Each time Shaker High School English teacher Thea MacFawn adds a book to her curriculum about the Holocaust and other genocides, she receives the same type of response from her students.
“The students always have the urge to want to do something,” MacFawn said. “Genocide still happens over and over again. Students are always still shocked by that.”
Since she’s been teaching at the high school since 2005, MacFawn said she has struggled to figure out a way to get her students involved with a project outside of the classroom regarding social justice or a human rights issue and relate it back to one of five genocides – the Holocaust, and those in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Sudan. After attending a three-day conference at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. last summer, she realized her newfound love for the museum could help with her problem.
“I was really interested in doing more with the museum. I think they have incredible resources,” MacFawn said.
She decided to apply to the museum’s elite educational fellowship offered to national and international teachers. Out of nearly 100 applicants, MacFawn was one of the 20 chosen for the program.
“It’s exciting and humbling,” MacFawn said.
The fellowship, which was founded in 1996, was created for teachers interested in furthering their knowledge of the Holocaust to help bring it back to the classroom. Since it began, there have been more than 300 fellows, many of whom stay active with the museum to this day. The museum designates 20 teachers every year. This year, four are from Germany and Lithuania.
“All of the applicants have a very strong knowledge on the Holocaust. But we want to increase that. One of the things about this area is that you can always learn more,” said Pete Fredlake, director of national outreach for teacher initiatives for the museum. “We’re finding out new things all of the time, so we want to increase our historical knowledge.”
MacFawn will spend July 14 through 18 at the museum for training, learning about topics including the rise in German anti-Semitism and contextualizing the Holocaust. Fredlake said fellows will receive challenges throughout their training, including having to develop a particular lesson to teach around a topic using the resources of the museum. Fellows will also hear from historians at the museum and as scholars from outside of it.
Fredlake, who was a fellow himself in 1997, said many of the fellows have gone on to work for other Holocaust museums throughout the country or to teach courses on the topic in higher education institutions.
“It’s an elite group in a lot of ways, and a highly motivated group. I think most often fellows come away with this desire to do more in the field,” Fredlake said.
One of the fellowship’s requirements is an outreach program within the classroom. With MacFawn’s idea already in place, she said she plans on working with a 10th grade social studies teacher to link the two classes to focus on human rights issues and try to pose a solution. Their students will have a human rights project and find a way to become involved with something larger. If students are interested in childhood hunger, for example, they could become involved with an organization trying to address the problem.
“Something they can actually do to contribute to helping improve someone’s life who’s struggling or has a difficult life,” MacFawn added.
While being selected as a fellow requires meeting certain criteria – including already having an extensive knowledge on the Holocaust – Fredlake said MacFawn’s experience teaching the Common Core learning standards was a definite plus. He said it could be helpful for MacFawn to teach the other fellows and help implement the Holocaust into the Common Core curriculum standards.
Once the outreach project is finished, MacFawn will return to Washington, D.C. in July 2014 for a follow-up program.
MacFawn said she plans on building a consistent relationship with the museum post-fellowship.
“(I want) to have the students see the museum as a place where they should want to go to. And a lot of them want to go. I would love to arrange a trip. It would be fantastic,” MacFawn said.