I always start my 7th grade Jewish History class by talking about identity. Students create identity charts, identify aspects of their identity which they consider “public” and aspects they consider “private” and then we move on to a discussion during which students explore deeper questions such as “What might be the benefits and drawbacks of having public and private selves?” and “How do the labels we give others affect how we see someone as part of an ‘us’ or part of a ‘them’?”
People make choices. Choices make history."
My 7th graders know about Hitler. They are deeply curious about him. They ask questions about his childhood, how he died, how he got to be dictator of Germany. And while I understand their fascination with trying to understand one of the greatest demagogues of the last century, I try to channel their curiosity in a different direction; my students are not going to understand the Holocaust by uncovering everything there is to know about Hitler, but they will come much closer to understanding how the Holocaust could have happened just by looking at the everyday people who were living in Europe at that time.
I knew my students were connecting what we were learning in Jewish History to their own lives, when during an end-of-unit discussion, one of my seventh-grade students spontaneously shared, “I realize now that I’ve been excluding someone at school. I’m going to stop.” For a seventh-grader to make that statement at all, and even more so, publicly, felt momentous. In a middle-school setting in which in-groups and out-groups are unfortunately all too common, I admired my student for acknowledging fault in front of her peers and publicly declaring that she would change. Whether such reflection occurs internally or overtly, this is the ultimate purpose of my history class – for students to see how lessons from history might directly impact their choices today.