Magic & Grieving

Holocaust Museum

I believe in magic.  Not the tooth fairy kind.  But the kind our students can make when they’re given a worthy challenge.

Last night was the final showing of our Holocaust exhibit, and I have many mixed feelings.

Last Tuesday our exhibit opened to our students from grade 6-12, as well as teachers, and parents.  Additionally, members from the Jewish community were invited to attend. The only word I can use to sum it up is stunning.

Strategically placed around the exhibit were students who provided the viewers and guests with information about the portion of the exhibit they were looking at. Naturally, I have extroverts in this class for whom this is as simple as breathing.  However, I have other students who rarely say a word in class, and yet there they stood explaining a portion of the Holocaust to people and students, many whom they didn’t know. They were scared out of their minds, but did it anyway.  One of my students excitedly came up to me and exclaimed, “I talked! I talked!”  This was a huge accomplishment for her.

I had two young ladies, who originally had planned to be greeters and welcome people to the exhibit.  At some point, they began giving a portion of the tour themselves, explaining the first few exhibits when life was normal for the Jewish people, and Hitler’s insidious plans were still hidden.  This led the groups to the student at the exhibit about the politics behind Hitler’s rise to power.  The greeter then returned to the door to begin again with the next group of visitors.  It wasn’t planned.  Instead, this was a role they serendipitously chose, even though they are naturally quite shy.  And they were visibly proud because they stepped out of their comfort zone.  Again, at last night’s showing, they did they same thing.

I had the privilege of leading a Jewish couple from our community through the exhibit.  It was incredibly emotional and wrenching to do so.  I wasn’t expecting that.   This couple spoke of their families as we walked through the exhibit, those who spent time in concentration camps, and those who were able to flee.  While we were looking at the ghetto display they commented how they have pictures in photo albums of relatives wearing the yellow stars.  There were many times I was on the verge of tears during this tour.

One of the defining moments of this particular exhibit day was when I led this couple to the Eugenics display.  One of my students started to explain the program, and she mentioned a particular doctor’s name who was involved with the experiments.  The Jewish woman said, “ahhh, that is the doctor who experimented on my sister for 8 months.”  Shock, and silence, from everyone.  She then proceeded to tell us the story and teach all of us.  All of a sudden the Holocaust, and the tragedy of the eugenics experiments, became very real.

That afternoon, when I got home, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried.  I had to.  There were so many emotions that I felt overloaded.  The pain of the Holocaust and how real that wonderful, gracious Jewish couple made it.  And yet the excitement and pride in my students was juxtaposed to this tragedy.

Many of our guests were stunned at the depth and beauty of the exhibit.  When you think class projects, guests rarely expect walls of the quality of these displays.  But the comment that I heard over and over was that it was extremely powerful because of the pictures.  It gave faces to those who were persecuted and murdered.  Many adults were overcome with tears and pain because of their experience in our museum.

Afterwards, one of my colleagues jokingly saying, “It’s going to be hard to top this next year.”  But for me, it’s not about that.  I don’t want my classes trying to top one another.  Instead, it’s about creating a culture of excellence, and showing the world what teenagers can do, if given the chance.

This morning I woke up with a very heavy heart.  Today we dismantled our exhibit.  Over 50 hours of work taken a part in less than an hour.  And the thing that shocked me is that I’m grieving.  I’m grieving the end of this exhibit. I’m grieving the loss of what we’ve created together. I wish we had some place to put it, so that many others could see it, but we don’t have the space. Three of the canvas pieces I have kept and will be using next year when I teach the unit.  I already know how I’m going to be using them.

This morning as we were pulling the exhibit down the room was quiet.  The laughter that was present while we were building the exhibit was gone.  Instead, the mood seemed very sombre.  I think many of us are grieving.  And in all my years of teaching I’ve never grieved the end of a unit.  In fact, most years I was glad to be finished the Holocaust unit because it’s 2 months of heaviness and death.

It’s interesting how when you shift your role as a teacher, to co-learner and facilitator, the emotions that accompany teaching change as well, at least that’s my experience.

Before we went to dismantle the exhibit, I asked my students, “Two months ago when we talked about creating a museum, did you ever think it would look like this?”  They didn’t.  “Did you think this was even possible.”  They didn’t.  “Did you think I was crazy?”  They did.  And yet, there the exhibit stood.

I think as teachers we need to reimagine what education looks like in a way that stretches our students imaginations and our own.  We need to imagine it with them.  And we need to be willing to slosh through the muck when none of us quite know where we’re going. The results can be truly wonderful.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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13 Responses to Magic & Grieving

  1. Patrica Hewitt says:

    Shelley, this was truly amazing. This project exemplifies what teaching and learning is really about. What your students have learned (on so many levels) will undoubtedly stay with them.

    I wish more teachers would get involved and care enough to be part of projects such as this one. If they could only see-no, feel the magic then what would our schools be?

    I thought it was great too, that the image you include near the top of your post has a young child trying to capture what she’s experiencing with a [digital] camera! Just another example of how the 21st century learner has a different skill set and mindset!

    My sympathies as you grieve.

  2. Becky Bair says:

    What an amazing conclusion to this journey that you and your class have been on throughout this project. You and your students have inspired me to do things differently. I just need to figure out how that will look with my fifth graders.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks, Becky. I know that it can be done with fifth graders. It would need a lot more scaffolding than with high school students, and you might want to try it on a smaller scale the first time! But I can see grade 5’s loving this stuff. Give it a try!

  3. jennylu says:

    My eyes were brimming with tears reading this. Tears of sadness for the pain and suffering of many, and tears of joy for the learning experience you have helped provide for your students. They will never forget this.
    Jenny Luca.

  4. John Norton says:

    Thank you so much for taking me on this journey with you. It gives me a lot of hope for the future of teaching.

  5. Kerron says:

    This sounds like truly transformative learning for both you and your students. These are the kinds of experiences we all hope to guide our students through. Ones that grapple with the big issues, bring content to life and leave a lasting legacy – congratulations! I can only imagine how devastating it must have been for everyone to realise that one of the seemingly anonymous nazi names that your students investigated had personal resonance and horror for that elderly jewish couple. How it must have moved them to realise that people still cared and won’t forget.
    As for your grief at dismantling the exhibition, I’m sure that your students don’t need a physical display to continue to carry this learning with them into their future and for it to continue to impact the people they interact with.

  6. meredyth says:

    absolutely fascinating-

  7. Lori Feldman says:

    Congratulations on not just a successful exhibit, but making sure to teach all to “Never Forget”. Your leadership will have impact from years to come.

  8. Pam Thompson says:

    Thank you, Shelley, for sharing this journey. It is quite remarkable and a testament to your passion for learning and your students’ engagement and dedication to this project (although project seems too banal a word really). It just goes to show that it is not necessarily the subject matter but the way the learning is approached and the belief in its value that make a difference. As others have already said this will be a lifelong memory for your students.

  9. Pingback: Reflection 8: Wright’s Room – Magic & Grieving | Sarah Potter

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