The school I teach at in Alberta, Canada, is considered a "unique setting" within our public school system. This means that our programming is designed to meet the complex learning, social and emotional needs of elementary children who exhibit extreme behavioral and emotional difficulties which impede their ability to be successful in school, community and home.
Given the emotional and social challenges my grade 5/6 students face, they often have difficulty connecting with academic material. When we began our Holocaust unit in early April it became immediately apparent that this historical event had struck a chord with my small class of boys. The stories of intolerance and inequality resonated deeply for them like nothing I had seen before; they were shocked and disgusted at the treatment of human beings against other human beings. They were also encouraged and uplifted by stories of heroes and acts of courage, however small or large the gestures were. Epic-length discussions began to take place almost daily about human nature, bullying, "what is right?", and more. Deep, reflective writing poured out of the students, a paperclip memorial was created, and memoirs were read. This group of five boys who up until then had often struggled in demonstrating empathy and kindness towards others, were now recognizing that their actions and more importantly, their voice, could have purpose in the world.
This was the first time I had taught about the Holocaust and I wanted to make sure that I did it justice. As such, when I heard about USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education’s Auschwitz: Past is Present Virtual Experience I jumped at the chance it would give my students to watch live testimony, view video, and possibly even have one of their questions answered via Twitter.
The fifty-minute broadcast was stunning, and exceptionally well-presented. Being able to see the actual locations and hear actual testimony made everything my students had been studying that much more real. Though inherently they knew it had happened, it wasn't until the Virtual Experience that it finally sank in for my students what individuals actually experienced in the Holocaust; they were no longer just stories in a book but living, breathing truths about both sides of humanity.
For them, the best part of the Virtual Experience was when they recognized the photo at the beginning as one they had studied and written photo responses about previously. When survivor Paula Lebovics was announced and began speaking, the awe and excitement in the room was palpable. My students could not believe that someone they “knew" (because by that point they felt they knew her, having studied her child image for so long already) had successfully survived and was speaking live that day.
After the Virtual Experience Paula unofficially became a symbol of change for our room. The students took to heart her motto "silence is not an option" and made it our class hashtag (on our whiteboard), as well as having it show up on a variety of written projects. We began investigating the IWitness site further, watching all of Paula's testimonies as well as Leon Leyson's and any others that caught my students' eyes.
A few days later we learned of the chance to live tweet with Paula, through USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness Twitter account; it happened to fall on the same day we presented our Holocaust learning to the school at our monthly assembly.
On that day, Paula was kind enough to answer three of my students' questions. The experience of being able to communicate with a real-life Auschwitz survivor is something that will stay in their minds and hearts forever; more importantly, her small act emotionally "reached" a group of students who are often "unreachable"; they were over the moon with excitement.
During our assembly presentation, which happened immediately after, the boys begged to talk about Paula and share her story. Without a script or preplanning my students gave a short but impassioned speech to the entire school about Ms. Lebovics; who she was, why she was important to them, and what they had learned from her. They ended the speech by saying:
"Our class has learned from Paula, silence is not an option. That means that we will never be silent if we see someone being put down, or bullied, or someone being intolerant of someone else. And we think you should not be silent, too. Silence is never an option, and that's what Paula taught us."
I'm truly thankful for the USC Shoah Foundation and the incredible learning journey they have taken my students on. Having access to such a resource of quality instructional materials deepens the understanding of my students, and makes experiences available that they otherwise would not have. I will be using IWitness for years to come, and will encourage others to do the same.