Using This Unit to Help Us Understand Ourselves and Our World
Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior leads students through a unit of study that examines the catastrophic period in the twentieth century when Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews and millions of other civilians, in the midst of the most destructive war in human history. Following our unique methodology, students take a parallel journey through an exploration of the universal themes inherent in a study of the Holocaust that raise profound questions about human behavior.
Throughout the unit, students will pay special attention to the choices of individuals who experienced this history as victims, witnesses, collaborators, rescuers, and perpetrators. This approach to teaching about the Holocaust helps students make connections between history and the consequences of our actions and beliefs today—between history and how we as individuals make distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. As students examine the steps that led to the Holocaust, they discover that history is not inevitable; it is the result of our individual and collective decisions.
This unit draws upon and adapts resources from the resource book Holocaust and Human Behavior and its related media collection, and it follows our scope and sequence. Students begin with an examination of the relationship between the individual and society, reflect on the way humans divide themselves into “in” groups and “out” groups, and dive deep into a case study of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany. Students then bear witness to the human suffering of the Holocaust and examine the range of responses from individuals and nations to the genocidal mass murder perpetrated by the Nazi regime. In the unit’s later lessons, students draw connections between this history and the present day, weighing such questions as how to achieve justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities, how painful histories should be remembered, and how this history educates us about our responsibilities in the world today.
While this unit is designed to be used across a range of grade levels, in both middle and high school, we trust that teachers will adapt activities and resources to best meet the needs of their students.
Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content
Many teachers want their students to achieve emotional engagement with the history of the Holocaust and therefore teach this history with the goal of fostering empathy. However, Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior, like any examination of the Holocaust, includes historical descriptions and firsthand accounts that some students may find emotionally disturbing. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of previewing the readings and videos in this curriculum to make sure they are appropriate for the intellectual and emotional needs of your students.
It is difficult to predict how students will respond to such challenging readings, documents, and films. One student may respond with emotion to a particular reading, while others may not find it powerful in the same way. In addition, different people demonstrate emotion in different ways. Some students will be silent. Some may laugh. Some may not want to talk. Some may take days to process difficult stories. For some, a particular firsthand account may be incomprehensible; for others, it may be familiar.
Our experience tells us that it is often problematic to use graphic images and films or to attempt to use simulations to help students understand aspects of this history. Such resources and activities can traumatize some students, desensitize others, or trivialize the history.
We urge teachers to create space for students to have a range of reactions and emotions. This might include time for silent reflection or writing in journals, as well as structured discussions to help students process content together. Some students will not want to share their reactions to emotionally disturbing content in class, and teachers should respect that in class discussions. For their learning and emotional growth, it is crucial to allow for a variety of responses, or none at all, from students to emotionally challenging content.
Activities and resources that we believe may be especially challenging for younger students can be found in the Extensions section. We expect teachers to incorporate such activities into their instruction as appropriate.
Fostering a Reflective Classroom Community
We believe that a classroom in which a Facing History and Ourselves unit is taught ought to be a microcosm of democracy—a place where explicit rules and implicit norms protect everyone’s right to speak; where different perspectives can be heard and valued; where members take responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole; and where each member has a stake and a voice in collective decisions. You may have already established rules and guidelines with your students to help bring about these characteristics in your classroom. If not, it is essential at the beginning of this unit to facilitate a supportive, reflective classroom community.
Two ways in which you can create a strong foundation for a reflective classroom are through the use of classroom contracts and student journals. Even if you already incorporate both of these elements into your classroom, we recommend taking a moment to review both strategies.
Unit Essential Question
The following essential question provides a framework for exploring this unit’s main ideas and themes: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
This essential question challenges students to make important connections between history and the power of the choices and decisions they make today. We do not expect students to determine a single, “correct” answer. Essential questions are rich and open-ended; they are designed to be revisited over time, and as students explore the content in greater depth, they may find themselves emerging with new ideas, understandings, and questions.
Each lesson includes one or more guiding questions. Unlike the unit’s essential question, which is broad and open-ended, guiding questions help to direct student inquiry at the lesson level and are aligned with its specific learning objectives. Answering guiding questions requires deep thinking and textual interpretation. Unlike essential questions, guiding questions might have a clear answer, which students should be able to support with specific evidence from the lesson to demonstrate their understanding of the content.
Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior includes a unit assessment that asks students to write a response to the unit’s essential question in an argumentative essay. Six activities are interspersed throughout the unit to introduce students to the assessment and guide them as they gather evidence and develop their ideas, develop their theses, and begin to write their essays. The activities can be skipped if you opt not to use the unit assessment.
Please consult the Common Core Writing Prompts and Strategies for alternative prompts and additional writing strategies and graphic organizers.
Developing Student Vocabulary
The readings and videos in this unit introduce some vocabulary and concepts that may pose a challenge for your students, especially for struggling readers, so you may want to consider using the Word Wall strategy to keep a running list of critical vocabulary posted in your classroom that you and your students can refer to over the course of the unit. Students might have a corresponding list in a section of their journals or notebooks, and you could also challenge them to incorporate Word Wall terms into their writing and discussions to help them internalize and understand these challenging terms and concepts.