As more states conclude that students must study the Holocaust, teachers wrestling with how best to convey such complex and emotionally explosive material are finding help in an unlikely place—Hollywood. Director Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust education organization, the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, is helping five school districts develop curricula around a CD-ROM it’s produced that features videotaped oral histories from Holocaust survivors.
The oral histories come from an archive the foundation started building in 1994. After enduring early criticism for what some saw as an attempt to tackle history with too few credentials and too much drama, the foundation invited respected historians to help. Last year, the foundation began customizing its resources for use in schools. More than than 14,000 copies of the CD-ROM and an accompanying guide have been sold to schools and the public at large since January 1999, according to foundation officials.
Steven Spielberg—whose 1993 film Schindler’s List fueled the growing interest in Holocaust studies—has high hopes for what the wrenching stories of survivors might accomplish with young audiences. Speaking last spring at a meeting of the American Association of School Administrators, the director said he hoped to help “build a more tolerant and a more humane generation.”
Currently, teachers from Chicago; Fairfax County, Virginia; Long Beach, California; Portland, Oregon; and Sarasota, Florida, are in various stages of developing curricula they wrote after spending three days at the foundation’s Los Angeles facility last June. The 41 middle and high school teachers talked with survivors and historians and learned how to use the interactive technology. For the next two years, the foundation is also hosting monthly conference calls so the districts can share how their instruction is going.
Teachers in other districts using the foundation’s materials report that students are excited and engaged by the CD-ROM, with its live-action film clips and period music. Lisa Rybicki, a resource teacher in the 150,000-student Palm Beach County school district in Florida, says students there like the way they can interact with the survivors’ stories by clicking on timelines, historical overviews, and maps of areas where key events took place, or by simply following each person’s tale to its end. They also connect strongly with the narrators, Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder, she says.
Still, teachers developing lessons around the foundation materials have their work cut out for them: Holocaust education is a complex undertaking, say observers. Samuel Totten, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas college of education in Fayetteville and a co-author of the teachers’ guidelines for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., says too many lessons concentrate on the “what and where” of the Holocaust, rather than exploring the complex forces and motivations that drove it, including anti-Semitism, racism, extreme nationalism, and Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. “Teachers need to help students complicate history in the best sense of the word,” he says. “There is not a single reason for most actions.”
Others caution that the increased role of corporations and foundations as providers of curriculum can work against an appropriately critical approach to teaching the materials. Says Gilbert Sewall, director of the New York City-based American Textbook Council, which reviews the quality of history books: “There’s a danger that teachers become consumers, that they are not going to approach this stuff in a critical or skeptical way, [and] that whatever is being pitched to them, they will take home and use.”
But teachers using the Shoah Foundation’s materials say they recognize the many difficulties of handling the subject well and are focusing intently on creating the best curriculum they can. The survivors’ testimonies, they add, make a compelling history lesson even more powerful. “The materials give us an ability to bring the understanding of tolerance and prejudice to a deeper level,” says Laurie Shaw, a California educator.