One year after last October’s shooting at the Tree of Life building, Baldwin area students still struggle with their community’s relationship to the crime.
Kathy Hawk, a music teacher at J.E. Harrison Middle School and a graduate of Baldwin High School, explained that when it was discovered that the shooter had also graduated from Baldwin, students wanted to know whether she knew him.
Hawk didn’t, but said his photo is in yearbooks from her era.
Caitlin Caponi, an English, language arts and special education teacher at Brentwood Middle School and fellow Baldwin graduate, was similarly asked questions about the person who killed 11 Jews on Oct. 27, 2018.
Students wanted to know “why does he hate?” and “why would he shoot people who were defenseless?” said Caponi.
Daniel Shaner, a teacher at Harrison, covers the Holocaust in his English class. “It would be pretty hard for students” not to bring up the attack, he said.
“This hit pretty close to home for some of them,” said Hawk.
Between the students’ questions and the need to contextualize the atrocity within the broader history of anti-Semitism, Shaner decided to organize a daylong training for teachers. He reached out to Echoes & Reflections, an organization that provides secondary educators access to substantive Holocaust education.
“There are not enough school disticts in the area that are doing a competent job of Holocaust education,” said Shaner. “We need more training if we’re going to do a better job.”
Although area teachers continue to field individual inquiries related to the shooting, Echoes & Reflections took a larger approach to the topic by addressing educational strategies, such as integrating instructional enhancements, for teaching contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
“Teachers are on the front lines of having to help students kind of wrestle with and process experiences that are going on, violent experiences of all sorts,” said Lindsay Friedman, Echoes & Reflections’ managing director. “We want teachers to convey to students that anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the Holocaust, but it also didn’t end, and unfortunately now we have far too many tragedies and examples to help convey that.”
Throughout the daylong workshop on Oct. 2, Esther Hurh, an education program consultant, shared pedagogical tools, including digital resources, for promoting both student reflection and a willingness to prevent future anti-Semitic and prejudicial acts.
Hurh’s recommendations and her ability to frame the topic within a larger historical context was beneficial, explained Shaner.
Among the 17 participating teachers, some noted their courses do not address anti-Semitism or the Holocuast but the training still presented ways to impart lessons learned.
One history teacher plans on integrating concepts gained when exploring what it means to “form a more perfect union,” while another educator noted she’ll use the training to boost empathy in her classroom.
As for dealing with last year’s killings or other anti-Semitic events, there was discussion about how to teach in a way that doesn’t traumatize students, said Caponi. “We want to be able to teach in a way that empowers and doesn’t scare them.”
Midway through last week’s workshop, during a scheduled lunch break, Shaner drew attention to five current Baldwin High School freshmen who were inspired by the Butterfly Project, a decades-old endeavor of the Holocaust Museum Houston that commemorates the murdered 1.5 million children. The Baldwin students spent their lunchtimes and free periods last year cutting, painting and arranging more than 140 paper and ceramic butterflies along an 8-by-8-foot manufactured tree inside the Harrison building. As the students’ project neared completion, they separated 11 butterflies and positioned them above the rest.
During the Oct. 2 program, Shaner displayed a replica of the creation — like the one gifted to congregational representatives last June at the Tree of Life building — and presented each of the five students a handmade ceramic butterfly necklace.
“The jewelry is a meaningful representation of our efforts,” said Ava Bell, a participating student.
“This is a reminder that we were part of such an inspiring project that touched so many people,” ecoed Grace Spozarski.
“I never realized how far it can go. What we can do in the future is unimaginable,” added fellow Baldwin classmate Eva Semieraro.
“The thing that’s important to state is that we must remain informed as a society. We have to use tragedy as a way to propel forward,” said Caponi.
Hawk noted that her eighth-grade Harrison choir students, like last year, will continue to sing and explore the lyrics of “Eli, Eli,” a song based on the 1942 Hebrew poem by Hungarian resistance fighter Hannah Szenes, and “Heal Us Now,” by Leon Sher.
“That music says exactly what we’re trying to teach them,” she said.
Even before last October’s attack, educational interest in the field was growing. During the past decade, district students, parents and colleagues have requested more education pertaining to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, explained Shaner. Although the workshop will generate knowledge there is an unfortunate reality in hosting it approximately one year after the attack, he added. “In a way, we have to deal with the cards that were dealt, and Tree of Life has given us an opportunity to reach a larger audience.”
Yet with greater exposure comes more questions — many of which remain unanswerable.
“I tell my students you can have evil in any church or organization or school,” said Hawk.
“It’s very important, we, Baldwin, does not take responsibility for that young man’s actions, but we also cannot ignore the fact that we are part of the society that created it,” said Shaner.
His actions were not “a result of what he was taught in this district, it was something deeper,” said Hawk. “Unfortunately, evil exists everywhere, it doesn’t mean it’s indicative of everyone in Baldwin.”
“We have a vibrant community and everyone gets along,” said Shaner. “We are the tool that can solve it. The schools are the best weapon against ignorance and against hate, and I believe that every school should be taking this responsibility, not just Baldwin.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.