Squire John Thomas Elementary School, Gretna, NE – January 21, 2022 via video

by George J Elbaum

Squire John Thomas Elementary School (SJT) is a public school with 569 students in grades PreKindergarten-5.  The school has placed in the top 20% of all schools in Nebraska for overall test scores of its students: the percentage of students achieving proficiency in math is 72% vs. state average of 52% and in reading/language arts it is 69% vs. state average of 52%.  It therefore received a GreatSchools Rating of 8/10 for Test Scores and also 8/10 for Academic Progress.

As a point of interest, the school is named for an English nobleman born in 1485 – yes, 1485!

My talk was to the 5th grade class of teacher Alexis Nelson, who has introduced the class to the Holocaust as part of a 2-weeks WWII study unit.  This was followed in more detail by the 3-weeks Holocaust unit, including reading and discussion of Number of Stars by Lois Lowry and my talk.

I was genuinely skeptical about speaking to 5th graders, as my guideline for audiences has been “old enough to understand, young enough to have an open mind” and until now I considered 7th grade as the lower grade limit.  However, teacher Nelson told me that she had a Holocaust survivor speak to her 5th graders in 2020, considered it a success, and therefore wanted to do it again.  I therefore suggested to survey the students from which we both would learn by asking the students 3 simple questions about the good and bad sides of humanity prior to my talk, then afterwards ask 3 related questions to see how their views were influenced (or not) by my talk.  

The 3 pre-talk questions asked the students by teacher Nelson were: 1) What do you know about people helping other people?  2) How or why do you know that?  3)What do you know about people hurting other people?  The follow-up post-talk questions were: 1) What do you know about the ugly side of humanity?   2) What do you know about the good side of humanity?  3) From whom did you learn this? 

The students’ answers to both pre-talk and post-talk questions showed genuine thought.  Quoting their teacher: “Not only did this experience help them to understand better the good and bad side of humanity but it also taught them tenacity.  My students continue to talk about George’s personal pursuit of education and his desire to not give up.  It is my hope that we can continue our World War II and Holocaust education, supplemented with first hand accounts similar to this experience.”  

My contact with SJT and Alexis Nelson was arranged by Kael Sagheer of Omaha’s Institute for Holocaust Education.

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