Rebecca Rider column: Teaching the Holocaust

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 3, 2016

Kendall Shue always thought she did a good job teaching the Holocaust. Shue, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Corriher-Lipe Middle School, runs through the Holocaust every year with her students.

“A majority of them have never heard of the Holocaust,” she said.

She has to start with the basics — the core tenets of Judaism, the identity of Adolf Hitler.

“They always ask me, ‘Why didn’t they just run away?’ ” Shue said. And she has to explain that they couldn’t — there was nowhere to run.

During the unit, the class reads “Prisoner B 8037,” a book based on the true story of Yanek Gruener, a 10-year-old Polish boy.

But this summer, Shue got a chance to redesign her lessons. Shue was one of 183 educators from across the country selected to attend the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Belfer National Conference for Educators.

Shue and other educators spent three days in Washington, D.C., hearing from speakers from the Anne Frank House and from Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum.

While there, the group came up with lesson plans and class activities. Conference leaders had the teachers draw up a timeline, listing Hitler’s political policies and major events of the Holocaust.

“It was eye-opening,” Shue said.

When Hitler launched a policy, Shue said, you could see it being enacted the next day — something she’d never really realized before. It’s an activity she wants to take back to her classroom.

Now, as she sits in her brightly colored room, Shue is planning. Her time at the Belfer conference will help her add a new layer to her teaching. She wants to personalize the Holocaust — to make it something immediate that her students can relate to.

She said that, at the conference, one of the speakers did this by showing a photo of something most people could identify with — he and his sibling playing in the yard as children. Then, she said, he showed a similar photo, from the 1930s, of two Jewish siblings playing in a yard in Europe, and he told the group that the two did not make it.

“Because of this one man,” she said, “this one man’s policies.”

And the Holocaust is not some far-off, long-gone horror. Shue said she believes the seeds of it are present in the world, every day. It’s all in how we choose to treat others. For Shue, teaching the Holocaust in seventh grade isn’t about teaching just the persecution of the Jewish people, but of all people. She wants her students to realize how their decisions — their words and actions — can impact the world for good or ill.

“Our kids make decisions about how they treat people every day,” she said.

She watches those decisions play out in the classroom. Some of them are good decisions. Some are not. So she plans to use the unit as an opportunity to teach her students about bullying.

“All of this started with bullying,” she said, “bullying of a race of people.”

She also plans to connect the Holocaust to current events, like the refugee crisis in Syria.

“These atrocities are still going on in the world,” she said.

The Belfer conference gave Shue a new perspective on the Holocaust, and she said she enjoyed collaborating with colleagues and professionals. But it also let her see the Holocaust museum in a new light.

Shue had been to the museum before, but with the Belfer conference, she was able to visit it before opening and after closing. For three days, she wandered through its looping halls alone. What she remembers the most, she said, is the exhibit that is full of shoes that were cast off when people entered the death camps. She said it was “the most heartbreaking thing” to look at the piles and piles of shoes, knowing that someone used to walk in them and that now that person is gone from the world.

“All it takes is one person with power,” She said.

And more than 6 million people are gone.

Contact education reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264 or