Why We Feel Responsible to Lead Our Students in Social Justice Inquiry (Heather)

“Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.” ~ Elie Wiesel

Amy and I are in Orlando with a group of nine other Upper Peninsula teachers for the National Writing Project Annual Meeting. On Friday, we will join panelists from the Holocaust Educators Network to present on “Reading, Writing and Teaching the Holocaust.” Amy and I will share our story about bringing Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher to our rural community. On Saturday, Amy and I will lead a presentation about teaching the Holocaust through writing at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention.

I remember the first time my students and I studied the Holocaust together. It was just five years ago, in January 2006. Some of my twelfth grade AP English students had heard Oprah’s TV announcement about her National High School Essay Contest. Oprah had encouraged students to write about why Elie Wiesel’s Night is relevant today. We were just about to start a new unit, and the students had asked if we could first squeeze in a reading of the slim volume of Night. I hadn’t read it myself, although I had noticed a set of the books at school.

A few years before Oprah’s announcement, I had asked another teacher about using Night in the classroom. She said she doesn’t like teaching that book because it’s too depressing. Honestly, I felt intimidated by Night — would I be able to answer students’ questions about the Holocaust, or about Jewish life? I didn’t even know how to pronounce the author’s name. Because the students were interested, however, I thought we should give it a try. I would explain to them that this is new material to me, too. We also had a new student teacher, Annika Stewart, who would explore the themes with us. She eventually would develop some beautiful lesson plans to correspond with the unit.

I read Night aloud to my husband that weekend so we could discuss it together. We read the book straight through, only stopping when I was crying so hard that I couldn’t release the words. It was when Eliezer ignores his father’s dying pleas, and then later awakens to realize his father’s body has been removed and another sick man lies in his father’s place. After reading that, I ached so badly that I wondered if I had the strength to study something so ugly and dark with my students. I knew I had to, though, and that we would get through it because of Wiesel’s ultimate message of hope.

This hardly seems possible, but I don’t remember learning about the Holocaust in high school or in college. In that A.P. English class, we worked together to try to understand how something so unthinkable could have happened in our recent history. The AP students joined 50,000 other high schoolers in answering why Night is relevant. Meanwhile, though, I knew I hadn’t done enough because we didn’t take any sort of action in our own lives. While we all felt deeply touched by reading Night and the students thought critically and composed compelling essays, we did little to change our environment right in our own halls at school. How could we read Elie Wiesel’s memoir, but still tolerate bullying in the halls? What were we going to do about changing ourselves and making our world a more tolerant and loving place? We had a long way to go.

When I first became a teacher, I didn’t grasp the bigger picture of involving the students in social justice issues. Instead, each lesson was a package of deliverable content, springing off the page of my lesson plan book and landing on top of the students’ desks in the form of an assignment to be completed in the course of 55 minutes. One day I was asked to take a survey by a teacher who had left the classroom to pursue a PhD in the field of Education. The survey contained questions about my teaching methods and philosophies.

Later, I received feedback thanking me for my participation and offering a piece of constructive criticism: I could incorporate more social justice issues into my teaching. This caught me by surprise because it was something I had never considered. I realized then that I needed to bring deeper meaning into my teaching. How was I preparing my students to not be indifferent, to share their voices, to take action, and to do the work that really matters? I needed to take extra steps in that direction.

After reading Night with the students, I attended a Holocaust Memorial Museum event, put on by Carole Turner’s middle school students at C.L. Phelps in Ishpeming. Each student researched an aspect of the Holocaust and created a tri-board. They each stood by their board and explained it to visitors at the event. This was followed by a community potluck. Survivor Martin Lowenberg, from the Detroit area, spoke to the crowd, and students sang songs and read poetry. I could see how much these 12 and 13 year olds loved Martin. They clung to his every word, and even clung to him — literally. Some didn’t want to release him from their hugs! I could see the enlightenment in their eyes.

I wanted to give this same experience to the students at Gwinn, but I had no idea where to start. How would I learn enough about the Holocaust to feel comfortable leading students into an inquiry of this much depth? Where would I find a survivor? How would I pay for the expenses? Who would help me? If only I had the knowledge, experience and confidence of this veteran teacher. In January 2007, a year after I first had taught Night, I received an announcement in my in-box that teachers could apply for a fellowship to study the Holocaust at The Memorial Library Summer Seminar in New York City. My application would need to be mailed in just a few days and I doubted that I could pull it together in time. I talked to Amy about it, and she said I had to apply. Talking with her gave me the encouragement I needed. I pulled it together, and got accepted to participate in two weeks of intensive learning that would transform the way I teach.

After I got accepted into the program, I had another chance to hear a survivor. The Marquette Interfaith Forum was featuring Inge Auerbacher as the keynote speaker at St. Peter’s Cathedral. I wanted my young daughters to have the experience of meeting a survivor, so our whole family attended. It turns out that Inge had lived in Goeppingen, Germany, the same small town where my husband had been stationed in the Army. She and Kevin made an immediate connection. My daughters fell in love with Inge. They were touched when she showed them her yellow star, and it would become a memory permanently stitched in their minds.

Inge talked about the doll Marlene that she had as a child at the Terezin Concentration Camp. The guards had taken off the doll’s head to search for valuables in the body cavity; however, Inge was fortunate to have the doll returned to her. Marlene would be her companion through the duration of her time at Terezin. Later, Inge, who lives in Queens, would have Marlene displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

When I traveled to New York City that summer, our group actually met for a day at that same museum. I talked to Inge on the phone, and told her that I would love for her to return to the U.P. to meet my students. We promised to stay in touch. Meanwhile, I would meet two more survivors in New York, Irving Roth and Gisela Glaser. Their stories affected me so profoundly that when I returned to Michigan, I knew that not only was it my desire but it was my responsibility to bear witness for these survivors. Their stories had become a part of me that I had to share. The word ‘responsibility’ resonated inside of me like a gong. Through me, their stories had to reach other ears.

I told Amy about my experiences and how we needed to bring a survivor to Gwinn before it was too late. Of course, she supported me. It wouldn’t be until two years later, though, when Amy traveled to New York herself to participate in the Summer Seminar that she would fully understand what I meant about having that sense of responsibility. When Amy returned, however, we were both committed to bringing a survivor to Gwinn. It was time for Inge to return to the Upper Peninsula.

First, Amy and I set a date to have Inge speak to our community. We chose May 8, her liberation day, which she also celebrates as her second birthday. We enlisted the help of Dave Dagenais, our school’s talented chorale teacher and Drama Department adviser. We already had an annual Fine Arts night in place, so Inge would be the featured speaker at that event, and we’d tie in student poetry, artwork, music, and classroom projects. We also would hold a community potluck. The event came to be known as The Star Project, after Inge’s book I Am A Star. We applied for and received grants for Inge’s travel costs and speaker’s fee. Now we needed to reach out to other teachers.

Sometimes teachers feel isolated in their classrooms. We wanted as many teachers to pull together as possible to make this event special. We wanted cross-curricular activities at all grade levels. We also wanted teachers to feel ownership of the event, and we encouraged them to volunteer for leadership roles such as chairing the student exhibits, coordinating the potluck, and leading a canned food drive.

Also, we needed the students to become involved. Amy and I have grappled for years with how to develop empathy in our students. We’ve asked ourselves how to get them to care about the world around them when often times they won’t even listen to each other. What could we do to get them to take ownership of the event? We got them involved in readings and discussions. They stepped up and fundraised, created projects, spread the word, and found ways to add their own special touches.

We knew that we also needed to rely on our Writing Project colleagues from within our district as well as from neighboring schools to provide us with support and to share in the learning process. We hoped that we could create a model that other teachers might someday use in their own districts. Debbie Goldsworthy, who is in Orlando with us, was my daughter’s fifth grade teacher last year at Gilbert Elementary. She jumped right in with teaching her students about the Holocaust. Debbie has a special talent of making a person feel valued. In Inge’s book, Debbie read a passage about how a soldier had ripped Inge’s wooden Dutch boy pin off her shirt. Debbie ordered Dutch boy and girl pins to present to Inge at a special dinner with our Writing Project colleagues. We all felt privileged to witness that moment when Inge opened the box to find her pins.

Inge’s visit to the U.P. always will remain a highlight of our teaching careers. The students and community listened and cared and we felt surrounded by positive energy. Inge’s speech ended at the exact minute that she had been liberated 65 years earlier. It was a transcendental moment that still feels surreal.

After Inge’s departure, Amy and I were proud of what our students, school staff and community had accomplished together, although we knew that The Star Project would not end there. In fact, despite Inge’s powerful message, the bullying seems to have gotten worse in our district over the past year. We continue to talk to our students about not being bystanders, about standing up for what they know is right. We have to believe that we are making a difference, even if it is one student at a time.

Amy and I carry our survivors — their hurt, their frustration, their pain and their hope — inside of us, and it means everything to us to spread their message. We need that message of love and resilience to go with our students beyond the confining walls of our classrooms, into the hallways, and through those doors into the rest of their lives. If we can teach them that, what else really matters?

Left: Debbie Goldsworthy presents Inge with a special pin.
Below: a video that Amy and I created to tell the story of The Star Project.

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2 Responses to Why We Feel Responsible to Lead Our Students in Social Justice Inquiry (Heather)

  1. Suzanne Standerford says:

    Dear Heather and Amy,

    What a beautiful story of how you have grown as a teacher and how your students have grown as human beings! Thank you for taking the time to write your stories and share them in this way.

    I am so awed as I think of how you have both grown in the last several years, as teachers, as friends, as women, as human beings. You are showing your students how to be better people each day through your examples, your writing, your teaching, and your vision. I am so proud to know you both!

    Suzanne

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