Earlier this winter, Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School’s Genocide Studies classes hosted an exhibition of research projects on the Holocaust. In Genocide Studies, the first trimester focuses on defining genocide and studying the Holocaust in the context of establishing and defining the hallmarks of genocide. The course is team-taught by Justin Bilton, an English teacher, and Jason Stark, a history teacher. Classes are taught as a college-style lecture and project-based learning course with curriculum heavily influenced by the educators’ experiences at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s prestigious Belfer Conference.
“The Belfer Conference was a pivotal moment in my teaching career that showed me how I could take my education in genocide and apply it to the classroom in a really meaningful way for students,” said Bilton, who attended the conference in 2013. Bilton studied genocide and postmodern literature with Dr. Stephenie Young and Dr. Christopher Mauriello at Salem State University, where he visited Auschwitz as part of a travel institute. He has since traveled to Cambodia, Vietnam, East Africa, and other sites of past conflict to learn about recovery and justice in those places.
The Genocide Studies classes began working on their exhibitions at the end of September. The exhibitions were the culmination of a project-based learning experience and represent a large portion of the work the students are assessed on in the class. Students in small groups were tasked with finding a niche: something from the Holocaust they found interesting and important. Students conducted research and designed an exhibit to teach the community about a little-known topic in Holocaust Studies.
One hundred and fifteen students in three classes generated 40 exhibits on topics such as the experiences of women and children, the iconic imagery of the trains used to transport Jews, concentration camps, food as a symbol of culture, the biological and psychological effects of trauma, the escape and subsequent search for Nazi leadership in South America, as well as several individual profiles on victims of the Holocaust, including Mr. Stark’s grandmother, who escaped Nazi persecution in 1939.
Reflecting on this experience, Stark said, “This course and the exhibition are important to me on many levels. As a teacher, I am proud to see authentic, student-driven learning of this depth. As a member of the Jewish community, the empathy these students have shown towards the victims makes this one of the most amazing events around the Holocaust I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.” Stark was a Belfer scholar in 2016 and has had the opportunity to travel to Israel where he participated in learning experiences for educators at Yad Veshem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum.
Students of the Genocide Studies classes were passionate about their work. Sarah Young, a senior in the Equine Science program said, “It was awesome to see the projects that we had been working on for so long come to fruition. Our teachers care so much about us as students and how we will take the lessons they give us and use them; this exhibition exemplifies that. The experience I gained from educating people about something so important will be something I take with me for the rest of my life and I hope that the people who came can say the same thing.”
Said Cassandra Kuechler, a senior in Graphic Communication, “By attaching names to numbers, people came to realize that these atrocities happened to real people and that real people were capable of such atrocities. We can’t comprehend what six million Jewish people look like, but we can remember stories of individuals.”
For the rest of the year, the students will continue to learn about 20th and 21st century genocides and human rights abuses including the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. They will explore international law and its shortcomings and accomplishments. The goal of the course is to promote informed citizenship and research skills and to create articulate consumers of information equipped for a 21st century world.