How I learned not to underestimate young students

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 12:00pm

A friend asked me whether I could help her with something. She knew I work with testimonies of Holocaust survivors in education and thought I could help her. We met over a coffee in a hipster place. There, she told me that her son suddenly started talking about Hitler. He talked about him all the time. Hitler and Nazis became a permanent conversation topic at their home, and she did not know what to do.

“But he is too young for what I do,” I heard myself saying.

“So what should I do?” she repeated. “Is there nothing that I could show him, tell him, so that he would understand?”

I met with the boy in the same hipster coffee place, a mere 20 yards from the main deportation center for the Jews of Prague and later, the whole of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

We spoke about Hitler, yes, but also about evil people and good people and how evil people cause harm to good people when they become admired or are silently feared instead of opposed by people like us. My friend felt I helped her. I considered the matter solved.

But the boy told his peers at the school and explained to them what I had explained to him. They discussed it with their teachers and they decided to invite me there as well. The boy goes to a Montessori school where students are not just passive absorbers of adult wisdom, they discuss things as equals. Maria Montessori, after whom the Montessori schools are named, developed an educational system based on knowing and respecting a child and his or her needs. A key concept of this method is an environment in which children choose from a range of resources and materials on their own. A teacher plays the role of an advisor and helper, observing the moment when the child is ready to accept some new knowledge. Montessori classes are of mixed ages, combining students of various ages. And I was to address one of such groups. 

I was scared. I never worked with kids ages 6 to 10. I did not know what to do. I wanted to say no, that the kids do not know how young they are, that they should not be asking for a talk about the Holocaust. But my experience also taught me that when I do not know what to do, filmed survivor testimony can help me, if properly handled and presented. And thus after much convincing, one morning I went to the Montessori school Kouzelné školy in Vršovice. 

The pupils spread around the room and fearlessly started a debate with me. Somebody declared, “I am a Jew.” Others nodded: “Yes, he is a Jew.” We discussed who Jews are, that some people feel much hatred toward them, and how this happened during World War II, and how we should make sure it will not happen in our society.

The teachers, Martina Samková and Tereza Kubátová, helped me steer the conversation. We watched clips of testimony. We discussed more. I observed the kids constructing a meaning, developing a new skill and understanding right in front of my eyes. I never encountered adults so open minded and ready to critically examine information served to them as these young students. The allotted time went by really fast.

“Why do you think the occupants prohibited these children from attending schools?” I asked. “To make them stupid! Because stupid people are easier to rule!” was the kids’ answer.

After I left, the teachers wrote to me that the students continued discussing the topic and that it was new to them to learn how Jews were gradually deprived of all the good things one likes. They also discussed why it is important to learn about such a sad topic: to learn not to be evil to each other, to learn from the mistakes of the past, that dividing people into groups is bad, that we should be tolerant, accept that some of us are different from the majority, that it is not a bad thing to be different. 

Could an educator wish for a better result? It is not the age, but the preparation, communication and thinking skills of the students that shape the effect of our efforts. When the stage is properly set, even young students can benefit from watching and analyzing Holocaust survivor testimony. There clearly is a need to explain the mechanisms of hatred to these young students, and testimony from the Visual History Archive can be instrumental in that process.

I am including the clip from the Visual History Archive that I used in my presentation. Standing up to hatred has no age limit – nobody is too young or too old to learn from the past in order to understand how a society could be destroyed by stereotyping, labeling and social exclusion.

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NOTE: The USC Shoah Foundation Education Department is currently doing research and developing testimony-based content for primary school students to be launched early next year.

Martin Šmok