As a young girl at a Jewish Day School in New Jersey, I learned about the Holocaust in a brutal and compelling way. Every year, we watched Night and Fog, a rather graphic Holocaust documentary, we held a chilling but beautiful Holocaust remembrance ceremony, and we had Holocaust survivors come speak to us about their experiences in the concentration camps. It was a small school, and all of us fit into the little chapel at the synagogue that served as the school's home. There were members of the school and synagogue staff who had survived the camps, and they shared their stories in that chapel, showing us their numbers on their arms, talking about how many people they watched die in front of them. I felt the shock and terror every year.
So it always somehow surprises me that there are so many kids who don't know anything about the Holocaust or World War II or Anne Frank. I don't know why, but I just assumed that they were a part of everyone's school experience, and as a teacher, I am always dismayed when I discover yet again that the students are so, well, ignorant about this aspect of very recent world history.
My unit of inquiry covering Anne Frank and WWII starts, of course, with guiding questions: What can we learn about history and human behavior from reading diaries and journals? How do diaries help us learn about ourselves? Why does Anne Frank's diary "live on" even though most diaries are not widely read? The unit focuses on diaries and their value as historical resources. We talk about primary sources and their usefulness as tools for furthering research and understanding of an era. What is it about diaries that make them such rich sources, maybe the best sources of information? Well, for one thing, diarists are among the most honest writers you'll ever encounter! Very few lies exist in a diary that carries the expectation of being private forever. Also, diaries are written in a way that is characteristic of an era. One can learn about speech patterns, syntax, and changes in language from reading diaries. We look at excerpts from diaries and tease out all of the historical information available.
Anne's diary is at once exceedingly special and totally normal. Her circumstances, her writing skill, and her insight make the diary extraordinary. But, at the same time, she was just a girl, living in a certain time in history, writing about the mundane and everyday. I have taught this unit using the entire text of the diary, and I've taught it using excerpts. While excerpts are easier, students don't get the whole picture of who Anne was from reading 40 page chunks. If you're going to use the diary, try to fit in the whole thing. And the play is not a substitute, as good as it is. It's the diary format that tells the whole story. An interesting exercise is to compare a scene from the play with the part of the diary that is being portrayed. For example, compare the scene in the play when Dussel arrives at the annex to that section of the diary. Which one is a better historical resource? Why?
Anne's diary should not, or rather cannot, be taught without context. Students must understand the circumstances surrounding the Franks' decision to go into hiding. Actually, the story of how, when, and why the Franks went to live in the "Secret Annex" is fascinating, a study in how the workings of governments affect people on the most intimate level. Why did the Franks flee to Amsterdam in the first place? Why did they go into hiding? What was life like for the people who helped hide the Franks? And who betrayed the Frank family? Discovery Education Streaming has a good video about this very question, the one thing that seems to eat at students most! Check it out: Who Betrayed Anne Frank?
This year, I tried a new project that combines 21st century technology with the history of World War II. My students created podcasts in the style of World War II newsreels. I adapted the project from the Apple Learning Interchange and Apple's Distinguished Educators Showcase. Whether or not your school uses Macs, the Learning Interchange is something you should peruse. Its projects use iLife applications like iMovie and Garageband, but the lessons can be adapted for use with other apps as well. I started off by showing the students some real newsreel films so they could get an idea of what a newsreel looked and sounded like. I put the students into groups of three or four, and they chose the general topic for their podcasts from a list I gave them. The topics covered various areas/parts of World War II, such as the rise of the Nazis, pre-war Germany, the early stages of the war, the Final Solution, etc. The kids then divided up the subtopics within each main topic, and each student was responsible for researching their subtopic. They used school library databases, library print materials, and websites that I provided. In addition to writing a one minute script about their subtopic, each student had to find appropriate pictures to use in his/her section of the podcast. As a group, the students put their scripts together, created opening and closing sequences, and put everything in Garageband. The finished podcasts were exported as Quicktime movies. A full description of the project can be found here: Download WWII Newscast podcast.
This project was enormously successful. I will post a couple of examples if I can. The kids learned a lot about the war, gained an understanding of the historical context in which Anne was living, and used 21st century tech skills to boot. They had a blast, too. The project did take about three weeks to complete, but I think the educational value far outweighs the amount of time the projects consumes.
Teaching about Anne Frank, World War II, and the Holocaust requires patience, a strong stomach, and a tremendous amount of compassion. Some people like to start off such a unit by showing Paper Clips, but I'm not a big fan of this route. I feel that it takes the emphasis off of learning about what actually happened in the 1940's. I think history should come first. Paper Clips is an uplifting story, but I'd save it for the end of the unit.