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Local educator trained on how to teach the Holocaust

August 26, 2018

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Melinda Neely is striving to create lessons that will engage and promote students’ understanding of Holocaust history.

Neely, a English and reading teacher at South Middle School, was one of 226 teachers nationwide selected to attend a Holocaust education conference this July at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Established in 1993, the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer National Conference for Educators brings together hundreds of middle, high school and community college teachers each summer to train them in effectively teaching the Holocaust to their students.

The institution provides teachers with advanced tools and teaching materials for students of history, English, social studies, language arts, library science, journalism and more.

“Educating students about the history of the Holocaust provides an opportunity for young people to think critically not only about the past but also about their roles in society today,” said Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives for the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education in a news release. “As the global leader in Holocaust education, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum works to ensure teachers have the training and resources they need to introduce their students to this important and complex history — and show them how its lessons remain relevant to all citizens today.”

It seems more lessons about the holocaust are needed in schools today, according to an article published by Time Magazine this year.

Nearly one-third of all Americans , 31 percent, and more than 41 percent of millennials, believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews were killed-two million or fewer- during the Holocaust.

The study also revealed a generational difference in knowledge. Eleven percent of all respondents either hadn’t heard of the Holocaust or weren’t sure if they had, and that number was 22 percent among millennials.

The lack of knowledge among the younger generation is a crucial learning moment, Neely said.

She said that she hopes to bring back into her classroom new approaches to Holocaust education.

“We’re young and our students are even younger than us. We are all already so far removed from what happened and that was the thing that kind of struck me,” Neely said. “It’s not that I’m apathetic about the Holocaust, I care about that. But it took going to this training, being in it and trying to experience it- it’s pretty heartwrenching. I was like wow, if this is how I feel, how would my students feel? I think it’s important for anybody to go. Anybody who could learn from it and apply it in some way, I think it’s a fantastic training for them.”

At the conference, Neely said participants also teamed up with museum educators and scholars in sharing rationales and approaches for teaching about the Holocaust. They explored the Museum’s latest exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust, which examines American society in the 1930s and ’40s and the factors that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism.

“One of the lessons that I really liked was called salvaged pages, which is reading from actual journal and diary entries,” Neely said. “We did this activity where we were each assigned a different journal and we had to select one word we thought was really powerful. My entry was about a woman who was in a Polish ghetto. Her entire entry was about food, because they were starving. She would record the amounts of food they got and what kind of food they were getting. I picked starvation as my powerful word.”

However, Neely said one woman’s take on the journal assignment stuck with her.

“One woman in our group, she picked decagram, because as the woman, she also listed the weights of what food they got,” Neely said. “We looked up what a decagram was the size of- it’s 10 grams. If you think about how small a gram is, they were each only getting that portion. We all got into a huge circle where everybody said their word and it was nothing but sadness. The whole circle had words like starvation, hunger, despair and imprisonment. That was probably the most emotionally impactful lesson that we did. I want to do something like that with the kids.”

Neely said the museum also gave participants the chance to interact with its scholars and educators to reinforce their understanding of Holocaust history.

“We did a concentrated focus on learning about the Holocaust that really focused from a survivor’s perspective,” Neely said. “A lot of the materials that we worked with were from Jews who survived or died during the Holocaust, people who were political dissidents.”

Neely added that the highlight of her trip was the chance to hear a story from a Holocaust survivor, Margit Meissner, a volunteer at the museum.

“I really loved listening to Margit, she was incredible. She is 96 years old and is so vibrant and sassy,” Neely said. “It was hard for me to think about the fact that this woman had lived through that time period as she was telling us her story. She was 16 when the Nazi’s came in to France. Her mother was deported and as her mother was leaving, she handed her a stack of money and she told her, ‘it’s up to you to get us out now.’ After this wild journey, she and her mother were eventually able to get out. It really was a phenomenal story.”

The museum’s website provides resources at no cost to educators, including a range of online training modules, exemplary lesson plans and extensive historical information about the Holocaust.

For more information, visit www.ushmm.org.

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Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/

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