“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
- Elie Weisel
With Holocaust Remembrance day beginning on April 15 at sundown, I have been wondering how the Holocaust is discussed in the classroom and even if it is discussed at all. As Weisel’s quote suggests, studying the Holocaust, or any genocide, for that matter, provides the opportunity to engage students in meaningful discussions not only about tolerance but also about moral action.
Although delving into complex, meaningful topics like the Holocaust, is an essential part of a rigorous curriculum, it can still be an intimidating topic for teachers to address. To learn more about how schools can teach genocide studies in an impactful and approachable way, I turned to 2013 National School of Character, Hanover Park High School District, winner of a Promising Practice for their Genocide Gallery Walk.
The Genocide Gallery Walk
Christopher Kelly, Assistant Principal of Hanover High School, explained the gallery walk experience.
The two high schools in the district take turns hosting the gallery walk because in order to make the project happen, an entire wing of the school must be closed off. This ensures a completely immersive experience.
Every year the walk is a little bit different as they continue to add new elements, but it is always a visceral experience. Beginning at a gate, participants walk through a series of corridors. Old shoes lined the walls. They came across a room full of about 200 posters each one with a different person’s face and their story. Participants read the story about the person then they turn to the back where either survivor or victim is written in spray paint.
In the next phase, strings with tags hang down from the ceiling. There are about 1000 of them and they are low enough that you have to walk through them. They all have the name of someone that was killed. “You can’t go around,” Christopher explains. The students can feel it, the “volume of the destruction.”
The genocide gallery walk is not limited to the Holocaust. The next room is dedicated to the Armenian genocide. The room features empty table settings. At the table there is a laminated description of something from Armenian genocide at each setting. An imovie with images, voices, facts, data is on repeat.
In a room devoted to genocide Cambodia and Rwanda, there are blown up pictures of child soldiers, they are resized to be life size and cut out and staged throughout the room. Children wielding guns and machetes.
“It is all very graphic,” Chris says, “but it serves to push forward the message.”
The Native American genocide is acknowledged with a dark room full of tombstones lit up just by Christmas lights.
A number of other genocides are represented, including current atrocities.
Advice for Talking about Genocide
Take it Slow & Make it Relevant - “Let’s Start with the Contemporary Issues”
Christopher explains that the genocide studies course doesn’t begin with students jumping right in to talking about the Holocaust. Instead, they start out with topics that the students can relate to, new stories and anecdotes about bullying and discrimination.
Teachers ask thought-provoking questions like “What are the seeds of these issues?” They talk about the concept of hate and connect it to the danger of apathy. This foundation slowly begins to encompasses bigger and bigger issues, as they begin to understand that whether they are talking about homophobia or Darfur, people act as bystanders when they are afraid of becoming the next victim.
New questions start to emerge. “What fear is so profound that it will stop you from doing what’s right?” “How can we prevent the Holocaust from happening again?”
“The goal is to get the kids to wrap their minds around it and get involved.” Christopher gives two important ways teachers can help facilitate this: “give them a way to construct something meaningful from what they have learned,” like the gallery walk, “and provide opportunities to reflect.”
Providing Opportunities for Reflection
When dealing with sensitive material like this, its important that students don’t simply walk through the gallery and proceed on with their day. There needs to be a reflection process in place.
After completing the walk, the Hanover Park students go back with their social studies teachers and they talk and write about the experience. Teachers ask, “After going through that, how do you feel? How can we connect this to our values?” They incorporate quotes from influential authors, like Elie Weisel, to fuel further thought and reflection.
Encourage Students to Teach & Learn From Each Other
Christopher says what blew him away the most was students reading aloud the testimonials of those who survived. A kid who’s grandparents survived the genocide in Ukraine read their personal story. When students share their own family history, “their peers lock in” and realize that “this is real.” The material “comes off the page and they can internalize it a lot more.”
For more advice from experienced educators and administrators, attend the 2015 Forum on Character Education. Registration is now open.