Over twenty-five years ago I taught a class of thirty ten-year old primary school children about the Holocaust. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. It was an accident, I promise you.
I was teaching English (or Language as we called it those days) to my Year 6 class and we were doing something on ‘diaries’ – keeping them, reading them, famous diaries etc. I read some examples like Samuel Pepys and of course, The Diary of Anne Frank.
“Wait a minute…” some of the kids said, “this sounds interesting. Can we have a bit more?”
I ended up reading from it every day. They were captivated. I decided to turn it in to a ‘project’ – though some of my colleagues doubted the suitability and appropriateness of the topic for the age group. We wrote letters to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to find out more, we read books about her life from those who knew her, we read about the persecution of the Jews and others by the Nazis, we studied the history of the Second World War and the geography of Europe during the war and in modern times, we built an accurate and detailed scale model of the famous attic in which she and her family hid, we wrote letters to her as if she were a friend, poems dedicated to her, a play about her.
I asked some Holocaust survivors of my acquaintance – a couple from Vienna who came to Britain as children alone on the ‘Kinder transport’ and who later married and brought up a family in London – to come and talk about their experiences of anti-Semitism at school and escaping the Nazis after Kristallnacht. The (then fledging) Holocaust Educational Trust offered us some photographs, artifacts and display material suitable for primary age children, so we staged an exhibition and invited the local community.
Then I discovered that Anne Frank’s step-sister Eva Schloss actually lived in north London. Eva had been a neighbour and school friend of Anne Frank whose mother married the widowed Otto Frank after the war. We invited her to come and speak to the children and we made a video of her visit.
We even spent a whole night cooped up in an attic (at the very top of a rather creepy Victorian church hall in Hackney), sleeping on the floor in flimsy sleeping bags with only water and no food, with no-one allowed to go to the toilet until it had gone dark (it was June 1989, so it was late) and even more challenging, no-one was allowed to speak. The kids had to read books or play chess and draughts in silence for the whole evening until they finally fell asleep.
The only break in the silence was when I arranged for the school-keeper to make an unannounced visit at eleven o’clock at night, as the kids had (mostly) fallen asleep. He (under my instruction) stomped up the stone steps of the attic stairwell in heavy hob-nail boots, rattled the heavy wooden door, then banged on it loudly and shouted “Come out! Come out! Anne Frank! Are you in there? Come out!”
Of course, the kids were terrified – really, genuinely, very terrified – and I allowed the terror to sink in for a minute before I opened the door and they saw it was the benign and friendly school-keeper whom they all knew well.
The project culminated a few weeks later when we visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and saw for ourselves what she had really gone through. That night at the youth hostel we were staying in just outside of Amsterdam, one of the kids in the class wrote in her diary: “Today I walked in the foot-steps of Anne Frank.”
As a teacher you will often doubt the effectiveness of your teaching – its methods, style and content. You will get frustrated at kids who seem to value so little of what you are trying to do – whether it’s the knowledge you are trying to convey, the skills you are trying to develop or the personal and social values you are trying to engender in them. You will wonder sometimes whether anything you teach has any lasting value or affect. Try not to let these feelings overwhelm you – because with all education and especially with primary education – the real value of it is rarely apparent at the point at which it is taking place.
On this Holocaust Memorial Day and 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz I am thinking about Anne Frank and her diary, about those people we met who survived – and I am thinking about the kids to whom I “taught” the Holocaust.
Some of them have been in contact with me through Facebook in the last few years – all of them now mature adults with kids of their own. First, they tell me their news and then they all say something like: “Mr Newland, do you remember that project we did on Anne Frank? I’ll never forget that.”
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.
His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.