Service Learning to Commemorate Holocaust Rememberence Day

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist
On April 4th, the White House issued a proclamation to commemorate Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day. One excerpt from the piece stated:
It is painful to remember. It is human nature to want to leave the past behind. But in order to prevent a tragedy like the Holocaust from happening again, we must share the truth of this dark period with each new generation. All of us must understand the depravity that is possible when governments back policies fueled by hatred, when we dehumanize groups of people, and when ordinary people decide that it is easier to look away or go along than to speak out. Our children and grandchildren must learn where those roads lead so that the commitment of “never again” lives strongly in their hearts.
Students from Glenn Westlake Middle School in Lombard, Illinois pledged to do their part to make a commitment to be upstanders in their community as they reflected on the lessons of the Holocaust and the choices people made in the face of injustice.

We asked Social Studies teacher Colleen McDonnell, and Instructional Coach Tricia Kelliher to answer some questions about how they facilitated students to engage in personally responsible actions through service learning to make their commitment to “never again”. Colleen and Trica are part of a cohort of educators participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund support from Serve Illinois to facilitate service learning opportunities for classrooms in their region and opportunities for students from various regions and demographic groups to work together for the common good of Illinois.

Can you tell us more about this service learning project?

Tricia explained, “Our essential question was “What choices shall I make when I witness injustice?” In our 8th grade Holocaust unit students learned about the roles of perpetrators, bystanders, and upstanders and how these roles were defined through the actions that people took when faced with injustice. Our students surveyed (see image below) the school to get information about injustices that students directly experienced or witnessed based on race, identity, or other factors. They reviewed the survey results and shared them with 6th and 7th grade students to paint a picture of our school climate and wrote a pledge to be an upstander when witnessing injustice that included different actionable options. The 8th graders then asked 6th and 7th graders to take the pledge.”

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

Colleen responded, “Students deepened their knowledge of the Holocaust, other instances of genocide, and contemporary examples of discrimination and hate directed at AAPI populations. The primary tool we used to deepen our knowledge of these topics was the Pyramid of Hate diagram from the Anti-Defamation League. Students were able to apply situations from history and the present day to this diagram to better understand how sequences of hateful events can escalate to levels of violence and genocide without effective intervention.”

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

Tricia explained, “In using the What's Your Frame (from Learning for Justice) in reflection, students were able to reflect on their frame of reference for navigating the world and look at different forces like culture, family upbringing, and values to see and understand how those things help to form your identity. In creating a survey of their peers, they were able to analyze what others were experiencing in their school and begin to see how injustice can happen anywhere in different degrees and how those experiences can have a negative or positive impact on individuals. In reflecting on their pledge presentations they were able to articulate how what they learned in Social Studies applied to their school climate and their role in creating or changing that climate.”

Colleen added, “The survey the 8th graders created and sent to 6th and 7th graders provided a lot of information for students to analyze and digest. They were able to compare or contrast their own perceptions and experiences with prejudice and discrimination with the information reported by younger students. Although students determined that prejudice and discrimination are not viewed as widespread issues by their peers, the fact that a number of students did indicate that they’ve experienced these things led our 8th graders to determine that action needed to be taken in the form of writing an Upstander Pledge and encouraging younger students to sign it.”

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this essential question?

Colleen shared, “Our next step will be to put our Upstander Pledge to work by allowing students to research and identify current and community issues of their choice during our civil rights/social movements unit this spring. The goal will be for students to internalize their mission to be “upstanders” and apply what they’ve learned to an issue that affects or interests them personally. Our question of ‘what choices can people make in the face of injustice?’ Will extend to ask, ‘and how shall I respond?’”

Have you received any feedback from your community?

Trica shared, “Our administrator commented on how impressed he was with how the students were able to present themselves and promote being an upstander to their younger peers based on what they learned in their class.” Colleen added, “Hayley Yarocki, a 6th grade social studies teacher, said that, ‘My students really enjoyed seeing the 8th graders work! My higher-level students seemed to have a better grasp on where this pledge stemmed from and how it related to what 8th grade was learning. The presentation at times was a little over the head of many students but a quick review/explanation of some background of the mistreatment of Jewish citizens helped clear up misunderstandings. I was then able to bridge that content to what they were signing easily. Overall I think this was an awesome opportunity for all of the students involved. We hope to stay a part of it in the future!’”

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service learning?

Tricia shared, “The advice I would give teachers thinking about opportunities to engage students in service learning would be to definitely do it. You will see students rise to the occasion and see them perform in ways you may not have imagined. It takes some work to get it going but the payoff at seeing the student engagement and their minds hard at work thinking about how they can make a difference is worth it.”

Colleen added, “I would advise teachers who are interested in engaging their students in service learning to start by finding ways to give their students a voice in the process. Take advantage of resources available through groups like Illinois Civics and your own PLCs to learn more about how to engage student voice in building your classroom community. By taking inventory of issues that students identify as being important to them, you can work together to research local organizations or stakeholders who share similar interests. Start small and be realistic about what you can manage, then reach for the stars! An initial small action plan implemented successfully will empower students to take ownership of more challenging endeavors in the future with your support.” How did you commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day? How are you engaging your students in meaningful service learning? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare ALL students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be an upstander in their community.

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