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“What Happened to Their Pets?”: Third Graders Encounter the Holocaust


by Simone Schweber - 2008

Background/Context: Though widely believed to contain moral lessons of import for audiences of all ages, the Holocaust is often considered too complex, too appalling, too impenetrable, or too emotionally disturbing a subject to be taught to young children, even if taught only in its most “preparatory version,” to use Jerome Bruner’s famous phrasing. The subject matter, after all, deals at its core with human brutality, barbarous indifference, and industrialized mass murder. Nonetheless, a burgeoning market in materials designed to expose young children to the Holocaust implies that students are learning about the topic in earlier and earlier grades, a phenomenon that may be referred to as “curricular creep.” Such a trend raises the question of whether students should be exposed, purposefully and formally, to the horrors of the Holocaust, or, conversely, whether curricular creep should be somehow corralled. Although authors have weighed in on the ethics of Holocaust education, its history, practices, and materials, few have discussed its rightful place in the elementary school curriculum. Fewer still have empirically examined what the Holocaust looks like when taught to a young audience.

Focus of Study: To propose a policy answer to the question of how old is old enough to teach students about the Holocaust, this study attempted to determine what aspects of Holocaust history were taught in the third-grade classroom of a very experienced and well-respected teacher. Importantly, the study also proposed to examine how such teaching affected students, emotionally and intellectually.

Research Design/Data Generation: Data for the qualitative case study were generated through observations of this teacher’s class sessions on the Holocaust, interviews with the teacher and a select group of students and their parents, and the collection of all class materials and student work. The interviews were transcribed, the field notes were doctored, and all the documents were coded iteratively and written up as a portrait of the unit.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The article concludes by considering third graders to be too young, as a group, to be taught about the Holocaust, thus recommending that curricular creep be reigned in for this topic. That said, the competing interpretations of the teacher, parents, and some of the students are included for consideration as well.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 10, 2008, p. 2073-2115
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15183, Date Accessed: 1/27/2020 8:26:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Simone Schweber
    University of Wisconsin–Madison
    E-mail Author
    SIMONE SCHWEBER is the Goodman Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She researches teaching and learning about genocide, and she is author of the book, Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons From Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press, 2004).
 
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