8/21/18 Mebane educators reflect on D.C. Holocaust workshop

Teaching tragedy
Woodlawn Middle School teachers Jesica Fitzgerald, left, and Rebecca Evans-Wilson attended the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer National Conference for Educators for training on Holocaust education in the classrooms.

Steven Mantilla / Times-News

Woodlawn Middle School teachers Jesica Fitzgerald, left, and Rebecca Evans-Wilson attended the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer National Conference for Educators for training on Holocaust education in the classrooms.


Mebane educators reflect on D.C. Holocaust workshop
By Jessica Williams The Times-News 8/21/18     
Reprinted with permission.  
 
MEBANE — How do you teach a 12-year-old about genocide?

Rebecca Evans-Wilson and Jesica Fitzgerald of Woodlawn Middle School joined around 200 teachers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., last month, to take part in the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer National Conference for Educators, a three-day workshop to equip teachers with the tools needed to effectively teach the Holocaust.

The first lesson: Each one of the victims had a story.

“That was something [the workshop] emphasized: that you focus on the individuals, not the graphic nature of it,” Fitzgerald said. “In the past, when it’s being taught, sometimes it’s like, ‘Let’s shock the kids.’ It’s not about that.”

Woodlawn seventh-graders learn about the Holocaust during a six-week Language Arts unit capped off by a guest speaker who is either a survivor or a family member of a survivor.

“It’s not about the students understanding that nine million people were murdered or 13 million people were murdered,” Evans-Wilson said. “It’s about understanding the individual lives that were lost and really translating those statistics into people. … I think history seems so far removed for kids sometimes. It doesn’t seem personal, but when they can see someone in front of them talking about their grandma — they have a grandma — that’s meaningful.”

And though the teachers don’t show graphic photos, they also don’t sugar-coat it.

Evans-Wilson said, these days, Holocaust deniers don’t outright deny that it happened; they say, “Oh, it wasn’t as bad as people think it was,” and students can’t be susceptible to that line of thinking.

But then, as a result of learning about the grim reality of it, students often ask how it was allowed to happen. Why didn’t more people fight back?

And one of the issues teachers run into is finding a way to teach the Holocaust without hindsight — to make students realize that, at the time, it was a complex issue. It was a series of choices made by the government and by individual people that resulted in genocide.

“At the end of the day, there can be big consequences for the choices that you make,” Evans-Wilson said.

Teaching ‘how it was allowed to happen’ is important in ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.

“One of the missions of the museum is that we should help prevent future genocides,” Evans-Wilson said. “A lot of the kids think it was a one-time thing. The Holocaust happened. They don’t realize that [genocide still happens] — Darfur, Syria.”

In recent years, even Americans have drawn parallels between current events and the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s. While there may be some similarities, Evans-Wilson says the workshop speakers warned them not to take it too far.

“You can’t say, ‘This is just like when so-and-so did this.’ It’s not just like it. Here are some similarities and here are the ways it’s different. It’s being a critical thinker in our world,” she said.

“Which is what we want our students to become,” Fitzgerald added.

So long as students are armed with knowledge and paying attention, we’re unlikely to repeat history.

“If, at the end of the day, they’re good people and critical thinkers, I feel like I’ve done my job,” Evans-Wilson said.