Teaching teachers about the Holocaust

August 20, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of experts, led by faculty members at Penn State, is implementing an initiative to provide K-12 teachers with the materials and skills to teach students about the Holocaust, genocide, human rights violations and other difficult topics. Presentations at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh on July 16 and 30 were the initiative’s first activities. 

According to Boaz Dvir, assistant professor of journalism, many teachers don't feel confident teaching these topics, even though 96 percent of schools in the commonwealth have required at least one teacher to be trained to teach about the Holocaust since the Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill was passed into law in 2014.

The July 16 presentation — led by Dvir and Eliyana Adler, associate professor of history and Jewish studies — and the July 30 presentation — led by Scott Metzger, associate professor of social studies education — were part of the 2019 Summer Teachers' Institute at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The institute was a multi-day event targeting Pennsylvania teachers of grades 6 through 10.

"Our goal at the Holocaust Center is to empower teachers to teach about the Holocaust, and to do it well," said center director Lauren Bairnsfather. "Together with Boaz and others at Penn State, we have amassed a significant amount of information and resources on the topic. Now, through their new initiative, our partners at Penn State are creating a more user-friendly interface to provide these resources to teachers."

Metzger noted that teachers are the front line in preparing young people to face difficult knowledge, learn to coexist across intense differences and support human rights.

"It's not unreasonable when teachers hesitate to wade into difficult social topics, given their daunting complexity and potential for controversy," he said.

Unfortunately, many teachers do not have the proper tools and pedagogy to teach about the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights, and many lack the confidence to do it, added Dvir.

"We all say, 'never again,' but without widespread access to reviewed and tested materials, we have little chance of preparing our students to stand up and fight the battles that are sure to come," said Daniel Shaner, an 8th grade English language arts teacher at J.E. Harrison Middle School in Pittsburgh. "I believe Penn State's Holocaust education initiative is an excellent idea that will help teachers across Pennsylvania locate usable materials and plans for a subject that is, unfortunately, gaining in both importance and timeliness."

Cojot movie poster

Promotional poster for "Cojot: A Holocaust Survivor Takes History Into His Own Hands," a documentary film by Boaz Dvir, assistant professor of journalism at Penn State. 

IMAGE: Boaz Dvir

The Penn State team used a variety of teaching tools in its seminar — including showing Dvir's post-Holocaust documentaries, "A Wing and a Prayer," a PBS film that tells the story of World War II aviators who risked their lives and freedom to prevent what they viewed as an imminent second Holocaust, and "Cojot," a forthcoming feature documentary that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who set out to kill his father's Nazi executioner.

"Universities such as Penn State have deep experience in researching and teaching difficult knowledge," said Metzger. "Penn State is uniquely positioned to bring together scholars of differing backgrounds and expertise — including education, journalism, history, media and technology — to empower schoolteachers with innovative resources and training."

The Pittsburgh presentations are part of the team's larger initiative, a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and several state and national organizations, to empower teachers to teach difficult subjects. This larger initiative involves the creation of curricula and other materials for teachers through a new Penn State-hosted website to be launched in 2020. In addition, this fall, a doctoral student will join the initiative.

"Ultimately, through our initiative we hope to help teachers help kids understand that they can make a difference in this world," said Dvir. "Education should not be about checking off boxes; it should be about becoming a better person, about fully realizing your human potential."

Other partners of the initiative include Elliott Weinstein, a former member of the Penn State Board of Trustees and a current member of several Jewish organization national boards; Alexander Klippel, professor of geography, Penn State; Tiya Maluwa, H. Laddie Montague Chair in Law and professor of law and international affairs, Penn State; and Tobias Brinkmann, Malvin E. and Lea P. Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History, Penn State.

Continued work in this area is supported by a Penn State Strategic Plan Seed Grant, the “Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Initiative,” announced in April, which aims to develop and provide effective professional development and instructional tools for educators to teach difficult historical and social subjects. The program provides grants to faculty, staff and students who are conducting work that supports the University’s Strategic Plan to advance innovation, research, learning and engagement at Penn State and beyond.

Last Updated September 03, 2020