Teaching the Shoah

Teaching the Shoah

In Fair Lawn, Butterfly Project remembers the children

Eighth-graders at the Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Fair Lawn fashioned butterflies in memory of the 1.5 million children killed during the Shoah.

Fair Lawn English teacher Pam Haug was excited to learn this year that class time for her Literature Connections course had been expanded from seven to eight periods.

“It’s devoted to novels and longer pieces, and we can do more with them,” she said, explaining that she and other Thomas Jefferson Middle School eighth-grade teachers immediately set out to find new materials to add to the curriculum.

“We always read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,'” she said. “The [Fair Lawn] Memorial Middle School told us they have ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly,’ so we wanted to find a way to incorporate that, as well.”

The book is a collection of children’s drawings and poems from the Terezin concentration camp, covering the years 1942 to 1944.

The teachers – including Haug, Jennifer Bauman, Laraine Raphalides, Michelle Francis, and Dan Walther – also got hold of the documentary film “Paper Clips,” about a middle school project teaching tolerance in a small Tennessee city.

After watching that, said Haug, the Fair Lawn students were determined to find something they, too, could do.

In researching ways to incorporate the idea of butterflies into a student project, the eighth-grade teachers heard about The Butterfly Project at the Holocaust Museum of Houston. To memorialize the children killed in the Shoah, the museum is collecting 1.5 million handmade butterflies.

This was the something they were looking for.

“They were glad to find something,” said Haug of the school’s 270 eighth-graders, ages 13 and 14. “They are able to be part of something bigger than everyday life.” Youngsters, she said, are often told they can make a difference, but they do not always believe it.

Their project, said Haug, was not simply to create butterflies, but for each student to study background information on one child at Terezin, “to make it more personal,” and use that knowledge to fashion an appropriate product.

Each student was asked to write a blended poem, using words from Terezin youngsters as well as their own, and then design a butterfly in memory of the Shoah victim.

Using time allotted in both their literature and art classes, the students worked in different media. Some used tissue paper, some paper maché.

“One created a three-dimensional hand releasing a butterfly; another made a collage incorporating black and white photos of the time period,” said Haug.

The entire collection – all suspended by paper clips – is now hanging in the main hall of the school, together with a display on the bulletin board. The students requested that the project be used as part of the school’s character education program, which features a different character trait each month. The eighth-graders have chosen the theme “responsibility” for their work.

In the spring, the school will “release” the butterflies, said Haug, sending them off to the Houston museum.

Haug said that by focusing on children, the project made the Holocaust more real to her students. She has also had Shoah survivors – grandparents of several students – come to the school to speak of their experiences.

One, Fair Lawn resident Rosa Sirota, “made a big impact. They all wanted to hug her. She said, ‘I tell you my story. Now you go out and tell the story everywhere else.’ This project gave them an opportunity to do that.”

Haug said it was very rewarding to see how her students, representing a variety of faiths, cared about the project. She pointed out that some of the Jewish children, especially those who attended Hebrew school, were able to “add to the conversation.”

“Hopefully it will last,” she said, noting that she, herself, had not known about the Terezin camp and that the project had a strong impact on her, as well. “When you talk about children, it makes it that much more horrific,” she said.

The project had at least one unintended consequence, said Haug. Teachers and students from other grades are stopping to read the bulletin board, and now other teachers want to do a board with their students, focusing on social issues.

“I didn’t anticipate that,” she said. “I’m proud of our kids, and we have inspired other grades.”

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