This year-long series will catch up with teachers and staff who participated in the Auschwitz: The Past is Present professional development program led by USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The program brought 25 teachers from around the world to Warsaw and Krakow from Jan. 23-28, 2015, where they toured museums and historical sites, learned how to incorporate testimony into their teaching, and attended the official commemoration at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. In “Past is Present” in Action, the participants reflect on the program and share how it has influenced their work.
(Woods, third from left, participates in a Past is Present session at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw)
Jeannie Woods was the only person from her school in Fort Payne, Al., to travel to Poland for Auschwitz: The Past is Present, but she made sure she wasn't the only one to experience it.
A seventh and eighth grade teacher at Fort Payne Middle School, Woods involved her students in the program from the beginning. They followed her application process and completed IWitness activities before she left. Woods also began writing a blog as a way to document the trip and share it with her family, friends, colleagues and students.
From the first leg of her journey, flying from Huntsville to Houston, until her arrival back home, Woods wrote daily about her adventures and posted photos of everything from the Munich airport to her tour of Auschwitz. When she returned to school, she spent two class periods sharing and taking questions from the class. She said students from her own classes as well as others across the district were reading her daily updates, and were very excited to hear about everything she got to see and do.
“Many people in our community also followed my blog, and their response has been so encouraging. Many of them are asking me to have a public presentation about the experience,” Woods said. “That’s really exciting!”
Two of Woods’ students were particularly inspired by The Past is Present. To Woods’ surprise, Hallie Whitton and Kailey New created a website about her trip to Poland called Holocaust Firsthand for their school’s technology team competition. The site includes photos and information about the 70th anniversary commemoration, USC Shoah Foundation and IWitness, as well as links to Woods’ blog and an interview she did with a local TV station.
“As one of her students, I can conclude that we have been astonished by what we have learned about the tragic event,” New said.
Whitton added that the class was very interested in their teacher’s experiences in Poland, and her blog helped introduce them to the Holocaust in a whole new way. “One of the things that our class has learned is that we must never forget what happened during the Holocaust, because if we do history could repeat itself,” she said.
The trip will impact her personal and professional life for years to come, Woods said – and in some unexpected ways. Woods said keeping the blog helped her rediscover her love of writing. Blogging about her trip made her realize how therapeutic it is to reflect on challenging issues through writing, and she plans to continue writing on the blog even now that The Past is Present is over.
She was also pleasantly surprised by the close relationships she developed with the other Past is Present teachers. She feels she is now part of a network of colleagues all over the world with whom she can share ideas and strategies.
But above all, Woods said her real-life experiences in Poland on The Past is Present have forever influenced how she will teach about the Holocaust. She will continue to share her anecdotes with students, and she plans to help other teachers learn how to use IWitness.
Being able to stand in places where the Jews of Poland once lived gave her a much deeper understanding of their history, as well as the scale of the Holocaust, Woods said. It was incredibly meaningful to her – much more so than simply reading books or watching films.
“Seeing survivors visit Auschwitz as part of the commemoration is certainly something I’ll never forget,” Woods said. “Theirs is truly a monumental story of survival.”