Taking in the Holocaust

Published 9:39 am Thursday, April 9, 2009

Eighth-graders in Brigitte Campbell’s English and writing class at Pacelli Junior High spend one quarter each year researching what is one of the most difficult subjects they will ever learn about: the Holocaust.

The 26 students in class just completed the project, based around the graphic novel, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” by Art Spiegelman. They also watched a documentary, acted out their own play, created art and wrote poetry.

Campbell features one book each quarter, and her class writes artistic and creative responses in addition to chapter testing and discussions.

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“I definitely learned a lot more in the past quarter than I’ve ever learned about it,” Samantha Smith, 14, said of the Holocaust project.

“It was interesting, the project we had to do this time,” said Amanda Enstad, 14.

In “Maus” — what Campbell explains as “not your typical graphic novel” — a man tells the story of his father’s experience in the Holocaust. Jews are represented by mice; the Germans are represented by cats; and the Americans are dogs.

“There was a lot of symbolism,” Smith said.

Students were given the option to not read any explicit parts of the book.

“I read a lot, but I usually read the same kinds of books,” Enstad said.

The class watched the movie, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” attended a play at Riverland and watched a BBC documentary depicting the Holocaust.

“It showed the gas chambers … and how they treated all the mentally handicapped people,” said Drew Chapek, 13.

“The Holocaust is sometimes hard to picture in our world,” said Spencer Holtorf, 14. “It’s hard to believe someone could form this group to kill all these people.”

For one part of the project, the students researched children of the Holocaust on the Internet, and chose one to create art on a paper plate.

“Seeing all the children and reading all the stories really got to me,” Enstad said.

Students were given options like clay work, sketching, dioramas, journaling and poetry to interpret what they learned.

“With the poems, you find something in you — it makes you want to write,” Holtorf said.

For the first two quarters of this school year, Campbell featured “Crispin: The Cross of Lead” by Avi and “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway.

“She tries to give us an assortment of books,” Chapek said.

Campbell, who is passionate about studying the Holocaust, said she does the same project for one quarter every year in the class.

“I always make sure their third book is about the Holocaust,” Campbell said. “I think it’s important that people know it started with bullying.

“In order for history to not be repeated, we need to learn about it,” she said.