Recently on her blog, Lois Lowry quoted from a letter she had received from a 6th grade teacher who was teaching her book, Number the Stars. Inspired by the film “Paper Clips” this teacher’s students were collecting shoelaces. “Since October we have been collecting shoelaces, measuring them, and tying them together with the goal of collecting 6,000,000 centimeters of laces to represent the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.”
Yesterday on his blog, Roger Sutton, wrote of his problems with the project, provoking many comments as well as a follow-up post from Lois Lowry herself. “What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism.” wrote Roger. I agree.
We need to teach kids to think — hard about hard topics. To do so we need to give them intellectual tools to grapple with such hard topics. Tools free of sentimentality and simplicity. And while we adults must be aware and sensitive to children’s emotional well-being while involving them in such hard topics, making them feel good in a virtuous way as the paper clips and shoelaces projects do is better left for other topics.
I’ve posted on this topic before and most certainly will again as it is not only important to me as a teacher and human being, but because it is my family history. Considering the Holocaust in historical context, helping those new to it see how it happened, grappling with the idea that people like ourselves allowed it to happen and participated it in it happening, and considering how it connects to other crimes against humanity — it is all critical critical stuff.
History is not simple. I feel that I’m spending my life trying to understand horrors like the Holocaust, war of any kind, and all the other dreadful things humans do to each other. The best I can do as a teacher is to help my students use the same intellectual tools I use — to help them also try to make sense of things that don’t make any sense.
Those tools don’t require paper clips or shoelaces, just minds ready to work. Hard.