When I poll my incoming seventh-grade history students at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School to find out how many of them know about the Holocaust, I usually get about two or three hands in the air. The rest of the students have limited knowledge of this terrible tragedy or have never heard of it.
As a teacher, I believe a lack of focus on educating students about the Holocaust is one of the many reasons that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America.
According to recent data from the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017 increased by 99 percent from 2015. The horrific shootings at Jewish synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh show that the anti-Semitic beliefs promulgated by the Nazi party in Germany are not only still shared by many people, but also continue to spread through social media and technology.
Yet right now, just 10 states require educating children about the Holocaust in public schools. Massachusetts is not one of them.
Our state education framework doesn’t include the Holocaust until the 10th or 11th grade, and it is possible for students to graduate from high school in some school districts without ever learning about it. Fortunately, I have the flexibility as a charter public school teacher to bring my passion for teaching what happened under Nazi Germany into my classroom while still meeting state history standards.
This year for the second time, Lighthouse charter school students are participating in the Butterfly Project, an international effort to memorialize the 1.5 million children who were killed by Nazis. Each student receives an identity card that describes a specific child who perished and then paints a ceramic butterfly that represents his or her life. When my students learn that Jewish children in the 1940s shared their same interests, such as drama and sports, they see how much they had in common with those who perished.
Along with learning about the people who died in the Holocaust, my students also read memoirs of people who tried to resist the Nazis, including Oskar Schindler, credited with saving 1,200 Jews, and Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank’s family in the Netherlands. The insight I want my students to take away from these projects about the Holocaust is simple: You always have a choice to stand up in the face of violence and intolerance.
As schools, government leaders, and technology companies grapple with the rise of anti-Semitism, hate speech, cyberbullying, and more, these lessons from the Holocaust are even more relevant today than ever before. That’s why I urge policymakers in Massachusetts and around the country to require all public schools to incorporate the Holocaust into their curriculum frameworks when students are young, rather than waiting until high school when their ideas are already fairly well developed.
As a teacher, I do believe the old saying that, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” But I also know, from watching even the most jaded teenagers become inspired to make a difference, those who learn history can change the future.
Daniella Garran is a history and social studies teacher at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in East Harwich.