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Illuminating Important Stories

Illuminating Important Stories
Brian Kaufman, Middle School Social Studies Faculty

As we approach 80 years since the end of World War II, we are nearing a turning point; soon, the world will have no living people who can remember the Holocaust. Therefore, it is arguably more important now than ever to honor and tell the stories of those who lived through that horrific tragedy, to keep their memories alive and to help hold humanity accountable for avoiding genocidal violence.

In Social Studies class this year, Dana Hall 8th graders have focused on case studies relating to Identity and (In)justice, including a study of the origins and beliefs of Judaism as well as the rise of the Eugenics movement in the United States and the influence that movement had on the development of Nazi ideologies in Germany in the lead-up to WWII. As a culmination of those case studies, 8th graders embarked on an ambitious research project – spanning a whole month of class time – to help illuminate the stories of mostly ordinary people who were thrust into extraordinary situations during the Holocaust.

Way back in 2022, students began the project by exploring high quality sources – ranging from books in our library’s collection to databases run by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem in Israel – compiled into a research guide by our fantastic Middle School librarian, Amelia Herring. Ms. Herring visited class and hosted us in the Helen Temple Cooke library, as students worked to find stories that sparked interest or connection for them. Ultimately, each student chose one Holocaust survivor (who had been persecuted by the Nazis) or one Holocaust rescuer (who had helped save those who were persecuted – often called the Righteous Among the Nations). Some brave students chose to research both a rescuer and a survivor, searching for thematic connections between their stories!

After picking a research topic and compiling credible sources, students spent time taking copious notes on their individuals, being careful to avoid common pitfalls that can lead to unintentional plagiarism down the line in final written work. They then drafted and revised three meaty paragraphs – the first a streamlined biography of their subject, and the second and third deep analysis of themes that emerged for students over the course of their research. Most themes students chose revolved around the Essential Questions for our course this year: 

  • How do our identities affect our experiences and the choices we make? 
  • How do systems of power affect individuals’ lives, societies, and political systems? 
  • How do instances of injustice affect society as a whole? 
  • Why do some individuals and institutions choose to take a stand against prejudice/oppression while others choose to participate in it? 
  • What does it mean to be an upstander? What actions can we take to create greater justice?

Students also reflected on what makes a strong feedback partner, and worked with a peer teammate each day throughout the project to check in about their project and receive feedback to help improve their work. Many students expressed deep gratitude in our end-of-project reflection, saying they wouldn’t have made it to the finish line without their partner’s support!

Last Friday we took time to celebrate students’ work as they completed their projects. Each student created a poster to highlight key takeaways from their research. We created a mini-museum gallery in our classroom so students could view their peers’ hard work and present their findings to each other to help keep these important stories alive. Other Middle School teachers and administrators also came to hear the presentations, and the posters now reside in the hallway so students in other grades can learn from them as well!

As we head into future case studies this year, on Apartheid South Africa and India’s struggle for independence from British colonialism, I hope the lessons and stories learned from this project will continue to hold value for these hardworking 8th graders and help them dive even deeper into the new material.