holocaust, language arts, middle school

Teaching about the Holocaust in Middle School

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

When I was in 8th grade, I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the words of a girl just about my age changing my perception of humanity. I began to understand both the ever-present darkness that both threatens and consumes our world, as well as the miraculous light, the ability to see beauty and feel thankful despite tremendous hurting.

I remember hoping against all hope, even though I knew how it would end, that somehow Anne and her family would survive, because they deserved a happy ending. And through that, I learned that good people don’t get what they deserve. And I learned very bad things are preventable, but happen because a majority of people don’t act.

When I began teaching 8th grade, and knew I would see my students have these hard realizations of life, I was a bit overwhelmed. This can be applied to anything we teach, but I was concerned with how I would cover such a deep topic, while simultaneously making sure that students would stay engaged and take away the most important truths.

This is my fifth year teaching about the Holocaust. I continue to learn alongside my students every year, and they teach me, too. I know there are many different approaches of how to teach this, and I change things every year, but I have four important goals for my students that always guide my teaching:

1. To remember and honor the victims of the Holocaust.

2. To better understand the complexities of human nature, both the darkness and light.

3. To explore what is their personal responsibility to this world and the people in it.

4. To appreciate their own lives.

With those goals in mind, here are the different components of our Holocaust unit (which stretches from October to Christmas):

1. History of Anti-Semitism

I am fortunate that my school is within a half hour of a Holocaust Museum and Center. Because of that, I was able to go to a workshop that gave an overview of how to teach about the Holocaust, along with a teacher’s manual to guide lessons for students. With the aid of the manual, I constructed a slide presentation that has crucial moments from almost 2,000 years of history, through the lens of the Jewish people.

One of the students’ most commonly asked questions is — Why? Why did this happen? Why the Jews? Why did Hitler act the way he did? Why did people allow this to happen?

In going through this history, I am able to answer these questions, and the students are able to understand on a more profound level, the reasons why the Jews, along with other groups, were targeted during the Holocaust. The persecuted groups were not randomly chosen; much of society held deep-seated prejudice and hatred against them.

2. Field Trip to Holocaust Museum

After learning about the history of anti-Semitism up through the rise of Hitler, the students then go to the local Holocaust Museum on a field trip. There, they learn more about the history of the Jewish people pre-World War II, anecdotes from the tour guides, and specifics of the Nazi’s horrific acts, most notably of those in the ghettos and concentration camps.

After touring the museum, they get to listen to a Holocaust survivor or survivor’s descendant speak about their experience. The past two years, my students have been extremely blessed to hear directly from a survivor, Mr. Mendel Rosenberg, who was about their age when he lived in a ghetto and eventually a concentration camp.

Every time we go, I can always sense a change in my students. They have witnessed, in a more personal way, the intense suffering that occurred during the Holocaust and are moved by what they see and hear.  My challenge afterwards is to channel that thoughtfulness and reflection into the rest of the unit.

Even if you can’t personally hear from a survivor, I think that watching interviews or listening to audio recordings would be extremely beneficial in students forming personal connections.

3. Holocaust Museum Trunk 

Another benefit of our local museum is that they supply educational trunks to schools as an aid in teaching the Holocaust. These trunks are full of posters, picture books, novels, identification booklets, and other resources. One of my favorite books to use from the trunk is The Terrible Things by Eve Bunting. It is a short but powerful read, and starts great conversations about standing up for what is right, even when it is a very difficult thing to do.

4. The Diary of Anne Frank (play version)

To prepare for the reading of Anne Frank, the students look at some basic background information, such as the timeline of events, for the Franks and the other occupants of the Secret Annex. Then we go on a virtual tour of the Annex and explore the different rooms, meet the characters, and hear snippets of Anne’s diary.

My students are arranged in small groups (as I detail in this post), so they do most of the reading in that setting, but we do read critical passages as a whole class, and they will sometimes have to finish scenes by themselves at home. When they write their learning reflection for me at the end of the year, many of them say that reading Anne Frank was one of their favorite reading assignments during the year.

For each scene in Act 1, I have graphic organizers that the students must complete. For all of Act 2, the students complete a soundtrack project, which I bill as a tribute to Anne, who loved celebrities and pop culture. They pretend they are making a soundtrack for Act 2 as if it were being made into a movie. I give them six elements to attach songs to (characters, relationships, themes, setting, big moments, conflicts), and they create a Google slide presentation with one slide per song. They must include the quote and page number, along with a detailed explanation of what inspired their musical choice.

On the due date, they will go around the classroom, listen to each other’s soundtracks, and provide feedback for their selections.

5. Hiding Assignment

Another assignment I give during the reading of Anne Frank is for the students to hide somewhere in their house, for an amount of time determined by them, and then write about their observations of the experience. They are not allowed to use electronics, have food that Anne would not have had in the Annex, turn on lights, or make noise. My hope is that this will give them a tiny taste of what it would have been like to hide, and how difficult it would be to sit still and quietly when you are used to being busy and active.

5. Holocaust Symbol Project

While we are reading the play in literature class, the students take a “break” from writing essays and create a Holocaust project that symbolizes some aspect that has particularly affected or moved them. They can take details they have learned from class, quotes, elements from the stories they’ve read, the museum, or anything else they can think of. The objective is to then create one cohesive symbol which is eventually displayed in a meeting room on our campus. They must write a paragraph describing their process of choosing the symbol, what it means, and what materials they used.

For one day, family members, school faculty, and middle school students are able to tour our own “Holocaust Museum,” and the visual impact of all the projects together, and the immense care and thought put into them, is quite powerful. Here are some examples from this year:

6. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas movie

I show this movie at the end, followed by a discussion about different elements from the movie — friendship, naivete, and the suspension of disbelief for the viewer. I just read an interesting article not too long ago where the author disagreed with using TBITSP as a way to introduce children to the Holocaust, and stated how survivors themselves do not like the movie. There was much merit to the article, and I started second-guessing my decision to use the movie (still am). However, since I use it at the end, I think it might still be valuable, since the students will have collected a fair amount of knowledge and understanding by that point, to use the movie as yet another tool for discussion — to talk specifically about why this is disliked by survivors, and is there merit to fiction that’s based on an event where perhaps nonfiction can do all the speaking for itself? The teachable moments might be worth some of the clueless characters and dramatic ending.

The above components are what I incorporated into our Holocaust unit this year, but in the past, I have also had the following:

  • Remembrance Ceremony
  • In-class reading of Hana’s Suitcase and writing letters to George Brady
  • Analysis of paintings and poems created by Holocaust victims
  • Analysis of photographs taken of the Holocaust
  • Current events articles about anti-Semitism as they come up in the news (all too often, unfortunately), as well as any time there are archaeological or historical finds regarding World War II

The subject of the Holocaust is vast, and could be taught for years, not just weeks or a couple months. I felt self-conscious in even listing what I do because I always feel like I can do more and I’m always changing my plans every year. However, with the tensions currently present in our society today, it is more important than ever to teach this tragic time in history, and to recognize this is not something that should be shortened to fit a two-week gap in a curriculum or overlooked altogether. As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students to give them the tools to do better, to be better. If we don’t have time to do that, what’s the point in teaching?