Synapse School, Menlo Park, CA – October 24, 2014

by George J Elbaum

Synapse School is an independent primary and middle school founded in 2008, which blends academic learning with social emotional learning into meaningful projects in order to build higher-order thinking skills, including creative, critical, and transfer skills. Children thus become more efficient problem solvers and more effective decision makers.  School projects are designed around an annual theme, which is sub-divided into four modules: language arts, science, math, and social studies, with emphasis on linking the academic program to real-world problems and issues.  The overall goal is to educate the change makers of tomorrow.

I was invited to speak to the 7th and 8th grade Humanities class of teacher Debbie Yoon, who had been studying the events of WWII, the Holocaust, and the Japanese Internment Camps for the past 9 weeks.  Using a Facing History and Ourselves unit plan to help shape the lens in which they studied the Holocaust, students were asked to consider human behavior from the perspective of the Germans as a group, the Nazis, the rest of the world powers, and the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.  They studied the Milgram Experiment (a study of obedience to authority figures) to try seeing into the minds of those who blindly followed orders to kill and torture millions of Jews.  The purpose was to understand how human nature can affect the individual under such conditions and, ultimately, that we all have the choice to act or not act.

As described by teacher Debbie Yoon, the students also participated in role playing, taking on a different persona from history before the 1939 elections in Germany when the Nazi party rose to power.  Students were asked to judge how their person would have voted based on their persona’s family history, political leanings, occupation, and economic situation. They struggled with what to do if their person had Jewish ancestry but had children who were half Jewish and half Catholic in upbringing.  What path would they have taken?  Who would they have voted for?  Finally, the students held a debate to determine what answers they could support for the question “Who is responsible for the Holocaust?”  There were no easy answers, and ultimately students felt that we all had a choice, that individuals can make a difference, and if only more had stood up and said or done something, we could have avoided the Holocaust. The students were also charged with this mission for the future, to be an upstander, and to be that individual with a choice and a voice.

Arrangements for my talk were made by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves, who also gave an introductory talk to the students.

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