students working on Holocaust displayThis is the sixth time I’ve taught a unit on the Holocaust, each one slightly different than the last. In the past, my students learned most of the information via lecture, notes and videos. Because I was responsible for distilling the information, I learned much more than they did. This semester they’re doing it all themselves. And the end result will be a classroom Holocaust museum curated by my grade 10 English students. The unit involves inquiry, collaborative, and project-based learning all in one.

My role in all of this is to create an environment that is well designed and conducive to their learning. I have switched from the all-knowing guru, to the role of co-collaborator and facilitator. Since I’ve never done this before, I truly am a co-learner with my students. The purpose of this project is to provide my students with an authentic task that teaches 21st century skills, and also deepens their understanding of the events of the Holocaust.

We began by looking at the purpose of project based learning. I believe it’s important to teach my students why we are doing things, especially why we’re learning differently.

Then we discussed the purpose of the museum and their role in it. They are the creators and curators. They are responsible for everything from research to conception and design, and will serve as presentation hosts. They excitedly explored different ideas for the format, and while I allowed them to do this so they could begin to catch the vision for the project, I affirmed that the final design would emerge from the research.

Next, while sitting in a circle on the floor, each of my students took sticky notes, and brainstormed topics they thought should be part of the museum. Once finished, we posted the notes in categories to see what the recurring topics were. We were able to distil all of their ideas into three categories: the Nazis, the Jewish people, and the world’s response.

Once we outlined these three areas, we then took the topics of interest from the sticky notes, as well as a few additional areas that were suggested by the students, and outlined the specifics of each area of research. This process involved a lot more silence and waiting on my part than I would have thought. The project is based completely on their ideas and initiative, rather than having the project outlined for them. Inquiry learning is not a familiar experience for them. Instead, by grade 10, my students have learned that if they wait long enough, they will be rescued.

Not anymore.

Going Deep

After we outlined the areas, and the specific topics in each, students chose their special area of inquiry. By far the largest interest is in the Jewish people, and the world’s response. Only four students are researching the Nazis. I was surprised by this.

My students spent the first week researching both primary and secondary sources. I began by teaching the difference between the two. That was the extent of my teaching. For the rest of the week, my students scoured the internet for resources, used Delicious to bookmark important sites, and checked the credibility of sources. The first thing my students do after they log onto the computer is open their delicious accounts. I don’t even tell them to do it anymore.

Once they found a number of resources, I introduced them to Google Docs. It never fails that my students are completely amazed by this web tool. Often there are audible gasps. I’ve learned that the first day they’re inside the Google Docs environment, not much work will get done. Students are amazed by their ability to type, as a group, in the same document. They spent the rest of the week collaboratively compiling their information, important links, and photographs they’d gathered into their group’s Google Doc.

The Hard Part

Then we got stuck. Researching was the easy part, knowing what to do with it is much more difficult. The goal of week three is to construct a mock-up of their exhibit. My students struggled immensely with how to take their research and create an exhibit. What information do they use? What do they want to be their focal point? What story do they want to tell?

It’s not that they don’t have good ideas. They have some great ones. As I walked around, I heard some incredible proposals, such as designing the concentration camp exhibit around the concept that many prisoners consumed only 300 calories a day. What does 300 calories a day look like? Yet even with great ideas on the table, they seemed reticent to move forward.

I find that when my students struggle, I struggle as a teacher too, but differently. At times I’m not sure how to facilitate their learning. If I do it for them, they won’t develop the skill. It’s difficult to know how much to let them flail. I find my role, at this point, is to facilitate conversations they don’t know how to have. As I often do in this scenario, I turned to my personal learning network. I blogged about it.

In response to my blog, Dean Shareski left the following comment:

image of comment from author's blog

The link Dean suggested is a clip of high school Principal Chris Lehmann speaking about educational change at the Philadelphia TED-x. He begins with a bold statement – “High school stinks” — and goes on to describe what we can do to change that.  I was so incredibly moved by his talk that I knew I needed to show my students.

Their response? They burst into applause. They’ve never done that before at the end of a video. Why their response? Because as a class they strongly believe they are not the future. They are right now. And their education is not something they should use in the future, someday. It should matter right now.

I looked at my students and made one simple statement, “This is why we do what we do here. You’ve done your research; now you need to build something that matters.”

We then met in what we’ve come to affectionately call “circle time”. It sounds kindergartenish, but my students love it. Essentially it’s a Socratic circle, where we sit and discuss the matter at hand.

“So,” I asked, “what do you need?”


And I remained silent. Finally, one girl spoke up, “I don’t really feel like I know how all these pieces fit together.” Another student: “Yeah, how is it supposed to look like it all is part of the same story?” Me: “So, you feel like you’re lacking an overall theme to direct you?”

A third student spoke up. “Yes, I don’t think I even know what the other groups have done. Maybe we can all share what our groups researched and what we found.” Good idea.

A member of the group that researched the Nazi’s outlined their basic idea. They’d designed their ideas around the three “faces” of the Nazi’s, essentially how the world and Germany viewed the Nazi’s as time progressed. The impetus for their design is creating a photo collage of Hitler made from smaller pictures. (My students have even found a collage maker download, although at this point I’m not sure how well it works.)

All eyes moved to the group who researched the Holocaust victims. I quickly interjected that I thought this group had an amazing idea. In fact, it’s so good, that I said, I would love to see us make this exhibit. One group members head shot up. “Really? Which idea?” You see, many of the members of this group have not been successful in traditional academic classrooms. They seem to lack confidence in their ability to contribute to the project.

I explained that one of the ideas put forth was designing the exhibit around the concept that the average inmate survived, or didn’t survive, on about 300 calories a day. The rest of the students were shocked. They didn’t know that. And a number of students started brainstorming what that could look like. Some of them have since found out that you could eat a small fries from McDonalds, with McNugget sauce. Or ice cream & salad dressing for 300 calories. The discovered this while discussing our exhibit at McDonalds. I’m surprised how much they talk about this class outside of our scheduled class.

Finally, a student commented, “I’m not sure I understand how these will all fit together.”

I grabbed a large roll of newsprint paper, and pulled a long sheet out. While talking about all of this is fine, I know many of my students need to see things. I stated that each group should outline the main points of their research, what they want to include in their exhibit. Then we’ll look to see what commonalities we can find.

Each group gathered around their section of the paper and began outlining and drawing their ideas. It was one of those photo-worthy moments. My students were deeply engaged in their work, debating with their group members about what was important, making connections, drawing the details.

After they were done, they looked for ways to connect the different areas. They wanted it to fit together in a way that made sense to the viewer. Originally, I had figured that each group would design their own exhibit around what they had researched. Finally, an idea popped into my head. I said, “All the ideas fit into the three faces of the Nazis, don’t they? What if we used that as our organizing idea?”

One of the students excitedly stated, “That’s what I said! We could call it Faces of the Holocaust.”

I’m teaching like never before

So that is our exhibit name and our organizing theme. Faces of the Holocaust. It will include three faces the Nazis showed to the world. The first is the propaganda used by the Nazis to deceive the public. The second face is the reality; this is the face the Jewish people, and others persecuted by the Nazis encountered, including the countries that either capitulated to or were overtaken by Hitler’s army. The last face looks at the Nuremberg trials, and the aftermath of the Holocaust

On Monday, we will try to create our mock-up. We’ve decided to create one “face” at a time, starting with the propaganda. Very different than I anticipated. With all students contributing to and creating the same part of the museum, this approach will require a high degree of collaborative effort. My role at this point is to model decision making skills for my students.

My students have commitment issues. And not just small ones, really significant ones. When faced with the open-ended reality that this project can take any form, it’s paralyzing. My role is to help them navigate this and ask questions that clarify.

I plan to teach them the idea of Commander’s Intent, outlined in the book Made to Stick by the Heath brothers. What is the one thing we want our viewer to remember about the “Face One” exhibit? I already know what it is. They’ve said it numerous times. Evil does not always look like evil. Everything added to the exhibit needs to support this one idea. And although there might be other really interesting ideas and artifacts, everything they include must flesh out this one idea. I’m confident now they’ll discover it.

To be honest, this project is so interesting, I want to be part of it. I want to help make and design it, and I’ve never had that impulse while teaching before. I’ve never thought to myself, “wow, I wish I could have been part of the construction of that Hamlet diorama.”

Today was one of those days, when the excitement in my students is so palpable that I can’t believe I get paid to do this. I know for the next two weeks, my room will be a hive of activity. Painting. Creating walls. Replicating important documents. Even in a teacher centred classroom, I was never as engaged or excited as I am now, nor were my students.

There’s a certain shift in role that has to take place. I’m a co-learner with my students. I often ask questions and clarify points my students are confused on. And since I’m side by side with my students, rather than “the sage on the stage,” I find that I’m developing stronger relationships with them, especially those few shy students who say almost nothing in a group. In between coats of paper mache, I have time to have conversations with students that ordinarily I wouldn’t. It doesn’t get much better than this: Collaborating. Communicating. Connecting.


Read all three posts about our Holocaust project:

3. Powerful Project Learning: Outcomes & reflections

2. The Nuts & Bolts of 21st Century Teaching

1. Finding the Courage to Change

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