Teaching the Holocaust in middle school is a powerful way to learn about the past in order to inform our future. If you plan to cover Holocaust education in your social studies class, it is vital that we follow best practices.
First of all, let's acknowledge that as teachers we tend to be generalists. Learning on the job is part of the job. When I was teaching 7th-grade social studies, I taught World War II and the Holocaust as part of our curriculum. Before starting this unit, I spent weeks researching best practices. I had the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a few years back and started my research with educational resources from their website. This led me to other places like Facing History and Ourselves, and the Holocaust Center for Humanity.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a multi-day training on Teaching the Holocaust at Gonzaga University. This workshop, presented by the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, was eye-opening and insightful. I gained so much new information and helpful links to resources that I want to pass along some of what I learned.
Where to Start Your Holocaust Unit:
Following best practices is vital. Sometimes our students will ask a question that doesn't have a simple answer. We want to be sure and provide our students with an understanding of many different factors and events that contributed to the Holocaust, so avoid simplifying answers to complex questions.
When teaching the Holocaust, spend less time on the details of misery and focus on the human stories of "light in the darkness" instead of darkness alone. These stories may inspire your students, especially during difficult times.
Here are some links to helpful best practice guidelines and resources from the Holocaust Center for Humanity and Echoes and Reflections.
Build Context for Your Students:
Our students need context. We need to provide our students with context about life before World War II. It is important to keep in mind that we should also define the term "Holocaust" before we dive in.
A good lesson to start with is the Universe of Obligation (linked below). This lesson explores the concept of "social responsibility" and focuses on the circle of individuals whom we feel responsible to protect and care for, and whom we would offer to help and assist during a time of need or when we find ourselves in danger.
Include First-Hand Voices & Experiences:
We need to help our students make meaning out of statistics. It is best practice to translate statistics into people. This means that we should focus on showing that individual people--children, grandparents, and parents are behind the statistics. It is also important to keep in mind that there is a great diversity in personal experiences within the larger narrative. Using first-person accounts such as memoirs, diaries, interviews, and letters add individual voices to a collective experience. This will help our students make meaning out of statistics.
Keep in mind that we should strive for balance when teaching the horrific and heroic acts of the Holocaust. For example, those that opposed the Nazis through resistance methods made an impact, but only a small percentage of non-Jewish people helped rescue Jews. It is easy to over-glorify these heroic acts, which could result in an inaccurate and unbalanced view of history. At the same time, it is important to not simply focus on the horrific aspects of the Holocaust either. Finding a balance is imperative.
It has been recommended that video content be saved toward the end of your unit.
Teaching with Literature:
Here are several book recommendations from the Holocaust Center for Humanity and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Additional books by grade level with teacher guides can be found here.
I hope these resources are valuable tools to help you teach the Holocaust effectively in your classroom.