Wilson Middle School in Natick, MA, is a highly rated public school with 940 students in grades 5-8 and a student-teacher ratio of 11 to 1. Its strong academics are shown by its test scores vs. state averages: English 66% vs 51% state avg; Math 68% vs 48% state avg; Science 64% vs 47% state avg. These test scores have earned it a Great Schools academic rating of 9/10, an impressive achievement.
Each year, Grade 7 students participate in a 10-week unit of study on the Holocaust and Human Behavior, including a presentation by a Holocaust survivor. My presentation was organized by Shivonne St.George, Social Studies Teacher and Head of the district’s middle school Social Studies Department, with the assistance of her Grade 7 social studies colleagues, Cassie Lawton and Rick Dumont and my participation was arranged by Jeff Smith, Resource Speaker Coordinator, Facing History and Ourselves.
At my school presentations I always look forward to the Q & A as it is for me the most stimulating part, and at this session I was very impressed with the quality of the students’ questions. The knowledge and thoughtfulness shown by the students’ questions was truly unusual, especially for middle school students, and it reflects on the quality of their education, i.e. their teachers. I feel strongly that good, dedicated teachers make good, dedicated, well-informed citizens, and when I encounter the quality of student questions as at this school, I feel hopeful about America’s future.
Post-talk class discussion & questionnaire
From the thousands of student notes & letters I’ve received after my talks it’s clear that the key to students’ understanding and take-away is a thoughtful teacher-led class discussion with a follow-up questionnaire. The prime example of this is the 5-point questionnaire (below) that teacher Shivonne St. George distributed to her students and which resulted in the above action (sugar cookies) & photo.
- What did you think of Mr. Elbaum/s story?
- How did it make you feel?
- What do you understand about the Holocaust after listening to his story?
- If you had the chance to meet Mr. Elbaum in person, what would you say to him?
- Below is a list of quotes from Mr. Elbaum’s testimony. Which one speaks to you most and why? (Five quotes from my talks were listed on the questionnaire.)
Replies to #5 were as varied as the quotes, and all were thoughtful, but one student’s reply resulted in prompt action, and it was actually to a different quote from the 5 listed.
“The quote that stood out to me was ‘That sugar was the best taste of my entire life.’ This struck me because it made me think about being grateful for what we have. The fact that a small cube of sugar meant so much to Mr. Elbaum made me a) feel so grateful for the fact that I can go to my pantry and let a cube of sugar dissolve on my tongue, and b) bake a bunch of sugar cookies and mail them to Mr. Elbaum. It also makes me think about the simple things in life. Making chai with my dad, tasting a fresh-baked cookie. The testimony solidified my belief that it’s the small things, small acts of love and kindness that make life worth living.” Thus, the class baked sugar cookies!
Aside from replies to the questionnaire (above), I also received Thank You letters from many students which were exceptionally thoughtful and mature, especially for 7th graders, and one in particular still stands out for me.
“Ever since your testimony I have been thinking about one thing in particular that you said: ‘There are no fine people on the side of hate’.” I love this philosophy and from now on will use it to guide my actions. You really influenced how I think about issues surrounding me politically, but also morally. I was also inspired by how you use your story to educate the youth of society for the future of our country, and the future of the world. I will always look up to you as someone who made a difference and will have made the world a better place.”