Teachers have many questions about Holocaust pedagogy, but Fred Whitaker said the most important question is one they should ask themselves: Why am I teaching about the Holocaust?
Whittaker teaches science, religion, and Holocaust studies at St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic middle school in Louisville. A passionate advocate for Holocaust education, he and others lobbied successfully for mandatory inclusion of Holocaust studies in Kentucky’s middle and high schools.
He said teachers should understand their motivation for teaching about this dark period in history. The Holocaust shows students humanity at its worst, he said, but also its best. “You have to make certain that the students are prepared to understand the world can be this way and still emerge hopeful and optimistic from it.”
Whittaker is featured in two new KET videos about Holocaust education:
- In “Holocaust Pedagogy,” Whittaker introduces best practices in Holocaust education, the appropriate age to begin studies, community service, and how to talk about the dynamics of “otherness.”
- In “Holocaust Photo Project,” Whittaker’s students make deep connections by pairing pictures of themselves with similar pictures of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
It’s important, he said, to take students “across time and across the ocean” to meet people that are just like them.
“Reaching students on deep emotional level is important,” he said. “What you learn with your heart is a lesson you remember forever.”
Whittaker said the most common question teachers about Holocaust education is how to start. That, in turn, depends on how much time there is, he said. When time is short, Whittaker advises teachers to focus on making those deep connections to the victims of the Holocaust as human beings.
“Students will think of Jewish people as the six million who died. You want to try to remember their life prior to this,” he said. “It’s so vital for students to get an appreciation for Jewish life that was occurring centuries before the rise of the Nazis and learn to value their contributions to world culture.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers are called upon to teach via the internet, including Whittaker. “We will not be around students when they’re reading the material we send home. We won’t be there to process their facial expressions. We must be sensitive to what we’re asking them to learn.”
This is especially true for middle school students, he said. “Not that we should not teach the subject (online), but it must be done with great caution and great sensitivity,” he said.
You can learn more from KET’s Teaching the Holocaust collection in PBS LearningMedia. Videos come with background information, vocabulary, teaching tips, suggested learning activities, and links to further educational resources.