The Holocaust & WWII

After spending nearly 6 weeks on the Civil Rights movement, we are decades (literally) behind the Social Studies units that should have been taught by now.  However, we regret nothing, because after such an in-depth study of the events and key figures of the 1950’s and 60’s, we feel empowered and enlightened and ready to take on the world, just like MLK and Claudette Colvin and Ernest Green, among countless others.

However, this long unit cut our time short for our Holocaust and WWII unit, leaving us only two weeks (if that).  So, how do you teach something like the Holocaust in a week and a half?  Here’s how we approached it:

Why was WWII fought?  How was America involved?  The kids read a few book chapters, took some notes, and then we shifted our attention to the other half of the equation: the Holocaust.  The biggest questions I wanted my students to ask and answer during this study were: How did this happen?  How did a country escalate to the point of murdering 6 million innocent people?  How does this relate to our lives?  I wanted our students to recognize that genocide happens little by little, that little, seemingly harmless acts, add up and escalate.  I wanted our students to recognize that fear breeds hatred and cowardice.

There were two big lessons I used to teach this.  We didn’t spend time looking at photographs from concentration camps or individual survivor stories, though I wish we had time.  We focused on two big picture lessons, the Nuremberg Laws and the Pyramid of Hate.  I was able to learn both of these lessons while at the Warren Fellowship this past summer, and immediately knew how powerful this could be.

The Berlin Law Exercise:  For this exercise, I printed out all 87 of the Berlin Laws.  These were the laws created in Berlin relating to the Jewish people from the years 1933, when Hitler first took power, to 1945, the surrender of the Axis forces.  I gathered the students on the carpet, and asked our big question: how did a country get to the point of murdering 6 million people?  We talked about how Hitler was elected, he was given power, and how everything he did to the Jewish people, among others, was legal, and we were about to see how those laws escalated during this 12 year span.

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I passed out a handful of laws (printed on tiny slips of paper) to each student, gave them a few minutes to read the laws and locate the year printed on the paper (this extra time is crucial when teaching 5th graders), and had them remain seated.  I called out the years one by one, and when I read each year, students who had a law from that year stood up and one by one, read their laws aloud to the class.  It was extremely powerful for students to see how things like “Jews are not allowed to be members of the Chess club,” in 1933, ended in the Jewish people not being allowed to buy groceries or own property in 1942.  After each year, I would ask the students, “would this be enough to make the Jewish people abandon their homes and all that they have ever known?”  By the time the answer to that question was yes, there were too many laws in place for people to legally exit the country.

 

You can download the resources for this incredibly powerful lesson here, compliments of the Holocaust Museum Houston and the Warren Fellowship for Future Educators.

 

 

The Pyramid of Hate:  This is the big one, this ties it all together.  So people in Germany were mean, so what?  We would never do that, right?  This is where we stop to recognize the little things.

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Photo curtesy of Kelly Webeck

At The Warren Fellowship, Gail Hirsch Rosenthal of Stockton University introduced us to the Pyramid of Hate.  This pyramid explains the way little things like jokes, rumors, and stereotypes (seemingly harmless things), can build up to prejudice, discrimination, violence, and ultimately, genocide.  I edited the pyramid ever-so-slightly (removing desecration and rape for the sake of my classroom of ten year olds), and blew it up into poster size.  I hung it up, and we identified what each level of the pyramid means.

After becoming familiar with the pyramid, students then had the opportunity to identify acts from each level and add these events to the pyramid on sticky notes.  Students identified things as big as The Birmingham Church bombing, to as seemingly small as a stereotypical joke they heard at lunch.

 

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The importance of this lesson is monumental.  When ten year olds can recognize the impact of the small things, when they can add those small things into the big picture, something changes.  Students become more aware, more courageous, and more empathetic.  They grow as leaders and as changemakers, the goals that I always have set before them.

You can read more lesson plans about the Pyramid of Hate from the anti-defamation league here.

 

 

We had time for a few other lessons, including a comparison of Jewish refugees and today’s Syrian refugee crisis (using our favorites, Newsela and Flocabulary, of course), and then it was time for Winter Break.  Nothing says Merry Christmas quite like genocide study, am I right?

 

A special thanks to Naomi Warren and family, Dr. Mary Lee Webeck, Emily Sample, and Gail Hirsch Rosenthal for the incredible resources and opportunities granted through the 2015 Warren Fellowship.  

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