standing up for what is right even in the face of adversity both small and large.
Utilizing a think-pair-share strategy within the classroom, the Upstanders wrote their own philosophy statement. Upon completion of a personal draft, students shared their ideas in partner discussions before collaborating as a whole class.
Our unit culminated with a class visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Reading the stage adaptation of the book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett before our fieldtrip exposed the students to the life of Miss Frank. This was then reinforced on our tour when we had the opportunity to view a replica of Anne’s diary, heard snippets read aloud, and saw photos of her and her loved ones. We even passed through a replica of the bookshelf that acted as the entrance to the Secret Annex. This then led us into a small theatre where we watched a powerful and poignant dramatization of Anne’s time in hiding upon an immersive 260-degree screen.
At the end of the exhibit, students were able to plant digital chestnut seeds and make a personal pledge about what they would do to improve the world. Acknowledging that change begins in small steps, their pledges focused on what personal choices they could make to ensure tolerance in their own lives and spread awareness of important matters to others. Students even participated in workshops from the No-Name Calling Week activities that focused on the importance of being careful with our words, so as to avoid inadvertent or outright bullying.
In much the same way as the students planted the seed of a chestnut tree in honor of Miss Frank’s legacy, we as teachers can strive to plant the seeds of morality, righteousness and a dedication to service within our students. These ideas will hopefully flourish and help to cultivate responsible Catholic adults. Ultimately, raising globally aware citizens who are able to empathize with others will not only pave our students’ way to college, but to careers that serve others, improve the world, and launch them on a path to the ultimate reward of Heaven with our Creator.