Teaching About the Holocaust workshop to help educators implement Act 30

By Todd Finkelmeyer

Starting with the upcoming 2022-23 academic year, schools across Wisconsin will be required to provide education on the Holocaust and other genocides under a bipartisan bill signed into law this past spring.

In an effort to give educators the tools they need to discuss these topics with students, the UW–Madison School of Education on Aug. 18 is hosting an on-campus workshop titled Teaching about the Holocaust.

This full-day workshop will have sessions valuable to both social studies and English language arts educators, and will prepare social studies teachers to implement Act 30, which requires schools to include curriculum about the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in grades 5-8 and at least once again in grades 9-12. Educators will receive tangible resources and lesson plans to supplement their new curriculum, and time will be set aside for educators to speak and work with one another to discuss their plans for implementing the new law.

Teaching about the Holocaust is hosted by the UW–Madison School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE). The event is being delivered in partnership with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC), which spearheaded the mandate for Wisconsin schools to teach Holocaust and genocide education. This partnership was made possible by the generosity of donors to the School of Education’s Impact 2030 initiative.

Some presenters at the workshop include: UW–Madison’s Simone Schweber, who is the Michael and Judy Goodman Professor of Education and Jewish Studies; Sam Goldberg, director of education for the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC); and  Irene Ann Resenly, Holocaust educator and a PhD candidate with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Liza Wiemer holding her book,
Liza Wiemer

One highlight of the workshop is expected to be the closing presentation from UW–Madison alumna and award-winning author Liza Wiemer about her young adult novel, “The Assignment.”

The book is inspired by a real-life incident and explores discrimination and antisemitism, and reveals their dangerous impact.

This work is centered around the question of: Would you defend the indefensible? That’s what the book’s Logan March and Cade Crawford are asked to do when a favorite teacher instructs a group of students to argue for the Final Solution — the Nazi plan for the genocide of the Jewish people. These two high school seniors then decide they must take a stand, and soon their actions draw the attention of the student body, the administration, and the community at large. But not everyone feels as Logan and Cade do — and it’s not long before the situation explodes, and acrimony and anger result.

What makes “The Assignment” unique is how it examines a critical moment in history — but does so through a modern lens. Through this book, Wiemer teaches what it take for tolerance, justice, and love to prevail.

“The book doesn’t see the Holocaust as a date on a timeline,” says Wiemer, who graduated from the School of Education in 1986 and has more than 25 years of teaching experience. “It connects the past to what’s transpiring in students’ lives today. And it empowers not just our youth but all people to be allies and upstanders, and speak up against hatred, bigotry, and injustice.”

While Act 30 was widely praised, the legislation provided little guidance on what to teach and no state funding to support it. To ensure quality education, HERC has over 100 free lessons to fulfill the mandate and has a speakers bureau, including first-, second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors. They also established “The Assignment” book fund, providing free sets of this novel (10-120 copies per school) to be utilized as a part of their curriculum. In addition, Wiemer notes there is a free comprehensive curriculum guide, as well as a Google doc for educators across the country to share their lessons, activities, and assignments.

Wiemer, who has traveled across the country — and even to Australia and New Zealand for multiple speaking events — delivering presentations, notes that “The Assignment” is showing to have a significant positive impact on students.

Wiemer says that at one rural Wisconsin school, only three of 101 students said that they would be allies and upstanders against any form of injustice before reading and discussing this book as a part of a school assignment. Afterward, says Wiemer, that number rose to 82 out of 101.

In addition to English, to date her book has been published in Russian, Polish, Italian, and Korean.

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