"Past is Present" in Action: Karen Wells

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 5:00pm

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.

Two months after her Auschwitz: The Past is Present trip to Poland, Karen Wells is more committed than ever to sharing what she learned and making sure the stories of survivors are not forgotten.

Wells, who teaches at Midland High School in Pleasant Plains, Ark., said she has been amazed by the number of people who have asked her about the trip since she returned. Even before she left Krakow, in the airport about to begin the trip home, strangers who noticed her Discovery Education shirt stopped her to ask if she had been at the Auschwitz commemoration the day before. Wells said they wanted to know about her educational goals as a teacher who had been given the opportunity to share survivors’ stories.

“Then on the final leg of my plane trip home, fellow passengers and I discussed how to ensure that the world doesn't get to the point where it is said that the Holocaust never happened,” Wells added.

Hardly a day goes by that students, colleagues, friends and community members don’t ask her about the trip, Wells said. She kept a blog about The Past is Present, and at her school, she has shared her experiences with multiple groups of students in ALE (Alternative Learning Education), AP classes, and general education classes. She said students have trouble understanding how such evil was able to happen, so she talks with them about the steady progression of events that led up to Hitler’s “Final Solution” and the importance of not being complacent to injustices in the world.

“I believe it is the ALE students that would have been members of the resistance movement,” Wells said.

Wells is still working closely with her Past is Present colleagues. Laura Pritchard Dobrin asked Wells and Steven Howell to collaborate on a joint proposal for this year’s Arkansas Holocaust Conference, in part about their shared experience in Poland. She will also give a presentation about her trip at the Arkansas state library conference, and several teachers in the Discovery Education Network have contacted her, asking for advice on how to incorporate testimonies into their classrooms.

(Wells, third from left, participates on a panel discussion about teaching with testimony at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews for "The Past is Present")

And in May, she will come to Los Angeles to participate in Discovery Education’s Auschwitz: The Past is Present Virtual Experience, which will allow students all over the world to hear firsthand from survivors and witnesses returning to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and engage in a meaningful dialogue about history and its relevance today.

The most meaningful part of the trip to Poland for Auschwitz: The Past is Present for Wells was the chance to meet and talk to survivors. They inspired her to carry on their stories, and her own.

“I think of them often and their pleas that we make sure that people do not forget their stories,” Wells said. “I feel compelled to share my experience with those I come into contact with.”

Robin Migdol