Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle, WA – August 10, 2015

by George J Elbaum

Holocaust Center for Humanity (HCH) is the new name for Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center (a welcome change, in my opinion), which arranged my very first two talks to students in October 2010, and has continued to arrange many more for my subsequent visits to Seattle. On August 10, 2015, I visited HCH’s impressive new office and spoke to youth groups invited by HCH from summer camps operated by the Jewish Community Center and by the Boys and Girls Club. The students were mostly in early teens and possibly unfamiliar with pre-Holocaust Germany, so before introducing me HCH’s Strategic Director, Karen Chachkes, showed a brief film entitled The Path to Nazi Genocide, on how Nazi policies in the 1930s turned German Jews, step-by-step, from full and equal citizens of Germany into a powerless minority with no civil rights and no protection, and thus fodder for Nazi gas chambers.  After the film I gave my talk, followed by an active Q & A session which continued one-on-one after the group photographs, etc. The talk was also attended by HCH Executive Director Dee Simon and many of the staff.

with the students

with the students

with the Center's staff

with the Center’s staff

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Fernando Rivera Intermediate School, Daly City, CA – June 2, 2015

by George J Elbaum

Fernando Rivera Intermediate School (Fernando) is a public middle school (grades 6-8) in Daly City.  Its total student body is almost 500 with high diversity: 39% Filipino, 29% Asian, 15% Hispanic, and 17% all other.  Fernando received a 2013 California Distinguished School Award as its academic test scores were approximately 25% higher than California averages.

My presentation at Fernando was to 200 8th graders whose preparation included reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in their Reading & Language Arts course, and it was arranged directly by its teacher, Lindsay (Lu) Bazela, whom I met when she was the facilitator at my presentations at the JFCS Day of Learning on March 8, 2015.  On my webpost for that JFCS event I wrote the following: “My presentations were to 2 student workshop sessions entitled ‘Who Lived in the Ghettos?  A Study of the Socio-Economic Spectrum,’ which were organized and led by Lu Bazela, a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher of Social Science at the Fernando Rivera Intermediate School in Daly City.”

In preparing this text I sought information on Fernado from its website, but there were no specifics (the information in the first paragraph above is from other sources) except for its memorable motto: “Be Kind, Be Responsible, Always be the Best you can be, That’s the Fernando Attitude, And the Choice is yours!”  I therefore asked Ms. Bazela for some “good words” that reflect the flavor of the school and the high spirit of the students that was clearly evident during my talk.  Her reply follows.

“We very much live by our motto at out school… every day!  “Be Kind, Be Responsible, and Always be the Best you can be. The Choice is yours!”  It’s stated every morning at announcements and it starts our day off right.  Our students look out for one another and spirit is a big part of our school.  There is a special spirit trip for kids who’ve hit enough spirit points.  Goofiness is encouraged and treating others well is encouraged.  Kids who do not know me talk to me every day and encourage me to have a great day.  It’s remarkable, all the positivity.  Kids are encouraged to think positively, to be good to the community, and to have faith in their own power, to have a good day.  Staff and administration are strong and positive as well.”

Indeed, enthusiastic teachers result in enthusiastic students!

photo right

photo right

photo left

photo left

 

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Arroyo High School, San Lorenzo, CA – May 22, 2015

by George J Elbaum

Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, across the bay from San Francisco, has a high diversity student body of approximately 1,900 students. It is organized into several “schools within a school,” and this is the 4th year in a row that I have visited and spoken to its Future Academy for Social Change.  The audience was approximately 100 10th grade students taking the Facing History-based unit taught by teacher Jorja Santillan, who again organized my visit as arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.  Based on my past visits, I knew that the student audience would be enthusiastic and well-prepared, and I was not disappointed.  I observed again how Jorja Santillan’s enthusiasm and energy transfer to her students, whom she prepares and guides through the various aspects of the Holocaust.  In her own words: “It’s so important that they understand how complex the Holocaust is through different stories, and how crucial it is that this history be kept alive.  I tell my students that now it’s their responsibility to carry it on along with their own histories.”

On this visit to Arroyo I saw in the library 13 desk-top Holocaust memorials (shown on the photos below) which were built by Jorja Santillan’s students as part of the Facing History unit, and after the visit I emailed her asking how she defined this assignments for her students.  Rather than just addressing the memorials, she broadened her answer by describing her approach to teaching the Facing History unit, as follows:

“During our study of the Holocaust, my students have engaged in a variety of activities to complicate their thinking about issues related to it.  We initially discussed the power of labels and how they can positively or negatively impact us.  This relates to the impact of hateful labels and stereotyping of the Jews (also other groups), which were exploited by Hitler and his regime.  Students also developed their understanding of the history of anti-Semitism, the historical context leading up to WWII, how the Nazis continuously gained power, and the murderous strategies used to annihilate Jews and other minority groups.  In addition, we also studied bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust because students often think that the Jews or others did not resist, which many did.  We discussed how there are many ways to resist even if not through physical force.  Next, they would navigate Birkenau online, reading about the different areas of this concentration camp and viewing photos to give them a glimpse of what Elie Wiesel experiences in Night.  As we read it, we focused on the power of faith to inspire or to destroy, the dehumanization and the struggle to survive.  As we study the Holocaust and read Night, I remind students that there are many different Holocaust stories, and that it’s a complex issue with multiple perspectives or experiences.

For the culmination of the unit, students create a Holocaust memorial to honor a person, group, or event.   They review existing memorials in the US to get ideas, and then work in groups of 3 or 4 to create a proposal outlining the details of the memorial (title, sizes, materials, location, and artist’s statement explaining the symbolism), which I approve.  Afterwards they construct the memorial and, once finished, they present it to the class.  After all the presentations, each class voted on the memorials they believed were the best representations to exhibit in the library.”

It is the dedicated, enthusiastic, energetic teachers like Jorja Santillan who truly teach our next generation, and thus on whom our country’s future depends.

Letters from Students

I was away for several weeks, and when I returned the accumulated mail included a large envelope with 80+ letters from Arroyo students.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it, mentally and emotionally.  We were touched by the students’ openness and sensitivity as reflected in the letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • Hearing your story was one of those things in life that I will never forget.
  • Some people may not like talking about tough times in their lives but I’m happy that you did because you really opened our eyes on how much the Holocaust impacted everyone.
  • It’s important for your words to be spread and shared to new generations. One day when I have kids I will tell them about my lucky experience hearing your story.
  • Hearing how you stayed with 4-5 different families made me realize the value of family. Sometimes I want to be left completely alone, but your story made me realize that I’m lucky to live where I shouldn’t worry about losing my family.
  • I will share your story to ensure that this history doesn’t become just a paragraph in a text book.
  • I could only imagine how scary it would be living through those years of your life and now having to re-live it by telling about it. It’s incredibly inspiring how you made something so good of yourself.
  • Even though the experience was very traumatic, it shaped you into the person you are today, which is inspiring. Your life turned into a “happy ever after,” which warms my heart a lot.
  • Hearing your story wasn’t something I was looking forward to as I thought it was going to be another academic lecture. A few minutes into it I became more and more interested.  It opened my mind, showing that this really happened, and it’s our generation’s job to remind the next generation that the Holocaust should not be forgotten.
  • I believe it wasn’t just your luck that helped you make it through the dark times, but your good heart. You smiled at the face of danger and changed a man’s decision with it.
  • You either escaped and survived, or were killed – there was no in between – and afterwards you had to start your life all over again without the loved ones killed by the Nazis.
  • You inspired me to take advantage of the “American dream” and work hard for what I want, to appreciate the things I have in life and work hard for the things I strive for.
  • After your talk I wanted to find the answers to all the questions I had that weren’t answered during the talk.  Mrs. Santillan told me about the Q&A section on your website, so I went home and read through all of it.  I felt so much more informed after doing so.
  • You have also taught me that in dark times there are good people out there who can help.
  • I told my mom about what you told us. She said that you must have had all that luck to survive because you had a purpose, and you weren’t meant to die then.
  • I hadn’t thought of the fact that one day there will no longer be survivors of the Holocaust. After that day, your story and many others will still remain and must be passed on.  My generation’s responsibility will be to teach and speak of this history because it’s worth telling.  Thank you for coming this year!
  • After hearing your story I saw the Holocaust in a whole new light. Hearing a story in person is much different than reading from a text book or even from a memoir, such as Eli Wiesel’s “Night.”  Your story provided an experience that was more touching, and it broke the barriers that textbooks create for students.
  • I really latched onto the title of your book, “Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows.” You are very right.  If the past was hard, keep on going.  If the future does not seem bright, stay in the now.
  • You are an important beacon to history by going around and spreading the story of the Holocaust. When you share your story, you are attaching a bit of the Holocaust to everyone’s mind and heart.
  • Our generation must tell the future generations about the Holocaust because it would keep history from repeating itself.
  • It is now my responsibility to keep this history alive by telling someone about it, especially if they doubt the Holocaust and the drastic measures people went through to survive.
  • I admire the courage and strength it took to relive the horrors of the Holocaust and share your experiences publically. I hope to take the account you told us and share it to prevent bigotry, whether it be against Jews, Muslims or African Americans.  As you said, I plan to live for a purpose rather than against an idea or person.
  • By meeting you I felt I met with history. You gave me a better understanding of the Jewish genocide and the crimes of the Nazis.  You helped clear my sight to the truth.  Thank you.
  • Before meeting you I did not know what to expect. Maybe I expected someone a lot more serious with some anger still in them, but I’m glad that was not the case.  I admire how you spoke to us in an inspiring way, and instead of telling us not to do or believe certain things you motivated us to make good choices and stay true to the good we believe in.
  • I believe that by sharing your story in schools such as ours you are making the world a better place. I look forward to reading your book online and sharing your story with my family.
  • I too have lost a loved one and was placed with guardians.  It was tragic for me, and I was transferred to a whole new environment, moving homes many times and saying goodbye to new friends, so this displacement from my mom to guardians was a familiar scenario.  However, motivation to keep moving forward is what kept me on my feet and striving for success in college.  (My response: Bravo!  With that attitude, you will do it.)
the audience

the audience

Jack Weinstein's introduction

Jack Weinstein’s introduction

end of presentation

end of presentation

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Nashoba Valley Technical High School, Westford, MA – April 9, 2015

by George J Elbaum

Nashoba Valley Technical High School is a public, four-year, career-focused high school with 700+ students and a unique Dual Enrollment Program which prepares students for college as well as for a career.  When enrolled in this Program, students alternate between one week in academic classes and one week in one of 18 industry-approved technical programs.  Each technical program has the support of a unique Program Advisory Board made up of business leaders, owners, entrepreneurs and representatives from colleges and universities throughout the region.  (Program selection is very diverse and includes Automotive Repair, Banking/Marketing/Retail, Carpentry, Cosmetology, Electronics, Plumbing, Programing, etc.)  The Dual Enrollment Program allows students in their junior or senior year to attend one of several local colleges on a full time basis while still enrolled as a high school student.  Once a student qualifies for Dual Enrollment, the student must also pass a placement test at one of the colleges, and the student’s family is responsible for college tuition, fees and books, and transportation.

One of the academic courses at the school is based on Facing History concepts whose teacher Dave Fusco organized my presentation.  It was attended by approximately 150 10th grade students as well as teachers ?????? (names, pls?).  The presentation was arranged by Judi Bohn of Facing History and Ourselves.

(Additional information for the text above and the photos below is forthcoming…..I hope!)

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Edge School at Sunol, San Jose, CA – April 29, 2015

by George J Elbaum

As a repeat of my previous 4 visits (2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014), I was invited to speak at the Edge School at Sunol (ex-Novo Community School) in San Jose.  Edge serves high risk students in grades 9-12 who are placed at the school for reasons such as expulsion, truancy, out-of-control behavior at school or home, and probation.  These students typically work in a classroom setting, interact with their peers and change classes in ways similar to those of a comprehensive high school.  However, the classes are small enough so the students are able to receive one-on-one assistance from their instructors, who not only provide academic instruction but also emphasize the skills needed to improve attendance and behavior.

My visit was arranged again by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves and was organized by Edge teacher Stephanie Boulianne.  The session was also attended by Edge’s Principal Jesse Ramos as well as teachers and staff Christina Hernandez, Michael Pressman, Anthony Dominguez, Francisco Alfaro, Jessie Cisneros, Harry Isom, John Lee, Rose Wallace, Laura Ojeda, Gretchen Eddingfield, and Gary Granger.  As in previous years, Jack had prepared me by stressing that students in this special alternative school often lead very insular lives in a narrow social environment, yet paradoxically are quite ”worldly” in ways that may or may not be acceptable in society at large – they “may have made big mistakes or bad choices, but can sometimes reinvent themselves and commit to improving academically and in their life choices.” This potential was evident in their questions, ranging from quite simplistic to very thoughtful and sensitive, and also from the personal connection that some showed afterwards.

Introduction by Jack Weinstein

Introduction by Jack Weinstein

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Tremont School, Weston, MA – April 8, 2015

by George J Elbaum

The Tremont School is a small private school located in Weston, MA, though its students come from Boston and the surrounding towns.  In its 4th year of existence, it currently has 46 students in grades 5 – 9, with the plan of expanding to 12th grade.  The school’s basic hypothesis is that the most stimulating educational environment is created by a deep and real partnership between students, teachers, parents, and administrators, and it firmly believes that learning is an ongoing exchange among all members of the school community, and that each student brings to that community strengths and interests that should be nurtured and shared for the benefit of all.  Students thus learn in an environment that supports their making connections between thinking and doing.  Teaching is therefore in a project-based curriculum which provides opportunities to develop hands-on projects that tug at the very core of an issue and develop in students the opportunity to question, analyze, and draw conclusions based on their own framework of understanding.

Since the student population has a variety of learning styles, the mission of the school is to serve this variety.  Many of the kids are “out of the box” thinkers or are kids who benefit from a small and personalized learning community.  Per current curriculum, grades 5 – 8 have been studying immigration, while grade 9 has spent the 1st semester studying Comparative Religion, and in the 2nd semester is examining what it means to be “great” in history, society, and literature.   The Holocaust will be a formal part of the 10th grade curriculum for next year but for the current presentation the students were given background information about it.

My presentation was organized by teacher Tore Kapstad, whom I met in 2012 when he organized my talk in another school.  It was also attended by Headmaster Bill Wilmot, Assistant Head of School Kathy Trogolo, and teachers Nina Schiarizzi, Jac Cohn, Irene Jackson, Mike MacGillivary, Ian Murphy, Bill Scheer and Ally Thomson.   Arrangements for the presentation were made by Judi Bohn of Facing History and Ourselves.

Tremont

with teacher Tore Kapstad

with teacher Tore Kapstad

with students

with Aeden, Mark, Slater, Evan, Erich(back), Elias(back)

 

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Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA – March 25, 2015

by George J Elbaum Gateway High School is a small (450 students) charter school which focuses on small class size, high academic standards, and a close student-to-faculty relationship, as well as a strong partnership with its students’ families and community.  Considering the unusual demographics of the student body, which reflect the diversity of San Francisco, the results are truly amazing:

  • More than 75% are students of color
  • More than 40% are the first in their family to attend college
  • More than 25% have a diagnosed learning disability
  • 45% fall below the poverty line
  • Yet more than 96% have gone to college, double the California average!

This success is reflected in Gateway being currently one of seven schools featured on the U.S. Department of Education’s Doing What Works website, being named one of Newsweek’s 2010 Best Public High Schools (only 6% of all public schools in the U.S. are so named), and being designated as a California Distinguished School and a 21st Century School of Distinction. What accounts for this amazing success?  The major factor is undoubtedly Gateway’s special support programs for students aimed at its mission “to send 100% of our students to college.”  Towards that goal: -Each student is paired with a faculty advisor who guides him/her through the school experience and serves as a consistent contact for families. -Gateway’s Learning Center provides support for all students, especially those with learning differences, in the forms of tutorial support, learning strategy instruction, intensive reading instruction, assistive technology, and more. -90% of students utilize Gateway’s after-school tutoring program which offers tutoring in one-on-one and small-group settings to students. -Students who are significantly below grade level in reading participate in Gateway’s intensive reading program. On average, students who complete this program increase their reading by up to four grade levels. Furthermore, from my personal observation another major factor is the relationship between Gateway’s young, enthusiastic and dedicated teachers and the students.  (The teachers spend the equivalent of 23 extra working days each year on their professional growth.) My talk at Gateway for the 10th grade humanities class was organized by humanities teacher Molly Orner, attended by teachers Lauren Slykhous, Stephen Flynn and Paul Heasman, and organized by Katie Cook of the Jewish Family and Children’s Center.

Letters from Students

Several weeks after my talk at Gateway I received a pack of letters from the students and, as has become our habit, my wife Mimi and I read the letters after dinner, excerpted phrases or statements that resonated with us, and these are listed below.

  • What especially stood out to me was “always fight for something, not against something.”
  • Golden Rule, baby :-)
  • Opening your universe of obligations is really important in making peace.
  • I will remember what you told us about the Polish boy who changed his opinion because of your story, making anti-Semitism decrease one by one.
  • I think what you’re doing is wonderful – you stopped being silent and not only wrote books but you also speak to strangers, like us.
  • I think expression of experiences, however painful, is the only way to heal them.  I have the most profound respect for how you grew from it.
  • I liked what you said about yesterdays and tomorrows – at first, not thinking about them was a method for coping during the Holocaust, but afterwards, when doing what you loved, there were no yesterdays nor tomorrows because you lived life in the moment.
  • One student decorated his/her note with a fanciful drawing of Golden Gate bridge with “Thank” spelled out by its towers & suspension cables, the skyline of San Francisco beneath the bridge, and the bay beneath the skyline with waves, fish, and seaweed spelling out “You”. To this I can only answer: Thank you!

(Please send me first names of #1, #6, and #4 in photos below.  Thank you.)  whole class

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