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From Dachau to Charlottesville

During a trip to Europe this summer, my family spent an afternoon at the Dachau Concentation Camp Memorial in Germany. The oldest of the Nazi concentration camps, Dachau is now a museum where visitors can learn about the causes and effects of Nazi rule. A somber day in an otherwise carefree jaunt through three countries, the experience left a deep impression on my family and me. Throughout the museum, photos, writings, and voices of survivors remind us that the crimes of the Nazi era are not so very distant.

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Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

The museum ushers visitors chronologically through the founding of the camp, and its functioning during the years prior to and during World War II. Visitors walk through the gate that prisoners entered with the empty promise of Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Liberates). Photographs, artifacts, newsreels, and thoughtfully presented exhibits help visitors understand prisoners’ experiences in the camp.

All prisoners were marked by badges that identified the reason for their imprisonment: political activism, religion, ethnic background, and sexual orientation were just a few of the designations. Prisoners were subjected to inhumane conditions: grueling labor, paltry rations, humiliating treatment, rampant, untreated disease, and torture of every sort. The most difficult for me to read about were the medical experiments in which some prisoners were forced to participate, many to the point of death.

A reconstructed barracks unit conveys a sense of the horrific living conditions for prisoners. Most of the 34 original barracks no longer exist, but their foundations are a reminder of the places that once housed thousands of prisoners.

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Reconstructed barracks at Dachau Concentration Camps. Multiple prisoners were crammed onto each of these bunks.

Past the foundations, visitors can view the two large crematorium buildings where the bodies of prisoners were burned. Nearly 32,000 people died at Dachau, from disease, malnutrition, and murder. Memorials throughout the camp, now a surprisingly peaceful place, give visitors time and space to process and reflect upon what they’ve seen. We left with a deeper understanding of history and a sense of responsibility to prevent future atrocities.

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Camp crematorium, where prisoners’ bodies were burned.

The roots of the atrocities in Dachau were deep seated: centuries of religious intolerance, years of state-sponsored discrimination. The museum documents thoroughly the terrifying rise of Nazi power, and the systematic dehumanization of groups of people.

Dachau reminds us of the importance of vigilance against the subtle creep of discrimination today. It starts with our thoughts, our words, our actions. It is evidenced in ugly acts like the ones last weekend in Charlottesville, and in quieter but insidious racism that we see everywhere. We see it when our neighbors or our leaders or our students make blanket statements about immigrants, or African-Americans, or Muslims. To me, these statements can be just as hurtful as a man who slams his car into a crowd of protesters, in part because they are harder to spot and harder to condemn.

In public schools and through youth groups, Nazis methodically, deliberately taught young people to hate. They started with the young because those are most vulnerable and the easiest to persuade. Those of us who work in schools have a responsibility to teach our young people attitudes of tolerance and acceptance. In Long Walk to Freedom, South African leader Nelson Mandela said:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

He expresses well my core values as a teacher — and as a human. Love must win. People must be taught to love. I must do my part. As a new school year begins, I am planning with that end in mind. Our students need to talk about what happened in Charlottesville, and the larger context of hatred and intolerance in America and throughout the world. This collection of resources is a terrific place to start. I hope and I believe that I am ready for the challenge.  

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Electing to teach

My community near Washington DC  is among the most diverse in the United States, with a multiracial population and a large immigrant presence. The students of my school reflect their community, representing over 50 countries. That diversity, along with the welcoming atmosphere of the school and the local community, is what first drew me to teach there. Despite its overall climate of acceptance, my school was not immune to the contentiousness of the recent election.

During a time when ugly rhetoric dominated the news, it was tempting for teachers to avoid the election entirely, and focus instead on teaching only academic content. Yet to do so would have ignored the opportunity to engage students as citizens. By confronting the election instead of retreating, we could teach students more about our messy, fascinating democracy – and also build their communication skills. Adolescents – like many adults – sometimes speak before they think. The question: how to challenge that natural impulse and encourage empathy? We needed a plan.

Part of my job is to develop daily school-wide lessons that reinforce students’ growth as lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and responsible global citizens.  By consulting with other teachers and administrators at our school, and using resources from Teaching Tolerance and Edutopia, I created a road map for teachers to use the election as a springboard for teaching civil discourse. Here was the progression of our lessons:

  • First, we invited students to develop a list of “Rules for Classroom Discussion,” building consensus within each class. I combined the rules formulated by each class and selected the most frequently mentioned as our school-wide “Rules for Discussion.”
  • We asked students to reflect on collaboration and to role-play effective collaboration skills. Here is a resource our school made to help students understand what effective collaboration looks like.
  • Students viewed and discussed debate clips like this one for examples of civil discourse – and not-so-civil discourse.
  • The words of Kid President talking about “How To Disagree” helped underscore the central idea that even those with different perspectives deserve our respect. “Let’s treat people like they are people, people!”
  • We learned more about the election process with the help of CNN News and iCivics.
  • After the election, we reflected on its impact. To empower our students and to encourage them to express their opinions in positive, forward-thinking ways, our school participated in “Students Speak”  through Teaching Tolerance. This campaign invited students to share their words of advice for the president-elect.

Here are some of the words of our students. I have left the original spelling and grammar intact:

Please take all of America into account. You have sparked fear into so many people’s hearts including mine. Remember that our country fought for our freedom, we deserve freedom to be who we are. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but I know that you were not who I wanted to win. That doesn’t matter. You won. Please, please, please remember that America is diverse and embrace that diversity. Remember that your words have impact, and think before you speak. Remember that there are struggling people in this country, and it is your job to protect them too, not just the wealthy and well off. Remember that women have the right to control their own bodies. Remember that love is love.

 

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Dear Mr. Trump,

You’re soon going to be the official president. Congratulations on the victory. Some people may not like you, but I think they are wrong. I hope you do great in office. I hope you make all the right choices. I hope you go with your ideas to make America great again. I hope you do make America great again.

 

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Dear Mr. President, In school we are learning about the rules of culture. One rule we are learning is that people can accept or resist change. This relates to us because as a young female, I can choose to resist you becoming president of the United States. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have the potential to gain my interest. First off, I am an only child who lives with a single mom. As I have read, your tax plans to a certain extent discriminate single parents. My mom and I, and all the other single-parent families would appreciate if you listen to their perspective. That’s all I’m asking you, just listen. Next off, I come from a very diverse school. Even though I am a white Christian girl, I respect everyone’s opinion, no matter what race, culture, religion, or gender. As leader of our country you must represent EVERYONE. You shouldn’t put someone’s life at risk to make you feel more powerful. In my opinion building a wall and deporting illegal immigrants is not efficient. Instead of deporting them, support them and let them gain citizenship.

How are the lessons going?  The process is ongoing, but I’m pleased to report that feedback from staff, students, and parents has been positive. Our students weathered a tough election season and maybe emerged just a little wiser and a little kinder. I’d love to hear what other schools have done to discuss the election with students.

For our next steps as a school, we will continue to examine perspectives and foster communication. This winter, we plan to teach a series of lessons on shattering stereotypes.

More on that to follow in the new year. Wishing you and yours a 2017 full of growth and adventure!