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.”

A Personal Challenge: Bellisario College of Communications professor Boaz Dvir, founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, was inspired by his grandfather’s story of surviving Nazi genocide. Photo by Cardoni.
A Personal Challenge: Bellisario College of Communications professor Boaz Dvir, founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, was inspired by his grandfather’s story of surviving Nazi genocide. Photo by Cardoni.

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.”

 

The initiative's creation was an organic response to a pressing need that Dvir’s personal history and professional experience made him uniquely qualified to detect. Born in Israel, he moved to the States with his family as a teenager and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Florida. Over the next 15 years he worked for several news outlets and spent time as an officer and military journalist for the Israel Defense Forces. On a week’s leave there, Dvir traveled to see his grandfather, Ozer Grundman, a Holocaust survivor. For the first two days of the visit, Grundman wouldn’t tell his curious grandson anything about that dark time. But then the floodgates opened. “That was really, for me, the beginning of my interest in the Holocaust,” Dvir says. The stories he heard led directly to the budding filmmaker’s first Holocaust-related project, the 2015 PBS documentary A Wing and a Prayer.

But long before that documentary’s release, a return to his alma mater in 2003 to teach journalism eventually led him to the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning, which creates professional development programs for teachers based on research, practice, and policy. “I learned all about effective professional development and pedagogy, how to work with teachers, and the value of a mechanism called inquiry that they use to help teachers gain ownership of their practice and improve it,” says Dvir, who was operations manager at the center when he left for Penn State in 2014—the same year the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 70, which “strongly encourages school entities within this Commonwealth to offer instruction in the Holocaust, genocide, and other human rights violations.”

 

Scott Metzger was in college when Schindler’s List was released in theaters. The following year, 800,000 people were murdered in a hundred days during the Rwandan genocide. Metzger, who started teaching high school social studies soon after, faced the same challenge teachers everywhere grapple with: How to teach about such atrocities effectively—and what that even means. “Because the topic is so difficult, disturbing, uncomfortable, traumatizing, it’s hard to teach on many levels,” Metzger says. “There is an understandable temptation to put these things in their safer, more distant, historical boundaries, and not to do the extra difficult step of then following through to, what are the implications?”

In a well-intentioned attempt to make the suffering relatable, Metzger witnessed teachers trying to universalize the Jewish Holocaust experience, asking students, for example, what they would have done if they’d found themselves in one of the cattle cars moving toward a death camp. This, he says, can give students both an exaggerated sense of self—“I would have jumped the guards; I would have gone down fighting”—and a decreased understanding of the perspectives and humanity of people in the past. Essentially, it inadvertently continues the “othering” of Jews.

Another problem with traditional Holocaust instruction is that it tends to focus on a few key groups—Jewish victims, Nazi perpetrators, and Allied heroes—while leaving out a crucial category of people. “Good men and women were silent and didn’t stand up for what is right,” says Elliott Weinstein ’73, ’74 MS Bus, a former Penn State trustee who was involved in some of the Jewish organizations that worked to pass Act 70. “Holocaust education is oftentimes relegated to Anne Frank’s diary or Schindler’s List or Elie Wiesel’s Night. But how do you teach kids how to be better human beings?”

The complexities of the subject, combined with time and curricular constraints, have largely left teachers without the guidance and confidence needed to dig deeper. “You march through it for a few days and move on,” says Metzger, who left teaching in 2001 to study education, earning a Ph.D. in curriculum, teaching, and educational policy from Michigan State. He started teaching at Penn State in 2006 and, since 2016, has been the professor-in-charge of social studies education in the College of Education.

Metzger began working with Dvir after Dvir was contacted by the Pennylvania Department of Education about adding his Holocaust-related documentaries, including A Wing and a Prayer, to the collection of resources for Pennsylvania teachers to use. Dvir was pleased to have his work utilized in schools, but he knew that merely showing the films was not enough, so he and Metzger set out to create instructional materials to complement them. In getting a behind-the-scenes look at teaching challenges and the kinds of resources being offered to educators, Dvir saw a pressing need: “I learned that difficult topics were either not being taught at all or not being taught well.”

With the support of Dean Marie Hardin, the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative was founded in 2019 in the Bellisario College of Communications as a partnership with the Department of Education and organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League. It was an interdisciplinary venture from the start, so when Dvir told Hardin he needed a graduate assistant from the College of Education, she said funding the position within the College of Communications was “an easy ‘yes.’” The initiative also has relied on help and research from faculty in the College of the Liberal Arts, Penn State Law, the Jewish Studies Program, the Center for Science and the Schools, and the Humanities Institute. “I’m very grateful to all my colleagues across Penn State, all these professors who have stepped in and have volunteered their time and effort and expertise to help advance this,” Dvir says.

Funding came quickly, too, in the form of a $250,000 stra-tegic plan seed grant from the university, and from Weinstein and Hammel, who volunteered to help Dvir push for more support inside and outside Penn State. Hammel had backed Holocaust education initiatives in the past but says he came to realize those efforts, while well-intentioned, “fall far short of what’s needed.”

That need, Dvir sensed, was something that had to happen before equipping teachers with more or better materials. Educators first needed an effective tool for teaching difficult topics in general, a technique for covering disturbing or divisive subjects in a way that fostered open dialogue, data gathering, critical thinking, and civil discourse. That tool is inquiry, an open-ended process of learning that starts with a compelling question, which students or teachers pose and then seek to answer through data-gathering and analysis.

A century-old method of learning brought into the formal education system by philosopher John Dewey in the early 1900s, the inquiry model was already familiar to teachers and is especially common in the sciences. But the initiative’s innovation, Metzger says, came from marrying the teaching of difficult topics with inquiry during a yearlong professional development program for teachers, like those in Red Lion, that comprises practical application and individualized support.

In Pennsylvania, teachers are required to recertify every five years, and one option for recertification involves completing 180 hours of continuing professional education programming. Every school district offers such opportunities for its teachers, mostly lectures or workshops that are two or three hours each. “Almost all professional learning is done through a passive manner. Teachers come, listen, get three points, move on,” Dvir says. “But even a good lecture that is relevant to that teacher doesn’t amount to much if there’s no follow-up, no action plan. We’re flipping that. Our program is nothing but implementation. They don’t get points for sitting and listening; they get points for doing.”

The Department of Education deemed the initiative’s yearlong professional development program to be worth 60 hours—the maximum yearly amount teachers can earn. It helped that Act 70 of 2014, for which the initiative is named, required schools to provide professional development pro-grams on the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights violations to educators who teach those and related topics.

But the initiative goes much further: It supports educators through the inquiry process regarding a difficult topic chal-lenging them at school—whether that be part of their curriculum, the classroom culture, or something else entirely. “If you really want to have an impact, it’s gotta come from teachers,” Dvir says. “That’s why we insist that every participant takes on something that's already on their plate."

 

In the spring of 2021, the initiative hosted an intensive training for experienced teachers to become leaders of one of its pilot programs, which would guide 20 educators from across the state through a yearlong inquiry practice. Among the teacher-leaders was Pete Mashinski, who teaches AP history at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and is a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum teacher fellow. In his 32nd year of teaching, Mashinski says he’s always eager to learn more and connect with other teachers, but the timing of the initiative’s invitation was especially welcome. “These last two years have been the hardest of my career,” he says of teaching during the pandemic. “During COVID, [students] forgot how to school. And the political climate does not help educators at all. It’s just difficult. There is a lack of curriculum for teaching sensitive topics, but part of the other thing is, kids are very sensitive now.”

This level of weariness and longing for more support among teachers was reinforced later that spring, when Red Lion Area School District—the first school district to partner with the initiative—posted a sign-up sheet for teachers interested in a new, yearlong professional development program called “Teaching Difficult Topics.” They thought they’d get two or three willing to dive in. Twenty-eight came to the informational session, held the last day before summer vacation. They were told they’d meet monthly as a group, work with pedagogical and content experts, and participate in three cycles of inquiry during the year. “I do not sugarcoat it,” Dvir says. “I tell them, ‘You go uphill with us in the beginning. It’s a big mindset shift. But then it’s downhill.’ We aim to save teachers time over the school year and boost their confidence to tackle their tasks. So it’s not, ‘Oh my God, how do I meet that state standard in addition to doing this?’ It’s, ‘Oh, through this, I can meet the state standard in a much more effective way.’”

Twenty of them enrolled.

Teachers from Red Lion Area School District meeting for professional development initiative, courtesy Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative
LESSONS LEARNED AND SHARED: Teachers from Red Lion Area School District meeting for professional development initiative. Photo courtesy Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative.

“When we had this opportunity, we knew we had to do something,” says Eric Wilson, chief instructional officer for Red Lion Area School District. Tensions and debates raging across the country were leaking into classrooms and Zoom rooms at school. The teachers say students have argued about masking, vaccinations, and whether COVID-19 is real. The last few years have brought other challenges, too: more transgender-identifying students, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a book banning controversy in neighboring Central York School District. On Election Day in 2020, a parent popped into a virtual class of fourth graders to implore them, and their teacher, to vote for a particular candidate. Students as young as 6 have made politically charged statements and accusations to their friends. “How do you work within a classroom where you have such polarization across our youngest students?” says Wilson, whose district serves almost 6,000 students, about 46% of whom are economically disadvantaged.

Fifth-grade teacher Wendy Smith says students were being more “awful” to one another than they’d been in her 27 years at Red Lion, and she couldn’t figure out why. Through the initiative’s inquiry process, her fifth graders helped her dig into a compelling question: “How can we make our class-room a better place for everyone?” They gathered data from class surveys, individual interviews with willing students, and social media discussions. By approaching it as a problem to solve rather than pointing fingers, she gained her students’ trust. During data collection, Smith was astounded to realize that 100% of the students who’d been causing the discord in the classroom had at least one social media account “and lived by it,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that. These are 10- and 11-year-olds.”

Smith had loved using inquiry in her previous job as a teacher in the gifted program, where curriculum constraints were absent and there was more natural freedom to pose and explore open questions with students. Realizing she could do that with a standard class—and that it would help her with curriculum and culture—was “eye-opening.”

“I can give quite a bit of control of my classroom over to my kids and have amazing results from it,” says Smith, who saw significant behavioral improvements and went on to use inquiry when teaching the U.S. Civil War and westward expansion.

Jami Cunningham was in her second year of teaching a fully remote class of 35 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders when she signed up for the “Teaching Difficult Topics” program. “I’m very grateful that it came when it did, especially in the environment that I’ve been in the last two years.” She’d had to contend with parents lurking in her virtual classroom, plus the challenge of building relationships with and keeping the attention of students whose circumstances and locations were varied and unpredictable.

Cunningham’s American history curriculum includes units on slavery, Native American genocide, and the election process, so she is no stranger to teaching difficult topics. This past year, though, she’d noticed her students had a penchant for labeling, using words like “racism” and “bullying” for instances that might be stretching the definitions. Together, they came up with a shared wondering: “Are bullying and racism the same? And are they still prominent in today’s society?”

“It was a big wondering, and it kind of grew from there,” Cunningham says. “Every week we had a discussion and then ended with additional questions to explore the next week. It all really revolved around relationships and misconceptions. The kids were like, ‘We often throw a label on something and maybe it’s not that. We label someone not being nice one time as bullying.’”

Through the process, she saw that students were excited to think, form opinions, and offer suggestions for more questions. “And if they don’t know,” she says, “they get excited about going and researching.”

About halfway through the yearlong program, Wilson, the district instructional officer, sat in on a session to get feedback from his teachers and was struck by the level of professional and personal growth he saw and heard. “They learned things about themselves,” he says. “They learned things about how they conduct the classroom. They learned things about how students act in the classroom and why they may act that way.”

That question of “why” students act a certain way is another facet of the initiative’s program: introducing the awareness of teaching through a “trauma-informed lens,” Dvir says. “Trauma is everywhere. It’s never been more universal; COVID has made that so. How do we handle it responsibly, in a humane way? How do we identify it, defuse it, use it as learning opportunities?” Brooklyn Leo, a dual-title doctoral candidate in philosophy and women’s studies at Penn State, was lead content developer and curator of the initiative’s online trauma-informed practices unit, which educators take for free.

“A couple of teachers really dove in and said, ‘How has trauma affected the students, and how are my biases and my expectations of what my students are doing [affecting the classroom]? How am I coming across to them, how are they coming across to me? And how can we bridge that gap?’” says Wilson. “So the deeper level of understanding of what it takes to have the partnership and relationship in the classroom, that’s what’s being exposed here, and that’s great stuff.”

Cunningham opted to work her way through the online trauma-informed practices unit again this summer, in preparation for returning to in-person teaching for the 2022–23 school year. She’s teaching fifth grade in a school with a large population of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and she hoped the inquiry-based model of learning would work especially well for children who “need some ownership of something in their life.” She spent her summer revamping the social studies curriculum using inquiry and was excited to take that new approach with her class. “Social studies was always one of those subjects that either kids love it or hate it. Most hate it in fifth grade. The textbook is difficult. We’d give them a passage, watch a video, complete a packet, take a quiz, and move on. Kids aren’t interested in that. When you show them where to look but don’t tell them what to find, they’re more curious,” she says, and more apt to think on their own about it, too.

Cunningham is one of eight teachers from the Red Lion district who opted to continue through a newly constructed second-year program. Smith signed up for that, too. “Inquiry is so valuable because when we engage in it, we are not assuming we have the answers or that we know what we will find. We question, and it opens us up to more possibilities. It’s just a little mind shift,” Smith says. “When we begin from a wondering, we are more open to what we discover.”

illustration of a hand with chalk drawing a barbed wire line making a question mark by James Steinberg
Illustration by James Steinberg.

 

A new cohort of Red Lion educators is now going through the first-year program, which is being offered at five other Pennsylvania school districts in 2022–23 as well. That’s a small fraction of the state’s 501 school districts, but the growth and momentum of the initiative, which now has about 10 Penn State team members dedicated to it, is beyond Dvir’s expectations.

It is also well short of the program’s ultimate goal.

In 2021, the Hammels gave $450,000 to create a hub for the initiative at Penn State Berks, and after the couple’s $5 million commitment this summer, Weinstein set a new $50 million fundraising goal.

“In the coming years we’re going to grow a national program,” Hammel says. “There’s a lot of demand on us to take this even beyond the K-to-12 space. People want to see it in higher education. The governor has already asked us to make a career preparedness [program.]”

The first seeds of that plan were planted this year, when the initiative received a $190,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to work with 30 teachers from around the country in 2023. The program, “Making Holocaust and Genocide Education Relevant Through Inquiry and Classroom Application,” will start with a two-week summer institute—mostly at University Park but with visits to the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Philadelphia—and will continue through the fall 2023 semester.

Dvir says Penn State’s focus on interdisciplinary collaboration has helped the initiative increase the breadth and depth of its resources and available expertise. And he believes the university’s identity as a land-grant institution makes it a model for how the work can spread to other states. “That structure of a land-grant university, every state has one. A state legislature that supports it, a department of education that’s innovative and supportive, districts you can connect with, good internal and external partners, multidisciplinary voices, and an apolitical approach,” he says. “This can be replicated.”