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.

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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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The Athenian School, Danville, CA – October 19, 2017

by George J Elbaum

The Athenian School is an experiential college preparatory private middle and high school with 524 students in grades 6-12 situated on a beautiful 75 acres of rolling, oak-covered hills.  The students come from a dozen different countries (including 60 students who board on campus) and nearly 50% are people of color.  When school opened in 1965, its founder planned for both integration and coeducation, a radical concept at the time when very few private schools were recruiting students of color or were coeducational.

Athenian’s unofficial motto is “Life is an adventure of intellectual exploration and meaningful contribution,” and every day its students from the East Bay and around the world practice leadership, teamwork, empathy, and global citizenship, while mastering academic subjects by experiencing their application firsthand.  The school’s academic performance is very impressive, per 2017 test averages:

The school’s diversity, racial as well religious and cultural, is shown by the diversity of student activity clubs: Asian Club, Outdoor Adventure Club, Interweave (Gay-Straight Alliance), Jew Crew, Black Student Union, Christian Club, Interfaith Dialogue Club, Philanthropy Club, Hip Hop Club, Tea Club, Entrepreneurship, Round Square Club, and more.

Also impressive is the school’s environmental stewardship, which has been a core value since it opened.  Campus initiatives in solar energy, water conservation, waste diversion by recycling have resulted in environmental awards from the US Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, CalRecycle and others, and its efforts also teach students to steward the environment.  Students are also taught to appreciate the environment though the Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE), whereby   small groups of classmates explore the beauty of the High Sierra mountains or the Death Valley desert.  While navigating off-trail terrain, cooking group meals, rock climbing, and setting up camp, they learn how to collaborate, problem-solve, empathize, and believe in oneself and others.

My talk at The Athenian School was a part of the Holocaust Seminar, a history elective for 11th & 12th grade students, and was also attended by a 10th grade French class.  The talk was organized by Lea Hartog, humanities teacher, and arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves.  Also attending were the school’s librarian Jim Sternberg, biology teacher Elizabeth Wright, as well as relatives and parents of students.

Letters from Students

Several days after visiting Athenian we traveled to New York for a week, and on our return the mail included a large envelope with 11 letters from the students.  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 and insightfulness as reflected in their letters, 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.

  • Learning about the innocence that you kept and that you lost was particularly interesting to me.
  • Having to live without your mother, but not understanding exactly how much danger you were in, was a complex and fascinating juxtaposition to me.
  • One can only imagine how repressing memories of the Holocaust and then choosing to deal with them so much later in life took a toll on you, and I thank you for wanting to tell it to the world.
  • Putting human faces and emotions to what I only see as pictures was very impactful and adds another layer to my understanding of the Holocaust.
  • I thought it was really poignant that the family with the dachshund had to kill it in the night to keep it from barking and alerting the Nazis. As I have a pet dog myself, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to do something like that, so it really clearly illustrated to me the desperate times of war, and the need to survive at any cost that the Jews possessed.
  • Honestly, the idea of hearing someone speak about something so gruesome was rather intimidating for me, and I was nervous to listen to someone with firsthand experience rather than simply reading from a textbook.
  • I realized that simply discussing Jewish victims as numbers of people that were killed has no benefit to my learning and emotional connection, and your words truly transformed my idea of what the Holocaust was.
  • The public often focuses most on the hopelessness and desperation of the Jewish community at the time, and, while these feelings are completely valid, your description of your mother’s work and the other uprisings proved to me that people were doing more than sitting back and waiting to be killed.
  • Even though fear was one of the largest driving factors of the Holocaust, you gave me the ability to understand that there were incredibly intelligent and strong-willed people that attempted to fight back against the hatred, even if times may have seemed to be without any hope.
  • I thank you so much for helping me understand the process of struggle, luck, and perseverance, and I cannot express how important it is that others get the opportunity to hear your story as well.
  • The main point that I was intrigued about was how you were only seconds away from destruction multiple times. Your mom showing the paper just seconds before it was too late and Leon calling you just seconds before the explosion of the hand grenade are incredible.  You, and we as well, were very fortunate to be on the right side of time when it came down to the wire.
  • Trying to educate young people about not being “anti” and instead standing up for what is right is a very powerful and meaningful message.
  • Simply finding a grenade on the side of the road isn’t something we are used to today, and it speaks to the brutality and cruelty of the war.
  • The story you shared about the dog being choked to death was impactful to me. I have a dog that is like a part of my family and I am sure this was the same with the dog-owners who were with you in the shed.
  • Your story brought me to tears but hearing about the choking death of the dog got me bawling.
  • I really appreciated hearing your religious beliefs and your opinion on what we should be doing about prejudice in this country.
  • You really are touching lives and you certainly touched mine by telling your story, and I know you will touch many more.
  • The beginning of your story, where you set the scene of how the entire Jewish population of Warsaw was living in a miniscule portion of the city, surrounded by wall and barbed wire, gave me a much more realistic, vivid understanding of the Holocaust.
  • Thank you for expanding my perspective of the emotional damage that the Holocaust created. I often struggle to find hope when in a dark moment of my life, but your story has inspired me to try and find the hope that lies in the future.

with audience

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Seabury Middle School, Tacoma, WA – October 16, 2017 (PM)

by George J Elbaum

Seabury Middle School opened in September 2009, founded on the belief that intellectually advanced students learn and grow most deeply when engaged in projects that are relevant, challenging and meaningful.  Working in collaboration not only with other students but with community organizations and local experts, students can develop leadership, participate in community service, and engage in rigorous studies that truly make a difference in their own lives and in their community.  The school’s program features a unique integrated curriculum in which students make the city their classroom: they take physical education classes at the downtown Tacoma YMCA, do research at the Tacoma Public Library, visit the Tacoma Farmers Market and eat lunch at local cafés.  Their art experiences include museum visits and hands-on learning such as creating their own piece at a local glass artist’s studio.

The program for 6th, 7th and 8th graders is based on 3 overall concepts and 3 major trips:

Year One – Concept: Home

Students learn about Washington State and Tacoma history as they explore how our community’s past helps shape its present and future.  In science, they study genetics and travel to Mount Rainier and local waterways to discover local geology and environment.  Projects include constructing earthquake-safe building models, a Washington virtual road trip and a family oral history project.  A study of Shakespeare culminates in a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Year Two – Concept: The Unknown

Students become deeper thinkers as they tackle the unknowns of the ever-changing global world, discussing international relations, trade, human rights, world religions, philosophy and ethics.  Language arts focuses on science fiction and fantasy, and science includes astronomy, quantum physics, psychology and neurology.  The year culminates in a trip to New York City and participation in a Model United Nations conference.

Year Three – Concept: Modernity

Students explore the historical events that shaped the modern world through struggle, innovation, and the desire to make it a better place.  They move incrementally through time, finding connections between the World Wars and the Holocaust, the development of jazz and changes in American culture, the civil rights movement, and the space race.  A partnership with a local senior citizen community provides opportunities for students to meet with those who have lived through some of the events they are studying.  Science study looks at advances from the 20th century, particularly the dramatic gains in  microbiology and DNA. The year will culminate with a trip to France where students visit important landmarks from their study of WWII, such as the beaches of Normandy and various Holocaust memorials.  The 8th graders also complete a Capstone Project, which requires them to pick a subject of interest, research it in depth, and complete a community service project around that subject.

My visit was organized by Jenna Greenfield, the Middle School’s Social Studies teacher, and arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.  The event was attended by Sandi Wollum, Seabury’s Head of School, teachers Jared Mackenzie and Tiffany Price, administrator Jenn Parker, and parents of several students.

with students

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St. Luke School, Shoreline, WA – October 16, 2017 (AM)

by George J Elbaum

This was the 3rd time I spoke at St. Luke School in the last 6 years, and I truly looked forward to returning.  My key memories of both previous visits were of an inspirational teacher, Rosemary Conroy, and her 8th grade students who reflected her enthusiasm.  My visit today only reinforced those memories, especially of Ms. Conroy’s infectious enthusiasm and her efforts to help her students become good citizens of the world, especially in today’s environment of growing intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia toward the “others.”

St. Luke School teaches more than 300 students in K-8 grades based on the belief that “quality Catholic education teaches the whole child spiritually, emotionally, academically and socially.”  The 8th grade Social Studies Curriculum, as organized and taught by Rosemary Conroy, is very intensive as it covers U.S. history, Washington State history, geography, economics, politics, and current events.  The curriculum highlights the formative periods of U.S. history: Revolutionary War, development of the Constitution & Bill of Rights, Civil War, WWI and WWII, and it includes an in-depth look at the Holocaust.  Where possible, Ms. Conroy invites outside speakers who witnessed first-hand the events being studied, such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Nisei relocation program, WWII POW camps and the Tuskegee Airmen.

Rosemary not only teaches but “walks the walk” in her role on the Teacher Advisory Board of the Holocaust Center for Humanity as well as her 3 months of volunteer work in Cambodia.  In her thank-you note to me she wrote: “I won’t feel too badly if my students can’t name the first 10 Amendments when they leave my class in June, but I will be devastated if they can’t accept others and treat them with dignity, respect and kindness.”  The world needs more Rosemarys!

The event was attended by 41 eighth graders and numerous teachers and parents of St. Luke School, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Letters from Students

Several days after returning from Seattle we traveled to New York for a week, and on our return the mail included a large envelope with a wonderful note from teacher Rosemary Conroy and letters from her students.  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’ openness and sensitivity as reflected in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There were very many statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • After you hugged a friend of mine and were laughing over it you told us something very important: that if people hugged more they would fight less and the world would be a better place. With all the current events going on in the world this advice is important to my friend and me.  I hope I get to see you again, maybe one day I will bump into you at a gigantic dessert buffet.
  • You said a phrase during your presentation that stuck with me. “Be for things, not against things.”  To me this is a life lesson that you have taught me.  You can either be the bully or the commendable person, and I never want to be the bully.
  • Watching you tell your story in person opened all of us to a new view on the reality of this disaster. The biggest knowledge I took away from your presentation was: Be For Things, Not Against Them.  It truly resonated with me and has given me a new and more positive view on life in general.
  • One statistic that struck me was how many Jews were killed each month. The image of the entire Seattle population being wiped out every 6 months made me sick.
  • I also really enjoyed how much detail you spoke in. It gave me the ability to actually picture what situations you were in.
  • You made me feel like I was there with you… and I could see the color of the plane and could sense the fear that everyone had.
  • You were able to paint a clear picture in my head and heart of what happened to you during and after the war.
  • Not too long ago I lost my mother, and you taught me that even in times of despair there is room to grow. Thank you for speaking to my class and opening my eyes to a new way of thinking.
  • I will carry your message of being for, not against, with me forever, along with your story as proof that hope can be found in even the bleakest of places.
  • One takeaway I have is that you need to stand up for people who are being bullied.
  • You have inspired me to live life everyday to its fullest, because you don’t know if or when your life will take a dramatic turn.
  • I was very inspired by your ability to remain grateful to everyone who helped you even when they weren’t entirely nice to you. Thank you so much, and I hope I can hear you speak again sometime.
  • I know some people would never be able to smile if they have gone through what you have, but you were able to make a joke and not only laugh at yourself but make others laugh also. It shows that not only you have overcome your past but also came to terms with it.
  • After hearing your story I now realize how lucky I am by getting to live peacefully with almost no threat. You have survived what many don’t want to know.
  • I think you really showed all of us how the best version of us can be.
  • We are in an IB school at St. Luke, meaning we have attributes we hold our entire community and student body to. These attributes include Risk-Taker, Communicator, Thinker, Reflective, Principled, etc.  I think you exhibited all of these in your life.
  • I really hope you come back to our school to share your incredible story with the younger graders when they are in 8th I want you to inspire others in St. Luke like you did me.
  • After hearing you speak I discovered how truly oblivious I really was to this awful tragedy. What I took away from hearing your story was that we should “be for things, not against.”  Hearing this really did make me reflect on my life and how I could apply these words to it.  I now have a new perspective on life.
  • Life can be hard to explain, especially for me. My takeaway from your childhood is that I should be thankful for what life is for me today.
  • Even though it was a sad story you still managed to find the humor and happiness. Instead of simply focusing on the bad you chose to remember things like the sugar cube miracle.  You chose to focus on the good and not let the bad dominate your memories of your childhood.
  • You posed a hypothetical question about whether we would help someone else at the risk of ourselves. Teachers have posed questions similar to this but I never truly thought about my answer until you asked it.  Seeing how Leon and his family affected you makes me want to say yes, to be able to have that same affect on someone else.
  • Even with the horrors you went through you still chose to be grateful, happy, and enjoy life. This helps me understand that I shouldn’t dwell on the past but instead look to a better future.  This inspires me to pay more attention to what is happening around me to try and make a difference, however small, in the lives around me.
  • I deeply reflected on how you said that everyone chooses a path in life, whether good or bad. You helped me realize that life can be good, bad, happy, or sad, but in the end it’s us who decide if we will be changed by these outside forces.
  • Your story helped me to connect because you were so young when it all started, whereas reading about the story of an adult didn’t help me fully comprehend what happened.
  • Your story taught me a valuable lesson: to appreciate my life and not complain about what I don’t have, and focus and appreciate what I do have, which is my family, a beautiful home, and a great school.
  • You inspired me to read your book but I never read books. You made me want to read your book.  Not many people can do that.
  • I will forever remember when you said “I hope you choose fairness and wellness over conflict” and also “Do onto others as you want them to do onto you.” I have been told that my entire life and I thought it meant include others and be nice (and it does) but you gave it an entirely new purpose.
  • Your speech inspired me to do good things to other people and not to hurt them.
  • My biggest takeaway is when you talked about people only believing what they want to believe, and your luck. Thank you for the hugs at the end!

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Charles Wright Academy, Tacoma, WA – September 25, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Charles Wright Academy (CWA) was the second of the 2 schools where, on 2 consecutive days in October 2010, I spoke for the first time.  Now it was the 8th consecutive year that I spoke at CWA annual Global Summit which this year consisted of the 75 students of the CWA freshman class plus 23 high school students and 6 teachers from China, Colombia, and Poland.  Missing, unfortunately, was the delegation from Morocco, which cancelled their participation in the Global Summit 2 weeks before their expected arrival.  The reason: the students’ parents did not feel certain that their children would be safe in our country due to the increasing racial, ethnic, and political divisiveness in the United States today.  Considering that there’s active Islamic terrorism in Morocco today, it is sad for us that they (and presumably others) view the situation in our country as being more dangerous.

The Global Summit is a 10-day program designed to promote peace and social justice by exposing the visiting students to and developing their understanding of the concepts of universal human rights, justice, fair trade and sustainable life styles, and by demonstrating how the choices that each of us makes every day can impact the world. The core of the Summit is a series of speakers whose personal experiences reflect directly on these subjects, and their presentations are followed by group discussions on these very concepts. My presentation was the first time that most of these students heard directly from a Holocaust survivor, and their subsequent questions were very deep, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, some asked of me for the first time in more than 140 talks I have given in the last 7 years.

This year’s Global Summit was organized and managed by Ann Vogel, CWA’s International Student Coordinator and Global Summit Coordinator.  She also is one of six Global Ambassadors for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  Her son graduated from CWA and her daughter is currently a CWA student.  Ann was assisted by teachers Catalina Lopez and Juan Carlos Mora from Colombia; Karen Yanfang He and Lisa Juan Li from China; Global Summit co-founder Marcin Pasnikowski and Agnieszka Czerwińska from Poland; and CWA teachers Christine Telal, Rafe Wadleigh, and Christina Bertucchi.  CWA teachers and students hosted the visiting delegations.

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