Educating Our Children in Difficult Times Part I

November 16, 2018

Educating Our Children In Difficult Times

With the recent unspeakable tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, along with reports of anti-Semitism in area high schools, some members of our Jewish community have rightfully inquired about our approach to educating students about the Holocaust and the history of genocide.  I want to reassure the entire Madison community that our schools have a deep dedication and commitment to meaningfully incorporating the study of these topics in our core curriculum that reaches all students.  We are educators.  We are at our best when we are left to do what we are professionally trained to do…teach.  By meaningfully building these topics into our curriculum, we can reach all students with some of our most important work.  Although we do in fact begin instruction about different religions and traditions as early as kindergarten, below are just some of the highlights of our overall instructional program..

Guaranteed Curriculum Experience For All Students

Grade 3 Social Studies

Beginning in grade 3, we approach the history of Connecticut, including the conflicts between the Colonists from Great Britain and the Native Americans, in an age-appropriate manner.  This course of content includes an early understanding of genocide in relation to the Connecticut tribes and the Colonists.  Again, this is done in an age-appropriate approach.  View Grade 3 Unit 2 Curriculum on our website.

Grade 7 Unit 2 Social Studies

With more sophisticated learners in grade 7, our Social Studies curriculum begins a deeper look into 20th Century Europe. The second unit  in grade 7 is about acceptance and understanding of various cultures, religions, and belief systems throughout the world.  The events of 20th century Europe is the primary lens.  Students analyze the complexities of human rights, equality, and governance, and consider examples when belief systems have been, and continue to be, manipulated by individuals or groups in order to maintain power and control. Students are asked to critically analyze the role of propaganda and divisive language to manipulate the masses. Students consider the historical significance of the League of Nations and the United Nations, with applications and connections to modern day.  Students hypothesize how to develop religious acceptance and understanding for the purpose of community building and coexisting as allies.  Specifically, students are taught the systematic development of the Holocaust by the Nazis.  View the Grade 7 Unit 2 Curriculum

Grade 7 Unit 3 Social Studies
This unit builds on students' learning in the previous two units, continuing to explore the question "What does it mean to be a global citizen in an increasingly interconnected 21st century world?" Students continue to develop their understanding of the importance of being informed, active, global citizens and use knowledge previously gained from the "Challenge of Global Citizenship" unit (Unit 1) to justify their positions. Specifically, students explore to what degree it is possible, and why has it been difficult, for the UN to maintain peace between hostile groups in a region. To do this, students look more deeply at the role and responsibilities of the United Nations as an actor in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict in particular. Students are asked to demonstrate a deep understanding of the historical factors that have led to present day conflicts. Students analyze patterns in history in order to critically identify, evaluate, and predict future areas of global concern. They are introduced to violent and nonviolent conflicts and movements in order to understand how hostilities and rebellion lead to regional and global disharmony. The intent of each concept is to engage students as active, informed, and participating citizens, understanding their roles in the global community. Unit 3 can be found here.

Grade 8 Unit 5 Language Arts
The Grade 8 Language Arts Global Perspectives reading unit asks students to read the life stories of children living through adversity and persecution. Heroes we study include European Holocaust survivors, those in the Armenian Holocaust, women in the Middle East, child soldiers of Sudan, survivors of the Cambodian genocide, and more. Acceptance and tolerance for all is a theme woven throughout.
From the power struggles in dystopian societies to the social issues in our world, students examine the kinds of environments that lead to a myriad of struggles. Students explore how real people have emerged as heroes amidst cultural struggles for power, considering their stories from a global perspective. In examining the structure and techniques of narrative nonfiction, students consider how authors evoke a reaction in readers and shine a light on global issues. Students determine key passages in a narrative nonfiction text and analyze how the author presents a global issue through personal experience. Additionally, using the text's perspective, along with their own evolving positions, and the opinions of their peers, students engage in discourse about global issues and their implications for our lives and our communities. Finally, students write about a global issue that has affected them personally and that they would like to "shine a light on" for our community. Unit 5 can be found here. 

Grade 9 Unit 6:
As students enter Daniel Hand High School, the Social Studies curriculum continues the study of human rights and the challenges of defining genocide. Using the Holocaust as the example, and readings from the Jewish Virtual Library and, Unit 6 in the 9th Grade Social Studies curriculum focuses on 8 outlined stages of genocide. Most importantly, students learn the value of cultural understanding and how to take positive action when considering their contributions to their community and the common good. Students are expected to use the 21st century skills of imagining and synthesizing to create a meaningful monument in remembrance of an historical genocide. Unit 6 can be found here.

Grades 10-12 Modern Middle East (Elective Course):

The second unit of this elective course invites students to investigate the deep and complex history of Israel and Palestine in order to build an understanding of how the conflict between people in these nations is linked to broader tensions across the Middle East. Ultimately, the goal of this unit is not to assign blame or debate solutions, but to develop empathy for the multiple perspectives of people who have lived and continue to live through this seemingly intractable struggle. Students begin by learning about the historical ties that both Jews and Palestinians have to the land, and grapple with questions of fairness related to the creation of Israel after the Holocaust as a permanent home for the world's Jews. Then, students explore significant turning points in the conflict during the 20th and 21st centuries. The performance task for this unit requires that students keep a journal from the perspective of one of four possible perspectives: a Zionist, a moderate internationalist Jew, a moderate Palestinian, or a militant, Hamas-influenced Palestinian. Also, the causes and patterns of anti-Semitism in Europe is studied in unit 2 of our Modern Middle East elective.  This unit can be found here.

Additional Experiences
The Madison Public Schools has the privilege of annually having a Polson staff member, Shelly Capozzi, present to the entire 7th grade class about the challenges facing the nation of Israel, including a live webcast interview with a reporter on location in Israel before the entire 7th grade participating. This occurs during Unit 3 of the Social Studies curriculum in 7th grade (The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict and Holocaust Education).

This spring will mark the 10th year that Polson Middle School has hosted an interactive presentation with Holocaust survivor Judith Altman. Judith meets with all 7th and 8th grade students, sharing compelling stories with our students while also hosting a question and answer period.

Finally, on Wednesday, Polson Middle School completed step one of The Daffodil Project, a global initiative that started in 2010 as a way to build a Living Holocaust Memorial by planting 1.5 million daffodils around the world in memory of the children who perished. Since then, this youth-led initiative has grown to include support for all children who continue to suffer in the face of genocide and humanitarian crises in the world today, such as children in Darfur, South Sudan, and Rwanda. 423 bulbs were planted, one for each child in our school, and we look forward to the daffodils blooming in the spring.

Final Note

It is a sad reality, but it must be acknowledged, that given the pace of events in our world today, it is simply impossible to incorporate every conflict, every tension, or every mistreatment of any population naturally into our curriculum.  However, there is a way to naturally incorporate broad understandings and intellectual capacities into each and every unit of instruction, across all subjects from kindergarten through high school.  For six years our schools have worked tirelessly to integrate these 15 capacities for success in the current world and beyond.  I urge you to look over this one page document to understand the deep commitment our schools have to substantive learning beyond the mere acquisition of factual knowledge.  These capacities will enable our children to thrive in the world they will enter when they graduate, no matter how imposing that world may appear to us today. 

Thomas Scarice
Superintendent of Schools