What are some of the ways to get started and support your students as they prepare to respond to the Holocaust Art and Writing contest prompt?  We surveyed a number of teachers who previously had first-place entries and asked them to share some of their best tips. The following are their ideas, insights and strategies:

Excerpt from poster with text: Which Story Will You Make Yours To Tell?

Watch, Discuss, Repeat

I select a testimony from one of the approved websites and show it to the entire class.  After viewing, we have a whole class discussion and I have students write about their reactions to the different events in the life of the survivor.  Students also have the option to make a class collage using pictures from magazines, newspapers, etc. that reflects the life of the survivor or a message/theme that the student felt was conveyed in the testimony.  Later, I have students choose another testimony and complete the same tasks (watch the testimony and make a collage) on their own.

Visit a Museum

Prior to the contest, when possible, I plan a visit to a museum, such as the Museum of Tolerance or the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles, where my students can meet a survivor. They take notes as they go through the exhibits and then share them with each other.  We also discuss how the survivor’s testimony we just heard ties to the Holocaust Art and Writing Contest’s annual theme.

*The Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman University also provides guided tours for school groups. Contact Ashley Bloomfield at (714) 532-6072 or ambloom@chapman.edu to schedule a tour.

Build Historical Context

Before introducing students to the prompt, I provide background information on World War II as well as the Holocaust since this is new information to many of my students.  I use materials such as video clips, maps, charts from Facing History and Ourselves, and other materials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Echoes and Reflections and others.

Start With Video Clips

When I introduce students to the prompt, I encourage them to watch snippets (excerpts) of at least three or four testimonies before they choose one to watch all the way through.  Some students have difficulty understanding the survivor and this may affect their engagement.  When they do make a choice, they watch the testimony again all the way through before they pick up a pencil or paper to take notes. 

Integrate Literature

In my 8th grade class, we read a variety of memoirs and novels such as The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, and Night by Elie Wiesel.  As a way to prepare for the contest, I always ask students how they would tie the book they read and discussed in class to the Holocaust Art and Writing contest theme.

Try the ABC Writing Strategy

The Holocaust Art and Writing Contest was always the culminating activity when I taught Night to my freshmen English students.  We would immerse ourselves in learning about the Holocaust (we had a class set of the Holocaust Chronicles), and it was one of the units that really made an impact on students’ lives.  When we began working on the writing contest, I would always make sure the students understood the prompt.  We used a strategy from the Writing Project at University of California, Irvine, called ABC Writing (Attack the prompt, Brainstorm, Choose the order).  I would use different graphic organizers depending on the topic.

Attend a Workshop

For teachers who live in Southern California consider attending one of the workshops about the contest presented by the Rodgers Center at Chapman University. This helped me to understand the prompt clearly. It is the best strategy!

Consider Ideas that Resonate

I like to have my students take notes, in whatever platform they prefer, as they watch the testimony.  Then, I ask them to reflect on their notes and think about one idea they wrote down.  This idea would be the one that they would NEED to share with others to better understand the history that is documented in that testimony.  This is how I try to encourage students to select something that resonates with them.

When starting to study a testimony, I ask students to reflect back on their own lives.  I ask them how they think others would describe them and the lives they lead.  Next, I ask my students to respond to the statement: “NAME is/was a person who…”  This one statement is how I encourage them to develop their vision for how they will respond to the writing prompt.

Emphasize Empathy

I use the Holocaust and Human Behavior curriculum from Facing History And Ourselves. The Facing History workshop that accompanies this material provides a scope and sequence, as well as a working vocabulary that is extremely helpful for teachers and students as they encounter and navigate difficult and challenging content related to the Holocaust.  In my classroom, I emphasize the importance of empathy, and the role our individual choices play in shaping history.  Part of my unit includes the Chapman University Holocaust Art and Writing contest, which allows students to connect with a survivor’s testimony and become living witnesses to future generations.  My hope is that at the end of the year, my students will choose to become more compassionate and active participants in their community local and globally.

After viewing the videos we discuss the emotions of the survivors and the emotions students felt as they listened to the testimony.

Break Down the Steps

As an art teacher, I approach the contest in a specific way with my students.  We begin by discussing the prompt. Sometimes I involve my English teacher friends to help us explore and interpret the prompt.  Next, we listen to portions of several testimonies to identify ideas and facts of interest that relate to the prompt. We then choose a few testimonies and listen closely to the entire story while taking notes. The final step is choosing the story that can be demonstrated through illustration.

The Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University thanks the following teachers who contributed their ideas to this article

  • Thelma Anselmi, St. Columban Catholic School (retired)
  • Rosanna Brichta, Tuffree Middle School (retired)
  • Megan Brown, James M. Guinn Elementary School
  • Barbara Gard, Trabuco Hills High School (retired)
  • Katherine Geers, Mission San Jose High School
  • Marianne Petersen, Orange High School (retired)
  • Noemi Quinones-Rosado, Acaciawood Preparatory School
  • Barbara Sickler, JSerra Catholic High School

We’d also like to hear from you! Email cioffi@chapman.edu or comment below to share your ideas!