Learning From The Past

On July 23, 2020, New Hampshire’s legislature signed HB 1135 into law, requiring that all New Hampshire schools incorporate Holocaust and genocide history into at least one existing social studies, global studies, or US history class, no later than the eighth grade.

This legislation, set to be implemented this fall, has forced Oyster River’s middle and high school social studies departments to reevaluate the current curriculum and determine how to teach about these atrocities in powerful, yet sensitive ways. While most teachers and students view the new requirement as a step forward, some believe more can be done to emphasize the importance of under-standing this history. In past years, Oyster River’s social studies teachers have made efforts to teach about Holocaust and genocide history, but these lessons were often scattered in with other units and only mentioned briefly. Hayden Spires (‘24), a junior at Oyster River, is happy to see that more attention is being diverted towards this history in the classroom, considering most of her knowledge surrounding these topics was self-taught. “It’s harmful when we quickly go over these horrific periods in history because it leaves kids with so many unanswered questions about the nature of genocide and how ideologies can be taken to such extremes in the first place,” says Spires.

Paige Burt (‘23), a member of Oyster River’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion student group has taken a substantial number of social studies classes at ORHS and agrees with Spires. Burt explained how she’s received a blanket knowledge of the Holocaust throughout her educational career but cannot vividly remember being taught about it in middle or high school.

“As a Jewish person, I’ve had to endure a lot of casual antisemitism in school as early as elementary school,” says Burt. “A lot of that is kids making off-handed jokes about Hitler, or Anne Frank, or Holocaust survivors. It seems harmless because we don’t know much about it […] so hopefully this requirement will help us recognize that we need to be considerate of people with different identities and keep in mind that this history was not that long ago.” However, for most teachers, the big question is not why an understanding of how religious, national, ethnic, or racial hatred evolves into genocide would be beneficial to students, but how they can implement this history in meaningful ways. The bill defines “appropriate instruction” in Holocaust and genocide education as the teaching of “genocides recognized by lawfully constituted courts,” “instances of mass atrocities where application of the term genocide is contested,” as well as the differences between events that constitute genocide and other types of mass atrocities like war crimes or ethnic cleansing. The bill also requires instruction in how and why political repression, bigotry, and discrimination can evolve into genocide and mass violence. The specifics of what’s taught and when are left entirely up to the district’s social studies department.

For some Oyster River High School teachers like Gabrielle Anderson, who’s been incorporating lessons on the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide into her US History and World Cultures classes for years, the new state law is merely a continuation of what she’s been doing. “At this point, the department is thinking about how else we can incorporate it, and making sure students learn about mul-tiple instances of genocide so they can build off of their current knowledge and form a deeper understanding,” says Anderson.

Meanwhile, eighth-grade teacher Valerie Wolfson, whose curriculum typically focuses on Early American History, is worried about not feeling prepared to teach such an emotionally heavy topic that she’s never taught about before, explaining how “knowing is different from teaching.”

Jade Terrill, another eighth-grade teacher at ORMS, shares Wolfson’s concerns. “I have confidence in [Wolfson’s] and my ability to pull together meaningful course materials and to build up the necessary back-ground knowledge, but we just need time and space to prepare.” Both Terrill and Wilson recognize that because it’s not the only thing they’re teaching and because it’s so sensitive, creating these lesson plans necessitates time and attention that is sometimes hard to give.

Wolfson and Terrill have also been grappling with how or whether teaching eighth-graders about Holocaust and genocide history should look different from teaching high schoolers, given levels of emotional maturity differ substantially among these grades.

Though many acknowledge these lessons should be developmentally appropriate, some, including Burt, believe most eighth graders can handle this “history in its raw form.” Burt further explained how one of her issues with the bill is that it only starts in eighth grade, saying “A lot of the problems I’ve experienced began when I was younger, so I think it would be beneficial for these ideas to be taught younger.”

Anderson also believes that with the abundance of developmentally appropriate material available to teachers, students of all ages can begin to learn some of the key concepts surrounding Holocaust and genocide history, like “otherness.”

“It doesn’t mean that first-grade teachers should whip out a book about the Holocaust, but they should be having discussions about what it means to feel like an “other” or what it means to be excluded,” says Anderson.

Despite the obstacles that come with implementing this requirement into the curriculum, teachers like Terrill and Wolfson are hopeful this legislation will open a path for more difficult conversations in the classroom, which were discouraged earlier this year by the state’s Divisive Concepts Law. This law prohibits schools from teaching that “one group of people is inherently racist, superior, or inferior to people of another group,” but many educators feel its vague language makes it difficult to discern what topics are off limits in their classrooms.

“You know, teachers in the district find [the Divisive Concepts Law] to be a load of nonsense because we’re only trying to teach an accurate version of history; however, we also acknowledge have no control over the emotional mindset of students,” says Wolfson. “That’s why a lot of our work in these conversations around genocide will focus on providing social frames for dialogue and disagreement within a classroom setting.”

Rebecca Noe, ORHS’ Principal, also noticed the irony in this bill’s enaction, saying “it’s good to know that among those who created the Divisive Concepts Law, you have others who are realizing the effect it might have on keeping important topics from being talked about in schools.”

As Oyster River continues to move forward in the planning stages of administering HB 1135, a process that should be complete by next fall, some teachers and students hope to see the teaching of genocide history extend beyond the required content.

“As the social studies department begins to rework electives, I’ve started to think more about offering a Genocide studies elective,” says Anderson. “Of course, it would be up to student interest, but I would love for students to dig deeper into some of the concepts that we can only touch upon in class.”

Burt would also appreciate an elective like this, especially if it enables students to look at their identities and their own biases in the context of this history, saying “we can’t just say these things happen in the past and say that these hateful ideologies don’t exist anymore. We need more classes that make us examine who we are, and the ideas about people that we possess […] We need to put the past in our present.” We need more classes that make us examine who we are, and the ideas about people that we possess […] We need to put the past in our present.”

-Abby Owens