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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How Could "They" Let This Happen?

The world is a dangerous place to live. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.  ~Albert Einstein

If you're reading a Dystopian or a Holocaust novel with your students, you're apt to see the wisdom and warning in Albert Einstein's words. If so, then keep reading.

When studying the Holocaust, my students always ask, "How could people let this happen?" They little realize how insidiously this tragedy was allowed to occur, and how quietly and malevolently similar atrocities continue to proliferate across the globe.

To help students better understand, I assign a writing piece called Citizenship Credits. It consists of a prompt for an argumentative essay, and its success relies upon students' struggle with seeing both sides of the topic presented. Most important, however, is the discussion which ensues, as it helps students begin to understand how such tragedies can occur, through not only the action of those who seek to control others, but the inaction of those who stand aside silently and allow it to happen. This small understanding is a jumping off point to exploring further causes; it is also, however, a cautionary tale for avoiding the consequences of inaction in their own lives.

Please know that this is NOT a simulation activity. I recently attended a session of the Master Teachers Institute in Holocaust Education at Rutgers University, where I heard teacher educator Ilana Abramovitch discuss the ineffectiveness of simulations. We cannot conduct one short exercise which causes discomfort and deprivation, and then declare to students, "And now you know how it must have felt."

This prompt instead allows students to see that "how this was allowed to happen" could happen just as easily in their own country, their own state, their own school. If you're studying a Dystopian novel, this prompt could also serve as an excellent prereading discussion piece, with exactly that same message

The Prompt

The prompt I share with students is embedded below. I kept it as simple and jargon-free as possible, and it's always amazing to see the number of provisions and conditions and rules which students attach to it as they begin to write, regardless of the perspective they've chosen to argue.

The class reads the prompt together and discusses it briefly. I then ask students to turn to the assignment's blank backside, fold the page in half, and write at least three bulleted statements arguing why such a policy is good, and three bulleted statements for why such a policy is bad. We share these aloud, and I encourage students to record points made by classmates which they might have missed. Students are encouraged to record arguments for both sides, even if they've already decided which point of view they take.

Students are then directed to choose one side of the topic or the other. My students organize their thoughts on a Google Draw doc which I've created for this purpose, which later allows them to copy and paste sentences easily to a blog or wiki. Another possibility for organizing ideas is with an interactive mapping tool such as Read Write Think's Persuasion Map, which can be edited online or printed up as a blank map for off-line use.

If you prefer that students use a more traditional outline format, check out Quicklyst. This frills-free outlining site is incredible quick to learn and leaves off distracting bells and whistles which students simply don't need.

As students begin writing their essays, encourage them to discuss not only the facts, examples, and anecdotes which support their own side of the issue, but also the opposing views of their opponents. Only if they acknowledge these opposing views and counter them will their writing be argumentative, versus simply persuasive. For more on argumentation vs. persuasion, and also the power of the opposing viewpoints, see my previous Fightin' Words post. 

How you choose to close this activity depends largely upon the approach you'll take with your novel. Every year it's my students who draw parallels between the dangers of the Citizenship Credits policy, and what began to happen with citizens reporting on their neighbors in the early years of Nazi Germany.  You may also wish to share The Hangman by Maurice Ogden, an allegorical poem with a powerful message. See "The Hangman" related activities.  

Responding to Holocaust Readings

If you're interested in additional 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.

Recommended Reads

While I've used this activity successfully with both Number the Stars and The Devil's Arithmetic, it could also used as a prereading activity with other Holocaust titles such as Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Susan Campbell Bartoletti's The Boy Who Dared

The theme of a police state of paranoia would also ring true with Dystopian titles such as Animal Farm, 1984, The Hunger Games, Brave New World, and Divergent.

If you're looking to read more on the topic of argumentative writing, check out They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. This book explains in concise language, dozens of templates, and numerous real-world examples, the powerful concepts which guide argumentative writing.

Here you'll find templates for openings, closings, discussion, disagreement, etc. You'll also have at your fingertips many professionally written articles, essays, and speeches which show these same templates at work (see the explanation of argumentative writing in "Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail" shown in the book preview on Amazon). 

This work, aimed at both instructors and high school- and college-aged students, is must reading.


Dena McMurdie said...

I've read many many books about the holocaust and Nazi Germany, including many of the ones you listed. It always makes me think about how I would react in that situation. I am currently reading The Book Thief. I like how Markus Zusak shows us the everyday German Citizen's story and the things that they experienced. The fear, hunger, and shame that they dealt with.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm following you as well.

Jemima Pett said...

A very interesting approach. I also wondered why they let it happen and over the years I've started to understand. I recently read "The Hare with Amber Eyes" which is a terrific book - the story of how a collection of netsuke made its way through generations to the author. The piece on his (great?)grandparents in Vienna is very moving and explains so much.
Nice to meet you - thanks to the Kid Lit Blog Hop and your visit!

Jemima at Jemima's blog

Monika said...

Fascinating post, thanks for sharing your approach.

Laurisa White Reyes said...

This is a great idea. My older son has read a lot of books about the Holocaust including those listed here. These books do get kids to think and hopefully prevent anything like this from ever happening again in our world.

Cool Mom said...

Wow! This IS a fascinating post. Thank you for the tremendous resources and for stopping by in the kidlit blog hop. I am thrilled you shared your blog and will be visiting often!

Renee C. said...

Love, love, love your post! I think this is such an important exercise to undertake with older kids. It was reminding me as I was reading through your post of Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development. Each stage gets increasingly complex as we think through and weigh out the consequences and impact of a single act.

I'm not sure if Randy Coates has linked into the Hop this week because I haven't been through the whole list, but I want to connect you two. He has many thought provoking posts based on his experiences as a Grade 8 (?) teacher. Here is his website:

I consider The Book Thief one of my favorite books of all time. I get goosebumps just thinking about the story of the Word Shaker.

Thanks so much for linking into the Kid Lit Blog Hop. I'm a new follower!

Sibel Hodge said...

Stopping by as part of the Kid Lit Blog Hop. This is an amazing post - thanks so much for sharing :)

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