Understanding the Armenian Genocide from Primary Sources

Posted by Mary Hendra on December 18, 2012

AG Cover 300 dpiIn 2011, Elana Goldbaum (World History teacher at Gertz Ressler High School) opened her classroom to us by sharing how she uses Facing History to teach the Armenian Genocide. If I had to summarize it into key themes and practices, there were two:

  1. Creating a safe, reflective environment in the classroom so all students felt comfortable expressing their identity, sharing thoughts openly, and knowing that history is not just about then and them, but about us today.
  2. Exploring the history through primary sources, particularly critical documents of the time and individual voices.

The latter is so integral to all the talk of common core, I wanted to share a few of Elana's suggestions and recommended resources for those who may be teaching World War I soon. From Elana:

A critical moment in teaching the Armenian Genocide is understanding the public message versus the tacit information circulated within the Turkish government. It's the planning aspect that move these atrocities into the realm of true genocide.

I. Start by asking your students a series of questions about government and authority: What is different between a democracy and a dictatorship? What tools or privileges do we have that allow us to uncover the truth that a dictatorship does not have?

II. After what could be a heated discussion about authority, have students read in pairs or small groups Reading 2 Under the Cover of War on page 87 in Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization. [This was a public notice posted in towns and villages throughout the Ottoman empire in June 1915.] I start with were it says “Our Armenian fellow countrymen" and go through page 90. This is a fairly long reading - I give my 10th graders about 15 minutes to read it aloud in pairs and then an additional 10 or 15 minutes to discuss the following questions:

  1. How does the Ottoman government get the Armenians to trust them? Provide words or phrases as examples.
  2. Do the Armenians have any reason to doubt this announcement? Why or why not?

III. Lastly, move on with the same pairs to The 10 Commandments of the Comité Union and Progres on page 73 of Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization. [This was a private document, sent by messenger to governors in the provinces with the instruction to read and return the order.] I like to have students put each of the ten in their own words to summarize the basic message. Some of the words, such as “excite” and “executive” may need to be defined. You can accompany the reading with a sheet of vocabulary to scaffold the assignment. After about 30 minutes, if they are writing in their own words, bring it back to a class discussion with questions such as:

  1. What are the Turks trying to do?
  2. Why would the Turks want to “exterminate all males under 50 and priests” but leave the girls?
  3. What does it mean to us that this message was kept secret?
  4. After reading both documents, what does it prove about this time period?

You could wrap it up with bringing it back to our own media and government - What about the Turkish government made it easier to order an evacuation like this? What is different about something like this happening in a democracy versus a dictatorship? Could something like this happen today? Where and why?

Another critical element Elana shared was the importance of bringing in survivor voices. Elana wrote, "it will bring the experience closer to your class. After exploring survivor testimonies, I like to ask students first what stuck with them and then what new thoughts they have about the genocide. This activity is a great transition to a memorial art project!" With the Armenian Genocide, few survivors are still with us who have a good personal memory of the events, but there are video and print resources that bring these voices into the classroom. Elana recommended the following:

  • The website Twenty Voices includes an interactive map with print and/or audio testimony.
  • The video Genocide in Me shares the story of one Armenian, Araz Artinian, who researches the story of her family and interviews a number of survivors.
  • The iWitness project has short written narratives from genocide victims and can be found on the Genocide Education website.

If this is the first time you're teaching the Armenian genocide, lessons, video clips, print resources, and other recommended web sites can be found on the Facing History website. Here is a collection of Armenian genocide resources.

Topics: Armenian Genocide, Common Core, Critical Thinking, A View from the Classroom

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