Thursday, January 9, 2014

Remembrance and Rebuilding

Why are we often told to remember bad events like the Alamo, the war with Amalek, and of course, the Holocaust? An innovative online course entitled " Remembrance and Rebuilding", presented by JETS to 7th grade students at Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, began with this essential question. The students began to grapple with the question by offering thoughtful answers through online messaging. The teachers, Smadar Goldstein and Michal Lashansky, then presented the students with several different ways in which the Holocaust is memorialized today, and asked them to select the one that they felt was most meaningful to them and to explain why. This assignment was completed by posting virtual sticky notes on a linoboard, an interactive online social media bulletin board. The teachers then asked the students to comment on each other's posts, after which the class discussed the different thoughts that had been expressed on the linoboard. It was an example of collaborative learning at its best.

Why are the students responding online? In addition to the unique content of the curriculum, the "Remembrance and Rebuilding" course is also innovative in its venue. The students are not sitting in the same room, and teachers Smadar and Michal are not even in the same country. Rather, the students participate in the course by logging in from their homes, and the teachers present the class from Jerusalem through computer conferencing technology. The class was organized by Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, Religious School Director Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley as a way to allow students to approach their study of contemporary Jewish history in a highly engaging atmosphere of interactive learning.

Smadar and Michal consider themselves "teachers without borders", as they utilize the online platform to allow students to learn in a context that is not confined to their local setting:

The first part of the course focuses on the Holocaust, utilizing memorials to the Holocaust in Israel and America as a context for considering what we should remember, and why. Students will pay virtual visits to a number of Holocaust memorials in Israel and to the Holocaust Museum in Washington in their quest to answer these questions. The final session of this section discusses the concept of "remembering the exodus from Egypt" as a pretext for understanding how the focus on "remembering" in Judaism is designed to serve as a catalyst for social activism.  

The latter part of the course focuses on Jewish life in Israel in both ancient times and in the modern State of Israel, and the notable influence of the memory of the exodus from Egypt and of the Holocaust on Israeli society. The main topics include the mandate for creating a just society in Israel, the importance of Jewish self-defense, and the centrality of Jerusalem for Jews throughout the world. Students will, of course, experience Israeli society in a unique way through their Jerusalem based learning.

The JETS teachers believe that history can be learned most effectively when students are encouraged to relate to it in a personal way. Students were asked to present their own connections to the Holocaust. Several of the students have family members who survived the Holocaust and they shared snippets of their stories. Michal then told the students about her own grandfather's story -- his escape from Nazi-occupied Poland, his struggles during the war years and his anguish at being separated from his family. The students expressed surprise at how such a young man could persevere in such horrible conditions and at the travels and difficulties that Michal's grandfather endured in order to survive. 

Michal summarized her grandfather's story by discussing some of the things that the family learned as a result of her grandfather's experiences:
a.       The importance of family and Judaism in their lives. Michal's grandfather honored his family by raising  his own children in a Jewishly-rich environment
b.      The importance of establishing a personal connection with the victims. In Michal's case, her trip to Poland established a connection between her and her grandfather's family, and strengthened her own commitment to perpetuate their memory.

The students then viewed a movie, 94 Maidens, in which an interviewer questioned college students in Pennsylvania about their knowledge of the Holocaust. The majority of the students knew very little -- most were barely able to articulate exactly what the Holocaust was, where it occurred or who the victims were. This movie made a great impression on the students and a lively discussion ensued after the screening with the students considering how to best ensure that the holocaust will never be forgotten. Rabbi Kniaz reminded the students that their class would be responsible for planning and leading the Yom HaShoah commemoration at Temple Emanuel in the spring. She suggested that, throughout the course, they consider how to incorporate their ideas of Holocaust commemoration into the spring program.

At the conclusion of the class, the students reviewed the activities of the previous hour, noting which activities were most meaningful for each participant and why.  If the first class is any indication, the Remembrance and Rebuilding course at Temple Emmanuel will be engaging, exciting, enriching, meaningful, and of course, memorable.

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