Friday, April 17, 2009

Best Practices: Holocaust Memorials

In honor of Yom Ha-Shoah, this is a guest post from Leah Zimmerman, the Director of Education at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, California and Temple Beth Israel in Pomona:

Two of the most active and distracted boys in my Kitah Zayin (7th grade) class stood together in front of a room full of their peers and their parents and presented their Holocaust Memorial. A single tree in the center of a field with a single headstone alongside it. Around the perimeter of the field was a barbwire fence. They explained the simplicity of their design and the way that it remembered all the people who had died. The moment of their presentation was quite noteworthy. But it was the fact that they had met on their own time outside of class to create this entirely of wood that totally floored me. Why hadn’t they just goofed off and blown off the assignment or the idea? Why did they take it to heart and create something genuine?

In another project, three statues surround reflective pool: a Jew, a homosexual, and a gypsy. “We made these statues colorful for a special reason. The Nazis wanted everyone to look the same (blonde hair, blue eyes, Christian, etc.) so by making them colorful we are showing that even though everyone looks different we are all equal.”

I asked the students, “What motivated you to do these projects? Why do you think you did such a great job?” The students told me that they loved the opportunity to be creative and work with art materials. When we reflected on this experience and why it had been valuable, the students told me that it gave them a chance to make the material meaningful. I too noticed that their projects demonstrated what they had each personally connected to most. For one group of students it was the stories of surviving and how hard the surivors had worked to find a way to live. For another group of students it was stories about the partisans who had fought against the Nazis despite the odds. Some students thought more about how to create symbols of memory and others about how to create something that would engage the audience and require the audience to experience and learn.

The students have told me many times that they learn more when they get to work together in groups. As they planned, designed and created their projects I could see them huddled together leaning forward towards each other listening, watching and sharing their ideas. In their small groups they talked about what was important to them, shared ideas back and forth and came to consensus about what to do. Each group did something unique and different. While some students took a stronger leadership role in the design or assembling materials, each student contributed ideas and helped to create the final product. As I watched the groups working I could see how one student sharing an idea or an insight sparked another student to share another idea. Groups of students emerged as teams as their common goal and common purpose brought them in synch with each other.

The students impressed themselves and each other with their creations. By seeing what they could create and what their friends created, they realized how much they had learned and its relevance for our community. The same is true for the parents. Majority of the students felt that sharing the projects with their parents helped them to show the parents what they learn in Hebrew school. “Because when they ask you what did you learn today, I just say “nothing.”

Having a communal moment where the students, parents and I all revel in what has been learned brings us together as a community and builds our commitment to working with each other. In creating memorials for our community, our students had created for themselves an memorable event of learning and reflecting.
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