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CT Teachers recognized for their work in Holocaust education

By Stacey Dresner

Two Connecticut educators received the 2019 Simon Konover Recognition for Excellence in Holocaust Teaching at “Evening of Hope,” an event presented by the Holocaust education and remembrance organization, Voices of Hope.

Colleen Simon of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford (SSDS) and Amy Miller of Farmington High School, both educators who bring the lessons of the Holocaust and genocide into their schools, were recognized at the event, held Oct. 30 at G. Fox Ballroom in Hartford.

“The Simon Konover Recognition for Excellence in Holocaust teaching is really to honor Simon himself and his family and the legacy he left as a Holocaust survivor,” said Kimberly Ballaro, director of the HERO Center, The Holocaust Education Resource Center, a joint initiative of Voices of Hope and the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. 

“We strive every year to pick two teachers who embody and also celebrate that legacy. Amy and Colleen specifically have really gone beyond traditional teaching to make sure their students have a deeper and more personal connection to the Holocaust,” she said. “This is true for all of the educators we have honored in the past. It’s a way for us to recognize that it is not only first-hand testimony that reaches the community and not just our survivor community and their families that are responsible for sharing this history, but is also the responsibility of teachers to pass this history down to their students.”

Paying it forward

For the past three years, Colleen Simon has been a middle school humanities teacher at SSDS. Prior to that she taught for 14 years at St. James School in Stratford, where she resides.

“I loved my time at St. James, but Schechter has given me the opportunity to dig into and teach a curriculum that really speaks to me because it does revolve around social justice,” she said. “I always say it is a long commute but it’s worth it.”

Simon began focusing more on Holocaust education at St. James, where she taught four English/Language Arts classes and one religion class.

A few years ago, one of her co-teachers at the school won an award from the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University Hartford. Simon and other members of the staff went to the award presentation.

“I had always wanted to teach more about the Holocaust but I didn’t know how. I became acquainted with Avi Patt [then assistant director of the Greenberg Center] and started going to their workshops. From there I found out about the Belfer National Conference for Educators.”

The three-day Belfer Conference, presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, introduces educators to the museum’s pedagogical approach to teaching about the Holocaust and the museum’s resources. Simon became a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow, teaching other educators how to use the museum’s resources in their lessons about the Holocaust and has taught the pedagogy of Holocaust education for the National Conference of Catholic Educators and the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies. 

While still at St. James, she went to Israel with the Anti-Defamation League as part of its “Bearing Witness” program, which, according to its website, “provides Catholic school educators with training and resources to help their students understand the history of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and modern manifestations of prejudice.” She went to Rwanda this past summer to learn more about the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994. 

Simon is now a doctoral candidate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Gratz College. 

At Schechter, she says, lessons about the Holocaust and genocide can be a part of many different subjects.

“Rabbi Steve Chatinover teaches Facing History – Holocaust and Human behavior, and so in Humanities, a lot of these lessons easily flow into that curriculum. We are talking about indigenous people and looking at the Pequot War and King Philip’s War. We really looked at the definition of genocide? There’s debate; I want them to look at the evidence and decide what they think,” she said. “With the sixth grade now we are doing Ancient Civilization but we start with geography and the five themes of geography. That also brings us to a lot of questions about how we use the earth and how we treat people who have to move, bringing these ideas also in through the five themes of geography. So it’s a natural fit.”

A lot of the Holocaust education Simon provides is to other teachers. 

“Last year, I did a workshop for the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies,” she said. “It’s given me the opportunity to talk to other teachers about all of the amazing resources out there. That’s kind of what I do on a small scale; to let teachers know what is out there, like people did for me. It’s paying it forward.”

Changing hearts and minds

Amy Miller has been the English department leader at Farmington High School in Farmington for four years. She taught at Amity High School in Woodbridge for several years as well as schools in Chile, Costa Rica, Washington, D.C. and Kansas City, Mo.

At Farmington High School she facilitates Holocaust survivor presentations for the entire freshman class as part of a unit on the power of story.

“I learned about Voices of Hope when I attended one of the Speak Up storytelling showcases that they do with Second Generation and now Third Generation survivors,” she said. “In the opening, before the children of survivors were telling their stories, they talked a little bit about their educational outreach work and so I took a card and I ended up contacting Kim Ballaro. We ended up setting up the first [Holocaust survivor talk] program about two-and-a-half years ago.”

Miller does the programming on a day in the spring when the upper classmen are taking their PSATs.

“That day we have this big stretch of time to occupy the freshmen. I had suggested that we use that to do some programming around sources from the Holocaust and then eventually to have survivors speak,” she explained. “Our first year Ruth Lazowski came and did a presentation. She was fabulous. And then last year it was Ernest Gelb. We are looking forward to presenting this program again next year.”

The number of students that this program reaches each year is 300-350.

After hearing from a survivor, the students read Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night, and then memoirs of their choosing. 

“We really frame this entire unit ‘The Power of Story’ and how well-told stories speak to people’s truth and really have the power to change people’s hearts and mind,” Miller said. “The students eventually develop their own oral histories and tell a personal story live in front of a story slam-style type of endeavor in the class.”

Miller says that the survivor presentations have had huge impact on the students.

“The outpouring of empathy has been phenomenal,” she said. “The Holocaust is nothing new to our students. They’ve heard about it, they’ve read about it in their elementary and middle school years, but I think the experience of seeing a survivor and getting a chance to actually speak to him or her is new for many of them.”

A few days before the “Evening of Hope” event, a bomb threat was made at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, where Miller’s mother is a preschool teacher.

“My mother told me what it was like to roll the babies out in carts, holding the toddlers’ hands and leading them across the parking lot to go collect acorns… Suddenly, as a mother, as a daughter, as a teacher, and as a Jewish woman, I realized that humility and gratitude were not enough. I felt this overwhelming sense of fortitude. The strength that I bring to this work was renewed by that experience. It was a timely reminder of how important Holocaust education and organizations like Voices of Hope are.”

Main Photo: Sally and Ernest Gelb with Amy Miller.

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