Some snippets from students’ culminating projects for the year, for the grade-wide Museum of Tolerance and Acceptance.
- “We turned on the television” . . . in Harriet Tubman’s day.
- “Some noteworthy people are: Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Desmond Tutu” . . . for a study of Muslim American discrimination.
- “In 1902 – Britain passed one of the first child labor laws. . . . [as] children started working in the Pennsylvania coal mines” . . . So I guess Pennsylvania is in Great Britain, then?
But it’s okay. It’s fine. Because there’s glitter. And fairy lights strung across the trifold boards . . . on a project about slave labor, or the Rawandan genocide.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the last half dozen years or more before I retired, students in the seventh grade created what we called, first, the Museum of Tolerance, and then – feeling that we needed to stretch students’ thinking past their understanding of “tolerating” someone or something – expanded to the Museum of Tolerance and Acceptance.
The result was, in equal parts, a travesty and a wonder.
It didn’t start out this way. For years, seventh grade language arts had spent almost all of the final marking period of the year immersed in the study of the Holocaust. How could such unspeakable acts happen in just the last century, within the lifetimes of the grandparents and great grandparents of the students sitting right in front of us? What could we do to make students aware of – and care about – what had happened?
We began with the concept of propaganda, taught through the lens of modern-day advertisements and commercials, and then, subtly, towards the propaganda that turned everyday citizens in Germany, and elsewhere, to hate. Next, over three class periods, and sometimes more, the students took notes, and asked countless questions, about a timeline of prejudice and anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages to the rise of the Nazi party, with photographs and poetry and art mixed in. There was role-playing, too: for example, the rectangle I taped on my floor to approximate the amount of space Jews confined in cattle cars could take up as they were sped to their deaths or to lives of torture. Students wrote, asked, and pleaded for answers. Sometimes, they would cry. And often, I would as well.
The culmination of the unit was an 11-day out-loud, mostly teacher-let reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night as we sat in a circle – so that each of us saw the others – jotting responses to the reading and sharing ideas to the text and to the accompanying photographs I occasionally projected on the screen, pieces of the timeline we had studied now brought to grisly light. It was a deceptively thin text, each sentence of which held three or four or five others within it, or whole words. It was a high school text due to this level of inference and, of course, the terrible events that were revealed there, but because we were reading it together, students’ understanding and empathy was much more than it would have been otherwise.
At the end, there was more reflection, and more discussion, and film viewing – including a wonderful version of The Devil’s Arithmetic – and a poetry unit. And then, for many, many years, near the end of our study, we would be visited by a Holocaust surviver, with the students able to ask questions, and I remember that feeling of awe that most of them had on this solemn day. (Some of our students did get these speakers mixed up with Eli Wiesel, even as we tried to explain that there were many, many different experiences and stories.) We let them know beforehand: These individuals who will be standing in front of you are dying out. Once they speak, and you have heard their words through your own ears and have seen them with your own eyes, YOU are now their voices and their faces, for now and forever. And they got it, most of them. They got it good.
We finished the unit just before the end of the year, in time for them to have their end-of-year fun, to enjoy their lives, to be children, as they should be.
And while we did have the occasional anti-Semitic act while our study was ongoing – as the study of prejudice sometimes brings both latent and explicit prejudice to the surface – I do believe many students were changed for a long, long time afterwards, and maybe forever.
But all good things have to end eventually – and certainly in education. Teachers were no longer supposed to – or allowed to – lecture in the front of the room, even when there was no other good way for middle school students, as a whole, to learn – and that included the teaching of the Holocaust. And we were now supposed to be teaching skills at reading instead of content, even though the content was always, always how we hooked them in. We got lucky, though: Since the New Jersey Department of Education mandates Holocaust education, we were allowed to keep teaching the unit, but with a bit of a catch: We had to tighten our seven- or eight- week study into two weeks, at first, and then, ultimately, to a week or less.
Pretty close to impossible.
The idea behind all this was to no longer teach the Holocaust as a historical unit but, instead, to teach it as an approach to the study of a historical unit. That didn’t mean taking away the meaning of what students were learning, exactly, but of highlighting the Holocaust as but one area in the human experience, with the fact that many, many other people in our country and in the world have dealt with other types of prejudice and hate that resulted in different, but also terrible, tragedies. Which, of course, is the point.
I just wished we had more time, and the ability, to do both.
Our team eventually came up with the essential question students would work with: How Can We Ensure that EVERYONE’S rights are protected? And I loved that idea, even as I didn’t want to give up the beauty of that last unit of study we had developed and cherished for so long. But I had no choice: It had to go.
Not only did we start by tightening up the study of the Holocaust, but we also added the study of two other areas of history: the Civil Rights Movement and discrimination against Muslim Americans, particularly after 9-11. For a number of years, we taught each unit for about a week to a week-and-a-half, totaling a little less than half of the fourth marking period, which still included, to start, an abbreviated – but required – study of propaganda. We then went on to a short, student-focused study of other areas of persecution, both in the U.S. and throughout the world.
But it wasn’t working, because there just wasn’t enough time for anything: Not for the mini-units we were still in charge of, as teachers, and not for the required research and knowledge base for the students to acquire. So the study of propaganda and the Holocaust remained as our shared learning experience, and I still stood in front of the room and taught the timeline (with the hope that no one from administration would pop in for an observation), which I had tightened as much as I possibly could, and I tried desperately to keep the students with me. But it wasn’t ever the same as it had been.
And yet, there was the positive: time for students to learn, absorb, figure things out, and put them together. The study of American civil rights and Muslim American rights became two of the many possible topics students could choose, along with modern day slavery, the child labor movement, the rights of the mentally ill, women’s rights, the LGBTQ movement, and the rights of the disabled. (In some years, we also studied genocides in other areas of the world, such as Bosnia.)
And so it began. Right from the start, I let them know what I expected, which was simple: As the culminating project of the year, students should be showing me their very best work.
It was the project that would showcase the knowledge the students had gained in researching and checking sources, in understanding complex materials about time and place throughout history and right to the present, as they developed an expert’s knowledge base in that area.
It was the project that would highlight students’ growth as writers, as they took this complex material, determined what had to be included, and created timelines that explained where we were, are, and were going in each area without the cut and paste of plagiarized work, while also working as a group to edit and revise the individual pieces into a whole.
It was the project that would spotlight students’ ability to take this knowledge base further and, as individuals, develop creative museum pieces to accompany their group timelines. They might choose to write their own journal entries from the perspectives of real or fictional characters, aiming for some creativity in how these entries came together. Or they might be more hands-on in creating, say, ballot boxes, with slips for museum goers to use when voting, or charts detailing the rise or fall of attacks against individuals due to race, or religion, ethnicity, or a mixture of both, or develop a range of physical barriers to accessibility for museum visitors to attempt to overcome. All of these needed to be accompanied by explanations of what they had found and what it meant in the context of their learning.
And no more than one trifold board per group, plus the area in front of it, to work with.
And did I mention that glitter was not a prerequisite for use on a trifold board about egregious situations in the history of our country and world? Not to mention the lack of understanding that came from a cursory skim of the area of study in question, leading to a checkerboard of mixed-up facts and figures and time periods.
Oh, yes, I did.
And, yes, there was plagiarism, at times so thick you could cut it with a knife. But luckily, the wonders of technology allowed that cut (and paste) to happen right on students’ Google docs in shared folders I had access to, which made it very easy to check. All I needed to do was to copy the questionable phrase or sentence, put it into quotation marks in Google, and press ‘enter,’ which ratted those students out quickly. Then, for backup, I would print out both the original and the student’s work, highlighted, for little chats with students and – depending on the extent of the problem – with their parents. They usually ‘fessed up pretty quickly, though there were always a few who held onto the notion that changing two words – “of” and “the,” for example – made it original enough, despite much learning to the contrary.
And it was so disappointing, year after year after year. The lack of attention. The plagiarism, growing worse and worse as the technology made it easier and easier.
No matter the result, and the redoes, we would set up the museum every year. We brought our students in to learn about other areas of history, as they walked around taking notes, and teachers in other subjects and grades brought some of their students, as well. We started to invite parents and guardians in during the school day, and we extended our museum hours into the evening, when Board members and administrators visited.
And it all looked good. We just had to hope that no one read the material too closely.
So was it all an unmitigated disaster, then, this delving into history? We had lost that closeness and depth that came with whole-class learning for middle-school students, when the Holocaust was our base . . . but had we gained anything at all?
Oddly enough, yes. It wasn’t just the fact that students had begun to understand a period of history that was new to them, but that many of them became invested in it as they took it all the way to the present and saw that – with a lot of effort – we had mostly gotten better. Yes, there was a long way to go, in so many areas, but mostly, mostly, there had been positive changes, some cracks in old foundations of hate.
One of my most satisfying moments as a teacher was one year, maybe a half dozen years into my tenure, when I used the word “gay” in class . . . and no one noticed. No one looked around the room, or down on the floor, or snickered, as they had in my first few years there. It was just a word, one that happened to describe a sexual orientation – one that students themselves were trying to figure out, or one that applied to their aunt or uncle or parent or sibling – and it didn’t get a rise out of anyone. And, even more, as I talked about the study of LGBTQ rights as one of the areas students could choose to study during this final unit, there were many, many students who selected it as their first or second choice, with no hesitation. No one was ostracized. No one was marked.
Okay, yes, there was still bullying out there, and sometimes being gay was where bullying happened. It wasn’t going away entirely. But this was clearly a start.
How had it happened, I wondered? How had acceptance become part of the fabric of our school culture? There are lots of answers. But I like to think that teaching students to be strong, and brave, and accepting of others is a real start.
So today, during all of the protests after the terrible death of George Floyd, and so many others, I am hoping that some of my former students – dare I say many of my former students – are deciding that they need to be in the crowds or working behind the scenes through their social media accounts and their support of black-owned businesses, and even their conversations at the dinner table,. I’m hoping that deep within them, the ideas of tolerance and acceptance have grown instill this philosophy as an essential rite of all humankind. And even if these middle schoolers’ study of history got somewhat mixed up along the way, I’m hoping they got the most important thing out of it: that in order to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected, we must be part of the struggle, no matter what form it takes.