Champaign teacher brings insight back from U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

CHAMPAIGN — Usually thousands of people crowd the halls of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

But Franklin Middle School teacher Trina Wetzel found herself in a much smaller, tranquil group — sometimes she was alone among the austere displays of artifacts left behind by those who did not survive the genocide.

When she came across a little girl's sweater, she realized it could have been the same size as her niece's.

"It's personal," she said. "You can talk about the statistics and the facts and how many people died, but each one of those people had a family."

Wetzel was one of 94 teachers throughout the country to participate in a three-day workshop at the Washington museum last month.

They were given exclusive access to the museum, and as the school year begins, she said, she has a "greater depth of understanding" for later in the year when she will start her eighth-grade lesson on the Holocaust.

"You could pretty much be alone in each little place and absorb it all," Wetzel said.

That opportunity was afforded to her with help from the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation, which paid for her plane ticket and hotel room so that she could bring her insight back to the classroom.

Brian Kahn, who chairs the Holocaust education committee for the federation, said the injustice toward Jews is "one of those incredible watershed events that had implications worldwide."

"For this reason alone, this should be part of every school's curriculum," Kahn said. "Not just for the historical aspect of it, but for the notion that students need to begin to learn how power is abused."

Questions about the Holocaust do not appear on statewide exams, Kahn said, which makes the lesson about more than just historical facts and figures.

"This is about tolerance," Kahn said. "And this is about students understanding prejudice and injustice."

One workshop in particular, on the history and evolution of anti-Semitism, will help Wetzel answer a frequently asked question.

"My eighth-graders would ask, all the time, 'Why do they hate the Jews so much?'" Wetzel said.

Anti-Semitism and racism sometimes come as a shock to young people growing up in a diverse society, she said, so now she can provide some context.

But this will be her fifth year teaching her Holocaust lesson, so she was actually doing a lot of the talking in group discussions at the seminar.

"I was proud to be able to talk about the things I already did with my class," Wetzel said.

That includes a project where the students must research and create their own display for a theoretical Holocaust museum, which they then present to the class. In the past, Wetzel said standout projects have included interviews of survivors and a scale model of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

There is a correct way to teach about the Holocaust, Kahn said. Just within the past 20 years (in large part because of the advent of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Musuem and Yad Vashem, its Israeli equivalent), he said, teachers have been getting more guidance, but still not everyone does it right.

"The wrong way is to do it unprepared," Kahn said.

His committee, for which he volunteers at the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation, tries to aid local teachers in their Holocaust lessons.

Other than paying for Wetzel's travel to the Washington workshop, the group has an extensive library they are willing to lend to schools. The federation just recently bought a collection of graphic novels to lend to Wetzel's class.

Wetzel, whom Kahn credits with getting the rest of the Franklin eighth-grade teachers on board with Holocaust lessons, is in a good position to teach about its history, he said.

"She's really a mover and a shaker in her building to be able to do this," Kahn said.

Wetzel hopes the students walk away with "more than just the facts," she said.

"I want them to walk away with empathy ... and that they have an obligation to not look the other way."

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John O'Connor wrote on August 28, 2011 at 9:08 pm

This is a good and hopeful response to the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust. I especially think the idea of highlighting the children's responses and museum display ideas is very good. Please do follow ups with more links.