by Adam Grobman
“Four out of ten young Americans know very little about the Holocaust,” says Boaz Dvir. “Seven out of ten know very little about Auschwitz.”
With billions of dollars invested into Holocaust education over several decades, how can this be possible? And after seventy years of saying “Never Again,” why have genocides and other atrocities continued to happen across the globe?
These are the questions that Boaz and his team are addressing through the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State University. Boaz, a professor and filmmaker who is leading the Initiative, feels that the key to reaching students is by more efficiently reaching their teachers.
“Teachers lack the means to teach these topics,” Boaz says. “Even if they have the content knowledge, they are not given the teaching tools to be effective with topics like the Holocaust in the classroom.” The Initiative, he says, aims to be the bridge connecting the latest research, best practices, and science of teacher development with the difficult topics of the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights.
The Initiative’s team has partnered with the PA Department of Education, Anti-Defamation League, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Penn State Harrisburg’s Center for Holocaust Studies, and others to develop a revolutionary training program for teachers of K – 12 students.
Through the program, teachers will develop goals and action plans to achieve real impact in the classroom. From there, they will be placed into cohorts of like-minded teachers, which will be assigned a Team Leader to facilitate seminars, mentorship, goal-setting, and follow-up. Several of the Team Leaders are graduates of the US Holocaust Museum’s Teaching Fellows program.
“Our training is not about sitting and listening,” Boaz says. “It is only about implementation – so when a teacher applies to our program, they must demonstrate what they intend to do with the training and how they plan to implement it in the classroom.”
Unique to the program is the awarding of professional development credits for the post-program application of the techniques and tenets the teacher learns.
“I always felt there was a gap in connecting with K – 12 students,” says Elliott Weinstein, a local community member and former Penn State Trustee who is playing a key role in getting the program off the ground. “The sky’s the limit and the need is unlimited.”
Boaz says that while there is great content for teaching the Holocaust, there has been a systemic failure to impart the knowledge to students – a disconnect that has real-life impact.
“We can’t hide from difficult topics anymore – but how do you facilitate them?” he asks, noting that the tools to do so exist, but largely remain unused. “If you take these topics and teach them in an effective way, then you are able to infuse the educational system with meaning and students know why they are there – they will know that they can think for themselves, stand up for what is right, and make a difference.”
The program will launch this spring with a training day for Team Leaders in April, followed by the first cohort of the year-long Professional Development program beginning in June. This first run will include 20 participants from school districts across Pennsylvania – more than 120 applications were received. The program hopes to reach all 501 of Pennsylvania’s school districts by its third year, with a long-term goal of reaching more states across the nation.
While the Initiative focuses on educating teachers, Boaz says that it is first and foremost about “providing children with life skills that are transformative.”
“In teaching the Holocaust, one of the great lessons that we can learn is that sometimes there are no answers,” he says. “Instead, what’s important in life is to ask the questions. Sometimes adults don’t know the answers and facts do not tell you the full story – but we can show kids the power of questions and how they can question everything around them and not just accept things as they are.”
To learn more about the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State, visit https://bit.ly/2LEAEd7. If you wish to provide financial support for this program, you can do so through the Jewish Community Foundation’s Never Again Holocaust Education Fund, which supports the initiative, call 717-409-8220 or visit pajewishendowment.org.