Two days after the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that claimed the lives of 11 Jewish worshipers, Griswold High School social studies teacher Hannah McNeil found herself in a discussion with other teachers about the difficult and important lessons that arise from human tragedies fueled by bigotry and hate.
An early-career teacher, McNeil was one of many educators—including new and veteran history and English teachers, department chairs, and college professors—at a workshop titled Teaching Holocaust and Genocide, hosted by the University of Hartford.
Connecticut’s public school teachers have gained increasing access to professional development opportunities such as this one since the passage of Senate Bill 452 this past spring. Supported by CEA and signed into law in May 2018, the legislation has added Holocaust and genocide education and awareness to the required courses of study for Connecticut’s public schools.
Learning from history
“New legislation requires all history and social studies teachers to teach the Holocaust and genocide,” says McNeil. “Most teachers already do this, but there is a push for more involved teaching and development of inquiry. The workshop could not have come at a better time, following the events of that weekend in Pittsburgh. We heard from a Holocaust survivor who, when asked about the recent events and today’s political climate, said the current culture in the U.S. is ‘unbelievable.’ Imagine hearing a woman who has been through the Holocaust, one of the deadliest genocides in modern world history, refer to OUR reality as unbelievable. I was so moved.
“We asked her for the one thing she would want our students and children to know. She said, ‘Speak up.’ This simple phrase is the goal for my educational practices but needs to be at the core of everything we, as Americans and human beings, do. I left with a renewed motivation to carry this message, and I hope this makes all of us think twice about staying silent. Tolerance is not enough. We need to actively love one another and speak up.”
Speaking up is not always easy, admits McNeil, now in her second year at Griswold High School, and sometimes teachers need to walk a fine line, especially in a politically charged and divided climate.
“I do not want to shut a student down because he or she has a different opinion from the majority, or from my opinion, but I also do not want a student carrying false messages into the world when I could have had the chance to help change their perspective. Most days, I try to use my position as a tool to help guide students through the vast amounts of information they get via social media, friends, and parents to help them discover what their own opinions are. I discussed the shooting at the synagogue with them, and my message to students was twofold: First, they have a responsibility to take care of each other and be good humans, and second, this kind of rampant violence is unacceptable and cannot be normalized. I kept the conversation away from politics, which seemed to get more students involved. The political aspect can be isolating to many students, and they choose not to share thoughts or ask questions because of it.”
Students as heroes
She adds, “History and social studies are about who people are and how they interact. Learning more about events of the past, and specifically how people overcame their circumstances, is imperative to a young person’s development. Last year, as it was my first year teaching, was a whirlwind in terms of what material to cover and how in-depth it would be. Moving forward, I am looking for ways to make this topic more meaningful, relevant, and enduring for my students.”
Something that McNeil heard at the workshop from Avon High School teacher Stu Abrams deeply resonated with her and will influence her approach to teaching the Holocaust, genocide, and current events.
“He said that we usually focus on the victims and the perpetrators of these acts. While both are important, in terms of learning the victims’ stories and the motivations of the perpetrators, we need to try to move to the rescuers: the ones who did the right thing. Stu said he believes all students are rescuers, or ‘heroes in waiting’—that they are anticipating the opportunity to display their courage, and that our job is to provide them with the skills to make the right decision when that time comes.”