According to the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge, 56% of U.S. Millennials and Gen Z were unable to identify Auschwitz, and around half have witnessed Holocaust denial or distortion online. Though the survey showed Wisconsin ranks highest in the U.S. for Holocaust awareness among U.S. Millennials and Gen Z, lawmakers and instructors continue to work toward improved Holocaust and genocide education for the next generation.
One such example is the “Empowering Educators to Teach on Genocide” virtual professional development workshop held January 15–16, sponsored by the area studies centers at UW–Madison, the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education and Resource Center (HERC), and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Attendees included teachers from Kettle Moraine, La Crosse, Madison, and Milwaukee, and other areas of Wisconsin.
The workshop was planned in response to Wisconsin Act 30, enacted on April 28, 2021, which requires Wisconsin schools to include lessons for students about the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in grades 5–8 and once in grades 9–12. As Act 30 is an unfunded mandate with no legal threshold for what counts as a sufficient lesson on genocide, much of the planning and preparation necessary for effective instruction have to be supplied by the teachers themselves. With the legislation due to go into effect in the 2022–2023 school year, the workshop provided educators with instruction and resources crucial to teaching lessons on these important topics.
The workshop itself was split into two sessions: the first on Saturday featured talks on genocide cases in regions of the world that UW–Madison area studies centers represent; the second on Sunday featured an overview of Act 30 and techniques for teaching genocide and related topics in the classroom.
“It was eye-opening even for those with some experience teaching genocide. Our students, their families, and other educators need more background in all forms and consequences of state violence and repression. Such learning may be only an introduction in the classroom but continues to be timely and offer essential foundational knowledge to understand current events, history, politics, social interactions, and so much more.” ~Workshop participant
One of the primary themes throughout the webinar was the importance of personal narratives in teaching genocide. This was underscored by Holocaust survivor Susan Warsinger’s testimony on Sunday, accompanied by a presentation prepared with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and further discussion on the need to build empathy through understanding the lives of survivors of genocide and state-sponsored violence.
“The main message we want people to take away was in the title—that we wanted them to feel empowered,” Mary McCoy, workshop co-organizer and outreach director for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said. “Teaching on genocide, particularly through narratives, builds empathy, and we believe that empathy is important. We want our students to grow up to be kinder and better people.”
Beyond the workshop, this includes developing lesson plans for teachers and a repository for genocide education on WISELearn, a resource hub for standards-aligned educational resources made by and for Wisconsin teachers and administrators, as well as securing funding through donations and federal grants for online and physical resources for instructors.
“This is a subject that is vitally important for kids to know. But it’s also extremely emotional. And if it’s taught incorrectly, without proper scaffolding, it can harm students,” said Kris McDaniel, workshop co-organizer and social studies consultant, DPI. “We’re looking at getting this information to districts, but you can’t just check the box—you have to make sure that that scaffolding is there.”
McCoy collaborated with other UW–Madison area studies assistant directors and outreach coordinators in designing the workshop, arranging speakers, and collecting books and other materials for teachers to adopt into their curricula. These organizers include Sarah Linkert (Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia), Eleanor Conrad (European Studies), Sarah Ripp (Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies), Laurie Dennis (Center for East Asian Studies), Lisey Doty (Center for Southeast Asian Studies), Andrea Fowler (Center for South Asia), Essie Lenchner (Institute for Regional and International Studies National Resource Center), Olayinka Olagbegi-Adegbite (African Studies Program), Tsela Barr (Middle East Studies Program), and Sam Hicock (Center for Southeast Asian Studies).
More information about the event and currently available recordings can be found on the event site.