A Lesson in Humanity

Even though the end of the academic year is almost here, the most intense lessons were during the last weeks of the year. One of the topics in the IB history curriculum is authoritarian states, of which Hitler and Nazi Germany were discussed in my lessons. Last year, I taught the same syllabus, but I was disappointed with lack of depth in the lessons. Hence, I wanted to make sure that the outcome of the lessons series was more meaningful, rather than “just knowing” what happened. Therefore, the big idea that I wanted to convey was the role of the bystander; the person who witnesses but does nothing to stop it. To what extent is that allowing for atrocities to happen? The tools I used for teaching this idea were the Universe of Obligation and The Pyramid of Hate.

The first lesson concerned the Universe of Obligation, which taught student about the different levels in which we feel responsible for others. The idea for this lesson stems from one of my favourite resource, Facing History and Ourselves. The lesson started by having the students pick one of the three quotes, which were all related to feeling a sense of responsibility towards other human beings, and explain whether or not they agree with the author. Thereafter, the Universe of Obligation was introduced, by using a text from Facing History and Ourselves. Students also created their own Universe of Obligation, which resulted in a whole-class discussion about where to put who/what. Eventually, a link was made with the topic, namely the Edelweiss Pirates as an example to examine how a shift in one’s Universe of Obligation can occur. In the exit ticket, students answered three questions: 1)The meaning of a universe of obligation, 2) How we decide who we have in our universe of obligation, 3) Shifts can occur in our universe of obligation – When does this happen? How?

The materials used for this lesson can be found in this document.

The follow-up lesson focussed on what can happen when a group of people are not in the Universe of Obligation of the dominant section in society. As a preparation for this lesson, students studied a short list with some vocabulary. This was to make sure that everyone used the same words and was aware of the meaning. Already at the beginning of the lesson it became clear that it was necessary to analyse the term “race”, some students never consciously realised this was a social constructed term with no biological evidence. Students watched a video in which the infamous doll test was conducted in Italy. This was linked to some quotes about prejudice, which the students related to the video. Hereby the foundation was created for the introduction of the pyramid of hate; a representation of how prejudice can escalate to a genocide.

The materials used in this lesson can be found in this document. The presentation can be found here.

Another activity made students familiar with the words from the vocabulary list by connecting these to actual scenarios. This was to make the students aware what bias is and how, for example, biased-motivated violence looks like in reality. After discussing their answers briefly, a shift was made to the Holocaust itself.

The first thing was, again, an examination of the definition of a Genocide set out by the United Nations. When discussing such sensitive topics as these, I always find it important to make sure we are all aware of the meaning behind the words that we are using. Thereafter, a slide showed the horrifying numbers of people killed by the Nazis, as they deemed unworthy of their lives. These numbers do not only focus on Jewish people, but also Russian, Slavs and people of color. To understand how the pyramid of hate is applicable to the Holocaust, students read a short text that indicated how bias against Jewish people quickly escalated in a collective hate. The questions for this reading also included an activity in which students had to think about how responsible different people were in the eventual occurrence of the genocide. I adjusted the activity to fit within my time schedule and purpose of the lesson.

The discussion of this activity resulted in a great class discussion, during which one student said that everyone was responsible, also the “the little guy who does not want to get involved in politics”. Whereafter we had a discussion about the existence of neutrality when such events are taken place. Some students, of course, mentioned that people did not have much of a choice, considering the consequences for up-standers. This activity really got students going and encouraged participation of all, also because the topic was discussed in a wider discussion about race and privilege.

At the end of the lesson, I asked students to write down what they learned about the role of bystander, with specific attention to privilege, prejudice and neutrality.

One student wrote down the following:

Being a bystander and choosing to “stay neutral” is still allowing and therefore supporting certain acts to continue. The ability to have being a bystander as an option is already a privilege itself.

Another student wrote down:

The people who are in privilege and do nothing to stop the prejudice contributing to it. So there is nothing as “neutrality”.

I made a deliberate choice to focus on the Holocaust to convey this idea of the bystander: who is this person? When are you a bystander or actually also a perpetuator? History is a subject that teaches students something about the past, which they hopefully can use in making sense of their daily life. One thing I would like to improve on is to make the connection between our Universe of Obligation and (unconscious) decision to become a bystander more clear. For next year!

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