The Value of Memory: Using Information Quest in my Classroom

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 11:50am

Jane Yolen's novel, The Devil's Arithmetic, is the story of a Jewish teenager, Hannah, who is swept away from her family's Passover Seder back in time to 1942, where she becomes Chaya, a Jewish girl living in Poland.  The novel follows Hannah's transformation from a twentieth-century angst-y teenager, through her Holocaust experiences as Chaya, who is captured by the Nazis, taken to a concentration camp, and later killed, back to her "present" as Hannah, a girl who now has a deeper understanding of her Grandpa Will's tattoo and her Aunt Eva's affection toward her.

Although in some ways this novel is not a particularly challenging read, the images and themes within the text are well-suited for junior high students.  One of the major themes of the novel is the importance of remembering.  Hannah is bored with all of the Jewish traditions that center on remembering this-or-that, but after her trip back in time, she has a renewed interest in her family's past.

This text, and theme, leads me to explore IWitness with my students.  As Hannah, in the novel, needed to have a first-hand experience to fully understand the Holocaust; my students must be equipped with first-hand information, too.  While they cannot "time travel" as Hannah does, they can hear from survivors to have a greater understanding of the Holocaust.

IWitness has a great set of activities called Information Quests. I am using one of the Information Quests to create a bridge between fictional The Devil's Arithmetic and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Between their two literature studies, students are completing an Information Quest about Holocaust survivor Paula Lebovics.  This activity is part of the Auschwitz: Past is Present series of activities on IWitness, and Paula was the survivor who traveled with our group to Poland last year.  I am excited for my students to get to know Paula on a more personal level through her testimony.

A screen grab from the Information Quest: Paula Lebovics A screen grab from the Information Quest: Paula Lebovics

In addition to selecting this activity because of my personal connection to Paula, I also like this activity because Paula was a child during the Holocaust. This activity explores her life in the ghetto before her deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also explores topics relevant to the concentration camp.  I believe Paula's vulnerable age during the Holocaust, (she was only 11 years old when she was liberated from Auschwitz) makes this quest an ideal choice to use with my eighth graders.  They will connect her true, first-hand account of her experiences with the fictionalized account of Chaya in The Devil's Arithemetic.  They can then carry the information they learn from Paula's testimony with them as they study The Diary of Anne Frank.  

In the Information Quest, students will watch an introductory video about Auschwitz, read about Paula’s story, watch one of six thematic video clips from Paula's testimony and create a word cloud. The student created word cloud will include eight words that the student chooses from the testimony clip.  They will adjust the size and color of the word to create a mood and degree of importance.  Throughout the Information Quest, students will be answering questions and reflecting on their work.  Once their word cloud is finished, they will publish it to the group where they can then view and discuss each other's work.

One of my classes from last year watching tesitmony from IWitness. One of my classes from last year watching tesitmony from IWitness
I believe it is essential that students read, watch and discuss first-hand testimony of Holocaust survivors to supplement the Holocaust-themed literature they are reading.  I am so excited to be able to share the testimony of survivor Paula Lebovics in such an interesting and powerful way. Sharing Paula’s testimony in my classroom through this IWitness's Information Quest is one way that I can put a face and a name on the atrocity that is the Holocaust.  

As one theme of The Devil's Arithmetic is the importance of remembering, and as that theme continues through The Diary of Anne Frank as Anne records her daily activities, thoughts, and feelings while hiding in the annex, IWitness activities are real, tangible, authentic way for students to learn from the Holocaust and to value the importance of remembering.

Jeannie Woods