Building a Bridge through Books

This is a revised version of a post first published in January 2013, linking to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s theme that year of communities working together to ‘build a bridge’.

Image taken from the cover of 'Once' by Morris Gleitzman, published by Puffin. You can find out more about the book here:
Image taken from the cover of ‘Once’ by Morris Gleitzman, published by Puffin. You can find out more about the book here:

Planning for the forthcoming SATE seminar on Teaching the Holocaust through Literature in September 2016, I recalled a blog post I’d written in 2013 where I’d discussed my experiences of working with pupils in the Broad General Education using fictional accounts of the Holocaust. This followed on from a trip to Amsterdam with my then seven year old daughter where we visited the Anne Frank House. I’m hoping September’s SATE seminar will provide the opportunity to discuss some of the issues mentioned here, both about fictional accounts and age appropriateness of texts.


Sunday 27 January marks Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. It is a date now part of many schools’ calendars with commemorative assemblies, projects, visits and presentations taking place. I’ve actively supported HMD since it began in 2001 and this year, my S1 book club will commemorate the date by meeting to discuss our feelings and reactions to a book we have all been reading in our own time over the last four weeks. It’s ‘Once’ by Morris Gleitzman, the first of five books about Felix, a Jewish boy who we meet in Poland in 1942.  When copies of ‘Once’ were handed out to the group, we spent our meeting listening to one of the school’s Religious Studies teachers telling us a bit about the background to the Holocaust. Giving the pupils this information was important, and at meetings since, pupils (and staff) have been discussing little snippets to do with the book, not about plot or character, but about how we are feeling when reading it. We will meet up this week to have our discussion, to talk about the book, its wider context and the continued relevance of the subject matter. I’ve done this a number of times since 2001 and have continually been amazed at the reaction of pupils and how insightful their discussion has been especially as they are committing to a novel to read for pleasure, in their own time.

Stepping back into the classroom, this got me thinking about how English teachers teach the Holocaust through literature and mainly within the BGE. The most common titles in my experience, particularly in the lower school, are ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, Ian Serailler’s ‘The Silver Sword’, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, also a film, and John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. The latter is also taught separately as a film text using the 2008 film directed by Mark Herman. It has been a privilege to work with pupils on many of these texts, to support and encourage discussion and try to come to a shared understanding that the horrors unfolding on the page or on the screen are not confined to the past. All these texts give voice to young people and that resonates strongly with pupils. Another such novel for this age group I’d recommend is ‘Emil and Karl’ by Yankev Glatshteyn, originally published in Yiddish in 1938 and which chillingly imagines some of the horrors which were to become a terrible reality.

I know of one instance where a teacher had to provide a single pupil with separate work whilst the rest of the class studied ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. A parent had been concerned their child was ‘too young’ to deal with the horrors discussed. This got me thinking about what the ‘best’ age is for a subject of this nature and whether protecting or shielding young people is the ‘right’ thing to do. I recently spent a long weekend in Amsterdam with my seven-year-old and initially decided not to visit Anne Frank’s house on the basis that my daughter was ‘too young’. We did visit but I did my homework first, using the museum’s website as a guide to age appropriateness. We avoided the introductory video footage and a large part of the museum’s photographs at the end. Together, we had many discussions, both before and after visiting. At seven, I do feel she’s too young for the aforementioned books but I will suggest in time that she reads them or perhaps that we do together.

I don’t believe in censoring children’s reading but the issue of Holocaust texts being studied in the primary classroom also doesn’t sit comfortably with me. This is a discussion I want to have with other teachers, to decide if my view (from a professional secondary slant combined with being a parent of a primary-age child) is justified. My unease first came about when I heard of Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ being used in a primary school but many pupils coming into S1 will talk of having worked with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ during their upper years in primary school. Admittedly, the simplicity in narrative and structure of both Boyne and Gleitzman’s children’s novels mask the issues underneath. The central characters are young with an innocent naiveté that adds humour. But there’s another ongoing debate here as to whether a contemporary young adult and children’s fiction centre around the Holocaust is appropriate.  John Boyne certainly found this, writing as an author who was ‘relatively young … who isn’t Jewish and wasn’t there’ (The Guardian 29.11.10).  These issues trouble me and I don’t have answers that soothe this unease. I just know that, as humans, with our love of stories, these fictional accounts are important tools in helping future generations connect with a period that should never be forgotten

So back to ‘Once’. I will read it this week for what I think will be about the 12th time. I look forward to discussing my reading of it with pupils and other staff, all of whom are coming to it new, and seeing it afresh through their eyes.

Susan Brownlie

For further information on how to attend SATE’s Teaching the Holocaust through Literature twilight seminar on Wednesday 21st September 2016, please see

 The seminar is being led by The Holocaust Education Trust.  You can find out about their work here: 

Susan Brownlie is SATE Local Authority Coordinator for South Lanarkshire.  Any views expressed here are her own, not those of her employer or SATE.




Nate Conference 2016: an NQT’s experience.

Fhionnagh Waterfall was one of only three UK student teachers to win a free place at the 2016 NATE conference.  Here, she reflects on her experience and how it will influence her NQT year.


‘Congratulations!’ read the first line of the email and, for perhaps the first time, I was lost for words. A few weeks previous, however, I hadn’t been lost for words as I agonised over my 300-word application about what inspires me as a Newly Qualified English Teacher. I then forgot about the NATE conference for a few weeks, until (at a slightly obscene hour) I was notified that I had won a free place at the conference. I was obviously sleep deprived the next day from all the excitement. Two weeks later I arrived at a swanky hotel, very appropriately situated in Stratford-Upon-Avon, with picturesque views of the river and a blessing of great weather compared to the Scottish ‘summer’.

This was my first ever conference and as an anxious and nervous NQT about to embark on my probationary year, I felt extremely inferibadgeor to my fellow delegates. ‘I don’t have much to offer,’ I apologised, ‘but will probably just ask lots of questions.’

Friday morning began with breakfast, registration and a welcome before the conference opened with a bang with John Hegley’s opening keynote. John’s emphasis on ‘playing’ with text was really refreshing and packed the fun back into learning and teaching. Songs of guillemots, ukulele playing and comical anecdotes set us up for a weekend of more fun and, quite frankly, it got me pumped for what was to follow (which, much to my delight, was more tea, coffee and biscuits).

I attended two workshops that day – the first on approaching annotation through drama. The colour coding system used by Five Island’s School really appealed to me – as I’m sure it would to any stationary-obsessed English teacher. A small group of four in the workshop left me initially a little exposed but increasingly comfortable around like-minded, open people still willing to learn after years of practise. Getting up on my feet and bringing Shakespeare to life felt great and this is something I’m excited to share this with the kids.

Outside the main conference area was an array of sponsorship stands, with sign up forms, ‘how to books’ and – most importantly – free pens.

Tessa Hadley’s Keynote emphasised the importance of literature, particularly writing about writing. Tessa’s solution to writer’s block or how to deal with “the kid who can’t write” really stuck with me. “Write your self out of it” she said. Physically writing down “why can’t I do this? What am I trying to say?” and answering these and helps you organise your thoughts, claimed Tessa. I would like to personally thank Tessa for this as it worked wonders in the writing of this blog!

On Friday night we were greeted by a champagne reception and a beautiful three-course conference dinner during the award ceremony. This really gave me a sense of the ‘NATE family’ that I had recently became a part of. The dinner also allowed the more shy delegates to have a few drinks and get to know others. Networking at the event was perhaps one of the biggest benefits from attending the conference. Not only was I building on my knowledge and approaches to teaching and learning, but I was also widening my circle of colleagues and experts to learn from. I also gained a substantial number of new twitter followers – Result!

Needless to say I woke up the next morning a little less fresh than I’d hoped.

My fuzziness, however,  quickly subsided with the beginnings of day two, as we launched into another jam-packed day. Nick Handel’s ‘calling the shots’ seminar was a dream for those nervous about teaching media. Nick’s resources and ideas were extremely classroom friendly and practical, despite Nick’s expertise being mainly in media making rather than media education. Having met some of my classes already, I can see Nick’s approach to media as a great way to inspire creative writing – an area of English I’ve always lacked confidence with.


Jenny Grahame’s Keynote ‘Wild West to World Wide Web’ was hilarious and captivating. Despite being strapped for time, Jenny took us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of media education. Previous to this event I had ignorantly considered the teaching of media to be a relatively new practice. I was obviously enlightened by Jenny’s chart of the arc of media education, which, sadly, appears to be increasingly side-lined. There are ‘extremely uncomfortable compromises to be made’ in England, claimed Jenny. I reflected after this presentation, feeling sincerely grateful to be a teacher in Scotland where freedom and creativity is welcomed and celebrated. I am so thankful to be a Scottish English teacher.

Chris Riddell’s closing keynote was ultimately the highlight of the weekend. Not only because I was fan-girling all over the place, but because it brought to the forefront why we were all there – our enjoyment of reading and our passion to inspire that in young people. Chris addressed the tragedy and travesty of the closing of libraries, an issue close to my own heart as I see the hugely positive impact our school librarian has on the kids. I felt star-struck, honoured but also deserving to be there. Despite my lack of experience and relatively limited knowledge of the teaching profession, I feel that my confidence has grown hugely after attending the conference. I am now part of a family that evolves, innovates and continually reinvents the nature of teaching.

I left the conference weighed down by the free pens and bookmarks I had acquired over the weekend, but also uplifted by the friends, colleagues, advice and confidence I had acquired too.


Fhionnagh Waterfall is a former student at The University of Strathclyde.  She teaches at Larbert High School. All views are her own.