Leigh Ann Totty returned to her post as an English language arts teacher at Bethel Park High School a few weeks ago inspired to delve deeper into the history of the Holocaust with her 10th-grade students.
One of 19 middle and high school teachers from seven states selected to participate in the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ 2019 Advanced Seminar, Totty said she is now better equipped to “confront the questions that the students might have” regarding this dismal period of world history.
The lectures she attended by renowned Holocaust scholars such as Christopher R. Browning, professor emeritus of the University of North Carolina, Joseph Benatov of the University of Pennsylvania, and leading British Holocaust education expert Paul Salmons will inform her teaching of Holocaust literature such as Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and “Maus” by Art Spiegelman.
Totty favors selections of literature demonstrating “the great perseverance” of the human spirit so often evident in writings related to the Holocaust, she said.
The Advanced Seminar, a three-day academic program, was held Jan. 19-21 at the Hilton Newark Airport hotel in Elizabeth, N.J. In addition to Pennsylvania, educators came from Alabama, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Georgia and Delaware. The program was open to Alfred Lerner Fellows, Holocaust educators who previously attended the JFR Summer Institute for Teachers at Columbia University.
“These educators have shown a tremendous commitment to teaching the Holocaust in their schools,” said JFR executive vice president Stanlee Stahl in a prepared statement. “By attending this intensive, graduate level program, they have gained an even greater understanding of the history of the Holocaust, which will increase their effectiveness in the classroom and enable them to mentor other educators who teach the subject.”
Totty is an Alfred Lerner Fellow, having attended the JFR Summer Institute in 2008. She was recommended for that program by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, and has been participating in various JFR continuing education programs since then.
Those programs are typically limited to relatively small groups, which is “part of the allure,” Totty said. “I have an incredible connection with my colleagues, and we influence each other.”
To prepare for the seminar, Totty was required to do “extensive reading,” she said, and while at the conference, the schedule was “packed.”
The Holocaust, Totty noted, is “an extensive subject,” and the JFR programs help her to hone in on specific aspects that she can then relay back to her students in the South Hills.
“I have a great appreciation for JFR, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, and Classrooms Without Borders,” with whom she traveled to Poland in 2016, she added. Each of these organizations has provided opportunities to expand her knowledge of the Holocaust.
The JFR education program, which provides education programs for middle and high school teachers across the United States and Eastern Europe, has worked with more than 600 educators, providing “a firm grounding in the history of the Holocaust and the subject of rescue,” according to JFR’s website. “These teachers are now in a position to teach their peers as well as generations of students about the Holocaust.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at