Genocide Claiming a Larger Place in Middle and High School Lessons

By Bess Keller & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 23, 2007 8 min read
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The debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether the mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915 should be declared “genocide” has been resolved in practice in many American classrooms. That era has become intertwined with lessons on the Holocaust in the history curriculum.

With an array of new curriculum resources, and spurred in some cases by advocates’ public-awareness campaigns, teachers are finding ways to give their students a more comprehensive look at genocide historically and in current events.

Human rights is one of the themes being highlighted in the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies next month, and more than a dozen sessions—the most in recent years—will take up teaching about genocide, according to the council’s president, Gayle Y. Thieman, a professor of history education at Portland State University in Oregon. The council has also crafted sample lessons for teachers on a variety of human-rights issues, she added.

“When we’re teaching about the Holocaust, I think it’s important for students to realize it’s not something that happened once in our history, but that genocide is an issue that erupts around the world in situations of intense racial or ethnic conflict,” Ms. Thieman said.

The United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any act committed with the idea of destroying in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Though killing is the ultimate destructive act, it isn’t the only one, according to the convention. Forcefully transferring children from one group to another represents one element of genocide.

The New York City-based International Association of Genocide Scholars, a global, nonpartisan body that studies the causes and consequences of genocide, formally recognizes the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and considers it undeniable.

State Directives

The attention to genocide in part is the result of state policy. Eleven states direct schools to include materials about the Armenian genocide in history courses. More than 30 recommend or require teaching about the World War II-era destruction of European Jews by the Nazis, or genocide generally.

But teachers are also responding to the almost instantaneous knowledge of extreme human-rights violations around the world. Advocacy groups help keep alive the concern even when interest of the news media has waned.

Explicit attention to the Holocaust has been a staple of secondary school history and literature classes—think Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl or Elie Weisel’s Night—for two decades or more. Courses or units within courses focused explicitly on mass atrocities linked to racial or ethnic identity, however, are mostly a more recent phenomenon.

In her now nine-plus years of teaching at Mountain View High School in suburbanizing Stafford County, Va., Susan Roeske has always included discussion of genocide, even the one year she taught American history. In the past few years, she has devoted a unit to genocide in her global-issues classes, using materials from the Choices for the 21st Century program at Brown University’s Watson Center for International Studies. That curriculum now encompasses even the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“I snagged it immediately,” she said of the Choices program’s 3-year-old genocide curriculum. “I often show [the students] the units I have prepared, and it’s always one they say they would like.”

Middle School Topic

Ronald Levitsky, who teaches 8th grade U.S. history at Sunset Ridge School in Northfield, Ill., spends about a week on the Holocaust and also takes time to explore the Armenian genocide and that of the Pontian Greeks, also committed by the Ottoman Turks, when his class studies World War I.

If handled right, he said, the subject is perfect for 8th graders. “You don’t want to horrify them, but you do want to reach their maturity level, and they can handle the concepts and the affect,” he said, referring to the emotions stirred up. “That’s how you reach them—the affect.”

Sara Cohan, who heads teacher professional development for the San Francisco-based Genocide Education Project, said the ongoing situation in Darfur—in which an estimated 200,000 to 450,000 people have perished as a result of tribal warfare fueled by the Sudanese government—has generated demand for genocide studies among students and teachers. Ms. Cohan’s group was founded to help educators understand the Armenian genocide after California, which has a large Armenian-American population, mandated its teaching in 1987.

“Any workshop I do, I mention about Darfur,” she said.

Ms. Cohan, whose family includes survivors of both the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, said she personally supports the nonbinding resolution on the Armenian genocide. It calls on the president to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide,” and has been vehemently protested by the Turkish government. She also approves the step the California legislature took two decades ago in directing the state school board to include the Armenian genocide in its curriculum framework.

The Genocide Education Project, however, is careful to steer clear of political positions in its work, she stressed.

Some education experts, nonetheless, are concerned about the role of advocacy groups and lawmakers in shaping curricula.

“I don’t think legislators should mandate what to teach,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and the author of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. Expert opinion in a discipline should determine what is embodied in academic standards and taught in the classroom rather than legislative mandate or interest-group power, she argued.

At the same time, Ms. Ravitch said, she was not questioning the historical accuracy of an Armenian genocide. When she sat on the federal board that governs the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a series of tests to measure student achievement nationally—a Turkish parent objected, in the end fruitlessly, to a question about that genocide, according to Ms. Ravitch.

“The staff did considerable research and concluded the question [as it stood] was historically accurate,” she said.

‘Transformative’ Effect

Other experts raise a possible red flag about history courses that rely heavily on thematic approaches—employed, for instance, in the curriculum materials produced by Facing History and Ourselves. The group, which is based in Brookline, Mass., but has several regional offices, was founded 30 years ago to help precollegiate teachers address the Holocaust in their classrooms. It is now widely influential in teaching about genocide around questions of the role of identity in social life and the need for moral responsibility and civic engagement.

“It’s a question of how it’s handled and how much students bring to the table,” said Martin A. Davis, a senior writer and editor for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which undertakes reviews of state standards and generally endorses a traditional approach to teaching history. A chronological framework should be in place before students launch into questions that skip through different eras, Mr. Davis contended.

But the former high school history teacher said he’d have no particular problem with an elective for students well along in their study of history that focused on questions surrounding genocide.

Adrianne Billingham Bock taught such a course for five years at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass. She used the framework designed by Facing History and Ourselves.

“I’d begin by talking about identity, asking students questions about themselves—who was in their ‘universe of obligation,’ who they’d stick their neck out for,” she said. “When you talk about the history in the context of human behavior, it hits them in a different place, and they really begin to think about the choices they make in their everyday life.”

Ms. Bock said the course “totally transformed” some students and brought back to life a student chapter of Amnesty International, the human-rights watchdog group. Students raised money for a “healing center” in Rwanda, the site in 1994 of the slaughter of perhaps 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus sympathizers, and for the Save Darfur Coalition, said the educator, who now works as a teacher-coach for the Facing History program.

Teachers stress that the availability of accurate and thoughtful curriculum materials has helped them strike the right balance between sophisticated understanding and moral engagement. “Many students like to think if we [the United States] could just invade, everything would be fine,” said Sarah C. Kreckel, who helped write the Choices for the 21st Century curriculum on genocide and has taught middle school history. “One of the things we do successfully is help the students understand the complexity of the issues, and in the end, that makes them better advocates of their position.”

The Choices curriculum gives teachers the equivalent of oven mitts to handle very hot topics, added Andy Blackadar, the chief author of the curriculum. “We’re not trying to be overly dramatic. … We’re always going to talk about the other sides of the story.”

The Facing History approach in particular gets high marks from teachers anxious to hold their student back from a cliff of fatalism and helplessness as they contemplate mass atrocities.

“There are tremendous resources to support the teaching of these really difficult histories, much more today than when I first started teaching [about genocide]” seven years ago, said Wendy Garner, an English teacher at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif., east of San Francisco Bay. The teacher offers an elective in social justice that includes a unit on genocide.

“You can approach it in terms both of deep roots and small steps that make a difference.”

Staff Writer Vaishali Honawar contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as Genocide Claiming a Larger Place in Middle and High School Lessons


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