This is the fourth story in our series, “A Network of Innovation: Ideas, Questions, and Wisdom from our LA Partner Schools.” Cleveland Humanities Magnet has a long history of innovative, interdisciplinary, and rigorous educational programming. Upon joining the Facing History Los Angeles Partnership School Network four years ago, two 12th-grade teachers attended a summer seminar on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. Victor Silva teaches the historical anchor of an interdisciplinary unit that combines philosophy, literature and digital humanities. He has also developed a remarkable memorial project that challenges his students to go beyond learning and consider how they will ensure this history is not forgotten.
Why is it important to remember the past? In some ways, this question may seem simple, almost self-responding - isn’t the past almost entirely composed of memory? And yet, debates rage on about the ways we remember, teach, and apply lessons of history. At Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School, an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Holocaust centers on the critical element of individual choice and culminates in a memorial project that asks students to be upstanders against what might be considered a trend of Holocaust minimization.
Victor Silva teaches the history section that anchors the 12th grade interdisciplinary unit, a multi-week, in-depth exploration of the Holocaust, following Facing History’s Scope and Sequence. They pay particular attention to analyzing choices through the lens of human behavior: What were the actions and mindsets of perpetrators? How did some choose to resist or act as upstanders and what made them take these risks? Why did so many people play the role of bystanders, acting in complicity with injustice or failing to take any stand against fascism and genocide? In terms of the overarching focus on choice, the only group Silva’s students don’t subject to such scrutiny are the victims themselves, so often forced into what historian Lawrence Langer has coined “choiceless choices.”
In their Film Studies section, students watch Schindler’s List and trace the choices of Oskar Schindler as he moves between exploiter, bystander and eventual upstander. In AP Literature, they read All the Light We Cannot See, a story that takes place in Nazi-occupied Paris. In Philosophy, they wrestle with the existential idea that we all - not some metaphysical outside authority - have control and make meaningful choices. At the end of the unit, Rita Lurie, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and her daughter Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, share about their lives, including Rita’s experience hiding in a small space for years with multiple family members, Leslie’s identification of intergenerational trauma patterns, and their dedication to remembering, healing from, and sharing this critical history, as documented in their book, Bending Toward the Sun.
Silva and his colleagues developed the interdisciplinary unit a few years ago to integrate the poignant lessons the Holocaust offers about identity, ideology, and social responsibility into their year-long scope and sequence. It didn’t all come together at once and required intentional collaboration. Silva states, “Communication, clear goals, and a unifying theme to center the learning are necessary. Then every teacher has a goal they are working toward to shape their curriculum. Ours wasn’t great at first, it wasn’t a unified thread; working through it over a few years, asking ourselves: What do we really want to focus on? We landed on “Choice.” Then each department figured out their way in… Each class can give just a little bit.”
Students come into their senior year with a strong foundation in social justice education, having examined historical injustices, identified divisive and violent ideologies, and celebrated collective movements of resistance. Silva sees this unit as a way to further this learning arc, including the need to act as upstanders. Silva brings recent research on Holocaust education to his students, studies detailing Gen Z’ers frequent inability to identify critical elements of the history. “It gives students a sense of what it is like to be learning this, and to consider how many students won’t have this opportunity,” says Silva. Picking up on the work that various organizations are doing to memorialize this history and his own experience during a Facing History seminar on the Holocaust and Human Behavior, Silva decided to develop a project in which students design a memorial. “What are you going to do with the information?” Silva asks his students. “It’s not enough to just have it, we need to do something with it.”
Students are assigned the task of designing a memorial to victims and survivors of the Holocaust. In recent years, this has been expanded to include victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide or even more broadly to instances of collective violence and upstanding among members of communities that students identify with. In addition to designing a memorial, they write an explanatory paragraph to provide context. Importantly, Silva adds, they have to tell the story behind the memorial as if someone doesn’t know this history, and to answer, “Where would you put the memorial? Why? Who needs to know this story?”
A visual representation is required, and some students will create an intricate model. Other students are self-admittedly not artistically inclined; they can submit a photo of a person or an image that captures the basic idea. This visual provides an aesthetic quality to the culminating activity in the unit, a gallery walk in which students have an opportunity to both explore each others’ work and be in dialogue about their own. “It happens at the end of the unit as a catharsis moment,” says Silva. “The gallery walk is crucial. I break the class up, two thirds are always walking around, the other third is with their monument to be able to talk about their monument and answer questions. Those are great conversations I get to listen to as a teacher. Some teachers might say, ‘I don’t have time for it, the unit is long, do I really have to do it?’ Absolutely, yes!”
Teachers have often asked for ideas about tangible products students can create at the end of a unit to consolidate their learning, take an action to develop a sense of agency, or see themselves as actively bridging the lessons from the past to today’s most pressing and concerning dilemmas. Taking a virtual tour of the selected student examples from Silva’s class gives credence to this desire - their memorials are remarkable and reflect a depth of thought and creativity that will certainly ensure this learning stays with them. Silva states, “It’s an emotionally heavy unit and this is an encouragement to be an upstander against the Holocaust minimization problem we have. They can share what they have learned with family, in college, and feel equipped to have those conversations to mitigate this problem.”