As a world history teacher, I seek to connect the events of the past with the issues of the world today. While planning a unit on World War II and the Holocaust last year, I read the book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Powers. It opened my eyes to the atrocities of the Armenian genocide, the Khmer Rouge, the Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia. Most genocides are ignored and not addressed in public schools.
I created a lesson focused on the larger question of personal responsibility. I chose this not to take away from the horrific events of World War II, but to bring to students' attention that despite the oft-quoted phrase regarding the Holocaust — "Never again" — genocides continue to occur around the world.
We discussed the statistics and evidence regarding genocides. "Who was responsible?" "Are you responsible if you do not try to stop things like this?" "Why do people treat other human beings in ways like these?" Students wrote essays about what they would do if they were in a situation where a group was being targeted.
My 9th-grade students were thoughtful, respectful and articulate. The lesson served to expand students' thoughts about genocide from "The Holocaust was a horrible event" to the idea that genocide will continue to exist as long as our world has intolerance, ignorance and people who do not stand up for what they believe in.
This year, I am going to extend the activity into a five-day lesson thanks to the Choices for the 21st Century Education Program. Choices produces curriculum units on a variety of public policy, historical issues and international issues designed to help students understand events and use civic judgment to explore policy alternatives.
The lessons regarding genocide were ideas that spoke to students and remained with them after the unit ended. I think when they realized that millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe had died from genocide during their own lifetime, students were shocked, saddened and even scared.
They realized that genocide can happen anywhere in the world where intolerance exists. Some students expressed the concern, "If it could happen to them, it could happen to me."
Nashoba Regional High School
The Choices for the 21st Century Education Program is available at Choices Education Program, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, Box 1948, Providence, RI 02912.
Samantha Power's book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is published by HarperCollins Publishers (ISBN# 0060541644).