Most of My Students Didn’t Know What the Holocaust Was

Most of My Students Didn’t Know What the Holocaust Was

I remember the outrage my co-worker expressed when she found out we didn’t give students the day off for major Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur.

I nodded in agreement and went about my day, but I thought in my head “how many Jewish students do we actually have in the district?”

teach in a school district that’s 76% Black, 14% Hispanic, and 7.5% White. My fiancee used to live in a part of the city that was majority Jewish and very orthodox. On Saturdays, we would greet and say hi to many Jewish neighbors on the street who went to the synagogue and my fiancee would marvel at the dresses of the women.

My fiancee taught in the closest public school in the area, but there weren’t any Jewish kids in the school. There was a local Jewish school in the area the kids went to.

I say this in light of a very thought-provoking article Jessica Wildfire recently wrote about the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and the white privilege inherent in the way we teach the story of Anne Frank. The piece highlights an experience with a student at an HBCU not knowing what the Holocaust was, and the class not being shocked very much either.

This isn’t to piggyback on Jessica’s brilliant observations about the nature of the Holocaust and privilege in our education system, but just to reflect on my own experience as a teacher in inner-city public schools, and the Freedom Writers-like realization that almost none of my students knew what the Holocaust was.

For context, I teach in predominantly Black, almost 100% free and reduced lunch schools. I’ve taught no White kids, although I have taught two Hispanic kids. I teach special ed self-contained, which is the most restrictive setting for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

I never recalled seeing the Holocaust in any English or social studies curriculum, so I gave a brief overview of what it was and showed them graphic pictures of what the Holocaust looked like (gas chambers, emaciated children, Jewish people with numbers tattooed on their arms).

Unlike Hollywood, teaching my kids what the Holocaust was didn’t transform my classroom. No, it didn’t make all my students love writing or all my students who couldn’t read able to read. It didn’t make me a savior or someone who absolutely transformed my students’ lives. Life pretty much just moved on as it had for all of us.

All I can say is what it taught me about how we teach, cultural priorities in different spaces, and the reality that in my world, the Holocaust just wasn’t the biggest priority to teach.

One out of 30 students last year knew what the Holocaust was

I don’t remember how it came up, but I asked all of my students in the 2020–2021 school year about the Holocaust. I asked if anyone knew what it was, and if anyone’s ever heard of it before. It was only one student in a class of 30.

Now I have to acknowledge this was during virtual learning and a lot of kids with their cameras off may have not been paying attention, but it was still a surprise to me since the Holocaust was such a mainstay of my K-12 social studies education.

My education in a predominantly White space (with a lot of Jewish classmates), however, was much different from my students’ education.

After finding out what my students did and didn’t know, I showed them pictures on Google Images after typing in “Holocaust.” Photos of emaciated children in gas chambers certainly were very jarring, so we talked about that, and who Anne Frank was. We also spoke about the origin of the word “ghetto,” which actually originated from forced Jewish settlements in European cities.

I didn’t lecture my kids about it. I wasn’t shocked. I just let them ask questions, and introduced them to a very basic crash course on who Hitler was, his ideas about race, and how he not only killed Jewish people, but Roma people, and Slavs.

As a special educator, it’s always a fine line between meeting students where they’re at and teaching the content. But this was a day I went completely off the lesson plan and did something completely different.

The next day, I didn’t mention it. I went back to teaching what I was supposed to teach as an English teacher.

There were more important things than teaching the Holocaust for us

As far as I knew, the Holocaust was not in the curriculum.

In education, particularly for non-Black teachers in mostly Black spaces, we make a big effort to be culturally responsive teachers, which means we try to take in the experiences and cultures of students to leverage better teaching and instructing.

This requires us to do implicit bias tests and be aware of our own biases when we enter the classroom, and the dynamics of race especially in the classroom are dynamics I’m always thinking about. I always wonder whether I’m contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline any time I send a kid to the office.

But in terms of our English curriculum at the very least, there has been a big concerted effort to read texts and teach content that’s relatable to students and culturally responsive. There are a lot of books about race and racism in our ninth-grade curriculum, like A Raisin in the Sun and To Kill a Mockingbird, and interestingly there are also a lot of Shakespeare plays, too.

Sometimes, some of my kids get tired of it. Sometimes they get tired of constantly reading about racism and watching videos about racism and want to read something else. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’m the best emissary to be teaching about racism all the time. I would actually be a huge advocate of introducing a text about the Holocaust into the curriculum to introduce kids to another cultural experience to spice things up.

Plus, my average student was reading at the first or second-grade level. I had to give my students a lot of support to just read at all. I was able to help some kids raise their reading and writing levels significantly, while other kids I struggled to just get to sit down. I was trying to teach skills like determining theme and using context clues to teach vocabulary.


Regardless, I’m not sure where the Holocaust factored in as an English teacher, or where it factored into the social studies curriculum. I would be shocked if it weren’t part of a world history curriculum, but I can see a world where a teacher was presenting about the Holocaust to a class of kids not paying attention and on their phones, as well.

This means it just wasn’t as much of a priority to teach and for students to learn as much as getting through daily life was, or just getting to school was for students who had to spend more than an hour on the bus.

I don’t want to disparage the facilities of my school because they were good facilities and we had a new building. Yes, mice did occupy our classrooms but I had it better in my new school than in a lot of schools in my district. We had air conditioning, projectors, and water fountains that didn’t have lead, so I can’t echo a lot of Jessica’s points about my kids’ facilities.

However, kids did go to elementary and middle schools where they couldn’t drink from water fountains because of lead and where schools close down whenever it was too hot because there isn’t AC. There are plenty of high schools in my district where there isn’t AC and schools have to shut down. Some days, I asked kids what they had for lunch only to discover they didn’t have any lunch because the school food was inedible to them.

I taught at a school where in the past year, two students have been shot and killed, and one had to go to the emergency room after getting shot. Countless kids have talked to me about people getting shot and killed on their street or hearing gunshots while at home.

The gun violence in the community, constant fights, and the fact that kids didn’t feel safe in school and the surrounding area were downstream effects of poverty and systemic racism that really did prevent kids from learning.

So the Holocaust just seemed, to a lot of kids, like it was something that happened really far away when there were a lot more pressing issues and concerns in the daily lives of my students.

I don’t want to call students not knowing what the Holocaust was a failure of the education system because it wasn’t — it was yet another symbol of different and more pressing priorities.

In an ideal world, everyone should know what the Holocaust is and care about it because it was a horrible historical event we should never forget about. But also in an ideal world, a lot more people should know and care about the dangers my students face just getting to school, in the community, and in their daily lives.


This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.



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