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Universe of Responsibility

August 12, 2011

This past week, I participated in a five-day seminar titled: The Holocaust and Human Behavior.  This is one of many courses offered by Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit international educational organization that has trained educators in over 80 countries.  Facing History’s mission is to “engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote a more humane and informed citizenry.”  This coming school year, for the third year in a row, we will be teaching this curriculum to our eighth graders during one of our afternoon exploratory courses.

Teaching is not always about solutions; it’s about opening doors.  Make your students’ understanding messier, and leave them with questions that are different than the questions they started with.

The course took place at Teachers College on the campus of Columbia University, and it was a great experience on many levels.  First, it felt really good to be a student again.  Working with three very dynamic instructors, the course covered, among other topics, issues of identity and membership, the rise of the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, and the choice to participate.  Grappling with ambiguity is what being a student is all about, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of exploring ideas, raising questions, and confronting assumptions.

We need to create an environment where students feel safe to explore complex issues in their lives and in the classroom.

In addition, working with 40 very smart adult learners was stimulating and challenging.  Listening to and conversing with folks immersed in difficult conversations is a rich experience that is hard to otherwise simulate.  Once again, I was reminded about how varied people are in this world.  Not only was the class full of people from all different backgrounds and beliefs, but also the power of the ideas presented during our discussions pushed my boundaries.  On many occasions, I was challenged by the comments of other folks, providing me with the same experience we hope to create at Swain.

This history plugs into our lives because it’s about choices.  How am I behaving and what are the consequences of my choices?  It’s the universal themes of blind obedience and the decisions of bystanders that will always be relevant in our conversations with kids.

Ultimately, the Facing History curriculum is about teaching what it means to be human.  Although this course is rooted in the complex history of the Holocaust, the history is the vehicle for understanding ourselves and how people interact with each other.  This fall, I have the great pleasure of teaching this course to our eighth graders, and I am excited for the journey.  It is a powerful opportunity to help students discover who they

Fun in New York

are and to understand that their choices and the way they treat others have a profound impact on community life.

This whole experience is about decision making, choices, and human beings accepting, learning, and conversing with each other.

Please be in touch if you would like to learn more about Facing History and how we teach it at Swain.  The link to their website is in the first paragraph. Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!

*The excerpts in italics scattered throughout this piece are various notes that I took during the course.

Selected, referenced reading from the course (all adult reading):

A Mosaic of Victims and The World Must Know, both by Michael Berenbaum

Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning

A Matter of Obedience; the Stanley Milgram Experiments – VHS


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