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Learning to teach Berlin's Holocaust lessons

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Learning to teach Berlin's Holocaust lessons
Photo: DPA
07:00 CEST+02:00
A group of British teachers were in Berlin recently to gain new ideas for teaching children about the Holocaust. Andrew Pendlebury, a British teacher who was on the trip, wrote for The Local about his experience.

As the decades roll on and we all become further removed from first-hand experiences of the 1940s, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how to teach about the Holocaust with any kind of authority or insight.

The Holocaust Educational Trust, a British foundation which aims to support teaching about the Holocaust, organises regular trips to Berlin, Auschwitz and Paris for teachers who have a particular interest in the subject.

Andrew Pendlebury, a British teacher who was on a recent trip to Berlin with the trust, wrote for The Local about his experience.

Standing on the Putlitz Bridge in northwestern Berlin, 28 participants of the Holocaust Educational Trust's Teacher Study Visit caused a small inconvenience. We filled the pavement and cycle track as we looked at the monument ascending into the sky, a disjointed Star of David leading into crooked steps.

We looked at a railway track and discussed its value as a site of education – a deportation site. I felt lost as a teacher, “What can my pupils learn from this site?”; “How can I assess their knowledge here?”

It was only when a cyclist stopped, gawped at the bizarre tourists, stared at the monument and then peered over the bridge that I realised the value of this classroom. It is not what you see, but what you look for.

Too often as a teacher I do little more than provide information. The visit to Berlin organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust has reinvigorated what I already knew, but practise far too infrequently; education is about prompting questions and answering them. I hope the cyclist we inconvenienced asked some questions about the site we were examining.

Questions upon questions

Questions in history are important; without them we accept imposed meanings. But does my teaching method permit enough investigation by pupils? This is a daunting question and a mirror I perhaps dare not look into.

“Who sets the questions in my class?”; “Who decides which answer is correct?”; “Who decides what we study?” – This line of reflection was most stark among our group after we visited the Topography of Terror museum.

A museum is built on the site of the Gestapo, the SS and Reich Security Main Office headquarters, is an area of toxicity encased by a wall of oppression that reaches out from the underbelly of Berlin. The museum documents photographs as a record of the crimes of the Nazi State.

How to make the horror accessible

As teachers, we looked at the exhibits and asked ourselves how this site might be used with our pupils. It is a useful, dramatic, new and spacious site. But the group soon became entrenched and divided about this site: are the graphic images of the Holocaust presented in this museum appropriate for pupils at Key Stage 3 (aged 13/14)? An accessible site became inaccessible.

The answer to this question lies in appropriateness, readiness and necessity. If I allow my pupils freedom and encourage independent study, I risk allowing them to access and interpret complex events without appropriate support. Conversely, if I do not allow investigation, and I decide, as the teacher, which images my pupils will see in the Topography of Terror, I also limit their degree of understanding.

Imagine that by stopping and noticing the memorial on the Putlitz Bridge, the cyclist investigated further. My trip to Berlin has helped improve my teaching by encouraging me to think about how to make pupils ask more specific questions. What if the cyclist looked differently?

Does the Putlitz Bridge prompt a general question like “What was the Holocaust?” or does it necessitate more specific site-related questions: “Why board trains here?”; “Who drove the trains?” - “Where do the tracks lead?”; “Who brought the Jews here?” As a teacher, I can answer the big question but by asking more detailed, smaller questions, pupils can structure their own definitions and understandings and reach their own conclusions.

Amongst all the tour guides and museum literature, I saw an elderly lady and her granddaughter at Grunewald station. Here there is another deportation site, with another memorial. The platform edge chronologically records the numbers and destinations of Berlin's Jews deported from Grunewald. The woman roamed the site, pointing at the records, while the child asking questions.

Details as important as big picture

Of course, the answers are important too, but what I witnessed taught me that each site ensures that specific questions are asked. Grunewald creates different questions than the Putlitz Bridge, even though it's a similar site. Students may ask about the camps named there, or why Jews were still being deported from Berlin in 1945. Answers are not always readily available.

I think I am now more prepared to build resilience in my pupils and make them more comfortable with questions that are not so easily answered. One day, the granddaughter might be answering similar questions coming from her own grandchildren.

I return to my classroom thinking about the responsibility I have for providing my students with the tools to raise their own questions about the Holocaust. This experience has made me realise that to successfully educate about this most traumatic period of history, it is not simply up to me who to create the questions. It is my role to create opportunities and the framework for pupils to reach their own conclusions for what can be an extremely challenging topic to study and understand.

Andrew Pendlebury is Subject Leader for History at Higham Lane School, Nuneaton, UK & Holocaust Educational Trust Teacher Study Visit participant.

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