Sixteen pipe bombs were sent to politicians, two African-Americans were killed at a Kentucky grocery store after a failed church bombing, and 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue were gunned down in the same week last fall. The continuing cycle of hatred and violence affects us all and shows no signs of slowing down. We must continue to examine and aggressively address the core reasons behind these violent events in every pocket of society—especially in schools.
While these acts may seem far removed from the classroom, we know that our schools can be dangerous places, too. However, schools are also the places where we can best promote tolerance and acceptance.
After the tragedy in Pittsburgh, a Muslim student at Dominion High School where I teach in Sterling, VA, reached out to offer the support of her group, the Muslim Student Association (MSA), to our Jewish Student Union (JSU). These groups are now partnering to develop joint events in an effort to better understand each other. Three days after a recent lockdown scare, another student formed a club against gun violence. These are students who felt empowered to act, but there are just as many students who feel powerless to speak out or act when they feel strongly about something. When that something is a breach of human rights, from a racial slur to a hate crime, it is in that silence where the danger lies.
This presents a tricky balance for the education community. We teach critical thinking and encourage deep inquiry, but there are limited avenues within the ordinary curriculum that lead to lessons about the consequences of the unchecked hatred that infiltrates today’s world.
I want students to learn unique lessons about the consequences of intolerance, so I often invite my dad, Jack Wagschal—a Holocaust survivor—to speak to my freshman English students. Some young people have not heard of the Holocaust, and most have never met a survivor.
My dad does not focus on the dark details of his story, but instead urges students to adopt similar values to those he lives by because of it. He urges them to stay in school and listen to their teachers and parents. He stresses core beliefs such as hard work, respect for oneself and others, and the importance of family. He tells them to look out for one another and to speak up if witnessing injustice, no matter how small. What he doesn’t tell them is the importance of sharing his personal story. That is where I come in, and I hope you will, too.
I was in third grade when I first heard the term “Holocaust” and learned what my father’s family had survived. In that moment, my life’s responsibility was unknowingly thrust upon me. Our family’s story is a simple yet remarkable one of loyalty, determination, and hope. My grandfather was sent to a work camp where he managed to escape. He hid in plain sight on a farm in France, pretending to be deaf and mute, so that his identity could not be detected. My grandmother became sick and was sent from the hospital directly to Auschwitz. She, too, survived because of her strong will. At liberation, she weighed just 65 pounds. My father, his brother, and his sister—thinking they were now orphans—were cared for in a home run by a group of non-Jewish women who risked their lives to help them. All five Wagschals survived and were reunited at a displaced persons camp after the war.
I knew I came from a resourceful family, but I never understood what to do with this story. I felt compelled to share it and did so every chance I got, embracing my role as the storyteller. I thought if I expanded its audience, it might open more minds and in a small way begin to effect much-needed change in our society.
In my career I was working in communications for a large company whose messages did not resonate with me. Meanwhile, atrocities were happening in Rwanda, Bosnia, and other places around the world; it was hard to believe that no lessons had been learned from the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust. I quit my job and began giving tours to inner-city students at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I watched as disrespect and disengagement gave way to shock and anger as students moved through the timeline of events. In the purposeful way the museum tells the story, these students saw themselves in the photos and artifacts and learned firsthand how this event did not happen overnight—that every choice of every person mattered and contributed to the tragic outcome. The difference in time and place became irrelevant as they connected what they were seeing with their own lives, with their own developing identities. They were bearing witness to those who had been faced with life-defining choices and no easy answers. The experience changed them.
Later, I became a teacher. I wanted to continue to spread the message of Holocaust survivors, but there was little time to invoke the questioning and rubric that would enhance the tolerance-themed mini-lessons threaded through the curriculum or the visits from my dad. I had to be careful because I could not be seen as pushing my own agenda or teaching a “Jewish” thing, even though those who related to my father the most were almost always the non-Jewish students. His storytelling made it real and relatable to every student, no matter their background. It was a good start, but I knew the conversations had to go further.
Holocaust Educator Network
Last year, as part of a special group of educators called the Holocaust Educators Network (HEN), I finally learned how to take these lessons beyond my classroom. These teachers, while diverse in their backgrounds, were unified in their belief in the urgency of sharing the lessons learned from the Holocaust far and wide. Using evolving and effective pedagogy, HEN works to prepare today’s students to become tomorrow’s agents of change. Through satellite programs targeting teachers throughout the United States and abroad, the reach is broad and the impact is strong. When done right, teaching about the Holocaust does not lessen or undermine any other atrocity or genocide, but because of its size, scope, and unprecedented destruction of the world as we knew it, it holds a unique spot in history that must be taught.
Teachers everywhere are struggling with newly polarized classrooms and rising incidents of hate crimes. By working together, the education community can place this history directly in the hands of the next generation so they can ensure that it never happens again. With the right tools, our students can begin to change the mindset of their local, national, and global communities. As educators, we must help them get there, and we must do it now.
Nicole Korsen, an English teacher at Dominion High School in Sterling, VA, is a teacher consultant for the National Writing Project and a Holocaust educator trained by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Olga Lengyel Institute (TOLI). TOLI provides professional development seminars for educators in the United States and abroad that link the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides to current world events. Korsen will be opening a TOLI Northern Virginia satellite center for teachers focusing on Holocaust education and human rights next summer.
Want to discuss Holocaust education? Tweet Nicole Korsen @KorsenNicole.
Sidebar: Making It Work
Disrupting the Cycle of Hate
Use these strategies to promote tolerance in your school:
- Talk with your community—teachers, students, and parents. Engage in meaningful conversations, allowing everyone to be heard. Consider suggestions for student expression and prepare appropriate consequences. After the national walkout as a result of the school shootings in Parkland, FL, in 2018, Dominion High School Principal John Brewer held each student after school for exactly 17 minutes (the amount of time they left class), had them partner with a student they did not know, and share their reasons for walking out.
- Prepare your teachers. Encourage Holocaust or human rights training for teachers in all subjects. Let them know it is OK to address this topic, and help them make connections to modern events. Add a Holocaust elective or have a survivor visit.
- Promote an atmosphere of kindness, and follow through on consequences for hateful acts. Teach students what is hateful, what isn’t a “joke,” and the benefits of accepting someone who is unlike them. Be strong with consequences for those who disregard the rights of others.