Editor’s Note: Mark Gudgel, an English, Humanities, and World Religions teacher at Omaha North High Magnet School, traveled to the United Kingdom in 2013 to do research as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. Here he shares how what he learned about Holocaust education there has impacted his school in Nebraska.
By guest blogger Mark Gudgel
Dr. Nicola Wetherall (who goes by “Nic” informally) is a champion of Holocaust education at University College London‘s Centre for Holocaust Education and the Royal Wootton Bassett Academy in Swindon, where she has set up a unique program of Holocaust and genocide education. When I moved to the UK, I had the opportunity to partner with Nic and observe Holocaust education masterfully integrated throughout the academy with schoolwide buy-in.
While living in the UK and partnered with the University of London’s (today the University College of London’s) Centre for Holocaust Education, I had the opportunity to spend substantial time in Royal Wootton Bassett Academy studying what makes it a “Beacon School” and a model for Holocaust education around the globe.
Comparing the UK and the US
The Royal Wootton Bassett Academy (RWBA) faces many of the same pressures that American secondary institutions face. As Nic once told me, “Informing, engaging, inspiring, and empowering young people to change the world is difficult to quantify; it certainly doesn’t speak to the data-driven policies prevailing in UK education.”
Like all U.S. states, Nebraska has numerous grueling, often repetitive state assessments across core subject areas, to say nothing of the now-mandated ACT and countless other exams. Similarly, my friends in the UK are always mindful of demands put upon them by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, in addition to A-level exams and the usual rigors of teaching. Unfortunately, passing exams, graduation rates, and similar considerations can have the ability to interfere with those subject areas that are considered elective, such as the study of the Holocaust. And this, I discovered, is where RWBA’s fully integrated approach is so effective.
At Lincoln Southwest High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I spent the first ten years of my career in education, there were two distinct courses offered on the Holocaust—one in history, and one in literature, the latter of which I had the privilege of teaching. From time to time, we would also bring in speakers on subjects related to human rights, often inviting the entire student body. All of this, of course, in addition to any place where the Diary of Anne Frank, World War II, and other related topics might appear in the curriculum. In teaching a term-long course on the Holocaust, I quickly found that after ten or eleven years of formal education, the knowledge that students would arrive with about the Holocaust varied widely, from knowing next to nothing, to deeper knowledge of the subject matter than my own.
What set RWBA apart was an inclusive and systematic approach to the study of the Holocaust. There, I met math teachers, science teachers, special education teachers, physical education teachers, and administrators, all of whom seemed fully vested in the notion that the lessons of the Holocaust included civic engagement, humanitarian activism, pursuant scholarship, and that these lessons could and should be a part of the greater school community, and not simply relegated to a few, isolated learning opportunities.
Applying Lessons to the American Context
A year after my experience at RWBA concluded, I took a job at Omaha North High Magnet School, which has a renowned STEM magnet program and a wonderfully diverse student body. What I found upon arriving was that North already had in place many of the structures I had admired at RWBA.
For example, RWBA regularly invited guest speakers that included Holocaust survivors, politicians, and activists; similarly, Omaha North had years ago launched “A Week of Understanding” and did the same. Fellow Omaha North teacher Laura Geiger spoke of the impact of this week: “I have seen the impact of bringing survivors to speak to my students. Every year, students are enlightened and inspired by these amazing men and women. I cherish every year that we are able to bring history into my school.”
Today, the Week of Understanding is a citywide annual occurrence that reaches deep into the Omaha community. The year before I arrived at North, the theater department had produced The Diary of Anne Frank and sought outside assistance from the Institute for Holocaust Education. My own contributions to Omaha North have thus served only to complement that which was already in place. I have been able to offer an Honors Humanities course focused on 20th-century genocide, followed by an Honors Introduction to World Religions class. I have also organized travel opportunities focused on such studies and sponsored an Aegis Students chapter that has since morphed to include a fledgling Model United Nations chapter.
Incorporating Experiential Learning and the Whole Community
In addition, I’ve been supported in providing meaningful experiential learning opportunities for my students. Working with staff from multiple departments, we have offered trips to Washington, DC to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda, the Armenian National Committee of America offices, and much more. Similarly, we have visited Chicago, where we visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in addition to the Cambodian Association of Illinois—currently the only memorial to the Cambodian Genocide in the United States. We also take the opportunity to visit local synagogues, mosques, and temples, and have begun a tradition of attending Passover Seder at Beth El, a local synagogue.
Most importantly, Omaha North has seen the same schoolwide buy-in that made RWBA’s model such a success. Senior English teachers often teach Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Rwanda’s genocide is taught in varying classes. Numerous Omaha North colleagues have attended the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Conference for Holocaust Educators at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or have become fellows of that museum, or both; and fellow teacher Laura Geiger has recently begun helping to facilitate statewide workshops on Holocaust education. In essence, I would say that Omaha North is fertile ground for Holocaust education, still working diligently toward something that looks like what I saw modeled at RWBA.
This summer, with a grant from the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program, I will return to RWBA to put on a series of workshops with Nic, one for students and one for educators and scholars, on teaching about genocide in the Balkan States in the early to mid 1990s. As Nic put it once: “The work is never over, arguably in global context, never more needed.”
Quote image created on Pablo.
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