It is clear to even the most casual observer that the world teenagers live in is vastly different from even ten years ago. The internet, laptop computers, ipods and mobile phones are commonplace, almost ‘essential’ items that many teenagers not only own, but know how to use in a variety of ways.
Students can tour the Lodz ghetto on-line. They can hear survivors’ testimonies and download them to their ipods. They can see, courtesy of Google Earth, exactly where a concentration camp was, and be linked directly to further information courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Their ability to find almost unlimited amounts of information with the press of a button does not, however, mean that they understand these facts, or recognise the meaning of the events which they can so easily access. Learning is more than acquiring information. Learning requires opportunities to think, to ask questions and to understand the broader context of the many facts and figures to which students are exposed. Our students require direction, guidance and the opportunity to think deeply about these images and facts, and teachers often tell us they need support as well.
To answer the teachers’ concerns and needs, we have written new material comprising eighteen questions and answers about the Holocaust as background information. This is emailed to all schools before they arrive and teachers are welcome to use it as they see fit.
One change all these technological developments made is evident during a survivor’s testimony. The testimony is still the jewel in the crown of the educational programme, but now almost every survivor who speaks to a school group has a personal PowerPoint slide show with images and maps which help provide a context to the testimony. Students, after all, are so used to having material accompanied by visual images and learning aids. We cannot take for granted that all students know where Poland is, much less where or what Lodz is, for example. Now, our survivors’ family photos, images of their homes, their camps and their post-Holocaust lives help create a more rounded and memorable experience for our students. The images also help to bring their words to life.
There is also a more detailed and interactive introduction to the Holocaust, also utilising a PowerPoint slide show, where students are asked to define key words such as genocide and Holocaust; to understand the development of the Holocaust, and to ask as many questions as possible. In doing so, students are not just passive recipients of facts, but are encouraged to think more deeply and understand the complexities and depth of this challenging topic.
Students tour the museum in small groups and each group is accompanied by a guide. The guides have been developing skills and techniques for asking students to observe specific photos or documents, to enable them to identify the significant aspect of the Holocaust which the particular image conveys. Rather than telling students what they are looking at, we ask them to look closely at a picture and tell us what they think is happening, or why this is such an important photo, or what happened just before or after the photo was taken. By providing the students the opportunity to engage with the images, they become active learners, finding greater meaning in what they have seen.
Another significant addition to the school educational programme is the Reflections session at the end of the visit. We ask students to reflect on all they have seen and heard, and what they are thinking and feeling. After silent reflection, they discuss their thoughts with each other and then share their reflections with the whole group. This gives the guides, and the teachers, the opportunity to hear from the students just what they are thinking and feeling. It also provides a perfect opportunity to help summarise what the Holocaust means to them, to our community, and to the community at large.
We also ask the students to compose a mission statement for the Centre and then compare their attempts to the actual mission statement. I am so pleased that the students invariably suggest a mission statement that is almost word for word our actual one. They all understand that the Holocaust is a tragic model of the evil and danger of racism, and that it teaches the world how important it is to not be a bystander in the face of prejudice, intolerance or racism.
Finally, at the very end of the school visit, we ask a few students to light a candle of remembrance and, accompanied by the survivor who has spoken to them, to place it in our remembrance room. This simple ritual is a powerful way of summarising and reinforcing all they have learned in their short time with us.
Yes, it is clear to even the most casual observer that the world teenagers live in is vastly different from even ten years ago. The Jewish Holocaust Centre has met the challenges these changes present, and will continue to do so in our shared efforts to educate hundreds and thousands of students.