Three things you need to know right out of the gate:
- Holocaust Awareness is THE BEST way to teach anti-bullying.
- This program does not leave kids traumatized and crying. Rather, students move forward feeling cheerful and empowered about the good they can do in the world.
- You can make this happen in your school and I've done all the footwork for you.
Last year, anti-semitism reared it's ugly head in our junior high. Kids scribbled swastikas on posters and desks, sent cruel texts and whispered insults at Jewish students.
If your reaction is disbelief, join the crowd. What? Anti-semitism in Salt Lake City, Utah? But we love Jews. We love the synagogues and the Jewish Community Center, we admire our local rabbis and often join in Passover and Yom Kippur celebrations. Many of our kids take Hebrew lessons and dream of visiting Jerusalem.
Our affection for Judaism runs so deep, most parents couldn't believe bullying was happening at our school until the principal emailed parents. And while the abuse felt like an anomaly to the parents in our school, it's a trend rolling out across the nation. In 2017, anti-semitic incidents increased by 57% nationwide. As reported in the New York Times, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) cites three contributing factors: "the increasingly divisive state of American politics, the emboldening of extremists, and the effects of social media."
At our school, I believe all three elements led to anti-semitic behavior. We'd just come out of a heated election season, extremists were feeling empowered and kids witnessed bad behavior on social media that they didn't fully understand. When I talked to our school principal he said district-wide they were seeing a dramatic rise in bullying targeting kids because of their religion, skin color, ethnicity and country of origin. He believed many kids were simply parroting bad behavior they'd observed in adults on television, social media and, sadly, in their homes. "Many of these kids honestly don't understand the message they are sending when they draw a swastika," asserted Principal John Anderson.
You might feel a rush of anger when you read those words. What? Those kids don't know what they are doing? I didn't know what swear words meant when I was kid, but I knew yelling them at my neighbor was wrong. But I grew to understand Principal Anderson's perspective. In junior high, we are dealing with kids who are confused by a world filled with loud voices, their own insecurities, political disagreements in their own homes, and yes, hormones. Sorry. If you're talking about junior high, you're always talking about hormones.
So, rather than getting mad, I decided to get to work. If kids truly don't understand the historical, emotional and legal ramifications of swastikas and holocaust jokes, we need to teach them. Maybe, just maybe, we could prevent bullying and antisemitism in our school by simply teaching kids about these topics in ways they could understand. I put in hundreds of hours talking to experts, professors, politicians, Jewish friends and leaders in our community, college students, parents and educators, the ADL and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
And then I talked to the school and got the permission to go ahead with creating an assembly. It worked.
And it was amazing.
The kids led the assembly beautifully with camaraderie and poise. About halfway through, the respect in the room was so tangible that when they called for a minute of silence, every student stood in perfect stillness.
Kids reported to their teachers, "I think that changed my life." Our principal cried. No parents complained. The follow-up activity went beautifully. And hopefully, somehow, it did some good.
Everything I learned I can share with you in ten minutes. I've attached all the videos and a link to the script. I promise it’s worth your time.
- PUT STUDENTS ON THE STAGE...or in front of the classroom or group discussion. Of all the elements we pulled together, placing students front and center was the most important. Adults all start to sound like the Peanuts voice, "Wah wah, wah wah." When kids speak, other kids listen. From the welcome to the dismissal, kids led the assembly.
- Focus on anti-bullying rather than anti-semitism. Holocaust Awareness does not equate pushing a Jewish agenda or requiring special treatment for any group; it's about treating every human being with respect and decency. Teaching through the historical lens of the Jewish Holocaust during WWII illustrates how individuals can make a difference. Our kids wield tremendous influence over their peers; their actions matter. And so do ours.
- Involve your principal from day one. Principals are responsible for the welfare of the bullied and the bullies. Reassure your principal you will not shame kids or send anyone home crying.
- Contact the big names. Reach out to your governor, mayor, local representatives, and school board. Many of them will genuinely want to help you solve the problem at your school. Plan ahead of time and request officials you trust to speak, or send a video recording. Hot tip: Many governor's offices routinely record messages for events like this. Our Lt. Governor recorded a message just for our assembly, and told a story of a bunch of kids shoving him in a garbage can in middle school. Don't be afraid to ask!
- Don't show dead bodies to teach about the holocaust. We found that photos of shoes and glasses, wedding rings and children's toys were more effective. When you see starved corpses you look away; but when you see a pile of shoes you stop and ponder.
- Use photos of children affected by the holocaust. Skeletal faces dehumanize the holocaust; we want to make it more human, not less.
- Create an interactive assembly. Our kids sit all day-- give them an opportunity to stand up and talk to each other and they'll listen. We interspersed kids speaking on stage with interactive activities and short videos. Most videos are under two minutes. I've attached our script below to give you an idea (which you should feel free to use and change and edit).
- Call or email the ADL and ask for help. They will help you with anything you need. ADL.org is packed with incredible resources and a powerful anti-bullying curriculum which can be tailored for the unique needs of your school and community.
- Recruit a beloved teacher. We did allow one adult on the stage, Rylee Carling, an adored English teacher who spoke on Everyday Heroes. If you don't have at least one fabulous teacher at your school, I'm really sorry.
- Construct small assemblies or group meetings. Our school organized three grade level assemblies. The smaller groups helped kids feel more comfortable talking to each other and maintained order and respect.
- Keep it cheerful. Yes, other adults raised their eyebrows at me when I said we were going to have some fun in the assembly, but we accomplish very little with shame and fear. When kids feel empowered they go forward and do good. We had the kids stand up, talk to each other and learn names. One boy was wheeled onto the stage in a garbage can (see Lt. Gov Cox’s video below). "Sunshine Song" by Jason Mraz played as the students entered the auditorium and when they exited we cranked up Andy Grammer's "Give Love."
- Follow up. Let the students share what they've learned in small group activities later in the day or the school year. Our students met in groups of thirty and participated in student led activities discussing how to help when they see kids getting picked on (Be An Ally from ADL.org).
With the recent shootings in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue and a new FBI study reporting a 37% increase in hate crimes toward Jews, it’s evident we need more conversations about anti-semitism across the nation. We all need to keep trying, to keep opening our hearts to others. To welcome those of a different religion, race or nationality, those with different opinions and beliefs. We also need to reach out to those next door, who look just like us and need a smile and a kind word. To treat everyone, everyone, with respect and grace.