Journey towards understanding

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Kelly Homer describes how a resource pack that sensitively introduces primary children to issues about the Holocaust enriched teachers' and pupils' understanding

As part of the primary PGCE course at Leicester University we visited the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire. Although it was unforgettable I doubted I would ever approach this topic with primary children. Then, on teaching placement at Mellor Community Primary School in Leicester, my mentor Gill Laing told me that we were going to teach about the Holocaust as part of PSHE. My Year 4 class had a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, and formed a close, mutually supportive group.

However, I was still unsure of the practical issues.

I contacted staff at Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre, who told me about their resource pack, Our Lonely Journey, for nine to 13-year-olds. By recounting the testimonies of three children who were part of a Kindertransport - the organised effort to save Jewish children from the Nazi threat by transporting them to England - it focuses on feelings about prejudice and discrimination, being forced to leave family and home, and having to create a new life in a different country. The story does not shock or detail any atrocities, countering the fear of exposing primary pupils to things they are not emotionally equipped to deal with.

The book, illustrated with drawings, can be used flexibly, as Our Lonely Journey is divided into topics, so you don't necessarily use it all, and it comes with a teacher's guide. I introduced the children to the story and used the suggested reading comprehension questions to guide the discussion, encouraging pupils to reflect on how they would feel or act in the same situation.

In following lessons we read some of the story and did a follow-up activity, with each pupil pretending they were someone on the Kindertransport. The first activity was based on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. We discussed things the children might have experienced - sights, sounds, feelings and smells - using the framework. The pupils wrote poems on light blue paper which I had cut to look like broken glass.

In their second activity, after reading about how Steven, Vera and Eileen had prepared for their journey, the children each wrote a list of things they would take on their Kindertransport. I brought in a small suitcase, which they used to gauge whether they were taking too many things.

For the third activity the children wrote either a diary entry recounting their journey or a letter to their parents on arrival in England. This had excellent links to literacy. We discussed how the structure, content and purpose of diaries and letters differed. In particular, it helped them think about the idea of censorship. They all agreed they would not tell their parents about how squashed they had been on their journey or how sad they were, because they didn't want to upset them.

During the final two lessons, groups of four prepared a "television" news broadcast. Two children in each group acted as reporters, one in the newsroom and one at the scene of the arrival of the Kindertransports. The others chose to be Kindertransport children or workers on the boat, and were interviewed. This group work enabled children to share their understanding. They learned how people made an effort to save Jewish children and, most importantly, their work showed understanding and empathy.

There were many cross-curricular links to PSHE, history, literacy, geography and RE, but the greatest reward for me was being part of the children's journey towards understanding. They sometimes asked questions I didn't really want to answer, such as: "What is a concentration camp?"

I replied tactfully yet honestly and allowed them to discuss it if they wanted to. I realised I had often underestimated their ability to understand such sensitive issues. Although they sought answers they also accepted that some questions had no answers.

This topic was taught in Mellor's three Year 4 classes and the teachers involved all had similar rewarding and eye-opening experiences. I would not hesitate to teach this topic to key stage 2 children.

* Our Lonely Journey book with guide pound;5, packs of six pound;13, 30 with guide pound;50, plus pound;3 pp.

Tel: 01623 836627 or order online at www.holocaustbookstore.net

* The Holocaust Centre, Newark www.bethshalom.com

Kelly Homer is now a Year 4 teacher at Pedmore CE Primary School in Dudley, Stourbridge

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