Wendy Gottwald's eighth grade literature students started each class period this semester by entering a darkened, quiet room. Each received a card that said “You were chosen to die” or “You were chosen not to live.”
That single card determined how they interacted the rest of the class period.
"What those cards resembled is selection day and that was when the Jews first got off the cattle cars and the people that were chosen to die went straight to the gas chambers and the people that were chosen not to live had to go through the camp and experience it. Most of them perished before they were even finished. We talked about how heavy that card was when they walked into my classroom," Gottwald explained.
While receiving the cards felt unpleasant, the McPherson Middle School students gained respect for the topic throughout the experience.
"I had to do this in order for me to have them grasp what I wanted them to throughout this process," she added.
After learning many aspects of the Holocaust in class, students were able to talk with Holocaust survivor David Tuck via Skype on March 8.
“We were able to do this because our librarian has connections with a Holocaust museum in Philadelphia. They were so gracious to us and they send us to biographies about two survivors and whichever one is able to do it will do it on that day — it’s pretty awesome,” she explained.
Before meeting with Tuck, students took the time to study his biography and write down questions after he told his personal story.
The room was completely silents as students leaned forward in their chairs, entranced by every word Tuck had to say about his incredible experience.
“I sat back and watched their faces. He hit so many parts we learned in here and you could see their faces light up like, ‘Oh I know about that,’ or ‘Oh I remember reading about that.’ You could just see it by their expressions,” Gottwald said. “One thing they said after talking with him is that they feel like they have a connection with him even though they don’t know him.”
Starting in January, Gottwald used a number of simulations and projects to teach aspects of the Holocaust. One day, students stood in a taped area the size of a train car used to transport Holocaust victims for duration of her class period.
As the material is very heavy, Gottwald took time before class was over to decompress.
"We always left in a positive note and I left the last few minutes of class for questions before I let them loose. I never saw any negativity and I was never worried about it. I was surprised with the kids coming back everyday how they discussed it at home with their parents. That opened up such great communication here and at home," she said.
The Holocaust is a topic that pulls at Gottwald's heartstrings because of her own family connection.
"I had a family member that went through it," she said.
Before students had the opportunity of a lifetime on Thursday afternoon, researching the topic was key to understanding what came next.
Students first encountered the simulations to begin the project, then read the play Anne Frank aloud along with two books, "Number the Starts," and "Memories of Anne Frank."
Gottwald's students even created a Holocaust mini museum on their own that had many meanings behind every detail.
"They wanted to keep going with this topic. They talked about their favorite things of what they learned. So they decided they wanted to a passion project and display it for everybody. When we decided to do this, we started brainstorming ideas and I let them loose," she said. "I opened my craft cupboard and I said, 'Here you go.' They worked in pairs and some by themselves — they did it on their own — all those ideas came to life on their own."
Students created things like a building made out of popsicle sticks with a train entering the front gates of the camp, crayons melting on a canvas showcasing dreams being washed away and paper windows symbolizing the life of the Jews.
"There are pieces of paper hanging up and we call them windows. In the middle, there's a window pane with glass and on one side. It's looking into a Jewish home during that time period and the other side is looking out the window of what they would see," she added.
Gottwald is proud of how much respect and empathy students gained throughout this entire project.
"Not only were they respectful in there on March 8, but throughout this journey starting in January. They constantly wanted to learn more and more — I could not fill their tank enough with this subject. My kids even wrote a diary online throughout this so I was able to see their reflection everyday — it was amazing to see it through their eyes," she added.
Contact Brooke Haas by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ MacSentinel.