Anne Frank, the Holocaust and Affective Learning

My MYP2 (grade 7) students have been reading Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, but we didn't talk much about the Holocaust itself until today when they read the afterward. Is that strange? A little background first.

I struggled with an interesting approach to the diary as I remember hating it as a middle school student. My feeling has always been that it is an important book because it existed more than because of its content, kind of like Uncle Tom's Cabin or the poetry of Edmund Spencer. I reread it over the summer, and while I found it compelling, I still wasn't sure what to do with it. I actually planned to drop it from the syllabus, but I had published a reading list at the beginning of the year, and several of the kids asked me about it repeatedly.

I was thinking about it one day, and I thought, what is valuable about this book besides being a historical document? And the answer is the amount of insight and reflection she has about herself and her situation. And then I started thinking about that issue: how much is her and how much is her situation? A lot of what Anne writes is totally typical for a teenage girl, but her situation -- her historical context and her physical reality -- is completely atypical, and the most interesting moments is when these clash. And so I drew a little Venn for myself:

and started reading it again with this in mind, and I found that the diary opened up in a totally different way for me. In my reading, in the beginning of the diary, the two are very separate; by the end, there is little just about Anne and loads in the middle space. When thinking about a guiding question, the issue was not about what the diary says about the Holocaust, but what the diary says about an individual and her context, and to what degree you can separate those out. And so my basic planning looked like this:
Area of Interaction: Environments. How does an environment or a situation determine one's individuality? Can they be separated? If the individual stays in that environment a long time, does that influence grow?

Significant Concept: A person is shaped by her situation.

Unit Question: How does a person's situation affect the way he or she behaves and sees herself?

Summative Assessment: Choose one aspect of Anne's experience: her relationship with parents, with Peter, her identity as a Jew, her education, etc.) and write an explanation of how much that was her and how much it was her situation. Anchored on quotations from the diary, in the form of a bulletin board display.

I know that the concept kind of sucks: it is too broad, and I actually need to teach it once and see how it fleshes out to get the wording better. And the assessment is a little weird right now, but when I set it up it will make more sense.

So I gave them a little introduction to the diary that would help them make sense of the context. (I was on paternity leave when they started, so this was not the best learning on earth, but it did the job.) I also selected passages for us to read just so we could get through it in a few weeks rather than a few months. (I  know that's controversial, but I really, really hated this book at their age.) Those who wanted to read more could, and those who were less interested could get the point.

Anne didn't know much detail about the mechanics of the Nazi's treatment of Jews beyond her own experience, and so it wasn't very important to our study of the diary. And that is why we hadn't talked about the nitty-gritty of the Holocaust more until now, and we only did so because they had buckets of questions: Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much? Why did they move from camp to camp so much? Why did some of them have to labor and others were just killed? and so on.

Now I am fairly well read on the Holocaust, and I have read everything Primo Levi ever wrote, and I taught the rise of Hitler as a part of IB Diploma History a few years ago, so I was able to deal with their questions directly and with detail. And as I was describing the methodology of murder in a death camp, I looked around the room and realized that my twenty twelve year-olds were in various stages of shock. It is historical fact to me, but it was the bursting of a bubble for some of them. Are people really that wicked? Could this thing really have happened? And so I stopped and did a quick 'What I Know / What I Feel' writing task about the content of the discussion, and this allowed us to get a few of their feelings out there and discuss them as a class. It was a good reminder to me that the presentation of new worldviews and perspectives needs some pastoral care along with it.