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, the fifth here, and the sixth here.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Choices We Make—Part 2
In my previous article I outlined a project to build a timeline of exclusion for students visiting a Holocaust museum or an exhibit devoted to genocide or racial/ethnic injustice. Students would take on the identity of a victim, and through that lens create a video or slideshow, building a timeline of injustices and exclusion from society. They would use the museum exhibits, and possibly outside information, to provide documentation for their story. The primary idea was to situate students inside the historical process, to help personalize and focus their learning.
One of the problems with studying social injustice in this way is that it can create a picture that is largely 2-dimensional. It is very easy to imagine that victims are helpless, that perpetrators are monsters, and that bystanders are heartless or cowardly. End of story. But reality is more complex. Without exonerating perpetrators and political institutions from their criminality, or diminishing acts of injustice in any way, for advanced or older students a more nuanced perspective may be appropriate.
Project 2: The Many Faces of Resistance
This project has a similar structure to Project 1, A Timeline of Exclusion. It too was designed for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Your students will work in 2-3 person groups, to facilitate peer to peer learning, and to reap the benefits of combining individual specialties.
Teams will take on the identity of a Jewish citizen of Germany to tell their story. Here too, teachers will act as coaches. Finally, this project can also easily be modified to address other museums that present genocide or institutionalized racial, religious, or ethnic injustice (such as the National Civil Rights Museum, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, or the internment exhibits in the Japanese American National Museum).
Project 2 outline:
However, this project differs significantly from A Timeline of Exclusion in that it asks students to seek out the ways in which victimized people resisted their oppressors. Usually we think of resistance in terms of armed rebellion and acts of counter-violence, but such resistance is really only the tip of the iceberg. Gandhi and M.L. King achieved great things spearheading non-violent public resistance.
But even this is a special and unusual case. Most acts of resistance were subtle and hidden from view, especially when any overt resistance was punishable by death. While crucial to survival, these kinds of resistance usually remained undocumented, and they have rarely become the topic of museum exhibits or chapters (or even paragraphs) in our textbooks.
So what did these acts of resistance look like? When individuals sought out paths of escape they were resisting, even if they failed to find a way out. When communities formed secret schools to educate students in traditional knowledge or in trades or skills that might help them survive, they were resisting. During the Holocaust, when being a Jew was a crime, the simple act of silently saying a Hebrew prayer or asserting one’s Jewish identity in private, was an act of resistance. In the death camps and killing fields holding to the will to live was the supreme act of resistance!
This project calls on your students to look behind the surfaces, and try to understand how it was possible to survive daily humiliation and relentless violence. They must stand in the shoes of a slave serving their masters day in and day out, and figure out the hidden, the incomplete, and the damaged ways that these human beings were able to cling to their humanness and to some fragment of dignity. This project quietly highlights the enduring power of a robust identity and a supportive community for building positive values and for pursuing good.
The Tools Needed, Job Assignments, and Time Frame for this project are all similar to A Timeline of Exclusion. You can find them at: http://globaldigitalcitizen.org/museum-field-trips-my-favourite-could-be-yours-part-4.
However, this project includes some new Knowledge Enhancements:
- Building historical frameworks, Holocaust (or other) history
- Implications of the choices we make, social and psychological dynamics, empathy, the importance of respect and dignity in a well-functioning society
- Fluencies in visual literacy, use of media, collaboration, and project management
- Project design, editing, presentation
Suggestions for Customizing this Project:
Modifying the Content:
The Holocaust is surely the most comprehensively documented crime in history, since the perpetrators themselves maintained extensive and careful records of their crimes, vastly augmenting victim and liberator testimonies. Our records concerning most other genocides and oppressions are far more limited.
The importance of documenting events cannot be overstated. Re-focus this project to explore and analyze the documentation that exists for the genocide/oppression you are studying. This is more a research project than a museum exploration, but it will sharpen your students’ sense of “bearing witness.” You might tie this kind of project to current events by comparing the limits of historical documentation to the impact in the last 5 years of cell phones/cameras on events such as revolutions, mass demonstrations, police actions, and terrorism (say, the Boston marathon bombing).
This kind of project can also easily be transformed into a family biography project. Students can write a biography of a parent, grandparent, relative, or family friend, telling their story through interviews, family photos, and diaries, and enriching it with archival images that might dovetail with the historical data. Biographical topics could be:
- A Holocaust survivor’s story
- A great grandparent who was a slave in the US
- Someone who emigrated to the US to start a new life
- Someone who worked with the CCC during the depression
- An entrepreneur’s, war vet’s, or pioneer’s story
And here’s something new from Facing History and Ourselves, one of the best teacher and student resources out there: The Sounds of Change at https://goo.gl/gVuk7S. This is an archive and collection of lesson plans devoted to studying the Civil Rights Movement through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. View this critical thread of American history through some of its best, and most important music.
In my next article in two weeks, I will complete this discussion by outlining some of the pitfalls your students will face in building projects set in the past or in very different cultures. By more accurately projecting themselves into foreign situations, they will begin to get some perspective on their own cultural and historical assumptions.
Steve Berer is an educator and author, and founder of Museum Exploration Partners, an independent education company. Visit them at http://musexplore.net/.