Students’ Holocaust project shows their maturity in working with a difficult topic

PUNXSUTAWNEY — PAMS AmeriCorps teacher Christine Curtis’ interest in the Holocaust as a history major turned into not only a valuable lesson for her students, but a massive project for others from which to learn.

And at the end of it all, students showed that despite their young ages, they could research and present information on such a difficult topic.

“I told them, ‘You guys are part of this; this is thef irst time a Holocaust survivor has come to the Punxsutawney Area School District,” said Curtis, a 2006 PAHS graduate and December 2010 graduate of Slippery Rock University. “And chances are, this might be the last time, and you guys are not going to have that experience.

“I said, ‘I want all of you to prove everyone wrong, to show that even though you’re in sixth grade, you can still be mature enough to handle such a difficult topic,’” she said.

The students’ project turned out to be a great success, and their work culminated in an April 24 visit by Holocaust survivor Shulamit Bastacky.

In late March, Curtis decided to talk about the Holocaust as part of an Essential Skills Building (ESB) class, a three-day rotation during which students learn about different units.

But, as Curtis found, “The kids were so interested in it, three days was not enough to cover even a portion of the topic.”

It was initially the students’ plan to welcome a Holocaust speaker as a guest at the school, but Curtis acknowledged that she didn’t expect the unit to delve that deep.

But then she thought about the students’ idea as part of a service learning project for AmeriCorps, especially as April 19, Holocaust Remembrance Day, drew near.

Eventually, Curtis opened up the project to anyone who was interested in helping, on a technical basis or a creative basis, such as creating maps and posters. In the end, about 60 students — far more than the original ESB class — volunteered.

Work on the podcast began April 10, and it was shown at the middle school April 20.

Also, Curtis reasoned that even if a speaker was unavailable, the sixth-graders could create a movie to show to the seventh-graders. But in the end, Bastacky was available to speak during a special assembly that was also broadcast at PAHS.

With the help of Melissa Fedigan, the 21st Century Learning coach at PAHS, sixth-graders created 11 different podcasts — a still photo with audio — to describe different aspects of the Holocaust, such as definitions, vocabulary terms, books and movies about the Holocaust, concentration camps and more.

“The kids worked in groups during some free time, and I would come every day and help them,” Fedigan said. “Once they did some research and had some scripts, I talked to them about copyright and using pictures.”

Students learned how to match their scripts with the photos and worked on timing their narration so it flowed with the presentation.

Curtis found that as the deadline to show the movie around Holocaust Remembrance Day loomed, “It became less about the movie and more about just learning and getting them prepared.”

Once all the podcasts were completed, the students handed them in electronically to Fedigan, who then compiled the projects onto a DVD for viewing by all sixth- and seventh-graders, as well as a few fifth-graders.

Fedigan and Curtis were very careful to inform students that some of the information they found could be disturbing, and they didn’t have to do more work than they wanted.

“We talked extensively how many things were disturbing,” Fedigan said. “We said, ‘Please, come and talk to us if you feel uncomfortable.’

“They were amazed,” she said. “They couldn’t believe that this really happened to people.”

Certainly, the Holocaust is a topic that some adults have trouble understanding, but she found that one element of Bastacky’s story — that she spent the first four years of her life hidden in a basement, away from the Nazis — was also a tough concept.

“A number of kids that asked the question, about the basement ... they couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that she couldn’t remember any of it,” Curtis said.

The students’ research into the Holocaust did not venture into graphic detail or explicit facts about the concentration camps and scientific experiments. Instead, Curtis said, “The focus for our learning should be about what happened and how to prevent it in the future and what we can do to prevent it.”

She discussed current events and other genocide that continues to occur in the world.

“That caught their attention,” Curtis said.

Bastacky said her visit to Punxsutawney was “exceptional” — not only because she stayed overnight as a guest of the Curtis family, but she was very impressed by the students and their Holocaust project.

She was also happy to meet, in person, Punxsutawney Phil.

She also praised Curtis — who is now pursing a master’s degree as a reading specialist at Clarion University — as a young educator, “who is educating herself and others.”

“What I like to emphasize is how much effort the students put into this event, this project and how much they gained, and how they can convey the message to young people,” Bastacky said. “The Holocaust was such a horrendous round of hate, and hate has no business happening today. We can do tremendous things to educate ourselves and others.”

“Of all the schools (I’ve spoken to), this one topped them all,” she said.