October 2015 – Mitzvah – 6/7

Mitzvah (Rachel – 6/7)
In October, as introduction to our Holocaust unit, we reviewed and dissected the meaning of the following vocabulary words: Bystander, Genocide, Identity, Scapegoat, Conformity, Propaganda, Stereotype, Fear, Holocaust, Discrimination and Symbolism.
      Some terms came very easily to the group. Bystander was one of those words. Everyone was able to think of reasons that someone might be a bystander, both positive and negative. There was also discussion of reporting an incident after it happened, and whether that makes someone a bystander and how that differs from standing up for the right thing at the time.
      Symbolism was most easily defined through thoughts about flags.  Julian brought up the recent shooting in the South and the debates over the Confederate Flag, differing opinions on the meaning of it as a symbol and whether it should still be permitted to fly.
      Leila did an excellent job of defining propaganda in relation to the election season and political advertising.  All the students could easily understand how people are looking to sell them ideas and sway their opinions, not necessarily with complete truths.
      Stereotype was a new vocabulary word for everyone in our group.  We spent a long time discussing the difference between a stereotype and just saying something bad about an individual’s personal traits.
      By the end of class, everyone started to see relationships between the vocabulary words, evidenced by their use of the terms we defined first being used when defining the words reviewed toward the end of class.
Up next time?  Identity.  What forms our identity?  How does that create the way we treat others and the way others treat us?

Studying the Holocaust will likely take us from now until Hanukkah. I like to let the timing unfold on its own, so that the students can spend as much time as they need with each topic and asking questions.  Maybe we  will finish sooner, ideally I would like to be complete before the holiday break.
      I teach this delicate subject in the spirit of the Teaching Tolerance curriculum.  My goal is that students understand some history, in the framework of understanding that how we view others who are different from us and we treat each other form our actions in this world.  We speak a lot about identity, bullying and current events.  In light of the recent shooting in Oregon, I will open with a discussion around this.  We will also discuss Syria and genocide happening around the world since WWII.
      It is important to mention that while I use a lot of images from the Holocaust, I do not show images of mass graves. Your children will see some disturbing material, however, I try to get the point across without being overly graphic. Still, kids are curious and have access to the internet. They may be inclined to do further research on their own. I encourage you to discuss the class with your students, and I always encourage the students to have a parent assist them with further research.
      On a lighter note, a big thank you to Emma Finn for substituting for my class on the September 19th.
For our October 25 class, we spoke about identity and stereotype, as well as being a bystander vs. up-stander. The students made a personal identity map, identifying 5 personal traits that they believe are most important to their identity. After, we spoke about stereotype, and students wrote down five traits that a stranger might believe true, when they first meet them. When then read a short story called, The Bear That Wasn’t. In this story about identity and stereotype, a bear is mistaken for a man with a fur coat and beard. As the story unfolds, other men and bears judge the bear on his appearance and make assumptions about him. By the end of the story, the bear himself is confused.
      Each student then retold the story, in their own way, substituting a human character for the bear. The stories were varied. One involved work discrimination based on a woman who lost her hair from chemotherapy, Julia created a story where a girl wanted to be on the football team, and after being repeatedly discriminated against begins to believe that she actually isn’t good enough to be on the team. Caroline pointed out how during the Holocaust, people changed their behavior toward friends and neighbors based on Jewish identity, as they treated the bear differently based on being told his new identity as a man with a beard and fur coat.
      During the second half of class we spoke about bullying and being a bystander. We began with an anonymous writing exercise, where each student wrote down a moment where they were a bystander. I read aloud answers to this question from students of previous years. The students discussed reasons people may become bystanders. Fear and protecting themselves was the most common answer. When we applied this idea to the Holocaust, and why people may have not stood up for their friends and neighbors, Jess added that having other people to protect (children and family) would also influence their decision to stand up and say something. Julian shared a personal experience, which led us to the conclusion that sometimes people become bystanders or even “get on the band-wagon” in hopes of personal gain. As a kid, aligning oneself with the bully might garner some attention. In Nazi Germany, some may have hoped for better jobs or positions of power for themselves or their family.

Rachel Rockwell

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