Penn State Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative

Penn State Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative’s director, Boaz Dvir (right), with actor Judd Nelson, are pictured at a rough-cut screening of Dvir’s post-Holocaust documentary titled "Cojot." Nelson narrates "Cojot."

Perhaps many adults in the United States remember the first time in grade school they heard the story of Anne Frank. Maybe they recall the feeling they had after reading ”Night” by Elie Wiesel for the first time. Or perhaps, some adults don’t recall these at all.

The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State, which launched this summer, is striving to ensure the aforementioned types of learning experiences fulfill their potential and have a positive impact on children.

Founded and directed by Boaz Dvir, the initiative equips educators with skills to teach and engage students with difficult topics — while focusing on empathy and critical thinking.

As a former journalist, Dvir is also an assistant professor of journalism in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. 

In his documentaries, Dvir said he tells the stories of “ordinary people who go through extraordinary circumstances, transform in the process, become trailblazers and really have an impact on society around them.”

“A few years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Education approached me about including two of my documentaries in [its] Holocaust curricular offerings,” Dvir said. “And I said, ‘Of course, but wouldn’t you like some material to go with it?’”

The first, a 2015 Public Broadcasting Service documentary titled “A Wing and a Prayer” focuses on U.S. World War II aviators who raced against the clock to prevent what they thought was an eminent second holocaust.

The other documentary, “Cojot,” follows a Holocaust survivor who sets out in the 1970s to find and kill his father’s Nazi executioner.

Dvir, who’s currently finishing “Cojot,” said he emphasizes the importance of presenting media in classrooms with proper context and opportunities for in-depth questioning and critical thinking.

“You really need to do a great deal more than simply present media — like evaluating if there are any elements that could trigger trauma or stress among students,” Dvir said.

Teachers not only have to teach difficult curriculum, such as the Holocaust, but they also encounter tough topics that filter into the classroom via current events and student experiences — which Dvir said led him to realize the importance of offering support and tools directly to teachers.

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Dvir also has a background in K-12 professional development, as he worked at the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning for four years.

The new Penn State Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative provides professional development to help educators facilitate productive, meaningful conversations about difficult historical moments like the Holocaust and human rights violations, as well as current events, according to Dvir.

“The question is, ‘How do I use this to get [students] to think for themselves, think critically [and] not just soak up the information?’” Dvir said. “How do I raise it to a level where we’re not just disseminating information, but we’re engaging students in discussions that provide them with insight into the human condition, not just knowledge — knowledge is fleeting.”

Dvir said the initiative grew out of discussions with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which observed ineffectiveness in teaching difficult topics around the state.

In 2014, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed a law, Act 70, that encouraged schools to teach Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations. The law did not mandate the curriculum, but daylong trainings for teachers were held around the state regarding Holocaust education.

“Sometimes the educators who attended this training invited Department of Education officials to observe their teaching of the Holocaust,” Dvir said. “And as the Department of Education told me, when they visited these classrooms, they were often disappointed. In several instances, the teaching was inappropriate and ineffective.”

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Dvir said he attributes the disconnect between the often “compelling” Holocaust curriculum material and classroom execution to the lack of a pedagogy to bridge the gap between content and impacting students “in a powerful way.”

That lack of a powerful impact may be contributing to statistics reflecting the lack of awareness of the Holocaust among young Americans, Dvir said.

“Recent studies show that four out of 10 young Americans don’t know what the Holocaust is,” Dvir said.

Inadequate critical engagement with materials in classrooms, which the Department of Education noticed, prompted Dvir to start the initiative at Penn State, he said.

The initiative is geared toward K-12 Pennsylvania educators to support them in teaching difficult topics — largely through an inquiry-based approach, according to Dvir. 

Engagement of the initiative materials with teachers officially began this summer in a weeklong virtual conference.

Teachers then have the support of the initiative throughout the whole school year — where they pursue research, analyze data and collaborate with other educators on inquiries surrounding the teaching of difficult subjects in classrooms and schools, as well as trauma-informed learning.

Through the yearlong initiative, Dvir said teachers can earn 60 of the 180 professional development points needed for their recertification, which is mandated every five years for Pennsylvania teachers.

Dvir said he believes the concentrated and active engagement of teachers with inquiry-based research and professional development is more effective and impactful for education than attending brief conferences on scattered topics.

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Jennifer Cody is a fifth-grade teacher in the State College Area School District who is participating in the initiative professional development program this school year.

Cody said her passion for teaching difficult topics and engaging with trauma-informed learning piqued her interest in the program.

She described the “amazing” experience she had at the initiative’s weeklong conference this summer — as well as the process of developing specific inquiries with other teachers in the initiative to research throughout the school year.

“My team is specifically focused on student identity and how to grow into your identity in a confident way and how to handle bullies,” she said. “[The initiative] provides a very effective, yearlong process, where we meet often.”

Although Cody said she is not teaching the Holocaust specifically to her fifth-grade students, the knowledge she has gained both about the Holocaust and broaching challenging topics with students has helped her grow as a teacher, she said.

“I function as an inquiry-based teacher,” she said. “I work hard to pose as many perspectives about things as possible to my students and help them to make informed decisions.” 

Part of equipping educators with the tools to teach their students in more engaging, comprehensive ways is recognizing that difficult topics are inevitably linked to trauma, Dvir said.

The initiative recently created an online trauma-informed practice module where educators across the country can learn how to incorporate this element of teaching into their classrooms and schools. 

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Pennsylvania teachers can earn six professional development points for completing this module, Dvir said.

Dara Hass, an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, joined the initiative team that constructed this module.

Hass was a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14, 2018, when a 19-year-old student killed 17 people and injured 17 others. The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, entered Hass’ classroom first.

“When [members of the initiative] brought me in, I had a firsthand account of a traumatic event related to the classroom that students go into every day,” she said. “My advice came from talking about how teachers themselves can handle their own mental wellness.”

Part of Hass’ experience with trauma linked to a school environment was the difficult nature of processing her own grief while simultaneously handling the grief of her students.

“One of the things [about] educators is we are such passionate people that we often put others ahead of ourselves and our own well-being,” she said. “So, part of my [advice] to the initiative was that we need to take care of ourselves and make sure that we’re mentally well so that we are 100% prepared to handle students who come to us with their own trauma or emotions.”

Hass said she believes the initiative’s trauma-based module can serve as a resource so “teachers can help themselves and also help their students.”

“I think that learning about events in history, especially those that really change the way we look at the world, shouldn’t be forgotten,” she said. “The Holocaust showed us great horrors that people could do to other people but also great strength. The stories that come out of [the Holocaust] of love and friendship are lessons in life that young people need to know.”

Since the initiative is committed to equipping teachers with tools for engaging students with human rights violations that extend beyond the Holocaust, Dvir and others partnered with experts across disciplines who could offer their expertise in broader fields as well.

One of these consultants is Ashley Patterson, assistant professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Penn State.

“I’m not a Holocaust scholar, but human rights are where my work is centered,” Patterson said. “So, thinking of both a very specific example of a violation of human rights and also more broadly what human rights mean from a local and global context — all of that together in the same program was really interesting to me.”

Ashley Patterson

Ashley Patterson poses for a photo.

Patterson said the approach the initiative is taking to help teachers improve its support for students creates more effective and welcoming learning environments.

“When students are carrying — sometimes silently — stressors with them that make it difficult to even exist in classroom spaces, it makes it far more difficult for them to learn,” Patterson said. “If we can be sensitive to and aware of what it takes to create learning places that are inclusive and welcoming and bring in multiple perspectives, that’s when learning can be maximized.”

Currently, about 40 educators across Pennsylvania are involved in the initiative. Lori McGarry, education program specialist at Penn State with the initiative, said she believes the inquiry-based approach can impact the way teachers and students view the world.

“We want students to understand that by using a tool like inquiry, they can critically evaluate information, they can seek out differing perspectives… and they can engage with others through a process of question-asking,” McGarry said. “What we really hope is that by teachers adopting an inquiry stance and helping students adopt an inquiry stance, we can help people develop a shared understanding of difficult issues and not tell them what to think but teach them how to think for themselves.”

Lori McGarry

Lori McGarry poses for a photo.

The initiative has several Penn State and external partners, including the College of Communications, College of Education, College of the Liberal Arts and Penn State Law — as well as the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation and the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council.

“From day one, the Penn State leadership has been behind this initiative,” Dvir said. “Penn State leaders from President Eric Barron to Provost Nick Jones to Dean Marie Hardin stepped up and have been extremely supportive from the start.”

Marie Hardin, dean of the College of Communications, said she knew Dvir’s involvement made the initiative a “great investment” and described it as an act of service to the entire commonwealth.

“The [commonwealth] of Pennsylvania sees this as an important initiative,” Hardin said. “[It sees] the importance of revisiting history so we don’t repeat it and also moving forward in really important and essential ways on the issues of human rights — and we’ve got to start that with young people.”

Dvir said he’s also looking ahead to the future of society as he continues to put the initiative into action — citing long-term improvements in civic discourse, education and human interaction as motivators.

“Our top goals are to help children gain insight into the human condition and develop life skills that are useful today and tomorrow, inside and outside of school — critical thinking, active listening and respect for other perspectives,” Dvir said. “These insights and skills can serve them well throughout their life.”

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