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Friday, April 3, 2015

Teaching Theme in Literature

Theme is an important concept for understanding texts of all types. Too often, however, students (and teachers!) confuse theme with topic, main idea, or author's purpose.

Let's agree that by theme we mean a universal lesson about life that one can learn from a given text. The theme of many a Lifetime movie, for example, has been "Love conquers all."

In its simplest sense, a theme might be identified by a single word. "Determination," for example, is a common theme of many movies, television shows, and of course books. But we typically want students to express the theme in a complete thought, leading to more developed ideas such as
  • Through hard work and determination, one can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
  • Determination in the face conflict can reveal a person's true character.
  • Determination is necessary to overcome adversity.
  • To one who is determined, every problem is another opportunity to succeed. 
In my own class, each common novel is centered on at least one theme, which in turn is used to generate essential questions. For the novel Holes, our central theme is Identity:

Theme: Identity
Identity might be defined as uniqueness, distinctiveness, individuality, or personality. The identity of a person or group is rarely static, but instead is constantly being changed by internal and external forces. 

Guiding Questions: 
  • How do we form our identities?
  • How does what others think about you affect how you think about yourself?
  • How is identity shaped by relationships and experiences? 
  • What can you learn about yourself by studying the lives of others?
  • When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or larger group?

Why teach theme?

Identifying theme is more than an academic task on a standardized test. By understanding theme, students can 
  • better understand connections between diverse text types unified by a single theme; 
  • practice strategies and skills within the same theme, while increasing text complexity and decreasing instructional support;
  • connect prior learning to advanced topics, 
  • access familiar themes to inspire their own writing, and 
  • make connections between disciplines beyond language arts.
A novel study of Because of Winn Dixie, for instance, might spark a fourth grade unit on Identity which encompasses many other subject areas (click for full view):

What's the best way to help students understand theme?

Often, the theme of a story or novel is stated overtly. We see this all the time in movie trailers. A voice over informs us that "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" in the trailer for Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. Watch the trailer and you'll likewise hear nearly a dozen similar statements which could easily serve as theme sentences for this story.

In Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord, our narrator Lucy frequently shares thoughts which might serve as themes for the text. In the book's first chapter, we read:

Dad always promises me things before he leaves and then forgets by the time he's home again. I couldn't help have a little bit of “I hope so” that this place would be different. That's the thing with new beginnings - sometimes they’re more than just starting over again. 

 Sometimes they change things.

Is that the book's main theme? We don't know yet, but we now have an anchor statement to which many of the book's events and details may be tethered. 

As we read the book, we discover that the family moves frequently and it is the nature of her father's career as a photographer that he isn't home as often as Lucy would like. Lucy does feel a connection to her father, however, in that she also enjoys photography. She explains that when they first move to a new place, she takes a picture as soon as they arrive. "It always makes me feel a little braver, knowing that on some future day I can look back at that photo, taken when it was new and scary, and think, I made it. Like creating a memory in reverse."

In our search for other possible overt themes, we hear that Lucy's father believes that "it's just as important to show the hard things in the world as it is to show the beautiful ones. Even in the midst of horrible things, there are bits of wonder, and all of it's true." Lucy later shares her own philosophy, explaining, "One thing I learned about moving was that once you were there, it was better to just look ahead. Because even if you went to visit the places and people you left behind, it was never the same - except in photos." Either one of these philosophies can be supported with later events in the story. It's a wonderful piece of realistic fiction, perfect for grades four to six, and fans of Cynthia Lord won't be disappointed.

But what about those books where theme is more covertly expressed? Here it's necessary to pluck out specific details and events which somehow, reflected upon as a whole, seem to express a lesson we can learn about life.

In Dan Gemeinhart's The Honest Truth, the reader is hard pressed to find a single sentence that expresses the theme of the book. In this powerful novel, Mark's cancer has returned after everyone thought he was finally healthy. Mark decides to make one last meaningful move in his life, which is to climb Mt. Rainier as he had promised his late grandfather. He leaves home without telling his best friend Jessie or his parents, armed only with a backpack full of supplies and his faithful dog Beau at his side. We alternate between the heart-breaking challenges of Mark's journey (told in the first person) and the helplessness of his friend and family at home (told in the third person). 

Throughout the book both Mark and Jessie express their feelings in haiku, a favorite poetry form learned from a third grade teacher, which the two had written in and spoken in as a form of code. Jessie, for example, writes:

"Across far, dark miles 
a friend can still hold your hand 
and be there with you." 

These haikus provide hints of the book's many themes (such as friendship), but a single haiku alone fails to fully express the book's overall message about living one's life.

Extensions for the Classroom

If you've ever seen the throwback game show called $100,000 Pyramid, then you already know how to play the Theme Game. In the Theme Game, one student (the Guesser) sits with her back to the projector screen. If you don't have a screen, then placing a computer out of the Guesser's line of sight works just as well. The Hint Giver stands in front of the Guesser, and the Hint Giver (and the Audience) can see the screen or projector on which theme words will appear. As a theme word appears, the Hint Giver can provide action clues, clues from books, nearly anything imaginable that will help the Guesser figure out the theme word being shown. 

The Theme Game (see download options below) contains 11 sets of five words each, and you can certainly add more. What makes it challenging is the amount of time you allow the pair to correctly guess their five words. For my sixth graders, 90 seconds worked well for most pairs to be successful. Keep in  mind, however, that they had read many books, stories, poems, and articles in common, and so were able to provide clues rooted in those text sources; this may not be the case in all classrooms.

The Theme Game is available free in PowerPoint or in Google Slides

I've provided a simple Theme Exercise using an original short story called Cheerleading Challenge. I've provided the story in Word format, Google Docs format, and PDF format, should you wish to change the formatting, add additional questions, have students annotate the text Google Docs, etc. All versions include a simple chart at the story's end to help students organize their thinking, and this chart can be copied and added to other texts with which students work.

Finally, if you want to infuse your own texts into an exercise, then check out the Themes Statement handout. Substitute your own poems, short stories, nonfiction articles, books, etc. for the titles included there. The handout mentions a simple list of universal themes which may prove useful as an ongoing reference.

More About The Honest Truth

Fans of Counting by 7s and Wonder will love The Honest Truth. Teachers will as well, not just for its complex and compelling story line, but its models of exemplary writing.

The book contains many fantastic passages, but I found a few to be especially compelling. Students will come to understand the power of repetition in passages such as this one: 

Jess sat down and, after a few false starts, Mark's mom told her everything. She told her about the last call from the doctor and what he'd told her. She told her about how Mark had taken it... 

Mark's mom sat looking down at her hands, at her fingers tied tight together. They were a mom's hands, soft, with only small wrinkles, and chipping polish on the nails. They were empty with only themselves to hold. (pp. 69-70) 

Or the use of sentence fragments:

While we waited in the gloomy afternoon, several more people showed up and joined us. An older couple with no climbing gear but three cameras and a pair of binoculars. A family with two little kids that ran around and screamed. An old guy with a walking stick who was so lean and healthy looking he looked like he could walk a thousand miles without hardly noticing. (p. 96)

Or action:

At the last second, just before my body hit the black water, I gulped one great big breath of air. I filled my lungs, and then the freezing water grabbed my body and did its frigid best to stop my heart. 

The water was more than cold. It was ice that moved. It was strong and fast and there was nothing I could do. I would have screamed,but the cold was squeezing my lungs like a black fist. For one second I saw Beau looking down at me from the log, getting smaller as I rushed away, and then the water spun me and I was gone. The last I saw of him, his front legs were already in the air. He was jumping in after me. (p. 123)

Or emotions which are difficult to put into words:

But worst of all: It would all be without him. He was who she walk to school with. Who she sat next to in class. Who she shared lunch with. There, with all those eyes and that one little space next to her where he was supposed to be, he would feel so much more gone. And she would feel so much more alone. (p. 135)

All in all, it's a memorable novel which you can confidently recommend for independent reading, or use as a class read-aloud.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tech Tools for Assessment

Assessment isn't what happens after instruction; assessment is instead what guides instruction and moves it forward. Formative assessment, the ongoing "pinging" of student progress, is a key part of instruction and not an afterthought. Wiliam (2013) stated it this way: “It is only through assessment that we can discover whether the instructional activities in which we engaged our students resulted in the intended learning. Assessment really is the bridge between teaching and learning.”

With this in mind, I've created a collection of over 30 free assessment tools which teachers can use at all stages of the learning process. I've annotated these sites and provided introductory videos which will help you to get started immediately.

Why the Emphasis on Assessment?

When my older daughter was five, she purchased a rubber squeaky hammer from the dollar store. For days she walked around the house, asking what needed to be hammered. So I guess she proved Abraham Maslow to be correct when he said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail" (Maslow, 1966, pp. 15-16). I sometimes feel that teachers are like that when it comes to a new technology. We get excited about a single site or application and seek ways to use it immediately and often, regardless of its appropriateness to the task. “While well-designed tools or assessment strategies are a key component to authentic formative assessment, if they are not what teachers consider the right tools for the immediate task at hand, they are frustrating and counterproductive” (Formative assessment that truly informs instruction, 2013, p. 2).

We should strive to work in the opposite way. Let's first consider our instructional objective, which is never "to use a new technology." Let's then ask, "Is there a technology that we can incorporate to somehow facilitate, extend, or improve this lesson?" When it comes to tools for assessment, we are seeking measures that are timely, frequent, authentic, engaging, practical, collaborative, and reflective. That’s a long list, but not every assessment needs to meet every criterion. We as teachers simply need to select judiciously; if a technology doesn't fit the bill, we shouldn't force it.

Technology tools are especially effective in administering formative assessment. Formative assessment can be defined as “a deliberate process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides actionable feedback used to adjust ongoing teaching and learning strategies to improve students’ attainment of curricular learning targets or goals.” Mursky (2015) goes on to describe its attributes, which include clarifying intended learning, eliciting evidence, interpreting evidence, and acting on that evidence. Few teachers, however, were trained in how to elicit evidence of learning in a manner that is authentic, practical, or engaging. Other teachers fail to differentiate between formative and summative assessments; instead, they simply set assessment tasks, not fully realizing “that formative assessments are for learning, not necessarily of it” (Miller, 2015). As a result, these teachers are likely to associate assessments with summative examinations and standardized testing, and to see them as something that happens discretely apart from instruction. It’s even possible, in cases such as the PARCC test, that teachers view assessment as an intrusion on, or distraction from, classroom instruction and learning. “In a context in which assessment is overwhelmingly identified with the competitive evaluation of schools, teachers, and students, it is scarcely surprising that classroom teachers identify assessment as something external to their everyday practice” (Heritage, 2007, p. 14). We need to see assessment as a key factor in learning, and digital tools can play a huge role in this mission.

The purpose of Tech Tools for Assessment is to introduce teachers to digital assessment applications which will motivate and inspire students while yielding practical outcomes for reflection and continued growth. The tools provide measures that are timely, frequent, authentic, engaging, practical, collaborative, and reflective. Whenever possible, teaching applications and exemplars have been included in each site’s description to assist the teacher in understanding each application’s use and to aid the teacher in introducing the applications to students. As teachers, we need to “effectively communicate to our learners both a description of how they will perform an assessment activity as well as a description of how we will judge the quality of their performance” (Vega, 2015). These tools can play a critical role in meeting these objectives.

Continue reading my rationale for these tools, or check out the collection for yourself.

Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments below.


Formative assessment that truly informs instruction. (2013). Retrieved from National Council of Teachers of English website: 

Heritage, M. (2007, October). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? PHI DELTA KAPPAN, 89(02), 140-145. 

Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row. 

Miller, A. (2015, February 3). Formative assessment is transformational! Retrieved from 

Mursky, C. (2015, January 30). Formative assessment practices to support student learning. Retrieved from 

Vega, A. (2015, January 27). Blended and online assessment taxonomy design. Retrieved from 

Wiliam, D. (2103, December). Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning.Voices from the Middle, 21(2), 15-20.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Increase Reading Interaction Using This One Simple Site

I cross my fingers each time I assign my students a chapter, short story, or article to read at home for our next day's discussion or close reading. Too often I'll pile on related comprehension questions or threaten a quiz just to increase the likelihood that every student will get the reading done. Annotations, summaries, probing questions, and reflections on favorite quotations fill my bag of tricks, but I've always wanted something that would more actively engage my students with the text.

Enter Curriculet.

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Curriculet is an easy-to-use site which allows you to embed annotations, definitions, questions, images, videos, and quizzes into online text passages.

According to the site, "We believe that every moment of learning begins with reading, that teaching is a craft, and that the most effective curricula begins with the inspired work of great teachers and is perfected through peer collaboration. Curriculet is revolutionizing the way kids read, and how teachers create, share, and teach with a simple yet dynamic digital reading platform."

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The site offers three options for text selections:
  • Choose from dozens of popular texts which can be "rented" for classroom use. These texts come complete with embedded features to assess structure, diction, textual evidence, point of view, central idea, summary, media, and more. You can edit, add to, or remove the embedded material, saving the new Curriculet as your own.
  • Choose from a number of free texts, which include many novels in the public domain such as Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island, poems such as "The Raven," and short stories such as Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" and Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian." Teachers can additionally choose from a growing number of many popular passages. These free texts typically come complete with embedded media which can be used as is, edited, deleted, or added to in the same manner as the rented texts. 
  • Upload your own text. Then embed customized questions, definitions, annotations, and media. Most Word and Google Doc format texts convert easily to reading passages, but even URLs can be converted into Curriculet form simply by using the "Add My Own Content Button" in the Library page of your teacher account. Questions can be open ended or multiple choice, tagged by skill if desired, and the text to which they refer can be highlighted for ease in student reference.
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In all cases, the multiple-choice questions and quizzes are self-scoring. If you include open-ended questions, you're given the opportunity to hand score these simply as correct or incorrect, adding comments as needed.

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If you're using novels in a whole class manner, the easy access via any mobile device plus the bonus of customized embedded content would be worth the cost. But I can also see Curriculet as being equally useful in
  • differentiating reading, either by content (assign different text selections) or skill (assign the same text across the class, with varying levels of questions and assistance via notes);
  • discussing current events, as students can answer questions focused on factual understanding, and then respond in more subjective ways via open ended responses; 
  • measuring formative grasp of any given reading skill, using short, controlled passages with just the right number of questions to gauge the the progress of individuals students or the whole class;
  • assessing comprehension of critical attributes of a genre, topic, theme, etc. using one exemplar text;
  • contextualizing vocabulary, which is too often taught in isolation from meaningful text.
The site is free to use and easy for students to join. Give it a trial run and be sure to reach out to the folks at Curriculet with your feedback. Their goal is create a quality reading experience, and I think they're on the right track!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Writing to Remember: Responding to Holocaust Readings

This week I received two emails from teachers asking what writing assignments I incorporated when teaching about the Holocaust. Although it largely depends upon the classes taught, I typically ask students to complete four writing assignments which are directly or indirectly connected to our Holocaust unit.

Citizenship Credits

The first piece of writing students tackle, even before discussions of the Holocaust begin, is an argumentative piece called Citizenship Credits. That assignment is described in this post; you can download the prompt from there, or from below.

Whose Rules?

As students read the latter portion of The Devil's Arithmetic, they take notes on the camp rules and Rivka's rules using a two column chart created in their notebooks. Students record both the rules they discover, as well as the page numbers upon which they appear.  They later use these notes for a second piece: a comparison-contrast essay. They use this very simple model or this very simple model to structure their essay, but their writing is, of course, much more complex, as all points need to be text supported and elaborated upon. (For students needing some further direct instruction in comparing and contrasting, you may find portions of this ReadWriteThink interactive to be helpful).

Should Sixth Graders Study the Holocaust?

Once we've completed the novel, I challenge my students with this essay topic: "Should Sixth Graders Study the Holocaust?" The fact is, many parents and educators believe they should not. Students consult many online sources for support, including a speech by Jane Yolen which includes the "Alphabet of Evil," and a collection of quotes I've compiled. Some teachers may disagree with providing resources for their students, but after viewing many online sources which turned out to be inappropriate, biased, or simply hateful, I chose to provide students with some excerpts which I had personally vetted). A huge emphasis here is on recognizing and refuting opposing points of view.

Improving the World

A last writing piece which students produce nearly a month after our Holocaust unit is based upon an Anne Frank quote: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." In their responses, students provide examples of ways that others have improved the world, and ways in which they, in their present role as student, can do the same. This link shows how we organize the essay, and also provides many possible openings as well as ways in which to revisit those openings in the closing paragraph.

Hope these suggestions help. What responses to Holocaust studies have your students written?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Destruction, Disruption, and Defiance: Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust

In discussing the persecution of European Jews in the years before and during World War II, my students would often ask, "How could they let this happen?" Meaning, how could the rest of the world stand by and do nothing? For all the answers I can help students to find, I still can't answer this question myself.

The question asked nearly as often, however, is this: "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" But to that question I can readily answer, "They did. They did fight back. But realize that it wasn't just with guns; even children your age found ways to disrupt and defy the Nazis who tried to exterminate them."

In teaching the topic of Jewish resistance, I've found a great resource in an impressive series of six books from Enslow Publishing titled True Stories of Teens in the Holocaust. This series explores, through hundreds of primary documents and photographs, the diverse experiences of Jewish and non-Jewish youth caught up in the Holocaust.

Another terrific single-volume resource for any middle or high school classroom is Doreen Rapapport's Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, published by Candlewick Press.

Check out the books below, and then read on for suggested sites for helping students learn history through analyzing primary sources.

Courageous Teen Resisters: Primary Sources from the Holocaust

The popular title Courageous Teen Resisters: Primary Sources from the Holocaust documents both violent and nonviolent defiance of Nazi terrorism, from the increasingly overt persecution of early 1930s Germany to resistance efforts in France to the twenty-seven days of the Warsaw uprising. Readers learn how subtle and secretive efforts by Jews and Gentile sympathizers disrupted and distracted occupying enemy troops in some circumstances, while outright armed resistance and acts of sabotage wreaked chaos and destruction in others.

From Courageous Teen Resisters:

Courageous Teen Resisters is recommended as a stand-alone volume for students seeking to learn more about Jewish Resistance, as well an informational text companion to Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens (available from Scholastic).

The remaining five titles in the Enslow series are described below with a short publisher's summary or excerpt as well as recommended companion titles. This series is especially useful in text pairings not only to meet demands of the Common Core emphasis on informational texts, but to provide students with the necessary historical and social contexts needed to truly appreciate biography and historical fiction rooted in the Holocaust. (If you're seeking Holocaust texts for lower-level readers, be sure to check out my Annotated List of Holocaust Picture Books).

Youth Destroyed - The Nazi Camps
"Alice Lok was deported to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, in 1944. Upon her arrival, she faced a "selection." Alice had to stand in line as a Nazi doctor examined the new camp inmates. If the doctor pointed one direction, it meant hard labor—but labor meant life. If the doctor pointed the other way, that meant immediate death. Alice was lucky. She survived Auschwitz and two other camps. However, millions of Jews were not so lucky."  ~ from the publisher
Youth Destroyed - The Nazi Camps is recommended as an informational text companion to The Devil's Arithmetic (gr. 6-8), Prisoner B-3087 (gr. 6-9; see my review here), Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story (gr. 4-6), Hana's Suitcase (gr. 4-5), Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust (gr. 5-7), I am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (gr. 5-7), Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps (gr. 5-8), I Have Lived A Thousand Years: Growing Up In The Holocaust (gr. 8-12), and Night (grades 9-up).

Trapped - Youth in the Nazi Ghettos
"(M)any Jewish youth living in the ghettos in Europe... faced death, fear, hunger, hard labor, and disease everyday. Millions of Jews were forced into ghettos, where the Nazis kept them until they could be deported to the death camps."  ~ from the publisher

For this title I'd recommend Children in the Ghetto, an interactive site which describes itself as
"...A website about children, written for children. It portrays life during the Holocaust from the viewpoint of children who lived in the ghetto, while attempting to make the complex experience of life in the ghetto as accessible as possible to today’s children.

Along with the description of the hardships of ghetto life, it also presents the courage, steadfastness and creativity involved in the children’s lives. One of the most important messages to be learned is that despite the hardships, there were those who struggled to maintain humanitarian and philanthropic values, care for one another, and continue a cultural and spiritual life."
By examining writings, artifacts, and first hand interviews, students gain an understanding of the "anything-to-survive" mentality which the ghetto created, and demanded, of its inhabitants. Students can explore freely, taking advantage of the interactive elements, or respond to prompts in writing using the printable handouts (I downloaded the handouts, available in Word format, and adapted them according to my lesson objectives).

Once students have interacted with this site, they will have a mental bank of sites, sounds, stories, and symbols from which to draw upon, greatly increasing their understanding and appreciation of this nonfiction text as well as any novel with which they're working.

Trapped - Youth in the Nazi Ghettos is recommended as an informational text companion to The Island on Bird Street (gr. 4-6), Milkweed (gr. 6-8), Yellow Star (gr. 5-8), and Daniel's Story (gr. 4-8).

Escape - Teens on the Run
"Thousands of Jews lived on the run during the Holocaust. Some were able to escape Germany before the war started. Others had to move throughout Europe to flee the Nazis. And many more could not escape at all."  ~ from the publisher

From Escape - Teens on the Run

Escape: Teens on the Run is recommended as an informational text companion to Number the Stars (gr. 4-5), The Night Spies (gr. 3-5), When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (gr. 4-6), Escape: Children of the Holocaust (gr. 5-7), Run, Boy, Run (gr. 5-8), Once (gr. 6-10), and Survivors: True Stories of Children of the Holocaust (grades 5-8).

Hidden Teens, Hidden Lives
"(T)housands of Jews went into hiding during the Holocaust. Barns, trapdoors, bunkers, secret attics, forged identity papers, and fake names became tools for survival."  ~ from the publisher
The fate of Jews who were hidden is of special interest to students. Even in a classroom that chooses not to embark upon a full Holocaust unit, time can certainly be devoted to learning about Jews who went into hiding rather than face extermination by the Nazis.

The uncertainty of such a choice is reflected in this diary entry from Anne Frank which appears in the book:

Hidden Teens, Hidden Lives is recommended as an informational text companion to Number the Stars (gr. 4-5), Jacob's Rescue (gr. 3-5), The Upstairs Room (gr. 4-5), Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 True Stories of Survival (gr. 4-6), Anne Frank (10 Days) (gr. 5-7), The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust (gr. 4-6), Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (gr. 7-up), and The Book Thief (gr, 8-up).

Shattered Youth in Nazi Germany
"Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party's rise to power in the 1930s changed life dramatically for all people living in Germany. Hitler used propaganda, fear, and brutality as his main weapons. Jewish children faced strong antiSemitism in their schools and on the street, and saw their families ripped apart. Non-Jewish children deemed "undesirable" suffered a similar fate. "Aryan" children were forced to enter Hitler Youth groups or endure humiliation."  ~ from the publisher

This book is a real stand-out as it not only chronicles the experience of Jews in Nazi Germany, but also Gentiles who were reluctant to submit to Nazi ideologies.

Shattered Youth in Nazi Germany is recommended as an informational text companion to The Big Lie (gr. 3-5), The Boy Who Dared (gr. 6-8), The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler's List (gr. 5-9), Someone Named Eva (gr. 6-9), Parallel Journeys (gr. 6-8), The Book Thief (gr. 9-up), Hitler's Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow (gr. 6-12), and The Berlin Boxing Club (gr. 9-12).

Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust

If you're looking for a single-volume resource for any middle or high school classroom, I recommend Doreen Rappaport's multiple award winning Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, published by Candlewick Press.

Like all of Candlewick's titles, this text is supported by a number of resources available from the publisher's site, including a full page spread, a teacher's guide, an interview with a survivor, and an audio excerpt. The book itself includes primary source excerpts, maps, a pronunciation guide, timeline, index, and sources.

In speaking of her accomplishment (which took five years to research and write), author Doreen Rappaport says,
"How Jews organized themselves in order to survive and defy their enemy is an important but still neglected piece of history. I present a sampling of actions, efforts, and heroism with the hope that I can play a role in helping to correct the damaging and persistent belief that Jews ‘went like sheep to the slaughter.’"
Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation

A key resource for teaching Jewish resistance, and for discovering a multitude of primary sources, is the web site of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, whose key mission is "to develop and distribute effective educational materials about the Jewish partisans and their life lessons, bringing the celebration of heroic resistance against tyranny into educational and cultural organizations."

Over 30,000 Jewish partisans, or “members of an organized body of fighters who attack or harass an enemy, especially within occupied territory,” joined the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish resistance fighters who fought the Nazis. Interestingly, however, their assistance was not always welcome, as antisemitism was often common in non-Jewish resistance groups.

This comprehensive and well constructed site offers teachers and students myriad free resources including:
  • Professional Development modules which can be completed for continuing education credits (CEUs)  (I highly recommend that prior to using this site you complete at least the first module to better understand how to best access the site's videos, articles, lesson plans, student hand-outs, and more);
  • An extensive film collection, containing 3 to 20 minute films through which students can "witness the Jewish partisans' stories of endurance, victory, and struggle;"
  • Interactive maps of Jewish partisan activity;
  • A Virtual Underground Bunker;
  • An Image Gallery (captioned and sourced); 
  • Downloads for the classroom and a Resource Search option; and
  • A very unique tool called Someone Like Me, where a students enter a combination of personal characteristics; the site, in turn, presents a partisan who matches those characteristics. Students can then explore the life and work of that partisan through any of the resource links above.
Primary Sources

Because the impact of Holocaust education relies heavily upon students learning the true events of this tragedy, primary sources should play a role in every Holocaust unit. The JPEF site described above provides a wonderful collection of sources from which to choose, but below I have compiled a number of additional resources which educators may find useful in planning their instruction. As always, please reach out and let me know what other sites, books, and documents you've found useful.

Why Should I Use Primary Sources?

Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students
From Learn NC, a step-by-step guide for students examining primary sources, with specific questions divided into five layers of questioning.

Primary Document Webinar
This hour long recorded webinar present teachers with not only reasons for using primary sources, but also ten really easy-to-implement ideas for starting with primary sources in the classroom.

Making Sense of Evidence
This is a highly recommended collection of articles written by experts in the field on how to make sense of films, oral histories, numbers, maps, advertisements, and more. While written by the experts, students will find the language they use to be accessible. From the site:
“Making Sense of Documents” provide strategies for analyzing online primary materials, with interactive exercises and a guide to traditional and online sources. “Scholars in Action” segments show how scholars puzzle out the meaning of different kinds of primary sources, allowing you to try to make sense of a document yourself then providing audio clips in which leading scholars interpret the document and discuss strategies for overall analysis.
Because of the career connections, this site is a valuable tool for achieving College and Workplace Readiness goals.

Engaging Students with Primary Sources from Smithsonian’s History Explorer site
A 64 page pdf that serves as an excellent introduction to using primary sources.

Primary Sources Fitting into CCSS
Brief article showing how instruction with primary docs helps fulfill CCSS.

Teaching the Holocaust with Primary Sources
From Eastern Illionis University, a Holocaust Unit utilizing resources provided by the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress: Why Use Primary Sources?
Very brief pdf discusses reasons in bullets; good for making your point when discussing unit plans with others.

Primary Sources Cautionary Tales (pdf article)
Considerations and concerns surrounding primary sources.

Where Can I Find Lesson Plans with Primary Sources?

I Witness
From the USC Shoah Foundation, this site contains over 1300 video testimonies and other digital resources, as well as assistance for educators seeking to use these tools in Holocaust education.

Response to the Holocaust: Resistance and Rescue(Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center)
A pdf format document filled with original writings and suggested student activities; you can also download the entire curriculum from the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center.

Jewish Resistance: A Curriculum from The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida
Lesson plans include original documents, along with suggested student questions to help analyze them.

The Power to Choose: Bystander or Rescuer?
Popular set of plans that has been online for some time; used by many educators as a good starting place for planning units.

Where Can I Find Additional Sites for Primary Sources?

PBS Learning Media - Interviews with Survivors and Rescuers
A good online source for interviews.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Offers an ever-changing variety of resources, as well as searchable pages for research. Educators can often request free teaching materials as well.

PBS Resources on the Holocaust 
The search page of PBS provides a vast number of resources, including excerpts from shows which have appeared on public television.

Oral History from Virginia Holocaust Museum
Oral History Project provides witness of survivors and rescuers.

Dr. Seuss Went to War
Before becoming Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel was a political cartoonist who urged America to join "Europe's war," in large part due to the oppressive policies of Hitler's Nazi party. But are Geisel's cartoons themselves a type of propaganda? See an earlier post here on Propaganda and Persuasion.

What Strategies or Tools are Available to Assist Students in Analyzing Sources?

SOAPS Primary Document Strategy
This pdf provides information about the SOAPS acrostic, which students can easily recall for use in analyzing primary sources of information.

Primary Source Analysis Tools from the Library of Congress
Several different tools in pdf form for analyzing oral histories, manuscripts, maps, movies, and more.

Document Analysis Worksheets from National Archive
These pdfs allow for blank printing or for students to type directly on them and then print out or save; very handy for conducting analysis online.

Analyzing a Primary Source Rubric
A rubric for scoring student efforts in using primary sources.

Responding to Holocaust Readings

If you're interested in ways that students can respond to Holocaust readings, be sure to check out this post which provides four writing prompts to use before, during, and after a Holocaust unit.