Three screens are in the classroom, three screens detailing three lives, three stories of Jewish existence. For a brief moment, lives connect that transcend religion, generations, continents, and languages.
As teachers, we sometimes get caught up in the X’s and O’s of instruction. The correct answers on a test, the growth our kids show on a benchmark assessment, following the district approved pacing calendar, using the state sponsored instructional materials. We want our kids to learn the facts and figures, memorize the dates and places, and get good grades. Teaching becomes checking the box for an evaluation. Sometimes what is lose is the humanity behind the names on the page. The history behind the chapters in a book. How can we connect events that are decades or centuries old, that occurred halfway around the world, to the digital generation of kids sitting in our classrooms? In this case, how can we get middle school kids from the inner city in Las Vegas to care about reading stories of the Holocaust? After all, we had just finished reading The Outsiders, and all the best-laid plans to make connections and have authentic applications became a colossal failure.
There was a conference in which Alex Kajatani asked the audience to recall their math teachers. Almost everyone could remember at least one, and he followed up with were they good or bad. As almost a thousand people in the room spoke, there was one constant, every teacher we remembered we did because they made us feel something. Some made us feel loved and valued, and some still elicited feelings of anger and resentment. Alex went on to say it was the emotions that created memories. The feelings were what generated growth. The material was meaningless, and as we agreed that we could not recall virtually anything of the classes we sat through, we remembered in vivid detail the teachers that we had. How could this approach be applicable to 7th and 8th grade English classes? Do we care about the kids remembering how many people were killed in the Holocaust? Are we focused on them identifying the elements of foreshadowing? Is it important that they can select the instances of figurative language? What is the ‘why’ behind these lessons?
The answer we came to is that the best instruction, regardless of the curriculum or standards, is through storytelling. When the kids want to share something they learned or they know, they tell us through stories. What better way to teach such an emotional an important topic like the Holocaust than through the stories of those who survived, and those who did not. After all, our students are constant storytellers. They share their loves, heartbreak, failures, and success constantly and for the world to see. They carefully curate themselves as round, dynamic characters through their likes, associations, and images. Instead of books, they create a narrative of their lives through Instagram and Snapchat. Storytelling was going to be the key.
On an unusually frigid Las Vegas morning, my first period class trickled in off the streets of Chinatown to our portable classroom. Students whose first language is predominantly Spanish eagerly awaited the lesson to start and delve into the next chapter of Night by Elie Weisel. Eighth graders who have never ventured far beyond the confines of their immediate neighborhood fully immersed themselves into the horrors of Auschwitz and Germany of the 1940s. They had begun to question everything: How could Germans do this? Why were the Jews singled out? Was this even real? We read on, with the minds of 12–13-year-old children coming to grips with the concept of man’s inhumanity to man. The day before we completed the reading and discussion of Chapter Four. The students, as children would do, fixated on two points: the illicit rendezvous of the two people in the barracks, and the selection of Elie and his father for the orchestra. This focus played perfectly into my plans to discuss the story of another Auschwitz survivor, David Wisnia.
David Wisnia was spared several times from Auschwitz for eerily coincidental reasons – his ability to sing and the relationship he formed with another privileged prisoner, Helen Spitzer, also known as Zippi. My class read his story, we discussed his experience in Auschwitz and began to formulate a Venn Diagram, but my students kept coming back to the relationship between David and Zippi and his singing being a reason for his survival. Seeing videos of David singing with his grandson Avi made what was previously viewed as characters on a page in stories, as real. This became more than just dates, locations, and numbers delivered unemotionally though a text, but connected those numbers to people. A-7713 wasn’t just a classification, it was Elie Weisel the person. If nothing else, my students inadvertently realized that the dehumanization of the Nazis had utterly failed. Their prisoners were real people. Their history and memories were not wiped from the earth but were now being taught, shared, honored, and remembered. Hearing that I knew the people in the article engaged the students even further. To the kids it wasn’t just history anymore. It was tangible. They could see it transition from their book to the person sitting in front of them. The story had a real life character.
When we got to the point where I was to read the New York Times article, the students were completely immersed in the lesson. To set the mood for the class I quietly started playing a video on one of my screens. It was at my son Hudson’s Bar Mitzvah from the week prior. This was an event that we had talked about and the importance of a Bar Mitzvah within the Jewish faith. We compared and contrasted christenings as well as quinceaneras and felt connected. They were able to share their cultures, and further immerse themselves in how they could have been singled out during the Holocaust.
I read the story of David Wisnia at Auschwitz while my son read from the Torah and sang along with the cantor. The students simultaneously listened to atrocities committed by the Nazis and the hopeful and uplifting songs from the Rabbi. While the tales of being singled out for merely being Jewish came through the article, Hudson talked about Moses and God forgiving the Israelites. They sat in reverent silence just absorbing the emotions and information cascading over them. Then the questions started. ‘Mister, would you have been killed in the Holocaust?’ ‘Would they have killed your son?’ ‘Would the Nazis have killed me even though I’m not Jewish?’ ‘Did they hate Mexicans too?’ ‘Would I go to a concentration camp because I’m gay?’
As the students began to process the various mediums being thrown at them the questions began flying, almost uncontrollably. ‘Mr. G, were your parents in the Holocaust?’ ‘Is Auschwitz still there?’ ‘What happened to the Nazis after the war?’ They started asking if David knew Elie Weisel during their shared time in Auschwitz, if he were still alive, how exactly did he survive, could we talk to him. Without answering, we continued the article. The students laughed at hearing Helen’s nickname of Zippi. They gasped at hearing David’s first job collecting the bodies of suicides. As we read further it became clear to the middle school students that David and Zippi had a truly special relationship. They understood the risks they took to meet. They connected how Elie Weisel was beaten for merely witnessing a triste, and could imagine what would have happened if David has been caught engaging in one.
Towards the conclusion of the article the students could not contain themselves and yelled out, ‘Did they find each other?’ when they heard David and Zippi’s plan to meet in Warsaw. They were crushed when learning that they had not met in Poland according to their original plan.
In my 15 years of teaching and performing read alouds, I have never seen a group, especially of 8th graders, so completely entranced in a story. David was now what they pictured as Elie in Night. In a matter of 20 minutes, David became their fearless grandfather. Zippi was the embodiment of their broken hearts. Dropping my voice to almost a whisper, I read the line “She had loved him, she told him quietly. He had loved her, too, he said.” I paused to listen to the shallow breathing, sniffling noses, and stifled gasps of the class. With an almost painfully slow cadence I read the last lines of the article. “He took her hand and sang her the Hungarian song she taught him in Auschwitz. He wanted to show her that he remembered the words.” With tears streaming down the faces of almost everyone in class the unimaginable silence was finally, and almost divinely inspired, broken with a cheer of Mazel tov, and singing as the Bar Mitzvah video was coming to a conclusion. The stories of survivors past seamlessly transitioning to the next generation of b’nai Mitzvah and scholars, in the most unlikely of places, a rundown portable classroom in the inner city of Las Vegas. The stories has been successful.