Wilton commentary: Teaching tough subjects

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Members of the Wilton community attended last spring a presentation at Middlebrook School on the new curriculum for teaching about the Holocaust. The curriculum is the product of intense work by the school’s administrators, teachers and teacher coaches and has also had input from our state’s Department of Education under a new state law that, in broad-brush terms, mandates Holocaust education in our public schools’ social studies courses while not seeking to micro-manage the specifics of how that education should be provided or what forms it should take.

While there are significant elements of multiple courses across our schools that already address aspects of the Holocaust, this is a specific initiative aimed at the seventh-grade level and designed to address the subject in a multifaceted and innovative way. In fact, it may well be that this program will move out statewide from its genesis here in Wilton given Wilton’s role in leadership in this area of education —as in other areas as reflected in Wilton’s recent national recognition for its innovative educational programs. We’re all aware that the renewed emphasis locally on education about the Holocaust has grown out of incidents in our schools of anti-Semitic acts that have greatly disturbed our community and led to multiple thoughtful and mindful responses by groups throughout Wilton acting in innovative and powerful ways to address hateful conduct.

This new school program of a unit of study at Middlebrook is a major step forward on the educational front for our town. It is aimed at going beyond simply learning the facts of the Holocaust and its historical context —important as that basic information is —to explore motivations for action and strategies for those who, in the face of extreme circumstances, choose to do more than just stand idly by and watch as atrocities are perpetrated. The curriculum helps students to understand that, as it eloquently states, “resistance takes many forms and is built on hope. Individuals and groups of individuals have the power to intervene for the greater good and the benefit of humanity. A person’s perspective impacts his or her decisions when faced with a moral dilemma….”

Students are guided in the process of discovering for themselves “what makes people upstanders (those who stand up for others) or bystanders (those who see things that are bad but choose not to act) in the face of fear and crisis.” As the curriculum further states, “In the absence of organized group interference (societal, political, governmental), what responsibilities can individuals adopt?” The objective is to use study of the Holocaust to help students not only to understand the Holocaust itself in depth but also to consider how one addresses actions or experiences in his or her own life that call for taking a position.

To further that goal, among the ultimate objectives for our seventh-grade students are these: to be able to “analyze and evaluate the role of upstanders, bystanders and perpetrators during the Holocaust;” to “examine and analyze primary sources to contextualize the human experience of the Holocaust” and then to “synthesize and analyze information across multiple sources to describe the relationship between resistance and hope.” Finally, these students will be enabled to “investigate a real-world problem with unpredictable outcomes and propose a solution” and in so doing to consider “what resistance in various forms looks like.”

This is a major educational unit that calls on students to take information from many sources and analyze it critically to distill what they most need to understand to come to conclusions. They then apply that methodology and those conclusions to a real-world problem and in that context think through what taking on the role of an upstander would look like. That’s an amazing set of objectives that can truly transform in impressively good ways how students look at the world and their own role in it.

So, from something horribly bad in anti-Semitic conduct is coming something truly remarkable programmatically for our students. That is among the most to-be-hoped-for outcomes from hurtful and tragically hate-filled writings and graffiti, and this new program has the potential to help to further that type of outcome with information, insight, strategic thinking, and action.

Our schools are in the vanguard of this work, and the amount of effort and thought they have put into crafting the program they are now rolling out is truly impressive. We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of such dedicated and inspirational accomplishments by the many outstanding upstanders in our schools.