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