When engaged in project-based, collaborative learning, I think the three most important phrases to remember are: improvise, learn the hard way, and don’t regret.

I’m tired. I haven’t worn dress clothes to work in almost two weeks, and my classroom is a disaster. Oddly, I consider all of this a good thing.

During the past week, my students and I have worked incredibly hard. We’ve spent the entire week constructing our Holocaust Exhibit, entitled Faces of the Holocaust (see this earlier post about the nuts & blots – and this one about first steps). In total, we’ve devoted approximately 20 hours this week alone. On Thursday we worked 6 hours straight. No complaints.


clothing with "jude" badgesFace One

The first “face” of our exhibit, looks much like we thought it would. When you enter the room, the first display you see is the living room, of a Jewish home, set in 1935.  To the left, there are two beautiful displays created to show what the lives of the Jewish people were like before the Holocaust. They were ordinary people like you or me.

And interspersed on the boards displaying the kinds of clothing worn at the time, are family pictures. People laughing. Life was normal.

Then, as you walk along the corridor, the canvases progress to show many of the things going wrong in Germany. The propaganda surrounding Hitler’s rise to power, and the insidious lies spun to incite hatred towards the Jews. My students created an entire canvas detailing the Hitler Youth, and how they were important to the success of Hitler’s plan. There is also a Ghetto display that includes pictures and replica clothing, all pinned with the yellow star. At the bottom of the display sits a half packed suitcase.

Tucked in behind the propaganda canvases, we see what looks like the quarters of a German officer. There’s a lovely table set with tea and goodies. In the shadows, on a display board are Nazi uniforms surrounded with all of the Nazi symbols. It’s hidden because much of what the Nazis did was hidden.


Faces Two & Three

The second “face” of the Holocaust isn’t exactly how we originally brainstormed it. Announcing that something has drastically changed is an 8 ft high gate from the concentration camp Terezin that visitors enter through. Rather than focusing on the ghettos, my students researched and created an exhibit about the Eugenics program that was taught in German schools and enacted in a number of the concentration camps.

The 300 calorie exhibit is one of the centerpieces of this section. In addition to research of nutrition in concentration camps and ghettos, they’ve included photos of how large a portion of ordinary foods (such as three fourths of a Starbucks muffin) equal 300 calories. It’s shocking. Additionally, on the day of the exhibit there will be a display of actual foods in portions that equal 300 calories. Juxtaposed with this will be a pot of turnip broth, 3 1/2 centimeters of bread, the ordinary bread portion in some camps and coffee.

The concentration camp section also includes a cot. Many inmates had to hide what few possessions they owned in their sleeping quarters, so they would not be stolen. Prisoners most precious possessions in a concentration camp were often one’s cup, cutlery, and shoes. A display of concentration camp uniforms is the background, surrounded by pictures of Jewish inmates in striped uniforms.


statement from Mein Kampf

The Big Lie

My students third “face” is nothing like its original conception. Originally, the class designed it to represent the world’s response to the Holocaust. And in a way, I guess it still does. But it didn’t seem like a fitting conclusion. We stood and pondered, while looking at blank flats of wood. And suddenly a phrase from the Talmud, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he has saved an entire world” popped into my head. The students loved it. So instead of our original design, the third section is a tribute to those who perished in and survived the Holocaust.

It’s 8 feet high, and is painted the blue of the flag of Israel. The display begins with the Nuremberg trials and transitions to the many pictures of Holocaust displays and remembrances throughout the world. It will also include pictures of many who perished in the Holocaust, some who survived, and pictures and bios of the authors of three novels we read: Night, The Hiding Place, and Anne Frank. At the top of one of the flats is the Israeli flag.

Our Holocaust exhibit opens Tuesday. Everyone has been invited. This includes parents, students, teachers, community members, a few of our Superintendents, and some members of the Jewish community. We begin installation Monday, which will include finishing the third “face” of the exhibit.


Some lessons gleaned

Improvise. I’ve learned throughout this process that improvisation is essential. Things happen that you don’t expect, including lapses in judgment. At the end of painting on Wednesday, one of my “A” students thought it would be a “good” idea to put a big happy face, painted in black, on one of our tan canvases. Not. We needed that canvas the next day. We primed. Repainted. And worked on different areas until that canvas was ready.

On Thursday morning I went into work early to begin painting one of the canvasses. The letters were fine, and I was painting with black. With my first stroke the words, “Oh my gosh, is this hard!” popped into my head. It was. I’ve realized as a teacher it’s important that I more frequently experience the things that my students are doing in class. I finished the letter and handed over the paint brush to someone much more proficient than I.

Release Control. For the last three weeks, for ELA 10B, all it says in my day book is Holocaust Exhibit — because it’s student-centered. And although on any given day I have an idea of what we’ll be working on, I can’t guarantee which direction the learning, researching, or work will need to go. I tend to start each class walking around and talking to each student to see what they’re working on or what they need. Teacher-centered teaching never allowed me to do that.

One day, three of my students were sitting working, and I walked up to them and said, “What can I help with?” Stunned, they said, “you’re going to do this with us?” This question spoke volumes to me. I haven’t worked with my students enough. Not in this way. And I think it’s like that for a lot of their education. I think often as teachers we supervise, watch to make sure they’re on task, or if they need help, but how often do we co-learn and co-create with them?

Learn the hard way. I was talking to Dean Shareski earlier this week. He said that many teachers who attempt this type of thing might do it once, but with all the difficulties never try it again. I can see why that would be so. But I will teach every unit I can this way because of the difficulties. It’s only in doing it the first time that you learn what you need to change about your teaching role. And it’s only by pushing through the hard “first time” that your students learn how to deal with difficulties. The strength and growth that I’ve seen in my students this past month is truly amazing.

Adjust. I’ve learned that next time I will shorten the initial research period. My students spent the first week researching and adding sites to their delicious accounts, and the second week I introduced Google Docs, into which they added their research as teams. I would combine both weeks into one. So much of the deep, authentic research and thinking occurs during the construction stage. And next time, I will allot more time for construction. So much changes when you’re actually creating.

But I’m not only talking about learning from the process itself, but also what we can learn from our students. All of our exhibits are mounted on wheels, so they can easily be moved. I wouldn’t have thought of that, nor could I make that happen. It’s really been one student who was responsible for getting all of them ready. On Friday, while looking at 8 foot high sheets of wood, I asked him, “how are those going to stand up?” He looked at me and said, “come, I’ll show you.” And he showed me the frames, and explained how it will be braced. Amazing. If it was left to me, they’d all be leaning against the wall instead of beautiful stand up displays.

Want to know the really amazing thing?  This is a special needs student. He’s never thrived in a traditional classroom, especially English. But give him something to build, and he can do it. I wonder how many times in his education he’s had the opportunity to say to a teacher, “here, let me show you how it’s going to work.” All I know is I need to give him as many opportunities as I can to use these skills and feel successful.

Don’t Regret. Pretty explanatory. Things go wrong. Things get broken. Welcome to life. One of the things I’ve learned as a teacher is that I have to be kind to myself. In the words of one of my superintendents, “We don’t expect perfection, just improvement.” Great advice.

I’ve thoroughly inconvenienced many people in my school for this project to happen. They’ve all graciously adjusted. And I’m pretty sure my students have learned more in this unit, than all of the other units I’ve ever taught. My students from last year keep asking why they didn’t get to build a Holocaust museum. They feel a little ripped off. I told them to wait a year. When they’re in grade 12 we study The Great Gatsby, which is set in the roaring twenties. That will be quite the project!

But the really exciting thing is that a few of our grade nine students, who only saw a small portion of the installation, asked me, “What are we going to build next year in your class?” That tells me something good is going on.


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

And read my post about our public exhibition, “Magic and Grieving,” at my personal blog.

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