Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Gorillas and the Holocaust

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When did we stop giving our kids credit for being able to handle the tough stuff?

This past couple of months, my eighth grade Pre-AP students have been studying the Holocaust.They have researched, read Night, watched Schindler’s List, and read poems written by the children of Terezin. They were apprehensive about starting this unit. The class is predominantly girls, and many of them had expressed to me that they were afraid to see Schindler’s List, worried about the images in documentaries and primary sources used for their research project, and concerned about the vivid descriptions in Night.

I have to admit, there were a couple of times when I almost cancelled the viewing of Schindler’s List, thought about not showing the documentary I use to introduce the unit, and giving them the less inflammatory choices for the research project. However, in the end, I knew this content was too important, so we walked this difficult path together.

Now that we are coming to the end, they are expressing their appreciation for the time we spent studying this period in history through literature and film. They have written some amazing responses, we have had some intense discussions, and I know that they have learned some things about their capacity for empathy and their ability to handle the tough stuff.

At the same time, I was helping my teachers in grades four and five select new whole-class novels for next year. Fourth grade wanted The One and Only Ivan; fifth grade wanted Wonder. I had read Wonder, and was concerned about some of the content from the perspectives of Auggie’s sister and her boyfriend as it might relate to fifth graders.

Turned out I was worried about the wrong book. It was The One and Only Ivan that parents were not in favor of. The death of Stella and the treatment of Ruby were of great cause for concern, despite assurances that the teachers would be handling this sensitive material carefully with the students and focusing on the positive messages in the novel. In the end, both books were approved, but it wasn't an easy win for Ivan.

From these two experiences, my take-away is that we need to give our students credit for being able to handle anything with the right support. Literature helps students understand the world through the safety net of the pages of a book, before they have to confront those situations in real life. The kids can handle the tough stuff, we just need to give them a chance to show us what they are made of.


  1. Where the line is, and where it can be crossed for pushing learning and understanding, is one many of us grapple with, particularly when we look to a room of young people of varied maturity, background knowledge and sense of self. I agree -- books can be a bridge to understanding the world.

  2. In 9th grade my geography teacher showed us a movie that was predominantly film footage of Nazi atrocities. He told us he'd leave the room and trust us, but he'd seen the film too many times and did not feel as though he had to watch it again. We had good discussions about it later. Too many kids don't know about the Holocaust, or anything painful, they've been so isolated. I teach at a Title 1 school with a majority immigrant population. What some of these kids have seen, and what they worry about, would curl the hair of some parents who worry that Ivan is too troubling.

  3. Wonder was a district read for us this year, grades three through twelve--no issues! As a librarian, I have have had the same conversation as your last paragraph, several times this past school year, and finally wrote a blogpost about it:

  4. I agree that "tough stuff" is usually OK for children. I find that it's my adult "filters" that make it tough and if I just experience it with the children, it's usually OK. I learned this first-hand when sharing the news of a friend's pet's death with my 2 1/2 year old. She wasn't nearly as upset as I thought she'd be; instead, she was inquisitive and sensitive.
    Keep up your good work challenging those students!

  5. Terrific choices at those grade levels...the parents reactions were surprising...I love both of those books and the bit of historical trivia that is touched on in Ivan. I think both of these books have to be approached with a teacher guiding the way first. Many will re-read again on their own and to me, that is a perfect situation for book love.