Hillview Junior High School, Pittsburg, CA – November 22, 2019

by George J Elbaum

Hillview Junior High School is a public school with current attendance of 978 students in grades 6-8.  Its student body has very high diversity: 58% Hispanic, 22% Black, 10% Asian, 6% White, and 4% other, of which 71% are considered from low-income families and 22% are English learners.  This makes teaching there not only a profession but also a calling, because Hillview teachers face not only difficulties in attaining academic standards but also student attendance and even discipline without squelching young enthusiasm.  It is therefore the Hillview teachers’ dedication to this calling that results in feedback from parents such as: “I have had nothing but the best support at this school. I had to ask for it, but the response was quick, effective and strong” and “The teachers have been supportive, caring, kind and challenging for my student.”

Hillview has an excellent, attractive and well-maintained website, with each of its teachers having an informative page therein.  My presentation to approximately 340 8th graders was organized by English teacher Carina Pineda, alongside Misha Holz and Kara Fitzgerald.  Pineda’s webpage https://sites.google.com/view/pinedaela8/home includes the following thoughtful, caring, and powerful instructions to her students:

As 8th graders you all are only one year away from graduating middle school and continuing your education in high school. So excited to get to know, learn, and grow with you all this year!

This year in English we will go over multiple themes and through these we will be answering these questions: “What attracts us to stories of suspense?”, “What does our response to conflict say about us?”, “How did the war between the States redefine America?” and “How can life experience shape our values?”

Students, I will accept nothing but your best in this class. I expect you to ask questions. I expect you to be honest with me. I expect that you will respect your peers and I expect that you will respect me. I will be honest with you. I will always make time to answer your questions. I will respect you. If you are achieving less than a C in my class, I will expect you to come talk to me outside of class for extra help.”

It is as part of the question “What does our response to conflict say about us?” that teacher Pineda includes the Holocaust, reading Maus and Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, viewing the movie Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, and my presentation.  Her excellent preparation of her students showed during the Q & A, with some forthright and unabashed questions, quite mature for 8th graders.

Supporting her in yesterday’s event were staff members Misha Holz, Kara Fitzgerald, Darren Gapultos, Pedro Mayorga, Branden Hays, Aaron Thompson and Diane Klaczynski.  Also present were Heidi Leber, Nelson Moreno, Stacey Inouye, William Davis, Kristen Juarez, Anastasia Gellepes, Rita D’Angelica, Marianne Nies, and Miranda Viechec-Lingbaoan.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator, Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center

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San Mateo High School, San Mateo, CA – November 20, 2019

by George J Elbaum

San Mateo High School (SMHS) is a National Blue Ribbon[3] comprehensive 4-year high school with a beautiful campus which opened in 1927 (see photo below).  Its attendance is 1670 students of high diversity: 44% Hispanic, 27% Asian, 19% White, and 10% other, and 28% are considered as low-income.  The school has a high academic record, with its students’ SAT college readiness rating of 76% vs. 48% state average, and 61% of its students meeting UC/CSU entrance requirements vs. 50% state average.  As a result, SMHS was ranked the 50th best high school in California by Niche, the 216th best public high school in the country by Newsweek[10]  in 2015,  and in 2013 the 376th nationally by The Washington Post‘s ranking of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.”[  Less recent but no less admirable, the school earned a Guinness World Record in 2005 for collecting 372,000 pounds of food from the local community for its annual canned food drive.[5] The collected food was donated to America’s Second Harvest and Samaritan House, which provides it to needy families throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties during the holiday season.

My presentation to approximately 100 9th graders who are now reading Eli Weisel’s Night was organized by history teachers Stephanie Wozniak and Aura Smithers, with support of Alicia Gorgani and attended by Cindy Braganza.  Afterwards, a brief conversation with a granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and especially the tears in her eyes, will remain indelible in my memory.  I was also very pleasantly surprised when given a wonderfully-personal (airplane, sugar cubes, baseball story) “thank you” card drawn and signed by 8 students who attended my talk last March when they attended Bowditch Middle School in Foster City, CA.  Arrangements for my talk were made by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator, JFCS Holocaust Center.

starting the talk

ending the talk

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Francisco Middle School, San Francisco, CA – November 12, 2019

by George J Elbaum

Francisco Middle School was established in 1924, and during its more than 90 years of history has served many illustrious students, such as baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and 9/11 hero Betty Ann Ong.  Now its very high-diversity student body, numbering over 600 youth in grades 6, 7 and 8, mostly live in San Francisco’s North Beach, Chinatown, and Tenderloin neighborhoods.  Since these neighborhoods still include large populations of first- and second-generation immigrants, around 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home, 90% are classified as minority and also as somewhat economically disadvantaged.  Francisco’s focus therefore must be on facilitating its students’ enduring success in high school and beyond by providing them with a good command of academic English.  Furthermore, many students and their families originally come from nations such as Vietnam, Yemen, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, where war or violence have been or still are a tragic part of their recent experience and modern history.  Effective teaching of such students must be, in my opinion, more challenging, but also more gratifying than teaching “typical” American students, and it therefore calls for teachers with a special dedication or calling to their profession.  At the same time, Francisco students who have experienced war or violence in their home country can perhaps relate easier to my childhood.

This was my second visit to Francisco, and my presentation was part of an 8th grade class in English/Ethnic Studies.  Its teacher, Marna Blanchard, organized my presentation and described her class as follows: “The Holocaust is taught as part of a unit on Genocide and Oppression Across Time and Continents.  The students have all had the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust.  Some students are now involved in an in depth research project into the Holocaust, while others are involved in similar research on another genocide or oppression.  Students through their research cover the following: background of the country before genocide began; how the genocide began; what was it like during the genocide; was there any resistance; were there any reparations or reconciliation; and how are things now.  Students will also be answering the Essential Question: how can we learn from history to be agents of change in our global community?  Students have heard the testimonies of Jewish partisans, seen the film The Book Thief and read a number of picture books.  Some are now reading Boy in Striped Pajamas or Anne Frank or Children of Willesden Lane if they are focused on the Holocaust.  Others are reading My Father the Maker of Trees or The Long Walk to Water or Red Pencil or Poppies in Iraq, and many more.”  Cover pages of previous research projects are shown in a display case outside the classroom where I spoke (see photo below).

Supporting Marna Blanchard in organizing this event were also Laura Lin and Tristian Eloise.  My participation was arranged by Penny Savryn, Program Coordinator, Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center

photo op at end of talk

the audience

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Oceana High School, Pacifica, CA – November 8, 2019

by George J Elbaum

Oceana High School is a small public high school in northern Pacifica, CA, with a high diversity student body of 622 students, of which 79% are minority and 34% are economically disadvantaged.  Nevertheless, it has a 4-year graduating rate of 94% and academic scores significantly above state averages: English proficiency 70% vs. CA average 50%, Math proficiency 48% vs. CA 39%, and UC/CSU entrance requirements 75% vs. CA 50%.  It has accomplished this by having special teaching programs, exhibition projects in each grade, and a community service requirement for all students.

This was my third visit to Oceana since 2015, and it was again organized by Humanities teacher Coreen Hartig with support from Leigh Poehler, Roisin Madden, and David Roberts.  The audience was 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: causes and consequences.  Also attending the presentation many staff members including Principal April Holland, Wellness Counselor Nico Storrow, Gregory Lukens, Paul Orth, and many others.

In addition to thanking teacher Coreen Hartig for organizing the presentation, I definitely want to thank Marlon, who I believe is a long-time member of Oceana’s maintenance staff.  When I turned off from Paloma Avenue much too early and came upon a dead end, he happened to be working there and “steered me right.”  Then, when after my talk I wandered around school grounds taking photos of student art (see below) and wound up on the opposite side of the school from where I parked my car, Marlon appeared out of nowhere and once again “steered me right”. 😊  So, thank you, Marlon!

On my previous visits to Oceana I was quite impressed with the colorful student art on its concrete walls, and now I did recognize some paintings which I photographed and included in my previous visit web post.  This time, however, there were many more paintings, especially big, colorful, new ones, and when leaving the school after my talk I kept taking photos and more photos and more photos, to show to my wife Mimi who is a professional artist, and to post some (7 of these) below.

students and wall art

 

 

 

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Licton Springs K-8 School, Seattle, WA – November 5, 2019 PM

by George J Elbaum

Nine years ago, almost to the day, I told my story for the first time to young students.  It was at Seattle’s Alternative School #1 to the 7th & 8th grade classes of teacher Jo Cripps, and that talk is the very first post in this weblog.  Since then, Alternative School #1 had morphed into Pinehurst K-8 which in turn morphed into Licton Springs K-8 School where I spoke 3 years ago, and today is the 3rd time that I spoke  to students taught by Jo Cripps.  In the intervening 9 years I have spoken at more than 200 venues, yet returning to Jo Cripps’s class is a bit like homecoming.

The stated mission of Licton Springs K-8 is to provide its students with “a creative, holistic, experiential learning environment which nurtures respect, self-discovery and integrity, preparing the whole child to engage our global community.”  To accomplish its mission, it uses “an alternative method of teaching that emphasizes hands-on learning, culturally responsive curriculum, and community engagement.”

Conscious of its Northwest location, the school emphasizes the area’s Native experience, culture, and history while serving a diverse, multicultural student community, and connecting learning in the classroom to real-world context.  Its curriculum is therefore “Native focused, honoring Northwest tribes and the diversity of Native people throughout the Americas, and includes social justice education, an individualized approach for different types of learners, frequent field trips and community speakers, and shared decision making.”

The same enthusiasm that teacher Jo Cripps transferred to her students 9 years ago was again visible today, and a wonderful compliment to Jo’s teaching is a statement by Julia Thompson of the Holocaust Center for Humanity: “Some of the brightest stars on our Student Leadership Board were referred to us from Jo.”

Today’s talk was arranged once again by Julia Thompson,  Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.

Letters from students

A few weeks after I and my wife Mimi visited Licton Springs I received an envelope with very nice letters from the students.  As has become our habit by now, Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it.  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.  Statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us are excerpted below.

  • The three most important things I learned from you are these.  First, accept all cultures, religions and races.  Second, it’s always good to have a sweet tooth.  Third, carry on the stories of Holocaust survivors like you.
  • From your story I realized that there are a few actions that I can do to make today better.  One of them is to be grateful.  Another is to open up.  What I mean is if I am with a stranger I won’t be so distant.
  • I have to ask why do you think the Russian officer had a sugar cube in his pocket to give to you?
  • When you told us how lucky you were I wanted to ask sooooo many questions but I forgot most of them by the end.
  • I am going to put the note you gave me in a frame and give it to my kids and tell them your story (when they are old enough).
  • You like sweets like me so keep on eating them (but don’t tell Mimi I said that).
  • I learned that sometimes you have to sacrifice things to survive.
  • I also learned that you could easily get fooled into believing false things.
  • If someone is bullying another person I should stop them, like if someone is bullying my sister I should stand up for her.
  • I learned that many Holocaust survivors are too traumatized to tell their stories, so I think it was brave of you to tell us yours.
  • The most important thing I have learned from you is to follow my dreams even if other people think I am not capable of doing that.

with most of the students: bottom row Jett and Aiden; top row Lawrence, Noah, Caiden, Gracie, Aoife and Mia

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Franklin High School, Seattle, WA – November 5, 2019 AM

by George J Elbaum

Franklin High School (FHS) first opened its doors in 1912 as the second purpose-built high school in Seattle, and when in 1986 the city’s School Board proposed to tear down its beautiful neo-Classical building, the Landmark Preservation Board designated it an official landmark which prevented its demolition.  FHS now has an enrollment of 1257 students according to US News Best High Schools, of which 92% are minority (52% Asian, 27% Black, 10% Hispanic, 7% White, 4% other), 72% “economically disadvantaged”.  With many students being immigrants or children thereof, its graduation rate is 82% with math proficiency of 58% vs. 40% state average, and 31% reading proficiency vs. 40% state average.

My talk to a class of English Language Learners was organized by teacher Renee Stern, and with her encouragement many of her students entered the Writing and Art Contest held annually by Settle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity with writing submissions in both English and their native language.  Julia Thompson, the Holocaust Center’s Education Resource Coordinator, arranged my participation in this event.

everyone

 

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St. Luke School, Shoreline, WA – November 4, 2019 PM

by George J Elbaum

This was the 4th time I spoke at St. Luke School in the last 8 years, and each time I truly looked forward to returning.  My key memories of the 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.  When introducing me to her class this time she said: “I won’t feel too badly if you can’t name the first 10 Amendments when you leave my class in June, but I will be devastated if you can’t accept others and treat them with dignity, respect and kindness.”

The event was attended by 37 8th grade students plus seminarian Alex Nelson, and St Luke teacher Jennifer Fargo, and it was arranged by Julia Thompson, Education Resource Coordinator of the Holocaust Center for Humanity.  Two days afterwards we attended the Holocaust Center’s annual Voices for Humanity Luncheon and Rosemary was one of the speakers, giving an impassioned yet very personal speech about supporting all efforts for tolerance, fairness and kindness.  The world definitely needs more Rosemarys!

Letters from Students

A week after returning home from Seattle I received a large envelope from teacher Rosemary Conroy with some two dozen letters from her students.  Because I had East Coast meetings plus another 4 talks in Bay Area schools, it was only yesterday that I had time to open that envelope and sit quietly while my wife Mimi read each letter aloud while I listened and absorbed it.  We were touched  by the students’ openness and sensitivity and impressed by their relative maturity which was evident in their letters, and we felt very gratified by their responses to my story.  There were many statements from these letters that particularly resonated with us, and these are excerpted below.

  • You inspired me and gave me the courage to stand up to the suffering of others.  In fact, tonight I found out about a man who is falsely accused of murder and is to be executed.  The Innocence Project is representing him and there is a petition online to get him a new trial as new evidence has come forward.  I sent the petition to my friends to sign.  A few of them criticize me for doing so and others were indifferent.  At first I felt bad, like maybe I should have been quiet, but then I thought of you and I knew I was doing the right thing.  I feel good about what I have done and will do it in the future, and it is because of you.
  • I learned from your lecture that we cannot depend on a Democratic society to keep us safe and to uphold our values and morals, unless we appreciate it and protect it by being critical thinkers and voting.
  • Your lecture made me think about the divide in the country we have today, the abuse of power, group-targeted hate and violence, and how we should look for and vote for leaders who speak out against prejudice, discrimination, antisemitism and dehumanization.
  • This letter is my promise to you to never turn a blind eye to injustice and to always stand up for those in need.  I hope these words give you hope for the future and express how much I care as every person who I stand up for for the rest of my life will be because of you.
  • You inspired me to stick up for what is right and make a difference.  Hearing that you go and tell your story all over the world makes me want to speak up more.
  • One thing that really stuck out to me from your story was that so many people had put their lives on the line to help you.  When you asked us if we would do the same I realized how hard of a choice that is, because I would never even considered such a big risk.
  • I also loved to hear about how the experience is so different in the eyes of a young child.  That your youthful innocence had protected you made me realize how lucky you had to be.
  • Hearing your story really opened my eyes to the tragedy that the Holocaust was.  I want to thank you one last time, because I will never forget your lessons.
  • You deepened my understanding of the Holocaust and put into perspective the horrible loss of life.  This visit changed my understanding.
  • This visit will live in my heart forever.  Thank you.
  • I don’t really feel empathy a ton, but when you compared the amount killed in the Holocaust to ten times the population of Seattle.  This is coming from someone who had to force themselves to cry at a funeral.  I don’t often feel sad, but this shook me to my core.
  • I could never grasp the amount of killing that the Nazis had done of the Jews and the way you explained it made it so much more clear.  Over six months the population of Seattle was killed, and each of these people were individuals with hopes, dreams, fears, and family.  What seemed so terrible suddenly came into focus, and the picture is so much worse than I thought.
  • I would think of the Holocaust as a bad which should never have happened, but when you told us on a personal level what happened, it changed my vision of the Holocaust for the worse.
  • Your presentation was the most eye-opening thing I have ever experienced.  It gave me this almost window to look into the past and see what happened.  When you explained the death toll as everyone living in Seattle dead every six months, that made it easier to understand how horrific the Holocaust really was.
  • I think the most important thing I learned and will take away from your presentation is to always be for something, and not “anti” and hateful.
  • The experience you related is a gift yet a curse in some ways.  You opened my eyes a little more to see what is incomprehensible for me to understand.
  • My impression is that you wanted us to be thankful for the lives we live, learn and gain a new insight on the past, and if ever we’re faced with a similar problem such as the Holocaust, to help those in need.
  • Thank you for being lucky, for if you hadn’t been I wouldn’t have been lucky to hear your story.
  • Your story has moved me that our world has a lot of prejudice and many other things that separate us from one another.
  • I am so sorry that you had to experience such hatred.  At least God helped to balance the equation with so many generous Polish people who were willing to risk their own life for yours.
  • I hope that you find some healing and forgiveness by telling your story to people like me, who learn from you and empathize with you.
  • I am somewhat of a history geek, but until you spoke the Holocaust was just a list of facts and numbers.
  • You inspire me, personally, to be a better human being through your heartfelt kindness and willingness to share something so personal and tragic.
  • I don’t think it was luck that allowed you to live.  I personally think it was God, guiding you to safety because he knew of the great things you would one day say and do.
  • You have shown me the worst a person can do and how others could inspire from that tragedy.  The most important thing I loved about your talk is how you turned genocide into a lesson to do the right thing.
  • Thanks for coming to our school and teaching me to be an upstander.  I hope I can make a difference in the world.
  • Although we are different physically, I feel like we have the same mindset.  To succeed and make our families proud.  Therefore I take it that you are the perfect role model for me and hope you will always remember St. Luke and I will never forget you.
  • I walked out of my classroom with a new awareness of how hate can manifest into the largest scales imaginable.  That shocked me into really believing that tolerance and acceptance can sometimes be the difference between life or death – I will never forget that lesson.
  • The youth of this era and eras to come must be aware that there was a time when hatred triumphed tolerance and gargantuan number of lives were lost.  If they know this, they will be aware that they can never let that happen again and they must practice tolerance and acceptance to avoid another catastrophe such as the Holocaust.
  • After listening to you, I have such hope for a brighter future for further generations, and for that, Mr. Elbaum, I thank you.

everyone

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