A Smarter Approach to the Hardest Topics
Penn State’s Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative is building a national model for how to teach the most daunting subjects.
On a late afternoon last winter, a couple of dozen K-12 teachers from Red Lion Area School District near York, Pa., gathered in a high school classroom after the last bell had rung. With big teacher bags at their feet and reusable water bottles at their sides, they sat and talked to one another in small, passionate groups about the challenges they were facing in their classrooms. It was impossible to make out any particular plight, but certain words rose above the din: Aggression. Respect. Anger. War. Parents. Trauma. COVID. Help.
This wasn’t some impromptu gab session in a teachers’ lounge; the group was eight months into a yearlong professional development program led by staff from Penn State’s Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, which aims to equip educators across Pennsylvania with the tools to use academic inquiry to teach difficult topics—anything from genocide and racism to classroom misbehavior.
“Inquiry gives us a dispassionate way to look at things,” says fifth-grade teacher Wendy Smith, a participant who calls the program “a transforming influence” in her teaching life. “I’m not telling a student what to think; I’m helping them go through a process to discover what to think.”
Ideally, that process of discovery—asking a compelling question, gathering and analyzing data regarding the question, and drawing conclusions that often lead to more questions—turns learning about something into learning from something, which is why the Pennsylvania Department of Education and school districts across the state are among the entities putting their faith in the initiative’s model. “Our ultimate goal is for children to gain insight into the human condition,” says founding director Boaz Dvir, an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State, “and use this opportunity to develop skills such as empathy, critical thinking, and active listening.”
Victor Hammel ’67 Bus, who with wife Dena Lipson Hammel ’68 Edu committed $5 million last summer to provide endowed funding for the initiative, sees the need for teaching such skills becoming more dire by the day. “We’ve lost the ability in this country for critical thinking, and that’s what we’re after,” says Hammel, who lost eight family members to the Holocaust. “This is potentially transformative, if we can do it right.”