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.