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There Is No Crying In History Education

October 23, 2007

Is there? Are professional historians allowed to get emotional over stories about teaching history? Is it taboo to talk about those episodes when they happen?

Do historians cry? Well, we know they write about the Battle Cry for Freedom, sometimes cry wolf, and—when they are men—might cry bullets. But actual tears?

I confess that my eyes welled up with tears over a story I read this past Sunday. Let me give you excerpts from this Chicago Tribune piece by Kirsten Scharnberg:

– “The young Kansas women have become known as the ‘rescuers of the rescuer.’ “
– “What the four high school students did started out simply enough: collaborate on a National History Day project to write a short play about an event from the past. What they accomplished when it was all said and done has been stunning: discover, research and introduce to the world an unsung Polish heroine of the Holocaust, a woman who daringly saved some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto yet remained virtually unknown to historians and the public for more than 60 years.”
– ” ‘It’s a little mind-boggling,’ said Megan Stewart-Felt, 22 [right], one of the students. ‘Some days I almost can’t believe this wonderful journey we’ve been on.’ ”
– “That journey began eight years ago when Stewart-Felt and three schoolmates here in southern Kansas decided to look into the life of Irena Sendler [right] , a Polish Catholic social worker they had seen briefly mentioned in a magazine article about heroes of the Holocaust who never became as renowned as Oskar Schindler, the man who inspired the movie Schindler’s List. The four students launched an Internet search but could find only sparse details on what Sendler may have done.”
– “With the help of a Jewish organization familiar with Sendler, the students tracked down the Polish woman, residing in a nursing home in Warsaw. They forged a deep friendship with her, made multiple trips to Poland to interview her and those she had saved, and accumulated the world’s most extensive clearinghouse of research and artifacts of her life and her contribution to history.”
– “They completed their 10-minute play for that year’s National History Day project but then expanded it into a 35-minute drama that they still perform around the country and the world to standing-room-only audiences — some 225 at most recent count — who watch it and weep.”
– “They started a foundation in Sendler’s name to keep her story alive, and one of the students this year helped launch an education center based in Kansas that helps schools nationwide assist students in tackling similar research projects, including one in Illinois that has the potential to become equally well-known.
– “And just this month, 97-year-old Sendler, a woman once virtually anonymous to the world, was in the news as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, a fact that can almost entirely be attributed to four small-town students who were so inspired by her story that it has come to define their lives, even after they have graduated from high school and college, married and begun families of their own.”
– ” ‘Think of it, said Norm Conard, their former social studies teacher [right]. ‘You have some rural Protestant kids from a tiny place in Kansas who decide to tackle the story of a Polish Catholic woman who saved thousands of Jews, despite the fact that they were raised in a place where there is virtually no one of Jewish ancestry. It makes absolutely no sense that Irena’s story would end up getting told like this.’ “

– “Conard, who retired last year after teaching social studies at Uniontown High School for 20 years, had long taught his students a Hebrew expression: “Tikkun olam,” which means “to repair the world.” He asked them to do classroom projects that explored topics of diversity and that encouraged respect of all races and creeds. His classroom motto was, ‘He who changes one person, changes the world entire.’ “
– “In 1999, Conard grouped four of his star pupils together for a History Day project and handed them a U.S. News & World Report article titled ‘The Other Schindlers.’ “
– ” ‘In the fall of 1999, we started trying to research Irena after seeing her mentioned in that article but couldn’t find much of anything on her,’ said one of the former students, Sabrina Coons-Murphy, 24 [left]. The two other students assigned to the project were Jessica Shelton-Ripper, now 23 [first below, right], and Elizabeth Cambers, now 21 [second below, right].”
– “The four girls queried The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a group that provides financial assistance to those who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. The students’ goal initially was to find out where Sendler was buried. But they received a stunning response from the foundation: Sendler was alive and in remarkably good health in Poland.”
– “The students began corresponding with Sendler and finished their play about her life. They called it ‘Life in a Jar,’ because of one of the most dramatic facts about the Polish woman: She had buried detailed lists of the ancestry and whereabouts of each child she rescued in glass jars under an apple tree in a friend’s Warsaw yard. (When Sendler was later caught by the Nazis, she refused to reveal the location of those jars even under torture and threat of execution.)”
– “In early 2000, the students performed ‘Life in a Jar’ for the first time. People in the small Kansas crowd were sobbing by the end. Since then, even as the young women graduated, married and began careers, they have continued to travel with the play, performing it in 20 states and three countries. A handful of other young men and women also have joined the show to round out the cast. The play has been translated into Polish and now is performed by schoolchildren in Poland as well.”
– “This spring, ‘Life in a Jar’ traveled to Canada at the request of Montreal resident Renata Zajdman, who at age 14 was rescued from the Warsaw ghetto by one of a small network of rescuers who reported to Sendler. Zajdman, today a close friend of Sendler’s, was there the first time she met the Kansas students.”

Here is the play’s schedule.

There is more to Scharnberg’s story. Check it out.

——————–

I’m fairly immune to authorial attempts to elicit my emotions. As an historian, it takes cold hard facts to touch my heart.

In this case you have two forces tugging at you. First, the undeniable evil of the Shoah and the multiplied effects of one woman’s resistance. This is powerful. It puts us to shame for continued weakness of will in the face of evil. Stories like these show us that history can empower the present—both morally and artfully.

But a second, lesser lesson intrigues me a great deal. This is the substory of Norm Conard, the small-town Kansas social studies teacher. As with Irena Sendler, the story behind ‘Life in a Jar’ has made Mr. Conard is now a hero to me.

Mr. Conard’s methods hold something for historians everywhere. What are his lessons for us?

First, do not avoid morality in the classroom. Do not pretend the history can be a social science that avoids the heart of humanity. In saying this I return to this excerpt from above:

– “Conard…had long taught his students a Hebrew expression: “Tikkun olam,” which means “to repair the world.” He asked them to do classroom projects that explored topics of diversity and that encouraged respect of all races and creeds. His classroom motto was, ‘He who changes one person, changes the world entire.’ “

Now I’m not advocating that historians utilize a simplistic, I’m-right-you’re-wrong, light-switch morality. We ought to engage the most difficult moral issues in our teaching and writing. This is why I attempted to confront racism here.

A second lesson from Conard is to allow for active learning. Of course I’m not advocating that history instructors at all levels encourage their students to create plays. But if they want to, and it’s a 400-level college history class, should we stop them? Active history involves us trying to push the right buttons. Yes our college students are paying to be there, and many want lectures, but we have to mix things up. For every one that gets upset when class isn’t a lecture, there are many others wanting conversation, small-group discussion, multi-media presentations, and interdisciplinary connections.

Conard’s third lesson for us seems to be this: Follow your teaching moment outside of the standard boundaries. Encourage students to follow their passion to its logical, heartfelt conclusion. Of course this means getting others involved. In college it means being active in non-classroom research projects. Either you should encourage their involvement in your work, or you should help them with their’s.

This last is particularly tough in college. With the increased usage of part-time instructors, who are generally unfairly paid, there is little to no incentive to move teachable moments beyond the classroom or office hours. Part-timers are often rushing to their next job, which might be another teaching position, finishing the dissertation, or trying to find time for their families and sleep.

I’m sure there are other lessons here, but I’m going to stop with these three. Feel free to add more in the comments below.

——————–

This was the story that made me well up. I find it difficult to admit, as a professional, that I cried. I feel I’m sullying my lessons with an emotional appeal, like Ellen did with the dog Iggy. But the point of bringing up my tears is that history education, done right, can touch the deepest parts of your being. Crying over history education is a sign that it history feeds our humanistic endeavors. It means that wherever you are doing your job as a teacher, you might be able to change the world.

Isn’t it a shame that Laura Linney didn’t share the classroom with a teacher like Conard? At least we know that these four women from Kansas, educated in a high school about 90 miles from mine, will not become what Linney called “Ivy League-Educated Morons.”

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