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Studying the Holocaust in 7th Grade English

Studying the Holocaust in 7th Grade English
Joe Harvey, Head of School

During an 8th grade panel discussion on a recent admission tour, a prospective parent asked about what Mark Day students study in history. Our 8th grader began their response by saying that their teachers help them to learn about allelements of history, “the good, and the bad, and everything in between.” They went on to describe the critical thinking, the writing and discussion skills, and the depth of inquiry and understanding that students develop in their history and English courses at Mark Day. I was reminded of that exchange in reflecting on our 7th graders’ work on a Holocaust and Human Behavior unit in Leila Sinclaire’s English class. 

Our 7th graders tend to have a deep desire to understand and to talk openly about the “why” behind the “what”--particularly when conflict is involved. In this unit, students studied aspects of human nature and societal conflict that recur across time and place, including such elements as stereotypes, power, and propaganda that have had a hand in major historical events. Students discussed these topics as a class and also journaled as a way of reflecting on their own experiences, especially with stereotypes. A hallmark of our program is how students learn to follow their curiosity far below the surface of things. “It can be easy to stop at the quick take-away level,” Leila says. “But we want students to have a deeper understanding of the intricacies of these events and why they occurred.”

Another important part of studying history across all grades at Mark Day School is learning from multiple perspectives. Consistent with that approach, Leila uses a range of texts that offer a wide variety of perspectives on the Holocaust to avoid having one narrative unintentionally speak for all. Leila developed a collection of literature including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and diaries. Among others, students read and discussed excerpts from The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman, and Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine. 

As you will have seen in recent Hip Pockets, all parents and guardians are invited to join the 7th grade for a remarkable opportunity this Wednesday, May 16, when Mark Day will host a Holocaust survivor. Our guest, Paul, was just five years old when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. He fled to Brussels with his parents. Two years later, his father was arrested and brought to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was killed. When the war ended, Paul reunited with his mother and they both immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 and became American citizens. Getting to meet Paul in person will give students a chance to hear first-hand from a survivor of the Holocaust, to ask questions, and to bring the stories they have been studying to life. 

Leila is highly aware that learning about the Holocaust can bring up intense emotions. Along the way, she has communicated proactively about what students will encounter and has given opportunities for breaks, reflection, and comfort. “It’s important that we don’t look away from these more difficult events,” says Leila. “I want students to be ready to stand up for any group that is targeted. I want them to recognize patterns and behaviors and the mechanisms that are at play, and to feel empowered to use their own voices.”

The Holocaust unit unites academic challenge and character development, two central elements of our mission. It is easy to find connections in this work to our Pillars of Character. Certainly courage, citizenship, and responsibility leap to mind. We know that our graduates will encounter many opportunities to use these pillars throughout their lives. We are committed to continuing to prepare our grads to do so, and we are proud of the many ways that they stand up and lead, even as such young people.

  • academic challenge
  • anne frank
  • character development
  • holocaust
  • human behavior
  • joe harvey
  • mark day school
  • pillars of character
  • private school
  • private schools in marin
  • the boy in the striped pajamas