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SATE Seminar: Teaching the Holocaust through literature, 21/9/16

Some English teachers reflect on the SATE seminar, delivered by Tom Jackson of the Holocaust Education Trust.

het1Gareth Webb, SATE student member

I was expecting the Holocaust (or Shoah as I learned is the preferred name by many in the Jewish community) seminar to inform me and guide me on how best to teach the topic in the English classroom. This was achieved without doubt, but the level at which I was challenged emotionally and professionally was not so expected.

I took from the seminar that Shoah education is a responsibility that I as a teacher should be accepting and carefully planning to ensure that my students are being properly informed and educated, and that I am treating the topic with the respect and enormity that it deserves (although this will always fall short).

It became clear to me that there is no one experience of the Shoah that can be shared in the classroom. The possible texts that I may use in the future cannot be conveniently bundled and packaged to convey one message. Each piece of writing, whoever it may have be written by, needs to be treated as that individual’s personal experience. I must, as a teacher, not refer to the victims as a homogeneous group but open up channels of communication for each voice to be heard to help construct a bigger picture of what happened. The Nazis used dehumanisation to achieve their goals, and Shoah education must always focus on the human so as not to perpetuate the tactics used to commit these crimes.

I was also personally challenged by how to approach texts, especially written by those who were murdered. On the one hand, what right do I have to pick apart the expression and final testament of someone who suffered such brutality like I would any other text? On the other hand, what right do I have to deny the writer equality of reception that I would afford to other writers?

What stuck with me most is that Shoah education, perhaps more than any other ‘topic’, needs to be constantly reviewed and refreshed by me on a personal level. Understanding the Shoah through literature is definitely a journey without an end and whilst being complacent about any aspect of education is wrong, there is absolutely no room or excuse for it when it comes to Shoah education.

Sally Law, Principal Teacher of English, Marr College, Troon.

The recent SATE seminar ‘Teaching the Holocaust through Literature’ was thought-provoking and certainly sparked a number of ideas of how to introduce and tackle this complex and harrowing topic to young people. I was particularly interested in the idea of using a range of poetry, personal accounts and experiences (in the form of letter and journal) to allow learners to explore and better understand the impact of the Holocaust on the individual. Now more aware of the variety of literature and resources to draw on, I can confidently say that I won’t again be using the novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in any context in my classroom. Tom Jackson made clear the failings of this text if it is used as a tool to ‘teach’ the Holocaust and I’m embarrassed to say that they are things I hadn’t considered even although they are patently obvious now they have been pointed out. I only taught it once before it was consigned to the book cupboard but that was on account of protagonist Bruno being woefully naïve and irritating. What I hadn’t considered were the implications of engendering feelings of sympathy for the perpetrators and the blatant distortion of reality most obviously, a child being housed next to one of the death camps. While I don’t think it is wrong to explore and consider different perspectives, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas presents an over-simplified version which suggests no-one really knew what was happening in Germany. With the Nuremburg Laws introduced in 1935 and anti-Semitism dating back two millennia it is improbable that anyone, including children, could have been so ignorant.

Susan Brownlie, English Teacher and SATE Local Coordinator (South Lanarkshire)

Having used Holocaust-related texts with pupils in the past and with an ongoing interest since my early teens in how the subject is explored in children’s and young adult fiction, I was very keen for this seminar to take place. Prior to it, I confess to having felt a sense of unease in the classroom, sometimes unsure how detailed to go with context, gauging how much or how little pupils already knew from elsewhere and occasionally challenging the view that they’d already been ‘taught it’. In the seminar, both the content of Tom’s presentation and his delivery challenged a lot of what I thought I knew about the Holocaust, both personally and professionally. Tom provided me with an opportunity to look closely at what I’d come to believe was true. As a classroom practitioner, a strong desire for a shared understanding and the importance of acknowledging and remembering, had led me perhaps to not interrogate texts in the way that Tom explained is absolutely necessary. So much of the seminar’s content can and should be shared by participants with other English colleagues and those in both History and RME. This cross curricular approach is incredibly important. As a result of the seminar, and the excellent materials published by the Holocaust Educational Trust, I feel I can now make much better use of existing texts, whilst also introducing new ones suggested by Tom.

Raymond Soltysek, Nationahet2l Coordinator of SATE

This was an enlightening, humbling, difficult experience for me.  Tom’s faithfulness to historical accuracy had me physically flinching when he said that no extermination camps existed in Poland during the war because Poland didn’t exist during the war.  And yet, I know that many of my relatives, my Polish blood kin, would have been living in that place in that time, working and playing, loving and laughing in the shadow of the camps.  Were they aware?  How did they feel?  Could they even have been, perhaps through inaction, complicit in some way in that awful, awful crime?

The Holocaust has always loomed behind me because of the questions I can never ask, and what Tom taught me was that we have to be utterly truthful about it.  There are no other topics we teach in English where the accuracy of the context is so important – the poetry of the First World War is perhaps the only one that comes close – and so we have to be extra vigilant, extra sensitive, to ensure that we honour those who suffered as best we can. I’d like to thank him for making me so aware of that.

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