In this lesson students will:
- Examine primary and secondary sources to learn about the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations in response to the Armenian Genocide;
- Understand the dilemmas facing individuals, groups, and nations responding to genocide in a time of war;
- Consider their own actions when confronted with information about acts of injustice in their community.
This lesson looks at the choices made by individuals, groups, and governments during the Armenian Genocide. It addresses the following essential questions:
- What did individuals and groups do when they learned of the atrocities being committed against Armenians? What choices did they make?
- What dilemmas do people face as they grapple with how to act in the face of mass violence?
Ask students to think about an example of injustice they know about in their community or have heard about on the news. Have students consider why, when people witness an injustice some get involved to make a positive difference, while others either remain silent or actively join the perpetrators? Ask students to write their responses in their journals before having discussion. Transition by explaining that we will be trying to understand what influenced the choices that people made in response to events in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
Students will view a segment from the film The Armenian Genocide (minutes 29:30-33:40). Before viewing the film, have students divide a paper into three columns. In the left column, students record the names (or a description) of individuals or groups mentioned in the film. In the center column, students record what that individual or group knew about what the Turks were doing to the Armenians. In the third column, record what that individual or group did with that information. What actions did they take or not take? After the film, have students share the information in their notes.
The film shows how many people knew about the horrible crimes the Ottoman government was orchestrating against the Armenian community. Deciding what to do with this information presented bystanders, victims and perpetrators with challenging dilemmas. Review the definition of a dilemma - a special situation that requires a choice between options that seem equally unfavorable or favorable, but in this case, unfavorable. The purpose of the next activity is to help students understand the dilemmas faced by people who witnessed or participated in the crimes against Armenians.
For the next part of this lesson, the class will look at four different stories of individuals, groups, and nations which learned about crimes committed against Armenians and struggled to find a way to prevent further atrocities. Explain to students that each reading explores a different kind of reaction to these events, expressed by different people, with varying abilities to intervene. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the four readings from Chapter 5 of Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization listed in the Materials section. As they explore each reading, have students consider the following questions:
- Who is the subject of the reading? Who was in the position to act in response to information about crimes being committed against Armenians?
- What could this person or group have done with this information in order to stop or prevent more acts of violence against Armenians? What options for action might have been available to the people in the story?
- Describe the dilemma. Why was this decision difficult to make?
- What did the people in the story ultimately do?
- Why do you think they made this choice?
Debrief the group work by having a fishbowl discussion: Arrange a circle of chairs in the middle of the room, enough chairs so that half of the class can sit in the circle at one time. Ask each group to select one or two representatives to share the groups' answers to these questions with the rest of the class. These students will be the first to sit in the "fishbowl" - in the circle. After listening to these presentations, students in the fishbowl will discuss any connections or themes that they heard. [Prompt: What connections are you making among the stories being presented?] At the same time, students outside of the circle should listen to the discussion - noting questions and ideas they want to raise when it is their turn in the circle. You might also ask this second group to connect what they hear in the fishbowl to what they experience or know about the world today (e.g. what they wrote about during the warm-up exercise). Allow this first group to sit in the "fishbowl" for approximately 15 minutes before having students switch listener and discussant roles. This second group can continue the discussion of the first group, or you can focus them on connecting what they heard to the world today. [Prompt: What connections are you making to our world today?]
Option: Another way to structure a fishbowl discussion is to have listeners "tap" a fishbowl participant on the shoulder when they want to enter the conversation. The fishbowl participant, when tapped, gets up so that this student can join the discussion.
After the fishbowl students can return to the event they wrote about during the warm-up exercise. Ask them to react to what they wrote based on what they learned during this lesson about responses to the Armenian Genocide. What connections are they making to their own lives and other histories? If time remains, allow students to share their journal entries with a partner or with the class as a whole.
Ask students to rewrite history by changing the responses of one or more of the individuals they learned about in class. First ask students to review the individual's actions. What if that person had made a different choice? How might history have been different? Can they imagine a scenario that would have saved the lives of a million or half a million Armenians? What actions would have been necessary? By whom?