An active approach to Holocaust education

Teachers’ workshop advocates project-based learning for students

Norm Conard, second from right, chats with teachers about how to implement project-based learning in their classrooms. Photo: Benjamin Blum

A different way of educating children about the Holocaust was the focus of an teachers’ workshop held at the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union building.

The Atlantic Jewish Council invited Norm Conard to instruct teachers on project-based learning as part of the council’s Holocaust Education Week.

Conard, the executive director of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, is a
strong advocate of active learning through multimedia projects.

Project-based learning allows the students to have autonomy on the medium and
content of the assignment. Conard encourages creative ways of formatting the assignment, including plays and film documentaries.

“In modern world history there is no subject more complex than the Holocaust,” says
Conard. “When a student has ownership, they have more interest, they’re more excited about
learning. They soon become the expert in that particular field.”

Conard believes that the study of the Holocaust will allow students to explore the ideas of prejudice, abuse of power, the dangers of silence and apathy within the context of the Nazi genocide of Jewish, Roma and other groups of people during the Second World War.

He hopes the lessons learned through student-motivated project development and research will have a strong impact on them.

“There’s nothing like a powerful book, or a powerful story, to change someone,” says Conard.

In addition to the handouts given by Conard on how to approach project-based learning
and other unsung heroes, the council gave the teachers several resources from the Azrieli Foundation, including books and DVDs about survivors of the Holocaust.

Conard is also the director of the Life in a Jar Foundation that tells the story of Irena
Sendler. Sendler was a Polish woman who organized a partisan network in Warsaw during the Second World War to help Jewish people, notably children, escape the Warsaw ghetto and hide with sympathizers.

The name “Life in a Jar” comes from Sendler’s practice of putting the names of those
she helped hide into glass jars and burying the jars in the backyard of her house.

Conard holds one of Irena Sendler’s jars during his presentation. Photo: Benjamin Blum

“I think when [students] realize that there’s a human factor behind all the little miracles that happened, I think they will be very touched just like we were,” says Trang Bonnell, a teacher from Highland Park Junior High in Halifax.

The workshop was attended by 15 people, including teachers from Halifax and as far
away as Digby and Yarmouth counties. A representative from the Nova Scotia Archives was
also on hand to let the teachers know of the resources and support available to them.

“They study the Holocaust as it is now, but uncovering all these different little stories that
they’ve never heard of before I think will really get to them even deeper,” says Nicole Hardy,
another teacher from Highland Park.

Conard was a teacher at Uniontown High School in rural Kansas when he was approached
in 1999 by his students about Sendler’s story. At that point Sendler was not widely recognized, so he challenged his students to learn all they can about the Holocaust and her.

The project produced a play based on Sendler’s life and work. The company, comprised
of students and adults, continues to tour internationally. Megan Felt, one of Conard’s students
from the original project, currently plays Sendler in the production.

“We love the critical thinking aspect, we love the primary research aspect of project-
based learning,” says Conard

Conard recognizes the difficulty in educating students on the Holocaust today, as fewer
survivors are alive to tell their story. He puts the onus on teachers appropriately choosing from a large database of information that will best connect with the students in a way that engages them.

Edna LeVine, the council’s director of community engagement, hopes that workshops like these will continue the practice of tikun olam, the Jewish tradition of doing good work to help
mend the world. According to Conard, this idea of tikun olam was held in high regard by Sendler, whom he had several chances to meet with before her death in 2008.

“There are still stories to tell,” says Conard.