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.
We started the unit on Jews in Medieval Europe with students creating identity charts and watching the film The Bear that Wasn’t.
Students journalled about labels they gave themselves and labels others put upon them. One student commented that she felt like she had to hide her true self because people label her “crazy.” Another student wrote simply that sometimes she wants to get out of bed and put on her sweats but she knows people will judge her so she puts on her skinny jeans and Uggs instead. So when we started learning the historical content from this time period, about the Crusades, money-lending, and the stereotypes and myths created about Jews during this period, students could relate. They knew what it was like to only show a part of their true selves or to have people judge them based on just one aspect of their identities. Students could see how labels, myths and stereotypes led to creating an us and a them in Medieval Europe, as they knew from personal experience how real or perceived labels might cause them to be included or excluded at school.
One of the challenges of teaching history at a Jewish day school, however, is that my Jewish students don’t always naturally see their own roles in creating such groups. When we learn the history, they see the Christians as creating the us and the them. Students naturally relate to the them as the powerless, the victims. For example, if when I ask students an open-ended question such as, “What is one big idea you might take away from this period in history?” it is common for students to make such comments as, “People always hate us.” Rather than see themselves as passive and helpless, I want students to see themselves as change-agents. My students know what it is like to be excluded – both on a personal level and historically because they were Jews. They know the harmful consequences of exclusion; therefore they must learn to include others and to stand up against stereotyping.
One of the goals of my culminating assessment was for students to start to see themselves not as the victims but as the upstanders. Using an iPad app – Toontastic – to create a digital cartoon, they demonstrated their understanding of the question: “Why do human beings create an us and a them?” In their cartoons, students gave examples of us’s and them’s in medieval history, analyzed a current event article in which someone stood up against stereotypes, and wrote about a time they were an upstander at school.
Before becoming a Facing History teacher, I taught about the Crusades, the blood libel and the Black Death, but it was history, not personal; I was missing the “ourselves” component. Facing History has given me the language and tools to make history relevant. As a seventh-grader wrote in her end-of-unit reflection,
I liked this unit in Jewish History because we related it to our lives. It made it a lot easier to learn when I can connect it to me.”