Those Who Forget the Past…

One of the reasons I started a blog a year and a half ago was to give myself a space to reflect upon my daily and teaching life. To record my thoughts, feelings, and mood of a specific moment. The idea was that it would serve as a place where I could return, gain insight and make real change. Yesterday, I (and some of my fellow world history teachers) made the unfortunate mistake of repeating history.

A year ago, I invited and arranged for a Holocaust survivor to come talk to the sophomore world history classes at my school. It didn’t go very well. The students trashed the theater and were generally disrespectful while she spoke. I even blogged about it here and here. It was only today, one day too late, that I went back and looked at what I wrote.

This year I passed the responsibility of organizing the event to another teacher. With the AP World classes, I just didn’t think I would have the time (I was right). As a department, we discussed the problems we had last year and addressed our concerns with our classes (be respectful, no eating and drinking, no electronic devices, etc.). All was to be perfect.

During the first half of the presentation, the students were generally well behaved. There were pockets of students that needed to be quieted down, but considering there were almost 600 students in a theater that sites 520 – not bad. The mess left behind was minimal. Seemed like it was going to be a good experience.

Then she ended with almost 35 minutes left before lunch. Question time turned into a low level of chaos. The sound system wasn’t loud enough and when the low level of chatter began, students on the side or towards the back of the theater simply couldn’t hear, thus increasing the talking in those areas. By the end of the presentation, I was very upset. A good 25% of the group had simply tuned out during the question period. Luckily the survivor did not notice. She was caught up telling her story and enjoying the attention of most of the young people in the audience.

After school my department chair made the nice observation that this event wasn’t captivating to a theater full of 15 year olds because it is not entertainment. It’s a 86-year-old woman telling her story. She is not building up the suspense or making it dramatic. As far as I am concerned that is just fine. I will do the song and dance; I will make the PowerPoint’s and show the pictures. That is my job, to captivate and entertain to some degree. But, a Holocaust survivor. You sit your ass in the chair and listen, because your children won’t have this opportunity. Because she lived through death marches and death camps. She watched her mother and nephew be directed to the gas chambers immediately after they exited the train. She saw evils and lived through events that we can’t even imagine. Can’t even imagine. That demands respect.

I think we have learned this year. Next year it will be an invitation only or an optional after school activity. There were many students (including almost all of my classes) who cherished the opportunity, who sat transfixed on her the entire time, who cried, who became invested, who went up and gave her hugged afterwards, and who were attentive for the entire presentation. That’s why we have to keep doing it. We just have to do it better.

6 thoughts on “Those Who Forget the Past…”

  1. Kids can be cruel sometimes and believe me, your students aren’t the only ones to NOT respect the trials and tribulations of others. But, this woman (the speaker) has been through far worse and has been heard and appreciated from people like me. Please pass my appreciation on to her for me learning from her experiences. Sometimes the students become the vehicles for learning from others.
    -Amy Bowllan


  2. I can understand, kids being kids, that some may tune out. Your AP’s observation, if it was meant to be critical, is far more difficult to understand.

    Actually, when you refer to the “nice” observation I can’t tell whether or not you’re intending to be sarcastic.


  3. I appreciate your willingness to invite the survivor in to the school to share her story. Remember that even though the speaker may not have captivated the entire audience 100% of the time, the students were still there, they heard her story (even those that tuned out at times got parts), and hopefully the survivor shed some light on tolerance, courage and empathy for these students. I think for the vast majority it was an experience they will not soon forget.


  4. You have provided a learning experience that cannot be duplicated by a regular classroom teacher. I think that for the future, having an invited audience would be a good idea.

    Do your AP students and their parents sign a contract stipulating behavior and educational goals, etc. ?

    I once had the opportunity to talk to a woman who was sent out of Germany just prior to the holocaust. It was a chilling tale about her and her sisters. Their parents did not survive.

    I just recd. today, from the teach tolerance people, a classroom kit about the holocaust. I can get you more info about it if you are interested. It was free and contains some great teaching stuff….copies of letters, pictures, a DVD about this woman’s experiences, etc.


  5. I am so glad that you gave your kids the opportunity to hear the speaker. You really never know who gains the most, it would probably surprise you who …
    usually it is one of the ones who “seems tough” and “uncaring”.
    The hardest to reach, as they say.

    You have to keep trying, I agree with making an invitation only, perhaps the day before the school wide visit. Raise the buzz. Give the kids who are very interested a chance to help raise the interest for others. Or a morning of coffee and donuts kind of thing.

    It is important to teach this generation about the Holocaust.
    My team leader decided this year to cut that from our lessons, she was “simply uncomfortable with the subject”. Tough patooties.
    As Mr. Wiesel says, “we must never forget”

    There is a great video on it is called A Teenager’s Experience. He uses still photos and drawings to tell what happened to him. His name is David Bergman, and his story is not to be missed.


  6. I want to thank the teacher for commenting so favorably
    about the DVD that I produced.
    David Bergman
    Teenage Holocaust survivor


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