Third Graders Were Told To Reenact Horrific Scenes From the Holocaust—That Is Not How You Teach History

Students were asked to act out digging mass graves for classmates and riding on a train to a concentration camp.

Empty classroom
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Last week, a librarian of a Washington, D.C, third-grade class had the students "role play" stories of the Holocaust and made them promise not to tell anyone.

The teacher used anti-Jewish slurs, and when asked by the children why they were doing this, she replied that it was because "Jews ruined Christmas."

A Jewish student was chosen to "play" Hitler. At the end of the reenactment, the child was instructed to role play suicide, as that was how Hitler died.

The students, thankfully, told their parents. The teacher, according to the D.C. school district, is now on leave while the event is investigated.

As a Jewish parent of Jewish children, when I read the headline, the first thing I thought was I cannot imagine that learning about the Holocaust was a requirement of the third-grade curriculum.

As a kid, we were told about the Holocaust in bits. Whether in our synagogue or through our families, it was acknowledged that the Holocaust in all its grotesque details was not something one revealed all at once. In fact, many Holocaust survivors' families never spoke of what they endured precisely because the retelling was too horrific. For the survivor—and their audience.

Personally, I don't remember learning any of the more lurid or specific details of what happened in the Holocaust until I was in seventh grade. I remember the day when we were introduced to the stories and images so clearly. The religious school teachers rolled in one of those audio visual carts. Back then, screens weren't as ubiquitous in classrooms, and the sight of the TV usually elicited excitement.

We were shown a black and white movie called Night and Fog. We saw the "showers." We saw a bulldozer pushing what at first seemed to be dirt, but quickly revealed itself to be bodies. Piles and piles of bodies.

I never want to see those images again.

My mind cannot grasp what it would feel like to even be told of such things in third grade. Moreover, told to reenact them.

Jewish communities and scholars of the Holocaust and genocide education have very specific guidelines for how to approach this heavy content, and role play is specifically singled out as something that educators shouldn't do.

Put simply, it's emotionally harmful to put children in a situation where they are forced to act as an oppressor or the oppressed. And what's more, it doesn't actually teach them history. By their nature, role-playing exercises cannot capture the complexity of any historical moment.

That goes for teaching the Holocaust, but many other topics and events. The ADL (Anti-Defamation League), a Jewish organization dedicated to combatting anti-semitism, clearly states that educators should avoid using simulations "involving genocide and oppression such as the Holocaust, slavery, racial segregation, Internment of Japanese-Americans, etc."

I believe that every child in America should learn about history, and that it should not be whitewashed. In fact, I lobbied in my home state of Wisconsin to establish a state law requiring Holocaust and genocide education in K-12 schools. Many states do not have a mandate, and that leaves it up to local school boards.

However, Holocaust and genocide education can and must be introduced in age-appropriate ways and using teaching methods which encourage students to empathize and be empowered to stand up against hate and injustice.

I know how invested our teachers are in helping us raise smart, empathetic kids. I truly do think that often, when teachers assign role plays, they're trying to be creative and keep kids engaged. I also know that in this case, the teacher meant to do harm. For that, I hope there will be repercussions. But I also hope for the community, there will be healing. I'll be thinking of these kids for a long time to come.

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