- Written by Administrator
- Published: 25 December 2013
Is there justice after genocide?
The question was scrawled across the whiteboard in Jackie Orleck’s classroom at Duxbury High School last week, forcing students and visitors to ponder the question.
Orleck’s classroom is home to several Facing History: The Holocaust and Human Behavior classes, an elective at DHS for tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders. Through the course, students examine the roots of hatred to try to understand how genocide and acts of hatred come to pass. “By examining acts of genocide, students have the opportunity to reflect not only upon the universality of racism and social injustice but also upon the importance of global awareness and the potential for making a differ- ence that is available to every person,” the syllabus reads.
Throughout the half-year course, students learn about identity, including how identity is formed and the significance of group definition, such as the “in” crowd, and discrimination.
History teacher Susan Sullivan has been teaching the course for eight years and this year decided to share some of her classes with Orleck in order to continue teaching different history classes. It is customary of Sullivan’s classes in the past to have a Holocaust survivor visit the classroom to share his or her experiences, but this year’s classes got a rare treat. Nearly 100 students in Sullivan and Orleck’s classes traveled up to the Facing History and Ourselves campus in Brookline to hear Holocaust survivor Edith Szmuckler Schlesinger speak about her experiences and her version of the “American Dream.”
“We spent the semester discussing human behavior and how it could lead to something like the Holocaust,” Orleck said. “With the amount of time we spent learning about membership and issues in American history, our students were able to ask questions of Edith that dug under the surface and got right to the heart of her experience.”
Before she was a teacher, Orleck worked at Facing History and Ourselves after college. Through the organization, she worked with teachers to provide helpful tools for teaching the curriculum to students. After working there, she realized she wanted to be on the other side of the equation, teaching human behavior and the Holocaust to students.
“It changed how I view education,” she said. “In this class we discuss how our tendency to see ourselves as a group affects our behaviors toward others and, before we delve into the dark details, we ask the students to work through how something like the Holocaust was possible.”
Though this is the first year Orleck is teaching at Duxbury, her first teaching job was solely teaching the course, which utilizes a textbook from Facing History and Ourselves and many other resources, for high school students at a district just outside Boston. Many school districts discuss the Holocaust when they read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but rarely delve into how human behavior and tendencies can lead to genocide. Orleck said she believes high school students can take the most out of the course, since most of the survivors of the Holocaust were between the ages of 14 and 25.
“I don’t think you could teach this course to younger students,” Orleck said. “It’s not necessarily that they are learning about the Holocaust, but they are also discussing how they feel about it. It humanizes it and takes it from a story in a textbook to a real event.”
Sullivan said it’s important for Duxbury students to learn about genocide and human behavior because it is so diffi- cult for high school students to think outside the box and open up to other cultures’ history.
“You have to push them,” she said. “When you teach a history course, they will read a book and think, “Well that was just history.” You get them so much more involved with the humanity of it.”
When discussing discrimination in her classes, Sullivan has her students participate in the “line game,” in which she puts a line of tape down the middle of the room and asks students to step on the line if they have ever discriminated against another person. At first, no one steps on the line.
“We then have to take a step back and discuss what discrimination is and the forms it takes,” Sullivan said. “I will give them scenarios and they start stepping on the line and start to realize how prevalent discrimination is in their daily lives.”
Because the class is open to mixed levels and abilities, both Orleck and Sullivan spend the first couple of weeks of the semester working to build a community among their students. Once they feel comfortable, they start opening up and freely discussing difficult topics.
“They ask tough questions of us and of each other,” Sulli- van said. “It’s incredible to see the impact this class has on our students.”