CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – “Whether they’re found in a museum or a textbook, historical narratives about traumatic events such as war and genocide are better left to older students, who have typically developed a more refined historical consciousness,” says a University of Illinois professor who studies and teaches historical instruction.
According to Brenda M. Trofanenko, a professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at Illinois, the “difficult knowledge” of such events as the Holocaust, the Ukranian Holodomor and the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica should be the province of high school history classes, not elementary and upper-elementary and middle school classes.“It’s curricular creep in the sense that subjects that were once considered relevant only to high school kids previously are now filtering down to elementary and upper-elementary school students,” Trofanenko said.
In public schools in California, Illinois and Massachusetts, the study of genocide is a mandatory unit of instruction in every elementary and high school.“I’ve heard of children as young as grade three are being taught about the Holocaust,” she said. “That’s far too young, to my mind.”
Trofanenko, who presented a paper about teaching difficult knowledge at the Curating Difficult Knowledge conference at Concordia University in Montreal last April, says younger students lack the baseline historical knowledge and critical sensibility necessary to understand the various implications of state-sponsored mass murder.
“Younger students don’t have the ability to capture all the information and knowledge necessary to understand both the historical and emotional context of difficult knowledge like genocide. They don’t understand the big picture yet. Once they have an understanding of concepts such as significance, continuity and change, cause and consequence, and moral judgment, students can logically think through and ask questions about why events have happened.”
To critics who would argue that educators can’t shield younger students from the difficult topics of history, Trofanenko says that high school students are better equipped, both emotionally and intellectually, to deal with traumatic events in world history.
“It’s called ‘difficult knowledge’ by educators and historians for a reason,” Trofanenko said. “How do you portray death and dying to a 12-year-old? How do you properly convey the gravity of certain historical situations to a sixth- or seventh-grader? In order to deal with the emotional aspects of it, students have to be able to logically understand what was happening at the time. Elementary school students aren’t ready for that yet. It’s easier to talk to a 16-year-old about how people died because of their religious or political beliefs than it is a sixth grader.”
A fact-based, fill-in-the-blank approach to learning about genocide – a teaching staple of virtually all elementary school history classes – isn’t the best pedagogical approach to teaching historically difficult subjects, Trofanenko says.
“When you do that, when you turn the Holocaust or the Holodomar into a “Jeopardy!”-type game in order to drill facts into students’ heads, you trivialize it,” she said. “Looking only at facts or the raw data of how many people were killed discounts a lot of significant aspects, including the emotional toll. This is not to say that students don’t need to know the extent of genocide, but it’s not the only element within the larger picture.”“This requires more than satisfying standards,” she said. “It means a better understanding of how young people deal with emotion and emotional issues associated with world events.”
Trofanenko says teachers need to get back to engaging in historical inquiry – asking questions about what genocide is, why it was allowed to happen, and how it’s occurred even during their lifetime.
“Teachers need to look at genocide generally and not treat it as an isolated, discrete event,” she said. “It needs to be taught as something that has happened during our students’ lifetimes. They need to know why these terrible events occurs, not just the information that results from it.”
California school district cancels lesson plan that involved Holocaust denial
By Karl de Vries, Fox News
Following a storm of criticism – and at least one death threat – a California school district Monday canceled a lesson plan that instructed middle school students to make arguments denying the Holocaust happened. The assignment, aimed at eighth-grade students in Southern California’s Rialto Unified School District, sought to teach children to learn the nature of propaganda.
“Some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain,” the assignment said, according to a document posted by The Daily Bulletin. “You will read and discuss multiple, credible articles on the issue, and write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe this was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”
But critics said the assignment risked misleading the 13- and 14-year-old students into believing that propaganda about the Holocaust bears factual legitimacy.
Jan. 25, 2014: A flower lies next to the word Auschwitz, denoting the name of the Nazi concentration camp, at the Gleis 17 (platform 17) memorial commemorating Jews who were deported from Grunewald train station during World War II in Berlin. (Reuters
“Whatever (the district’s) motivation, it ends up elevating hate and history to the same level,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told FoxNews.com on Monday. “We should train our kids to have critical thinking, but the problem here is the teacher confused teaching critical thinking with common sense, because common sense dictates you don’t comingle propaganda with common truth.”
Cooper added that although teaching children about the nature of propaganda is a worthy lesson plan, the district would have been better off having children research Holocaust denial, while meeting with local survivors of the genocide.
In a statement, the district said Monday afternoon the interim superintendent will be speaking with its educational services department to “assure that any reference to Holocaust ‘not occurring’ will be stricken on any current or future argumentative research assignments.”
“The Holocaust is and should be taught in classrooms with sensitivity and profound consideration to the victims who endured the atrocities committed,” the statement reads. “We believe in the words of George Santayana, ‘Those who cannot learn from history are bound to repeat it.’”
Rialto police said one person made a number of calls to police with specific death threats directed at a district spokeswoman and the interim superintendent. Two officers were at the campus on Monday and authorities are investigating the incident.
The Holocaust, which began in 1933 and ended in 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, was the mass extermination of up to 11 million people, including six million Jews, resulting in the murder of nearly two-thirds of Europe’s Jewery.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
QUOTATIONS ON TEACHING THE HOLOCAUST
So what age is the best age to start teaching the Shoah? A couple of experts weigh in below:
ANTONY POLONSKY,Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University:
“I am not in favour of this material being given to primary school children, so I think it should probably be in secondary school. The general context is also necessary. I have found Americans (not only children) woefully ignorant of the elementary facts of European history.”
“At Brandeis, a student said to me after a lecture, ‘You were talking about the Second World War; when was the First World War?'”
NELLY SILAGY BENEDEK,Director of Education,The Jewish Museum(New York):
“From my experience, the best age to introduce students to the topic of the Holocaust is in high school. Even then, I wouldn’t expose them to the most graphic images. The Holocaust is a topic for mature audiences, and teachers should tread cautiously.”
“On the other hand, it is important for the Holocaust to be part of a study of 20th century world history. There are ways of talking about World War II to elementary and middle school students without speaking about the particulars of the Holocaust and emphasizing its graphic and disturbing events. For example, fifth grade students might learn about the how Jews were forced to flee Europe and about immigration to the United States during that time. They can learn about the challenges and hardships Jews faced as immigrants.”
“While I cannot speak from a personal perspective, as I represent Yad Vashem, I appreciate your engaging with such materials and questioning their use in the classroom and with young children.”
“As for educational suggestions, I can share with you the very well thought-out approach that Yad Vashem takes. We feel that outside of Israel (where the Holocaust is present starting at a very young age just by growing up in a Jewish country), children should not begin learning about the Holocaust until about 3rd or 4th grade.”
“Yad Vashem has published three books that are brilliantly written to introduce the topic of the Holocaust without difficult photographs or too much information at once. The first is called “I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” and tells the personal story of a Holocaust survivor, but in a way that a child could understand. We do not believe in lying or making up parts of the story. Tell the truth, but perhaps not the entire truth when the child is young. It is a spiralic approach, so that with each year, a student is introduced to more and more about the subject.”
MICHAL STERNIN,International School for Holocaust Studies,Yad Vashem(Israel):
“The most important thing to understand is that learning about the Holocaust should take place in a frame of an educational process. The educators should be constantly focused on the value of the activity they construct for the children and ask themselves what exactly is being achieved by performing each and every task they give.”
“The materials presented to children should be appropriate to their mental and cognitive skills. We think that the subject can be taught to younger children, and in our site, you can find ideas of how to do that.”
Here are some links to lesson plans:
“Until Then, I Had Only Read About These Things in Books” (Grades 5-6)
“I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” (Grades 3-5)