I’ve had the most incredibly profound professional development of my career and I still find it difficult to talk about it with people. I find that I am still processing my experiences. From Israel to Warsaw, I have absorbed the memories of the Holocaust and grappled with creating lessons which humanise the Jewish people in a curriculum which has time and content constraints.
The Holocaust Educational Trust has given me the opportunity to study at Yad Vashem in Israel. The intensive eight day course included a comprehensive academic tour through pre-war Jewish life to life after liberation. We were encouraged to develop and to try a cross curricular approach in our teaching of the Holocaust. I believe this should be an area of focus in school so that we are creating the best possible learning experience for our students which does not create overlap, but extends their learning as we humanise the Jews of the Holocaust.
Many of my students link ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ with the Holocaust. This book is their point of reference for what they think they know about the Holocaust. It is a struggle to combat that view and to start from the individual and develop understanding which builds to the Jewish community. This simply emphasises the responsibility that we have as educators to consider teaching historically accurate material whilst developing empathetic students.
I began our Judaism unit with a P4C session where I used the pre-war Jewish cards HET resources. The photos are of pre-war Jewish life. All of the cards were enlarged and spread on the floor. Students looked at the photos around them. Without picking it up, students picked one photo that stood out to them and had a back up picture in case someone else picked the same photo as them. Students shared why they picked the photo. Eventually this stimulus leads into a big question like: Are stereotypes always true? How does only faith identify people? Does short term enjoyment warrant long term loss? How did Judaism reflect their daily lives?
The Big Question provides the foundation in which we build our knowledge, culminating in a Pop Up Art lesson. The Pop Up Art lesson was designed to prepare my students for their assessment which involves creating a piece of art showing various aspects of their knowledge and understanding of Judaism. I wanted students to steer clear of dark and gruesome images and focus on something that humanises the Holocaust.
For the lesson, I used photographs of memorials and art that I had taken in Israel and Poland whilst with the Holocaust Educational Trust. In addition, I used poetry and art from the Yad Vashem website. The photos were enlarged and placed along the corridor and in the classroom. The photos caused a buzz because they just popped up! I tried to create an art gallery vibe amongst my class by setting out expectations of the lesson. I was giving them freedom to walk along the corridor and look at the different types of art. Students were equipped with differentiated worksheets which told them some pieces to focus on in order to answer the questions linked to levels. Higher ability students were asked to look at poetry as well as the paintings and sculptures. The students were fully engaged and clearly enjoyed the lesson.
The Pop Up Art Gallery was key to getting the students to understand that the Holocaust and Judaism can be expressed in more than just images from a concentration camp. My students produced amazing pieces of art with very deep explanations about their work. Students like to focus on the way people died, rather than how they lived their life or even how someone would want to be remembered. I think I am making small steps towards getting students to learn about the individual and building up to the Jewish community of the past and present.
Maureen McDevitt is a former Curriculum Leader for RE and an Outstanding Teaching Coach currently teaching RE in a new secondary school.