How I Teach - Make it personal

25th October 2013 at 01:00
The stories of real families bring home the horror of the Holocaust

The Holocaust appears on most curricula and is taught in most countries, but it can be quite a mechanical learning experience. We don't often stop to think about why we teach it, what the relevance of the Holocaust is today and what learning outcomes we expect for students.

The best place to start is personal experience. By talking about your own experience of persecution, or by inviting visitors into school who can talk about how they have suffered, you can draw students in and make them realise that racism - and anti-Semitism in particular - is all too prevalent even in contemporary society. First-hand accounts join the dots between understanding a historical event and the relevance of that event to an individual today.

I suggest two ways of teaching the subject within this context: one for 11- to 13-year-olds and one for 14- to 16-year-olds.

Although it is absolutely necessary to reveal the truth of what happened in the Holocaust, I tend to avoid the more graphic descriptions and photographs when working with younger children. I usually start with the final scene from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the book and film of which is often studied in early secondary school. This provides an excellent introduction to the topic. Next, I talk about how the victims ended up in concentration camps and encourage students to imagine what it would have been like to be a Jew - and especially a German Jew - in 1930s Germany.

For older students, I show the scene of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto from the film Schindler's List. An accompanying worksheet asks students to describe exactly what is happening and how they feel while watching it.

For both groups, I then talk about my own family: how my mother and grandparents escaped from Nazi Germany in 1934 and how my great- grandmother survived the camps but would never talk about her experiences. I show family photographs, including a picture of my great aunt and uncle, who perished in Auschwitz - an event that affected my grandmother for the rest of her life. This could be where you or a visitor to your school tells a first-hand story of persecution.

Next, we discuss whether the lessons of the Holocaust have actually been learned. I point out that if they had been, acts of genocide would not have taken place in, for example, Rwanda and Bosnia.

The personal angle is not confined to the middle section of the class. Giving a personal context to all its elements really brings home the message of the lesson, and makes the Holocaust seem relevant and more real for students.

It is so important not to mechanise Holocaust teaching, but to bring it into the realm of personal experience that students can identify with. In this way, the lesson becomes one that children are able to learn from, not simply acknowledge and then forget.

Freddy Naftel is a Holocaust enrichment teacher who works with schools and colleges in the UK.

10 resources that consider the persecution of Jews

1. Personal touch

Using reconstruction and real-life footage, this video tells the story of a woman who was persecuted under Nazi rule. Only three minutes long, but an incredibly powerful story.


2. Broader picture

A PowerPoint presentation about the persecution of Jews and other people living in Germany during the Nazi era.


3. First-hand focus

This presentation encourages students to think about the experience of being Jewish in Germany during the Second World War.


4. Lack of opposition

Use these worksheets to get students to question why there were few protests against the Nazis in the 1930s. Ask them to justify their findings.


5. Role replay

These 13 character cards provide a variety of stereotypes of people living in Nazi Germany, to use in performances and mock interviews.


6. Untold story

Consider the persecution of the Jewish community in Greece while the islands were under occupation.


7. Changing views

Uncover how the treatment of Jews changed between 1939 and 1945. This presentation uses scenes from the film Schindler's List and asks students to contemplate their own feelings.


8. Revisiting rules

This activity uses cards with pictures and descriptions of 14 anti-Jewish laws introduced between 1933 and 1945. A lesson plan is included.


9. A lesson learned

A comprehensive lesson plan on many aspects of the Holocaust. Objectives and activities are included.


10. Fresh investigation

Who was responsible for the Kristallnacht in November 1938? It's your students' job to find out in this activity. A plenary asks them to explain their decisions.



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