Three years ago Victoria Kessler-Sher launched an elective in Holocaust and genocide studies at Somerville High School, where she has taught French for 18 years.
“If it hadn’t been for Rutgers, my district would never have let me do it,” Kessler-Sher told a group of 40 New Jersey educators attending a recent workshop offered by Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life as part of its Master Teacher Institute in Holocaust Education.
Kessler-Sher, who graduated from Rutgers in 1992, has been returning to her alma mater to attend Master Teacher Institute (MTI) programs for more than a decade. While she teaches the Holocaust in her French classes, through the elective she can give students “a deeper understanding of what human beings are capable of doing to each other” and help them apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today.
“Rutgers has been the key to expanding my knowledge exponentially and allowing me to teach this,” Kessler-Sher said. “The quality of what the program offers is unparalleled.”
Since 2005, Rutgers has been helping build the skills – and confidence – of New Jersey middle and high school teachers, who are required by state law to include issues of bias, prejudice and bigotry in their curriculums through the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide.
The Rutgers educators project began with a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which has continued its support through a series of $60,000 three-year matching grants, according to Karen Small, associate director of the Bildner Center. The funds enable the university to offer the program to teachers for free.
“One of the program’s major strengths is its ability to draw on Rutgers resources and bring them to hundreds of teachers throughout the state, which has a ripple effect with students and in districts and communities,” Small said. “Teachers return year after year to further their knowledge and become better teachers,” Small said. “They are here on their own time, after teaching a full school day.”
The educators who turned out for the early March workshop – “Holocaust Memory: The Meaning of Objects” – represented a diversity in geography, teaching subjects and school districts. Several in the group had been networking at Bildner Center courses for years. Others like, Patrick Brady, director of social studies for the North Bergen school district, were new to the program. “North Bergen is a diverse district with a small Jewish population, so our students don’t hear the stories passed down from generations,” said Brady, who brought five teachers from the district with him. “We’re excited to find new ways to make the Holocaust more relatable to our students.”Daniel Hernandez, a history teacher from North Bergen, said he was impressed with the program’s scholarship and range of material. He plans to share a moving poem with his class about shoes left behind by children who died in the concentration camps.
The morning speakers included Suzy Snyder, a curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences and author of the forthcoming book, Holocaust Memory in the Digital Age, who discussed artifacts as witnesses to history. A hands-on afternoon session in the computer lab followed, where Colleen Tambuscio, an educational consultant for MTI, instructed the teachers on how to implement the use of objects and artifacts in the classroom.
Troves of primary source material, such as diaries, photographs, and audio and visual testimony of survivors, is now housed in digital archives, said Tambuscio, a longtime teacher of Holocaust and genocide studies in Bergen County. She described how her classroom skyped with Peter Feigl, a survivor in his 80s hidden in France as a child, after reading his childhood diary and viewing his testimony online.
“Object-centered learning sets the stage for inquiry, and the students were able to ask a lot of great questions,” Tambuscio said. “He’s still connecting with us, still trying to make sense of his experience. For him, the story is always evolving.”
John Thompson, who teaches history at North Plainfield Middle School, plans to engage his students with the IWitness teaching program, a collection of 1,000 video testimonies from survivors and other witnesses, multimedia activities and digital resources. The Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive begun by film director Steven Spielberg is housed at the University of Southern California – and available as well through Rutgers – and includes the testimony of 52,000 survivors and witnesses.
“There are so many way to incorporate the themes and ideas of the Holocaust and link them to the core values we want to instill in our students,” Thompson said. “It is not just teaching kids about the Holocaust. It’s teaching them what it means to be human.”
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