Tennyson High School, Hayward, CA – March 14, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Tennyson High School is a comprehensive public high school in Hayward, CA, with approximately 1,300 students. The school is extremely diverse and serves many students for whom English is a second language.  In both social studies and English courses, teachers make use of resources from Facing History and Ourselves to teach about the Holocaust as well as other difficult subjects.

This was my second visit to Tennyson (first time was last May), and it was preceded by preparatory sessions by Jack Weinstein, Sr. Program Advisor for Facing History and Ourselves, with the school’s English and World History classes.  Some of the topics students had been exposed to prior to my talk included a strong review of the basic historical narrative of the Holocaust, an introduction to the evolution of Nazi policy, and a chance to ask questions about Jewish life in Europe and about Judaism in general. The students had also visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, so that their study of Elie Wiesel’s Night and their encounter with a survivor of the Holocaust would not be the only exposure to shape their knowledge about Jews and Judaism. 

My talk was organized by World History teacher Jaynee Ruiz (who also took most of the photos) and English teacher Charlie Stephens, and arranged by Facing History’s Jack Weinstein, who gave the introduction.  Jack also participated in the Q & A, which started in a quite restrained mode but blossomed into a more robust series of exchanges that touched on questions of history, philosophy, theology, and more personal questions about politics today and the parallels and distinctions that I see between current and historical events.

Among the more interesting questions posed were “Are you ever angry at the world because of what happened in your life?” and “Did your childhood change your faith in God, or do you still believe in God?”  Some of the heartfelt questions asked by these sophomores made my visit to Tennyson a truly enjoyable experience, and hopefully this was true for the students, also.

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Academy SF, San Francisco, CA – March 10, 2017

by George J Elbaum

This was the third consecutive year that I spoke at Academy SF, the new name chosen for the ex-Academy of Arts and Sciences to better establish its own identity as a school separate from the School of the Arts, with which it shares one campus.  Academy SF is a small public high school with a total enrollment of 350 students (82% minority and 48% economically disadvantaged) and its program focuses on “the three Rs:  RELATIONSHIPS, RELEVANCE and RIGOR,” starting with a belief that strong RELATIONSHIPS are the most fundamental part of a successful school.  If students do not feel supported and cared at school, then their academic and social-emotional success in school is compromised.  Also, if students feel that what they are learning is not RELEVANT to them, they are less engaged and less likely to have a positive academic experience.  Finally, if students have a positive relationship with their teachers and staff members and enjoy a relevant learning experience, then the school can provide them with a RIGOROUS curriculum and expectations.  In this respect, the school’s behavioral focus is encouraging students to be positive and free-thinking about their future, modeling respect, empathy, and valuing equity.  The Academy’s small school setting allows its 18 full-time teachers to create an effective learning environment by working closely with students and their families in building a strong community.  Within this community, teachers are able to give more individual attention to students and communicate regularly with parents.

The school also has a unique Wellness Center and Program whose goal is to provide support for students so they may succeed academically and be healthy in body, mind and spirit. To accomplish this, the Wellness Program coordinates and provides non-judgmental, student-focused health, mental health, and substance abuse services and programs for students on campus.

The audience was the school’s entire 10th grade, and the whole event was organized by history teacher Claire Darby and arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves.  Also present were English teacher Ellie Williams and paraprofessionals Paula Rojas, and Erin Lochary.

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with Claire Darby’s World History class

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Norfolk Agricultural High School, Walpole, MA – February 28, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Norfolk County Agricultural High School is a public high school with enrollment of over 500 students from Norfolk County, Massachusetts, and many out-of-county towns.  The school is situated on 365 acres in Walpole and offers specialty training to students who are interested in Animal and Marine Science, Plant Science, Environmental Science, and related Mechanical Technology.  Students attend vocational and academic classes every day.  Grade 9 students explore all programs during their Freshman year, Grade 10 students can narrow their interests during their Sophomore year, and Grade 11 students choose their major prior to the beginning of their Junior year, completing major requirements until graduation.  About 80% of students attend a 2 or 4-year college, and others go to work in many of the fields they studied during their time at the Aggie.

The school’s academic studies include English Language Arts, Social Studies, Sciences and Mathematics.  As part of Social Studies, teacher Wendy Harlow (who organized my visit) teaches civil rights, Holocaust and Human Behavior, and Genocide in the Modern World.  Her students learn to take their civic responsibility seriously, and last year they started their own support effort for transgender rights, per the link below:  http://walpole.wickedlocal.com/news/20160101/students-say-not-in-our-school.  My talk was attended by the entire Freshman class, Seniors in the Facing History elective, plus teachers Wendy Harlow, Brian Kelly, Sam Stupak, Tara McFarland, Mike Ryan, Aaron Chernisky, Stephanie Russo, Amanda Camara, Andrew Davis, Lauren Zysk, Lisa Garrett, Karl Roos, Lauren Zysk, Amber Hall, Katelyn Raftery, Leah Barton, Katie Martin, Dr. Eileen Czyrklis, and librarian Katrina Elich, as well as guidance counselor Joe Huff, assistant principal Sean Crowley, and principal Michael Cournoyer.

My visit was arranged by Judi Bohn, Special Projects Coordinator for Facing History and Ourselves, and for our arrival Wendy Harlow and the English department prepared a “welcome committee” of four students who escorted us to the auditorium and jointly introduced me reading a brief synopsis of my subject and background (see photo below).  It was a very warm welcome, and much appreciated.

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with the students, plus flowers and bag of gifts!

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Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, Boston, MA – February 28, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School is similar to other inner city schools I’ve visited in having a challenging student body and a dedicated and exceptionally qualified staff.  The high diversity student body (92% Black and Hispanic, 5% White and Asian, 3% all other) of 570 in grades 6-8 includes 89% low income and 40% ELL (English Language Learners).  The staff of 79 includes 53 teachers (10.8 student-teacher ratio) which 60% are rated “highly qualified.”  A good example of this is humanities teacher Tommy Simmons, who organized my visit to the school, and whose qualifications include: BA in Communications and Philosophy from Boston College, Masters in Education from Harvard, 2 years teaching in Mozambique with the Peace Corps, and 7 years with Lilla Frederick where “he is currently a 6th grade humanities teacher and wrestling coach. Mr. Simmons is fluent in English and Portuguese, can speak some Spanish, and is proficient in understanding (but not speaking) sass.”

The stated mission of Lilla Frederick is “to help our students develop to their full potential in a welcoming and nurturing environment that fosters strong achievement and positive connections to the larger community and the world they will lead.”  By asking me to speak to his 6th graders about my Holocaust childhood, Tommy focused on “the larger community and the world they will lead.”  While I focus my talks at those who “are old enough to understand but young enough to have an open mind,” Tommy’s 6th graders definitely qualify for being “young enough,” and time will tell if they are also “old enough” to absorb most of my message and carry it onward in their life.

Attending my presentation were also teachers Tim Maher, Michelle Sathan and Veerentra Veeragoudour, and Assistant Principal Meghan McGoldrick and Director of Operations Allan Arrington.  Judi Bohn, Special Projects Coordinator of Facing History and Ourselves, arranged my visit, and sustained me before and after the talk with wonderful home-baked cookies 🙂.

with teacher Tommy Simmons and his class

with teacher Tommy Simmons and his class

 

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Payton Elementary School @ JFCS, San Francisco, CA – February 16, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) is a San Francisco Bay Area social services organization whose mission statement is “Serving individuals and families of all faiths and backgrounds, guided by the Jewish value of caring for those in our community most in need.” As such, JFCS carries a special responsibility within the Jewish community for reaching out to children, the aged, those with special needs, and for the resettlement and acculturation of refugees and immigrants.

Among its many services, the JFCS provides the facilities and arranges presentations on the Holocaust to visiting student groups.  Such day-long visits to the Holocaust Center normally start with a lesson from Holocaust Center staff to provide historical context that ties into and is followed by a presentation from a Holocaust survivor.  My talk today was to 8th grade students from Peyton Elementary School (L-8) in Stockton, who had previously read The Diary of Anne Frank as part of their English-Language Arts curriculum.  This was the 4th consecutive year that they have visited the JFCS, thanks to the efforts of Jen Youngquist, the teacher who organizes this program.  Accompanying the students was teacher Rod Huff.

My talk, preparation, parking, etc., was ably arranged by Nikki Bambauer, JFCS Holocaust Center’s Program Coordinator, while Morgan Blum Schneider, JFCS Holocaust Center’s Director of Education, introduced me to the audience.

 

starting....

starting….

with the audience

photo-op with the audience

 

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Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – February 3, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Milpitas High School (MHS) has a large and highly diverse student body – 3300 students, 37% Asian, 21% Filipino, 19% Hispanic, 19% White, and 4% African-American – and was the very first school in northern California to develop a Facing History course.  Jack Weinstein, Facing History’s Senior Program Advisor (formerly Director), taught at MHS from 1978 to 1997 and integrated Facing History’s resources early on within many of the school’s English courses. Then, in 1990, he developed a full-semester Facing History course focused on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. That course was an inter-disciplinary English and Social Studies course for 3 years, and then it evolved into a Social Studies elective focused not only on the Holocaust but on multiple case studies of genocide, human rights, and issues of race in American history.  When Weinstein left MHS in 1997 to establish the Bay Area office of Facing History, it was continued by other teachers so the course is among the longest-running electives in the school’s history.  In addition, nearly all freshman English courses now include a multi-week unit on the Holocaust with the study of Elie Wiesel’s Night as its centerpiece.

This was my third visit to MHS, and the 300-some students attending this talk were again well-prepared.   What made this visit especially memorable for me was the Q & A during which the students asked several questions that I’ve never been asked before, such as “Considering what you’ve been through, what do you fear the most?” and “Because of today’s situation, do you think a genocide of Muslims in America is a possibility?”  The students were from the multiple freshman English courses taught by Lindsay Gutierrez (formerly Lindsay Mohundro), who organized this year’s event, and Annie Marple, Caitlin Bellotti and Jennifer Loomis, all teachers who clearly pass their own enthusiasm to their students.  Also attending the talk was Phil Morales, MHS Principal.  Arrangements for my talk and the introduction were again made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.

Letters from Students

A few weeks after my visit to Milpitas High School I received a thick envelope with letters from teacher Lindsay Gutierrez and students from her freshman English class and those taught by other English teachers.   After some delay due to my travels, my wife Mimi and I finally read each of the dozens of letters, with Mimi reading each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally.   We were touched by the students’ heartfelt openness and sensitivity reflected in these letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story and the stated effect it had on them.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below, and the very large number of these excerpts shows me how well these students were prepared for my talk and, consequently, how well they understood and felt it.

  • Your talk was especially timely given the divisive political climate in our country, and your words gave me and other students the courage and conviction to be an upstanders in our own lives.
  • In this recent political climate and with neo-Nazis becoming bolder in the U.S., it’s important to know the history of the Holocaust and its lasting effects on Jewish people.
  • It is important to know the facts and numbers but it is even more important to hear first witness accounts and individual stories. Hearing your experience opened my eyes.
  • I’m writing this letter to thank you for sharing a part of your past for the good of the future.
  • Not every Holocaust survivor had to have had the experience of the gruesome concentration camps and witness brutal killings. In your presentation I was expecting a story not much different from Elie Wiesel’s, but instead I heard about your past that was on a wholly different level than Elie’s.  Bigger or smaller, it does not matter, Elie and you shared the same pain and sorrows with different experiences, yet came up with the same outcome of enduring those occurrences and sharing your story with today’s youth.
  • I think back about how I just take everything I have for granted. Your presentation made me realize that I should appreciate everything I have now and how lucky I am to be here today.  It also inspired me to have more faith in my God and not to give up or lose hope.
  • Reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel I did not get to really understand what it did to those people, but when I got to hear your story it really hit me that this was such a horrifying event.
  • From the story you told us about waiting so long to tell your story, I could tell how hard it was to decide to open up.
  • Your story did not only give me a much rounder insight into the Holocaust, I know that it made me a better person in all I do. That is what you gave us: a reason to be courageous.  It is one of the greatest gifts a person can receive.
  • Your story has changed my life and you need to know that. Every time I have the choice of helping a person, I will think back to those families that hid you and how you continued with your first speech ever.  Thank you with the utmost respect for the gift of courage you gave us and for forgoing your right to privacy to give us this gift.
  • Reading books in a classroom is one thing, but being able to hear the voice of a witness is like jumping into a time machine and diving straight into the heart of history.
  • Aside from the historical aspect, your presentation taught me the value of refusing to be a bystander and speaking out against the acts of injustice.
  • From your account I have learned to always be for something and never against, to never achieve something by tearing others down, and that every single story matters.
  • The knowledge you have shared with us will not be forgotten.
  • I asked you a question: “If you were able to go back in time from your childhood, knowing what you know now, what would you change?” I remember you responding: “If only there was a button for the Holocaust not to happen.”  Though your response was quite concise, I thought harder about your response and wondered how there should be a “light switch” for the aspects in life.  Although, not having that “light switch” makes an individual who they are and stronger from their past.
  • I cannot express how much your heartrending tale has changed my perspective on my life and life itself. I see it now as a true gift, something that was so easily taken away from many during the years of the Holocaust.  I hope you continue to speak to more people about your story and continue to touch their hearts like you did mine.
  • I learned a lot from your answer to the question of how you came to write a book about your experiences. I had no idea that it was so hard for Holocausts survivor to commit to writing a book based on their experiences.  I now understand that it is painful for them to write about these past experiences as they are full of unpleasant memories.
  • Feelings of anger and hatred towards humanity stirred inside me as people can commit horrifying sins. However, you acted like a doctor and prescribed me with hope.
  • Thank you so much for sparing your time to narrate your story of a stolen childhood.
  • Thanks to you, I realized that I should think positively throughout any situation. You have given me faith, everything can get better even with bumpy roads.
  • Everything you said at the theatre made me realize a couple of things. I should cherish every moment with my family because not everyone could do the same.  Also, you taught me that I should act as an upstander and listen to my parents more often.  You would have been out of luck if you did not listen to your mom.
  • This new experience has really changed me, and made me think more about putting myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve really started to consider others’ points of view more.
  • I especially thank you for showing me that if you keep going and work hard, there will be results at the end that may be worth all that suffering and hardship.
  • Thank you so much for coming and speaking to us, it was truly inspirational and with perfect timing. I was personally, dangerously close to losing hope on continuing to follow music.  Despite that, you came to talk, I came to listen, and it reminded me that I needed to keep going to get anywhere.
  • During your speech you talked about forgetting the Polish language because you didn’t want to think about the Holocaust, and I find that relatable because if something like that happened to me I would do whatever it took to forget about what happened.
  • Thank you again for coming to our school and inspiring us to live life and don’t let anyone stop you from doing things you love.
  • It could not have been easy to talk about something as private and devastating as your childhood, and your willingness to talk about it is invaluable to many people.
  • It’s important that people understand what happened in the past and why repeating history is not beneficial to anyone, especially with all of the bias and prejudice going on right now.
  • Even though I had never seen or lived through an event as devastating as the Holocaust, your presentation really opened my eyes to take in the fact that it was a real event.
  • If it weren’t for you, I don’t think that many of the students at Milpitas High School would have really understood the importance of everything that happened in our history.
  • A lot of students take what they learn as a joke. They don’t seem to understand the importance of what they are being taught, but because of speakers like you their eyes are opened to a whole new world, and they understand once they have seen the importance of not forgetting with their own eyes.
  • It definitely wasn’t until I heard your story that I truly believed that something as terrible and chilling as the Holocaust was real and took place in history.
  • Your story has taught me that there is no point dwelling on the past, or looking into the future. You have to live the now.  Thank you, again, for your wonderful story.  It had a great impact on how I will look at my life.
  • We are the last generation to actually “be a big part” of the Holocaust. By the next generation the survivors of the Holocaust will be gone and there will be no living witness to describe the gruesome events that happened.  As a witness to you story I will make sure to pass it down to my children and I am sure they will thank you.
  • Before your account, I was baffled as to how hate could cause a genocide as massive as the Holocaust. I wondered how humanity could possibly kill 6 million people because of hate and prejudice.  After your talk, I realized that as soon as we see a particular group of people as being inferior, violence can easily result.
  • Your story has brought light into a dark room because you filled my head with real events that I never knew could have existed.
  • I haven’t personally cared much for the horrific events of World War II as most others did. Yet, when you mentioned your relationship with your mom, you lit a fire in me that has made me want to focus my attention on the Holocaust.
  • I hope you will continue to move the hearts and minds of many others around the world by standing up for what many victims could not say. 
the audience

the audience

starting, with Caitlin Bellotti and Jack Weinstein looking on

starting my talk with Caitlin Bellotti and Jack Weinstein looking on

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Kent Mountain View Academy, SeaTac, WA – January 30, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Kent Mountain View Academy (KMVA) is a grade 3-12 public school in SeaTac, WA, about 30 mi. south of Seattle.  Designated as one of Washington’s Innovative Schools in each of the past several years, KMVA is small – it has the smallest campus by far of the 40 schools in Kent School District, which dictates that its peak enrollment will never be more than 400 students.  Yet KMVA is the only site in its District able to facilitate the needs of elementary through senior high students, and it does so by its efforts to be a community partnership including students, families, and the District to provide educational options and flexibility in a stimulating environment to produce academic achievement.  Because of its small size KMVA is better able to keep students from falling through the cracks, and it allows the teachers to work with them over a course of multiple years.

KMVA is unusual in several aspects: students attend it by choice rather than by geographical location, many have been home schooled prior to KMVA, and the school maintains a strong focus on family and community.  For example, it groups 3rd-6th graders together and 7th-12th graders together so that students can maintain contact with their siblings, and 3rd-6th graders are grouped in multi-age home rooms where the first and last parts of each day are spent so that siblings start and end each school day together.  There is also special education on a limited scale and these students can be integrated into regular classes as ability allows.  A feeling of community/small family among the staff is clearly evident and surely benefits the educational environment for both regular and special students.  This is especially attractive to families who have previously home schooled and are interested in accessing public education, families who want all of their children on one campus, students who are looking for a small environment where they remain with a core group of teachers over a period of years, and students interested in a highly academic environment.

This was my third visit to KMVA, the previous being in 2012 and 2015, and on each of those visits I   received a truly heart-warming welcome, so now my expectations were high.  This time, however, the welcome was beyond my expectations, starting with a Reserved sign and my name on a parking place, several students at school’s entrance holding a large WELCOME sign and flowers, plus Annelise, a student who baked and greeted me with lemon bars on previous visits holding a large container-full (I ate one immediately!), a student escort to a conference room for a quick pre-talk tea, and most heart-warming: meeting students such as Annelise, Jason and Dylan, now a head or two taller than they were at our first meeting 5 years ago.

My visit was superbly organized by Pat Gallagher, KMVA’s Instructional Facilitator, and I especially appreciated his personal greeting.  The audience of approximately 120 included students from grades 7 thru 12, and teachers Josh Murphy, Amanda Greear, Nora Douglass, Patricia Billet, Kristy Banks, Phil Jerde and Matt Johnson, and Pat Gallagher.  My participation was arranged by Julia Thompson of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Pat Gallagher's introduction

Pat Gallagher’s introduction

starting the talk

starting the talk

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