In an educational system where standardized testing and the "No Child Left Behind" mantra have dictated the direction of classroom curricula, finding the time and having the dedication to teach students lessons that go beyond the core skills of reading, writing and math have become challenges for a large number of educators.
Still, finding new ways to teach about genocide and the Holocaust – as mandated by the State of New Jersey – is a task that Harry Furman, a member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said is at the forefront of his organization's agenda.
"Thirty years ago, there were very few materials for Holocaust education; teachers had to create their own materials," said Furman, the keynote speaker at last week's third annual Holocaust Educators Conference. "Today, and for the future of Holocaust education, the issue is not where to find the materials, but what materials a teacher should choose to use."
At the kick-off lecture to the Dec. 8 conference at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., Furman cited the example of a ninth-grade teacher in Vineland, N.J., as what not to do.
According to Furman, the teacher – in an effort to fulfill her Holocaust-education requirement – spent five consecutive class periods showing her group of freshmen the movie "Schindler's List." She then assigned a final essay about it.
Angered by the activity's lack of discussion and the scarcity of detail provided by the teacher, Furman lamented the fact that "bad teaching is worse than no teaching at all."
The conference, sponsored by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in cooperation with the Holocaust Education Center of the Delaware Valley, attracted about 130 teachers.
It aimed to enlighten the educators with fresh ways to make the Holocaust more than just a history lesson at a time when the best visuals – survivors themselves – are a dying breed.
Speaking on the future of Holocaust education, Furman – a lawyer and child of Holocaust survivors – acknowledged that firsthand testimony legitimizes the reality of the tragedy.
But over the next few decades, he remarked, teachers will have the responsibility of educating without it.
"This will be a sad reality for the future of Holocaust education, but it is a reality that we cannot ignore," he noted. "Increasingly, students will see the Holocaust only through the representation of the events in movies and television presentations. Teachers will need to balance the real and fictionalized depictions."
'Echoes and Reflections'
To that end, the Anti-Defamation League held a training session in Center City last week to introduce area educators to their new Shoah curriculum, "Echoes and Reflections," a joint venture with the Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem in Israel.
Piloted last year and currently in its first stage of a general rollout, the multimedia lessons include video of first-person testimony from Holocaust survivors, rescuers and liberators.
"We're probably in the last decade of having survivors actually come into the classroom," said Randi Boyette, regional education director for ADL in Philadelphia. "After this era has passed, all we will have left is visual-history testimony. It's very powerful."
Despite his organization's mandate and increasing government directives that teachers deal with the Holocaust in their classes, Furman put the onus on the teachers and administrators to go beyond the minimum requirements.
"It's one thing to congratulate oneself for having mandated Holocaust education in a minimal form," he stated. "It is quite another to provide an educational environment in which nontested areas of curriculum – including the Holocaust – are taken as seriously as the state-tested ones."