Tiffany O’Shea, an English teacher at Montour High School, already had incorporated the Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spielgelman into her 10th-grade curriculum, when she attended the Summer Teacher Institute at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh last year, hoping to expand her knowledge and resources to better instruct her students.
“I wanted the children to see the victims of the Holocaust as people, and not as numbers,” said O’Shea.
She came away from the three-day training course with the tools to do just that.
“I thought it was a great program,” O’Shea said, noting that she is now using resources provided by Echoes and Reflections — a combined effort of the Anti-Defamation League, the USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem — which were presented at the Summer Institute. Those resources include the means for students to engage in digital photo hunts of the individuals whose lives were extinguished or forever changed because of the barbarism of the Nazis.
The Summer Institute is one of the avenues through which teachers are being trained to bring Holocaust education to the students of Pennsylvania in accord with Act 70, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in June 2014. The law encourages Pennsylvania schools to teach the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations, although they are not mandated to do so.
Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition — a lobbying arm of statewide Jewish Federations — credited those Federations with getting the Holocaust education bill passed and with providing the resources for training educators throughout the commonwealth.
“I’m proud of what the Federations have done, working together,” Butler said.
In just two years since the law was enacted, those involved with supporting its implementation have made a lot of progress, according to Sally Flaherty, curriculum advisor in social studies at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“We’ve done really well,” Flaherty said. “We are much better at this point [in providing training to educators] than we ever thought we would be.”
In Pennsylvania, all curricula are decided at the level of the local school boards but are required to meet the academic standards of Chapter 4 of the Pennsylvania Public School Code. Each school district chooses what specific content it will use to meet those standards, Flaherty explained.
“There are no Holocaust, human rights or genocide standards in Pennsylvania,” she said. “But what Act 70 said is that the Department of Education is to encourage districts to include this content to meet the academic standards in Chapter 4.”
Act 70 requires the Department of Education to provide professional development to teachers throughout the commonwealth and to create guidelines for teaching the Holocaust, human rights and genocide to meet those standards.
Teaching the Holocaust remains “purely voluntary” for Pennsylvania school districts, pursuant to Act 70, Flaherty noted, but the Department of Education is required to support districts in this endeavor.
The Department of Education accordingly convened a committee of volunteers knowledgeable in the Holocaust, human rights and genocide. The committee included Butler; Flaherty; Tim Crain, director of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University; Peter Fredlake of the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum; and Matthew Hamilton, education program manager of the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, among others.
“We helped write the curriculum guidelines,” said Hamilton. “These curriculum guidelines were created so when teachers look at Act 70, they have a framework to work with.”
The guidelines “encourage the inclusion” of: “the breadth of the history of the Holocaust, including the Third Reich dictatorship, concentration camp system, persecution of Jews and non-Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish resistance and post-World War II trials”; the “definition, history, response and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Holocaust and any other genocide perpetrated against humanity, including the Rwandan genocide and other genocides committed in Africa, Asia and Europe”; human rights violations; and “anti-Semitism, racism and the abridgment of civil rights.”
The guidelines also provide the parameters of how these subjects should be taught, Flaherty said.
“There are to be no simulations,” she said, as an example. “Don’t have your kids role play; it’s in poor taste to have a kid pretend he is a Jew in the Holocaust. It’s all about being empathetic, and not about having to experience it.”
One of Hamilton’s primary responsibilities at the Holocaust Center is to help with Act 70 outreach, he said.
Part of that outreach is the annual Summer Teacher Institute, through which the Holocaust Center provides teachers with resources to use in the classroom. In addition to providing instructors from Echoes and Reflections, in 2015, the Summer Institute also provided instruction on pedagogy to the approximately 40 teachers in attendance, he said. A representative from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum delivered additional instructional materials to teachers and “walked them through, lesson by lesson,” said Hamilton.
The Summer Institute for 2016 will be held from July 20 to July 22 and will include a representative from the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg to collect and preserve the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust.
In addition to the Summer Institute, other local teacher training is held at area Intermediate Units, which serve as liaisons between schools districts and the Department of Education. Last year, training was held at the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit, at which teachers were provided with a one-day introduction to Act 70, with Flaherty explaining the legislation and the curriculum guidelines.
“We originally planned to do eight to 16 regional trainings,” said Flaherty. “Now, we are in almost every Intermediate Unit in the commonwealth.”
Act 70 training is also being conducted at the University of Pittsburgh’s master’s program for teachers, “training teachers who are about to be in the classroom,” Hamilton said.
Although Act 70 was passed less than two years ago, the training, which began in July 2015, is “really having a positive effect,” Hamilton said.
Gina M. Ligouri, another teacher from Montour High School, agrees.
“The Act 70 training and resources have been extremely beneficial,” Ligouri wrote in an email. “With the curriculum updates from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, it is imperative that classroom teachers have the support needed to meet the mandates the department requires. The resources shared have been relevant, meaningful and beneficial to my classroom. My students have gained a deeper understanding of the material and have a better appreciation for the topic, all in part to the hands-on resources available to us.”
By the end of 2017, the Department of Education is required to provide the results of a statewide survey in which schools will be asked if they teach the Holocaust, human rights and genocide and if their educators attended any professional development opportunities, according to the provisions of Act 70. If the survey shows that “less than 90 percent of the school entities are offering instruction in the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations” then legislation will be implemented to “require school entities to offer instruction in the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations,” Act 70 states.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.