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Genocide Awareness Month Project – Sue Kenney

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Genocide Awareness Month Project

Lola reviews the book "Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust"
Students working hard to find heroes of the Holocaust
Samantha doing her research using the JFR's "Rescuer Stories" online

Genocide Awareness Month Project - By Sue Kenney

For Genocide Awareness Month this April, I wanted to do something meaningful with my students. I teach several sections of US II History Honors and a Genocide and Film course for high school juniors and seniors at Immaculate Heart Academy. As a 2020 Alfred B. Lerner fellow with the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, and a 2023 ARTEFFECT Ambassador fellow with the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, I decided to incorporate the spirit of what it means to be righteous and heroic, even when the world itself seems to have lost its moral compass.

I started by creating three large panels outlining 1) the definition of genocide, 2) the risk factors for genocide, and 3) unsung heroes of genocide. I gave students a project that combines research and creativity by asking them to find primary and secondary sources on a person who, at great personal risk to themselves, tried to help victims of genocide find comfort and safety. First, students had to identify an unsung hero by using several internet sources:  The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous Rescuer Stories, the Pre-Approved Unsung Heroes List from the Lowell Milken Center, Yad Vashem, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. All of these sites gave students an excellent place to start. We also used the book Rescuers, published by the JFR. Students passed it around the class while they were finding their heroes, and they seemed to be energized by the stories they were reading, often sharing with one another what they had found.

After they decided on a person to honor, students used both primary and secondary sources to write a mini research paper on their heroes. It was exciting to see how enthusiastic they were to do this research, and many of them found primary sources by searching for articles and diary entries from the time periods they were investigating. Some even found articles or journal entries written by the heroes themselves. During this part of the project students were careful to make sure that what they were looking at was indeed a creditable primary or secondary source.

The final phase of the project was to create a piece of art or a poster that illustrated the important aspects and admirable traits of their unsung hero. I had given each class a list of traits ahead of time, based on the criterion provided by the Lowell Milken Center. They could now begin the creative part of the project and students were loaded with ideas. Some wanted to use photographs and paraphernalia about their hero to design posters. Others planned to paint or draw a portrait to complement their research. The primary goal was to activate both critical and creative thinking in students so that they would feel a deep connection to the people who suffered under genocide and to those who were exemplary in standing up to oppression. I think students embraced the idea that one person truly can make a difference and that sometimes the best part of our humanity shines brightly in the face of darkness and evil.

Little did I know that this classroom project would not end there. My cousin suggested that I talk to our local library about my students’ efforts. I was happily surprised when Laura Rifkin, the director of the Township of Washington Library offered us a spacious room for the entire month of April for students to display their work in honor of Genocide Awareness Month. Not only that, but students will be giving presentations to the public on April 18, educating people not only about genocide, but also about the many unsung heroes who risked (and sometimes gave) their own lives to help others, many of whom were complete strangers. We will also be displaying student work in the main entrance foyer at Immaculate Heart Academy. I could not have asked for a more fitting conclusion to this project. Sometimes things take on a life of their own; and on rare occasions, students are able to use their work to enlighten, inform, and to uplift.

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