This is the sixth in a series of articles from guest writer Stephen Berer focusing on literacies, fluencies, and projects for museums and classrooms. If you missed them, you can read the first article in the series here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: Choices We Make—Part 1
In my article How the Museum Experience Differs from the Classroom, I outlined some of the problems we face in elevating museum visits into high-quality educational experiences.
I noted that Holocaust museums present a special case, not because students don’t take them seriously. I have never seen a student in a Holocaust museum who wasn’t taking it very seriously. The primary problem is that the content is so disturbing, that we let our emotions override our intellect. Very likely we emerge with intense emotions (that will only last a short time), and a few strong visual memories (that very likely are not grounded in an accurate context).
If that’s the case, the visit has failed to live up to its potential. A successful trip to a Holocaust museum will result in our learning that genocide is much more than just mass murder perpetrated by a few people. It is a product of vast numbers of people making many individual decisions, perpetrating many small acts of insensitivity and cruelty, and choosing to believe many small and large lies. And in that sense, genocide is not far removed from everyday life! If our students come away with that insight, reinforced by textual, visual, and auditory historical examples, they will begin to understand how the choices each person makes can be critically important. Hopefully, they will also realize that self-awareness is an essential part of making ethical choices.
In the following series of articles I outline two templates you can use to help situate your students inside the historical process. Becoming imaginary actors in history will personalize and energize their learning. Not only will your students gain a better grasp of content, they will be inclined to become more sensitive to others, more tolerant of difference, and more tuned to the choices they are making in their life.
Project 1: A Timeline of Exclusion
This project was designed for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The museum’s exhibits are chronologically arranged, which facilitates building a timeline. However, I will give you suggestions for modifying this project if you are visiting another Holocaust or genocide museum, or any exhibit devoted to discrimination or political oppression (such as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC, or the exhibits in the Japanese American National Museum in LA, devoted to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII).
Project 1 outline:
In this project students will work in 2-3 person groups, to facilitate peer to peer learning, and so they can apply their individual strengths to making a project that is better than what they could produce alone. Teachers will act as coaches, helping students to find useful exhibits, challenging them with pertinent questions, advising them as they develop their projects, and keeping them focused and on schedule.
The core of the project begins in the classroom, where teams will choose a particular identity. They will become a Jewish citizen of Germany and they will use this project to tell their story. They can choose to be a student in school, or an adult with a particular profession. They may choose to tell their story as part of a family, or as a group of two or three close friends, or as a married couple. Or perhaps their story will be individual and more private.
However, be sure to make it clear that during the process of building their “documentary” your students will be inclined to revise their identity. Indeed, it is likely that every group will modify their identity to one degree or another as they explore history and develop their project.
Their job is to create a video or slideshow with sound overlays presenting the stages of their exclusion from society, the steps in which the Nazis stripped them of their self-respect, their rights, their property, their citizenship, their identities, and finally, possibly, their lives.
They will use the exhibits to provide careful documentation for their video or slideshow, remembering to focus in on photographs, objects, and labels to help them build a believable identity and a realistic story. They can use the voice recorder on their phone to describe the exhibits after they video/photo them. (However, they may later want to re-record their comments to improve sound quality.)
Required: camera or phone(s) for photos, video, and sound recording. Be sure to verify if the museum you are visiting allows photography. Also flash MUST be off in most museums.
Optional: notebooks and pens or pencils
Job assignments (which can be shared):
- Sound recorder for voice overlays
- Researchers to facilitate finding the most pertinent exhibits, and taking advantage of the information they contain
- Editors to compile clips and overlays, and to compose the final project
- In-school introduction, ½ to 1 period, or more
- 90-120 minutes in the museum
- 4-8 hours in class and at home, compiling, editing, and completing the video
- 1-3 classes for presentations of the videos, including question/answer periods
- Building historical frameworks, Holocaust (or other) history
- Implications of the choices we make, sensitivity awareness, responsibilities in democracy
- Fluencies in visual literacy, use of media, collaboration, and project management
- Project design, editing, presentation
Some critical events in a Holocaust timeline:
- Nuremberg laws
- Race laws, eugenics, and false science
- Emigration options
- Treatment of Roma, communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the handicapped
- Treatment of Slavs and Russians
- Ghettos and ghettoization: Theresienstadt, Warsaw, Lodz, Kovno
- Mobile killings squads
- Concentration camps
- Death camps
- Revolts and uprisings
Suggestions for Customizing This Project
Modifying the content—Holocaust museums other than the USHMM:
First and foremost, your project must be keyed to the museum you are visiting. Therefore, you must know your museum, and not just the textbook history. Museums other than the US Holocaust Memorial Museum may not cover the history in the same depth as the USHMM, and they may not be chronologically organized. Therefore, you will need to modify the project in one of two ways:
- Limit it to studying the content in the museum
- Expand it using resources beyond the museum
Museums devoted to other genocides and organized forms of discrimination:
The topic and methodology of this project need not be limited to studying the Holocaust. Here is a partial list of other historical events that lend themselves to this kind of project. But let me repeat, you must know your museum, and not just the textbook history:
- Other genocides: (including but not limited to) the Congo, the Armenians, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Biafra, Rwanda, Darfur, and the former Yugoslavia
- Mass starvations, massacres, and executions perpetrated by Stalin and Mao
- Racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in the US and other countries
- Discrimination and ethnic cleansing of native peoples in the US and other countries
- Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII
- Eugenics; discrimination against the handicapped, disabled, and others
Museums and archives online:
While museum visits have their own virtues, you can have your students pursue this project in class or at home, as well. Nearly every forward-thinking museum is rushing to get their collection digitized and online. But this kind of web content is not just limited to museums.
There are many great organizations building online content to study the Holocaust, genocide, and discrimination. My favorite is Facing History and Ourselves, at https://www.facinghistory.org/.
The Educator’s Resources section of this website is vast and full of ideas to promote research and analysis. It includes featured projects, lesson plans, and unit plans on anti-Semitism, the Armenian genocide, bullying and ostracism, and civil rights, among other topics. Another option: start your project in class and then go to the museum to experience the material more directly and to video and photograph it.
Naturally, if you are studying an historical event other than the Holocaust, your students will need to choose an identity appropriate to that situation.
A word of caution: students often have a tendency to be romantic or to imagine themselves as super heroes. While these are positive virtues, they may actually impede learning in this kind of situation.
Part of the intention of this project is to help students understand the powerful, even overwhelming effect of authority and public opinion, and the very limited resources that are usually at hand for a subjugated people. Your role as teacher-coach is to help guide your students’ imaginations, and to keep them on a realistic path.
Modifying the Methodology:
You can depersonalize this project by having your students produce a more straight-forward timeline, rather than a timeline told through a personal point of view. If you choose this path, you can increase student engagement by turning it into a competition. Instead of having groups build a complete timeline, break the historical era into segments or topics.
Assign competing teams to each time period or topic. Then have the class review each of the competing presentations, discussing their strong and weak points. In my classes I then allowed teams to go back and improve their projects, based on the feedback they got from the class, and on what they learned from the other projects.
In my next article in two weeks I will present another lens through which to view and analyze this kind of historical information. While the lens may be different, some of the intended outcomes remain the same: to situate students inside the historical process, and to promote sensitivity and respect for those who are outsiders.
Steve Berer is an educator and author, and founder of Museum Exploration Partners, an independent education company. Visit us at http://musexplore.net/.