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At What Age Do We Introduce Students to “Genocide”?

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I’m still reflecting on yesterday’s article in the Sac Bee about French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial mandate that all 5th graders “adopt the memory of one of the 11,000 Jewish children in France killed in the Holocaust, learning about the selected child’s background and fate.” And following that article, today’s article on UC Davis students attending a conference to learn what they can do to stop the genocide in Darfur. These two projects involve students from ages 10 through adult. Is there a minimum age level for teaching about genocide?

The above articles are coming on the heels of a recent Teachers Teaching Teachers Skypecast during which someone in the chat room (Mr. Mayo?) introduced the Many Voices of Darfur blogging and wiki project, an invitation for students to make their voices heard to a worldwide audience.

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Apparently, students as young as 3rd grade will be participating in this project and posting to the blog for 48 hours on March 4.

In my school district, I think many 5th grade teachers introduce the word “genocide” as they delve into the unit on Columbus’s arrival to the “New World,” but without the availability of primary source documents such as those that tell of the last hours of individual Jewish children removed from Paris to extermination camps.

Last week I visited an elementary school library that happened to have on display 4th graders’ California Mission projects, including models (parent-done, I’m pretty sure) and some tri-fold displays (which also looked parent done). Kind of took me back to my 4th grade days. However, I’m still thinking about the tri-fold, I believe on Mission San Juan Capistrano, that included the statement “the local Indians were friendly and happy to work.” Maybe 4th graders are too young to learn about the government sanctioned genocide of California Indians, but I suspect that 4th graders at this school will end their year without a clue that “missionization” was NOT mutually beneficial.

But again I ask, at what age do we introduce students to “genocide”?

4 Comments

  1. Good question.
    I am not sure of the answer.
    On one hand, we want kids to know that the world has sometimes fostered cruelty and that we need to do everything we can to stop it.
    On the other hand, we want to preserve some semblance of innocence (right?) so that they can develop their own sense of worth without thinking this world is a messed up place.
    I don’t know.
    It’s a struggle, as a parent and as a teacher.
    Kevin

  2. I’m not sure of the answer either, Kevin. With the Holocaust, for instance, there are a number of good books (i.e., Number the Stars) that introduce students to the Holocaust – but through the eyes of the survivors, generally those who never actually entered through the gates of a camp.

    I guess the problem I’m having with the glorification of the California Missions is the pretense of mutual benefits. Seems like a thin line sometimes between preserving innocence and purposefully neglecting to tell multiple sides of a story. but then history is basically written by the winners.

    I think the important thing for those teachers who teach about genocide is to be sure to provide students with opportunities to take some kind of positive social action, such as joining students around the world to post to blog in protest of what is continuing to happen in Darfur, for instance.

  3. I think by 5th or 6th graders are old enough, but I teach gifted kids so I might be off on kiddos in the regular classroom. I have concerns that, as with the rest of the elementary curriculum, these subject would be discussed with no background, no big picture. For example, I think it is hard to teach The Holocaust without having a bigger understanding of Hilter and the war.

  4. Nancy,

    I share your concern about students learning about an event such as the Holocaust without the historical context. My friend and mentor Beth Yeager, a Ph.D in the Education Dept of the University of California at Santa Barbara, shared with me several years ago that a local theater was showing an animated version of the Diary of Anne Frank. Schools were invited to bring students for day-time showings. As Beth described it, it was an example of your worst fears, with many students arriving expecting a cartoon and having no idea what the story was all about.

    Beth went on to join several others at the University to form the Center for Teaching for Social Justice (which has since changed to LINC) with the purpose of bringing teachers together to explore ways to empower students to take social action. With the very young children, for instance, looking at issues of bullying on the playground and discussing what actions they could take to not be a bystander to acts of intolerance. Resources such as the wonderful Hero in the Hallway video I think provide teachers with a starting point, which, with primary students, should probably remain a local example of intolerance.

    For the older students, “snippets ” of the Holocaust may appear in district adopted textbooks. I believe the Open Court reading series includes part of Anne Frank’s Diary in their 4th grade book. I’ll make a point of borrowing a 4th grade teacher’s manual to see what the publisher’s suggestions are for providing the context for the story.

    Thanks for your comment, Nancy. Being somewhat familiar with the kinds of learning experiences you offer your students, I know they have many opportunities to make a dfference.

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