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Witness to history

Shoah Foundation comes to Connecticut to instruct educators on “teaching with testimony”

By Stacey Dresner

STATEWIDE – The USC Shoah Foundation is bringing one of its powerful educational programs to Connecticut to show middle and high school teachers how to use the testimonies of Holocaust and genocide survivors and witnesses in their classrooms.

On August 13, Shoah Foundation representatives will lead “Teaching with Testimony Across the Curriculum (Holocaust Education),” instructing teachers about the Foundation’s “IWitness” website, a free educational resource with more than 2,500 first-person testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the Nanking Massacre, and the Armenian Genocide.

The August 13 program, a collaboration of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) and the Connecticut Department of Education, will be held at the offices of the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

At press time, 35 teachers from around the state had registered for the seminar.

With the passing of the Connecticut Holocaust and Genocide Education and Awareness Act into law in 2018, mandating Holocaust and genocide education in the public schools, these kinds of learning opportunities aid state teachers in augmenting their Holocaust and genocide curriculum, says Stephen Armstrong, Social Studies consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education.

“[The Shoah Foundation] is going to come in and talk about their resources and how to use them,” says Armstrong. “They have tons of testimonies of survivors and witnesses to genocides. I think in our state, at this point most teachers know that there was legislation that was enacted. I think what a lot of teachers are doing in a lot of schools is perfecting their craft. Last year something might have been started in this area, and now they are trying to make it better. And in teaching history, the best way to make it better is to make the sources you are using richer… I think that this is a homerun for our teachers.”

JFACT initiated contact with the Shoah Foundation about coming to Connecticut to educate the educators.

“The Shoah Foundation has a huge amount of resources and I thought that the name would draw attention and get teachers excited to come out to do this type of training,” says Michael Bloom, executive director of JFACT.

“They will walk them through the program and through the website and how to access the testimonials. They will teach them strategies and will provide them with curriculum so that teachers will actually have something physical to take away and bring to their classes this fall,” he adds.

IWitness was developed by USC Shoah Foundation–The Institute for Visual History and Education. The Institute brings the stories of survivors and witnesses to today’s students in the form that is most relatable for them – through multimedia-learning activities accessible via Macs, PCs, iPads, and tablet devices connected to the Internet.

Besides accessing testimonies, students can participate in learning activities online that include writing essays and poetry, creating art projects and video essays.

In fact, the IWitness program was put to good use by students at Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy-Upper School (BCHA-Upper School) earlier this year when they wrapped up a semester devoted to the study of Holocaust history with the production of three documentaries that shed a powerful light on different aspects of the Holocaust.

Using the IWitness program, each student created a narrative that was augmented by the first-hand accounts of survivors and witnesses. Through IWitness, the students had access not only to clips of survivor and witness testimonies, but also to voiceover technology.

The ability to see and hear survivors tell their stories in their own words made the project all the more powerful for the young filmmakers.

“When learning about such a traumatic time in history, it was nice to hear stories of those who survived and those who helped them start again,” one of the documentarians, Ella Feurstein, told the Ledger upon completing her film.

“These resources make IWitness an unparalleled resource at the fingertips of Holocaust history educators and make these student projects an enriching and immersive experience,” says BCHA-Upper School history teacher Zach Smith, who introduced students to the innovative program.

Originally founded by film director Steven Spielberg in 1994 to house Holocaust testimonies, the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive now has more than 55,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and numerous other genocides.

The Shoah Foundation created “ITeach” seminars like the one in Bridgeport to take teachers through all the myriad resources and opportunities for learning IWitness offers.

The seminar is free for teachers, and the IWitness website may be accessed by teachers and students at no cost, Bloom points out.

“The only thing we’re buying is lunch,” Bloom jokes.

Bloom says that while Stephen Armstrong marketed the program to the state’s secondary school teachers, college students majoring in education were also contacted.

“We wanted to reach out not just to current teachers, but also to future teachers,” he explains.

Armstrong says that he expects more teachers to sign up for the event in the next few weeks.

“An interesting thing is that there are people that are coming who are first timers who have never taught it and its great for them, but I know that there are also people who are real veterans of teaching the Holocaust who have signed up. And this is good for them too,” says Armstrong.

Additional sponsors of the August seminar include Voices of Hope, the Jewish Federations of Greater Hartford, Eastern Fairfield County, New Haven, Greenwich and Stamford, and the Connecticut Education Association.

For more information email Stephen.armstong@ct.gov.

Main photo: In January 2019, BCHA Holocaust documentarians Ella Feuerstein edits her film with the help of BCHA-Upper School history teacher Zach Smith.

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