My Experience as a Teacher with the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive
On the day the Visual History Archive access site in Prague - the Malach Center for Visual History - was inaugurated I decided that my school, Archbishop High School in Prague, could not ignore it. However, I was not able to think of a way how to organically incorporate it in teaching English, which is my job. My chance came only recently.
Each year there is a large project in which the whole school takes part and it focuses on one of the key competences the students are supposed to develop. This year the teachers were asked to come up with activities, which would enhance academic competence and for which the students could sign up according to their liking.
My offer was a dual-purpose program: The explicit purpose was to learn how to write an article with appropriate citations and references on a certain topic using the archive as a source of information; the implicit purpose was to expose the students to the testimonies and let them draw their own conclusions.
Two 12-year-olds and five 16-year-olds signed up. On our first half-day visit to the Malach Center for Visual History, coordinator Jakub Mlynář introduced the archive to the students and taught them how to search in it. Then they were given a list of topics to choose from for their articles - of course, I had previously checked that they would find relevant information. This phase took about an hour. The students spent the remaining three hours and another 4-hour session a month later listening to testimonies they found for their topics (anti-Semitism in schools, sport in Theresienstadt, Hagibor, forced labor, religious conversions) and taking notes. Then in the last half-day at school they wrote their articles. Their work was rewarded with an invitation to present their results at the Annual Meeting of the Malach Center for Visual History on January 27, 2014.
Now, why am I writing this at all? I was blessed with an experience that I feel is worth sharing. On the one hand I had a strong desire to introduce our students to the archive; on the other hand I felt very incompetent and did not know how to go about it. I searched the web and found several thoroughly prepared lesson plans but somehow I could not bring myself to simply use them. I teach English, not history or civics or ethics, so it would look very artificial.
Moreover, it just seemed inappropriate to me to pick little extracts from the testimonies here and there only to illustrate the lesson. As I see it, the survivors deserve to be listened to and my own experience was that once I started listening, I wanted to hear the whole story. Thus I wanted much more freedom for the relation between the student and the interviewee than a strictly limited class and pre-selected segments of interviews could offer. At last the three half-days assigned for the project were the right opportunity since the task of writing the articles provided a sensible reason for visiting the Malach Center and there was plenty of time for the students to search and browse in the archive and listen at their own pace and according to their own interest.
Such an approach is not risk-free, I am aware. Nevertheless, it paid off. Never before had I seen my students so involved, so immersed in their work. They spent every minute of the allotted time listening intently without even a break for a snack and some stayed even longer than planned. Now and then, they would summon me to help them understand a difficult passage in English but on the whole they were very independent. The resulting articles were good enough to be presented in public. However, for me the most rewarding bit was how concentrated and absorbed they were while listening to the testimonies, and their reflections on what they had heard.
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