Milpitas High School, Milpitas, CA – December 8, 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 and Ourselves’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 1996 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 4th visit to MHS, and the students attending this talk were again well-prepared and we had a good, engaging Q&A session.  The students were from the multiple Social Studies courses taught by Jennifer Loomis and Caitlin Bellotti, who organized this event and who pass their own enthusiasm to their students.  Also attending the talk were Francis Rojas, MHS Principal, and Ruben Mata, MHS’s at-risk intervention specialist.   Arrangements for my talk and the introduction were again made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History.

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Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, Walnut Creek, CA – December 4, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Contra Costa School of Performing Arts (SPA) was quite a surprise for me.  Before speaking at a school for the first time I try to learn a bit about it – is it new or old, its enrollment, its “flavor”, etc –  by visiting its website.  However, except for the “Performing Arts” in its name and in its mission statement (“The mission of Contra Costa School of Performing Arts is to provide a distinguished, pre-professional experience in performing arts within a college and career preparatory setting. We believe in fostering a culture of excellence with the core values of rigor, relevance, resilience and relationships.”) its website did not give me many facts or feeling about the school, and many of the positive descriptives were similar to those of many other schools. (Yes, I also learned that, in addition to standard academic fare, “SPA offers pre-conservatory style training in 5 Arts Majors: Dance, Instrumental Music, Production and Design, Theatre and Vocal Music.”)    I therefore made a list of questions, even asked a few of these* when met at the entrance by Stacey Wickware, the school’s Instructional Coach (*Answers: school opened last year, so the 2017-2018 school year is only its 2nd year; current enrollment is 404), and we agreed to continue this discussion after my talk to the 10th graders.

This follow-on discussion was, for me, a fascinating eye-opener about the birth pangs of starting a charter school, for which we were joined by SPA’s founder and Exec. Director, Neil McChesney.    After several applications to the local and the county school boards, the fledging school held its first classes (6th through 10th grades) in a sub-divided gymnasium, moving into its current quarters this year, and will have its first graduating class of 23 students in June 2019.

The purpose in founding the SPA was to provide a quality educational environment aimed at students with interest & inclination in creative arts to prepare them for college and for the competitive arts world.  Because many students of performing arts have not only a personal passion but also enhanced sensitivity (which is both positive & negative), they benefit from personal mentoring to prepare them for the culture and behavior in the adult world.  This led to SPA’s focus on SHINE: Show responsibility, Have Respect, Invest in Yourself, Notice Others, Encourage Excellence.  All students get a mentor and a Chromebook to allow learning at their own pace, and each day starts with a one-hour “Spotlight” class of students/mentor interactions as needed, plus a weekly one-on-one session with the mentor.

My talk was introduced by Social Science teacher Karen Montgomery who also managed the Q&A, which I particularly appreciated because the questions were focused on my experiences and on our current society, such as “What can we as individuals do to fight indifference, hatred and racism today?” and “How can we help people with PTSD?” and “What one thing would you like us to get out of your visit today?”  Also, two small but very personal touches: immediately after the Q&A a student gave me a little card with “Thank You” and a lovely flower she drew on it, and another student asked if I like butterscotch, and when I answered “Of course” she gave me a butterscotch popsicle.  Very, very nice!

The event was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves and organized by Stacey Wickware and Lisa Kingsbury, SPA’s Director of Curriculum and Integration, along with Karen Montgomery and English teacher, Veronica Woods.  Attending it also were SPA dance instructor, Katherine Orloff, instructional assistant, Christopher Totah, and Peg Borbely Covert, Campus Security Volunteer.

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Dougherty Valley High School, San Ramon, CA – November 30, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Dougherty Valley High School (DVHS) was established in 2007, which explains its very apropos slogan “The Tradition Starts Now!”  In these 9 years its enrollment has grown rapidly from 570 students to approximately 3200 now.  Despite this rapid growth, it scored the highest Academic Performance Index in the San Ramon school district and the 27th highest in California, and was awarded a gold medal and ranked in the top 500 schools in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report – an impressive growth in both enrollment and ratings.

Today was the 3rd time I’ve spoken at DVHS to a class of 11th and 12th graders in the elective course Facing History: Holocaust and Human Behavior, and once again I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the students and their teacher, Dana Pattison.  As before, the students were very well prepared and thoughtful, and this time during the Q&A I was even asked several very meaningful and personal questions that have never been asked in my 150+ talks in the last 7 years.  I very much welcome it when it happens, as it makes me think deeply about the issue being asked.  In fact, after the Q&A I was moved to tell the students that they are lucky to have Dana Pattison for their teacher.  It was a very gratifying experience for me, arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves.

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Social Studies Teachers Workshop at JFCS, San Francisco, CA – November 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.”  JFCS’s Holocaust Center also conducts teacher training seminars focused on teaching moral courage and social responsibility.  As part of that effort, the Center held a pre-conference clinic for a group of teachers from throughout the U.S. and South America who were participating in the annual educator conference of the National Council for the Social Studies, and who chose the JFCS seminar on Holocaust education as their area of interest. My talk was a part of this seminar, and I much enjoyed fielding their questions and the one-on-one conversations with several of them afterwards.

The event was arranged by Nikki Bambauer, Program Coordinator of the JFCS Holocaust Center, and was attended by Morgan Blum Schneider, its Director of Education, plus JFCS’s new Associate Director Alexis Herr.  Whereas the Q&A at the end of each talk is always my favorite as then I learn and can address the interests of the audience, this time it came with an added and very pleasant surprise: presumably in response to my sweet tooth that I describe in my talks, Morgan brought out a plateful of chocolate chip cookies for all of us, and I found myself answering questions while munching on a delicious cookie.  Thank you, Morgan!


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Oceana High School, Pacifica, CA – November 8, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Oceana High School is a small public high school in northern Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 652 students, of which 81% are minority and 32% are economically disadvantaged, but it nevertheless has earned a “Best High Schools in California” rating by the US News & World Report Rankings and an Academic Performance Index of 817.  It has accomplished this by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students.  I spoke at Oceana 2 years ago and was touched when a student who attended that talk, remembered that I spoke about a sweet tooth, and gave me a candy bar before my arrival.

My presentation was organized by Oceana’s Humanities teachers Coreen Hartig, Keziah David, and Roisin Madden for approximately 150 10th grade students who have been learning social history and concepts, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universe of Obligation, the stages of genocide, the Armenian Genocide, Eugenics, and the Nazis’ rise to power. Their year-long study is based on Facing History and Ourselves’ focus on oppression and resistance: what are their causes and what are their consequences?

Also attending the presentation were Paul Orth, Science Teacher, Peter Menard, Special Education Teacher, Janice O’Leary, Library Assistant, and Bruce Higgins, Student Welfare & Attendance Monitor.  The presentation was arranged by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves, with whom I rode to-and-from Pacifica, discussing social and basic human obligations and the deep gratification of truly personal philanthropy – giving one’s time & effort, not funds – which I’ve observed from most teachers.



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Katherine Delmar Burke School, San Francisco, CA – November 3, 2017

by George J Elbaum

In 1908 Katherine Delmar Burke founded her school to fill an obvious need: young women who wanted to be educated enough to attend college faced often-insurmountable barriers.   More than 100 years later, her school (Burke’s) still has the same mission: “to educate, encourage and empower girls.  The school combines academic excellence with an appreciation for childhood so that students thrive as learners, develop a strong sense of self, contribute to community, and fulfill their potential, now and throughout life.”  Burke’s now has approximately 400 students (K-8) and a unique 3.5-acre campus in a residential district of San Francisco with mostly open space: a large grass athletic field, a sports court and two multipurpose courtyards with play structures. Its facilities include a large library, innovation labs, science labs, several art, music and drama studios, and a gymnasium/ auditorium.  The faculty-to-students ratio is 1:7, and the average tenure of faculty at Burke’s is 10 years.

Burke’s prides itself in having its students graduate with a strong academic foundation and also a love of learning — not just for the sake of grades. This reflects Burke’s long-standing commitment to preserving the spirit of exploration while students master traditional skills and concepts.  Upper School students have a comprehensive program that includes core academic subjects plus art, music, drama, and physical education, while 7th and 8th graders also have classes in public speaking and service learning plus many electives. The teaching of computer skills is integrated into the curriculum.

A unique program at Burke’s is the Makery, in which Burke’s decided to take a hard look at its outdated technology labs and replace these with space that emphasizes “make” and “creativity” and allows for innovative teaching and “tinkering.”  This facility provides materials, tools (including a 3D printer), and talented faculty which allow students to model their work for each other in a collaborative, open environment.   The ultimate goal of the Makery is to create a joyful learning environment for the girls that promotes creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking.

This, my second talk at Burke’s, was attended by all the 8th grade students, organized by teacher Debbie Yoon, and arranged by Brian Fong of Facing History and Ourselves.  Also attending were Ian Van Wert, Upper School Science Teacher; Maria Shuman, Library and Innovation Support Assistant; Michelle Loomis, Upper School Library and Digital Media Specialist; Ron Malek, Upper School Learning Specialist; and Filomena Spero, Associate Director of Advancement.

Letters from Students

A week after visiting Burke’s I received a large envelope with 40+ letters from the 8th grade students and one from the teacher.  As has become our habit by now, after dinner my wife Mimi read each letter aloud as I listened and absorbed it mentally and emotionally. We were touched by the students’ sensitivity, insight and heartfelt honesty, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There was an unusually large number of statements in these letters that resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • Your witness statement inspires me to continue to teach social justice to my students – it really makes a difference! The students are forever changed to be voices of change!
  • Thanks again for your courage and drive to share your message of love, tolerance, hope and resiliency in the face of hatred and evil.
  • Your story has inspired me to do better in school and to thank my parents for the life they have given me. You have opened up a passion in me that I didn’t know existed.
  • I was deeply affected by this story because it taught me to love life and not take anything for granted.
  • I was on the edge of my seat the entire time that you were talking.
  • One thing in your presentation that stood out for me was when you said how in life we have a choice: to succumb to the hate in the world, or to stand up for what is right. This impacted me because I realized that we can all make a difference in the world, but it is one’s decision whether to use that power for bad or good.
  • I learned more from your talk than just facts and details. I learned that everyone’s life should be valued the same, that there is always more than one side to a story, and the importance of educating students on topics such as the Holocaust.
  • The story of your life was told in such a way that you were able to transport the audience to a different place with the great detail provided in the small snippets of your life.
  • Your story was extremely humbling, and has inspired me to make a difference in the world, be it large or small, because I have learned the importance of helping and standing up for others.
  • I thank you for sharing a piece of your heart with us. We are all better for it.
  • From a genuine space in my heart I want to thank you for the inspiring and touching words we heard from you. You made me feel closer to my roots of Judaism, and closer to the millions of broken hearts, dreams, and most importantly lives snatched away from the innocent.
  • Because I am African-American, I feel like both of our cultures share similar past experiences, so it was really great to feel that connection.
  • Your story inspired me to be more thankful for the privileged life that I’m fortunate enough to live.
  • The part when you said that if your mother had not come in time to give the document to the Nazi so you could stay in the ghetto and not get shipped off to the concentration camp really made me realize that you were so close to death, but your mother came just in time. This really made me realize that a lot of people were not as lucky as you.
  • My friend and I think you should enter the lottery since you are so lucky!
  • I have been thinking a lot this week, since I am Jewish, my family and ancestors could have gone through that if they lived where you did.
  • The world is very ignorant, full of unreasonable hat and violence, and people like you can change much of that.
  • I am so lucky that I have had parents and teachers who have taught me not to discriminate. Even in today’s world, our own president is saying bad things about Muslims and how they are terrorists, which is not true.
  • Thank you for reminding me that I have a choice in who I become in this world and inspiring me to be the change in the world.
  • You have courage, true courage to speak to us. I hope you understand that you have become a role model for me and plenty of others who have heard your wise words.
  • No one young or old deserves the hatred that millions of Jews faced. I thank you for sharing your story, and not just with Burke’s but with the world!
  • It was very interesting how you consider yourself to live by the golden rule, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.” You have inspired me to live by this saying, and to always do the right thing even if it is the hard thing.
  • Your story will stay with me as long as I am alive, and I will keep it close to my heart.
  • Your story is a wonderful example of how people survive injustice and hate. Your story was also relevant to what is happening in the world today.
  • I have been thinking about the stories you have told us, and I have changed the way I look at the world and the way I think. You said to either live our lives with hate or with love, which has stuck with me.
  • Your presentation showed all of us what being fearless and brave looks like in an environment filled with hate.
  • I really appreciated how you didn’t dance around the truth. Often when teachers tell stories about the Holocaust they focus on only positive stories and try to diminish the suffering, but you spoke with such a clear voice and stated things so simply, I could understand them without feeling patronized.
  • The courage and strength of your mother has empowered me to learn more about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and has driven me to find ways to help the refugees.
  • Even though I have read books and watched movies about World War 2, hearing your story gave me a whole new perspective of what families had to face.
  • I was truly moved and taught a valuable lesson about my actions and how they affect others.
  • After you spoke I could picture the fear and the worry of not knowing what will happen tomorrow.
  • Your speech opened my eyes to the cruelties that happened during the Holocaust, and how harsh mankind can be.
  • You asked us: “If we had the option to risk our lives to save people from death, would we do it?” When you first asked it, I was hones with myself, and no, I wouldn’t have.  After hearing your story and putting myself in their shoes, I changed my mind.  Now I would certainly risk my life to save others.  This is the impact that you had on my thoughts.
  • Thank you for showing us to never lose hope.
  • I don’t think that many kids today can relate to the amount of stress and tragedy you must have endured in your childhood.
  • I was really shocked how the one image on the cover of your book was able to make a lasting impact on your life, not only defining what your career would be in the future, but also portraying fear and your longing to be free and out of hiding during the war.
  • You helped me comprehend the horrific events of the Holocaust, and I feel the motivation to help prevent that hatred and some of our own examples of cruelty in the world today.
  • Even though I have been reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and learning about her experiences in World War II, I was still so shocked when you told us about the horror you lived through. It was very eye opening to hear about this terrible time in history from someone who survived it.
  • Though I have not endured anything near to what you did, I too hope to have a positive impact on the world someday.
  • I was really impacted when you told us how many San Franciscos would have been killed to match the number of people who were actually killed in the Holocaust.
  • Your story was so amazing, moving and interesting to hear and it really helped me to relate to Anne Frank and her diary more than I could before.
  • You were telling your story in a way that I felt like I could have been there with you the entire time, watching it happen.
  • I was so moved when you told us that for about 65 years you did not talk about your amazing story or the Holocaust, because I am beyond grateful that you do now.

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Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, San Francisco, CA – October 20, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHC) is an innovative Catholic high school with an enrollment of 1300 students and a dynamic blend of liberal arts, scientific inquiry, and 21st-century pedagogy which develops resourceful, independent thinkers.   The school prides itself on its commitment to its educational philosophy, Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve, and it offers an array of courses, from college preparatory through honors and advanced placement curriculum.  SHC’s commitment to rigorous academics and social justice helps mold students into hardworking, thoughtful and altruistic adults.

Incoming students are assigned a school counselor with whom they will continue to consult until graduation.  In junior year, students are also assigned a college advisor who will guide them through the college research, application and financial aid process.  SHC’s Counseling and Advising Program provides parents and students the academic guidance they need to navigate a challenging college prep curriculum commensurate with the individual student’s talents and aspirations, making the transition from SHC to college as seamless as possible.

Because SHC lies in the heart of San Francisco’s technology center and near Silicon Valley and has an active network of alumni, parents and professional partners, it established the Student Launch Initiative (SLI) as the area’s preeminent high school entrepreneurship program.  This program teaches students to identify problems and design solutions that positively impact the lives of their peers, their families, and their community.  Through SLI’s workshops and speakers’ series, industry innovators and entrepreneurs introduce students to entrepreneurial concepts including ideation, project development and business model development.  SLI goes beyond the classroom to provide hands-on experience, practical learning, direct mentorship, and seed funding to help launch student projects.

Attending my talk were the 11th and 12th grade students of Comparative Religion taught by Ismael Ruiz, 12th grade Civics students, 11th and 12th grade AP Language students and 10th grade World History students.  The event was organized by Ismael Ruiz and Margi Beima, SHC’s Director of Community Learning Partnerships, Assistant to the President, and Head Girls Volleyball Coach…and a very enthusiastic person!  Also attending the talk were faculty members Julie Phelan, Erin Wiley, Jack Schindler and Gregg Francheschi.   Arrangement for the talk were made by Nikki Bambauer, JFCS’s Program Coordinator.


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