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An 'Imperative' Lesson: Teacher On Arizona's New Holocaust Education Requirement

The Arizona Board of Education has made it a requirement that middle and high school students learn about the Holocaust and other genocides. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The Arizona Board of Education has made it a requirement that middle and high school students learn about the Holocaust and other genocides. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Starting in the spring semester, Arizona's Board of Education will now require middle and high school students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Holocaust educators around the state had been pushing for this change for years. It’s part of a nationwide effort spurred by a recent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes and fading awareness of the facts of the Holocaust among Americans, especially teenagers.

Kim Klett, an English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, has been teaching students about the Holocaust for 19 years. When dealing with such a sensitive topic, teachers need to prioritize bringing students in and out of the lesson safely, she says. For example, avoid showing graphic images.

Now that time has passed, in some cases, kids don’t know that the Holocaust even happened. One study found two-thirds of millennials have never heard of the infamous death camp Auschwitz.

This year, Klett was impressed with how well-read some of her students were on the topic. She's now teaching seniors who read books and watched documentaries about the Kindertransport at the school four years ago

"I agree that’s really a problem of students not knowing about the Holocaust, that it is something they need to definitely know and learn from for the future as well," she says, "not just to know the facts, but to prevent genocide in the future as well."

Many students connect what they learn to their own lives and trauma, she says, especially after hearing a Holocaust survivor speak or reading a memoir. Elective classes like Klett's give students an opportunity to build on what they learned from a survivor's talk or in a previous grade.

Hearing from survivors is "hugely urgent," she says, as many of them are passing away. Listening to survivors makes students more empathetic and demonstrates the seriousness of anti-Semitism, she says.

As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, many of their children and grandchildren are starting to tell their stories, Klett says.

Klett also teaches about more recent atrocities in places such as Rwanda and Bosnia. For teachers in Arizona taking on these difficult topics for the first time, she recommends looking at the lesson plans, background information and training available on the state Department of Education website.

A task force comprised of university professors, members of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, and local historians developed the toolkit. The task force is now developing a teacher mentorship program.

"We know there’s a lot that maybe people haven’t learned in their college classes," Klett says, "and so really [the toolkit will help] them to unpack that and to teach it effectively with their students."

The significant increase in hate crimes in recent years around the country is related to ignorance about topics like the Holocaust, Klett says. Teaching about the Holocaust won't solve all of these problems, she says, but learning about genocides makes students more accepting of people unlike themselves and open to diverse opinions.

"I think it’s imperative that we teach this history and that [students] see the dangers of what can happen, because it’s alive and well, unfortunately, in our everyday lives," she says.

In Klett's class, parents are invited to events such as author visits and survivor talks. Parents often share their kid's interest in the subject, she says, so the class is an educational opportunity for the whole family.

Klett knows other teachers who have experienced pushback from parents over the material in their classes. But in her 17 years teaching the Holocaust, she says people have understood the importance.

"I have a lot of families where the students will go home and talk to their parents about what they learned in class," she says. "And I’ve never had pushback, luckily."

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.