Teaching Genocide and Mass Violence

The following describes how I have explored settler colonialism theory with my secondary social studies students. Like many of my students in a rural south-central Wisconsin community, I am White and from a working-class background. I share my students’ struggles in understanding our place and  identities within the larger landscape of U.S. society. We’ve found that settler colonialism theory helps to complicate and nuance our understanding of the history and present realities of the United States. 

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“Weapons collected at the refugee camp in Goma, Zaire. Photograph by Gilles Peress / Magnum” Image originally posted by the New Yorker. Such images capture the scale of violence without depicting the violence itself.

Philip Gourevitch opens his book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, with a quote from Plato:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Peiraeus, close to the outer side of the north wall, when he saw some dead bodies lying near the executioner,  and he felt a desire to look at them, and at the same time felt disgust at the thought, and tried to turn aside. For some time he fought with himself and put his hand over his eyes, but in the end the desire got the better of him, and opening his eyes wide with his fingers he ran forward to the bodies, saying, ‘There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle.

Many people desire to make sense of violence, a pursuit that often leads to engagement with violent imagery. However, as Susan Sontag captures in Regarding the Pain of Others, depictions of violence cannot ever replicate its lived experience. While graphic imagery or descriptions of violence may serve to aid in an understanding of violence, they also hold vast destructive potential. In contrast to assumed education benefits, they can also dehumanize or inhibit agency. As such, we are responsible for critically reflecting upon how we engage with this content in our roles as both researchers and educators.

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To many, Yiddish is simultaneously “alive” and “dead.” The reality is, of course, much more complicated (and arguably) dire. For one, the extremes surrounding the life and afterlives of Yiddish are hardly unique. What befell Yiddish language and culture during the Holocaust (resulting in the murder of half of the Yiddish speakers worldwide), along with the interwar and postwar legal repression in the Soviet Union and its cultural marginality in Israel and the United States, partially mirrors majority cultures’ attitudes toward minoritized languages in general. 

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“Why have we never learned about this before?” This question is repeatedly asked by the high school juniors and seniors in my comparative genocide studies elective course, often with a tone of disbelief and urgency. While all have studied the Holocaust, only a few have learned about the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, and rarely are students aware of the genocides that took place in German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), Cambodia, Darfur, or the many other so-called “hidden” genocides that we study. However, they are shocked and often angry when we examine the genocide perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in North America, especially the Dakota and Ojibwe nations in the State of Minnesota; “we should have learned about this before,” students say. As their teacher, I couldn’t agree more. 

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Dear Students,

This is my tenth year teaching a Holocaust and genocide course, and I love teaching this class. I know it sounds strange to say I love teaching about genocide, but I do. Though I teach other social studies courses each year, I spend most of my time and energy on this class; I even went back to graduate school to study how and why to teach about genocide. Over the past decade, I’ve read A LOT; traveled to many places like Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda; talked to many survivors (and perpetrators); and conducted research with teachers and students. Despite this, I still have many questions regarding teaching about genocide.

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Last month, the results of the “First-Ever 50-State Survey on Holocaust Knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z” were released. These results were shocking, as they found that 48% of respondents couldn’t name one concentration camp or ghetto that existed during World War II. Furthermore, respondents were unable to identify that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. 

Photo of students visiting Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of: 972mag.com

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Several years ago, I transitioned my high school Holocaust and genocide studies elective course from an in-person class to a virtual one. At the time, I had many questions and concerns about teaching such difficult subject matter in a virtual environment. While there were certainly challenges, the switch pushed me to examine my teaching praxis more deeply, explore a flipped model of learning, and find new resources and technologies to engage both synchronously and asynchronously. 

While certainly sometimes the technology seems to be more of a barrier and actual physical distance between us seems insurmountable, rich texts, robust discussions, and a common purpose inevitably bridge the gaps and bring us together as a class. In the end, I am always reminded of the resilience of my students and my own resilience as an educator. While April is going to be a difficult month for both students and educators in Minnesota and across the country, I know that we will find a way to adjust and adapt to the new and uncertain times ahead. The outpouring of support I have received from colleagues, families, and friends, gives me tremendous hope and lets me know that I am not alone. 

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In 2019 I attended a summer workshop for teachers held by the CHGS, titled “Teaching About Genocide.” As part of the workshop, we, along with two Native American activists-teachers, toured the Minnesota State Capitol with a docent. Entering the main chamber of the capitol, our guide gestured toward several portraits of white males who colonized Minnesota. She, an employee of the state, noted they were the men “who discovered Minnesota.” Here, in the most prominent institution of Minnesota government, a guide had normalized colonialism, except the normalization was now being heard by a critical audience. The statement seemed bracingly out of step with our appreciation of multiculturalism, the celebration of ethnic and racial diversity, and acknowledgment of the centrality of indigenous peoples to the shared fabric of American history.

Attendees of the 2019 CHGS Educator Workshop on the Minnesota Capitol dome.

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I acknowledge that the University of Minnesota Twin Cities stands on Miní Sóta Makhóčhe, the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary Homelands of Dakhóta Oyáte. The University occupies land that was cared for and called home by Dakota peoples from time immemorial. Ceded in the treaties of 1837 and 1851, I acknowledge that this land has always held, and continues to hold, great spiritual and personal significance for Dakota. By offering this land acknowledgment, I recognize the sovereignty of Dakota, and I acknowledge, support, and advocate for Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and for those forcibly removed from their Homelands. I will continue to raise awareness of Indigenous peoples, histories, and cultures in my work, especially within social studies education, and I will continue to work to hold the University of Minnesota accountable to Dakota and other Indigenous peoples and nations. It is my sincere hope that the curriculum project discussed below will serve as a catalyst for recognizing and unsettling settler colonial narratives in social studies classrooms across Minnesota, especially sixth-grade Minnesota Studies classes.

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Situated adjacent the National Mall in Washington D.C., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) dominates the landscape of American Holocaust consciousness, remembrance, and education. On an elevator ride to the sixth floor and the start of the permanent exhibit, visitors to the museum watch a 15-second-long video showing footage of American soldiers encountering one of the concentration camps in 1945. In a retrospective voiceover, one soldier reflects on his initial shock at seeing the horrors of the camp: “We had come across something and were not sure what it was – a big prison of some kind. There were people running all over: sick, dying, starved people. You can’t imagine it; things like that don’t happen.” This video foreshadows the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust that visitors are about to witness in the permanent exhibit. The video also serves to perpetuate an American Holocaust myth; the myth that Americans had little to no knowledge of the Holocaust until the reporting of the liberation of the camps in 1945. For, as the myth goes, had Americans known about the atrocities, surely, they would have done something to speak out, to collectively, publicly condemn the mass murder of European Jewry. Though it is entirely possible that this individual soldier may not have known about the Nazi camps, the opening of Dachau in 1933, the persecution and plight of Germany and Europe’s Jews, and the ultimate extermination of millions were widely reported in the New York Times and local papers across the country. A recently-opened exhibit at the USHMM, Americans and the Holocaust, seeks to examine what ordinary Americans knew about the Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s.

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