World War II is generations away from today’s fifth graders, but teacher Michelle Pritchard brought the era to life for her 10- and 11 year-old students at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School during its annual civil rights project.
The project included a unit on the Holocaust, specifically how citizens of Denmark saved about 7,200 Jews from the Nazis in 1943.
Pritchard and her students spent about three weeks on the civil rights project, which also included slavery and Black history.
“I try to do something different with the kids,” Pritchard said. “The WWII unit fits nicely with civil rights and human rights. What astonishes the kids is they don’t really have an understanding of slavery, so I try to share that we didn’t just have Black slaves. There is still modern day slavery.”
To commemorate International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the class learned there are 70 million women and children still enslaved around the world. Some are sent as children to be indentured servants in wealthy homes.
To learn about the Holocaust during WWII, the students read the book “Number the Stars” which tells the story of a Jewish family’s escape in 1943 from Copenhagen, Denmark. Students also watched the movie “Miracle at Midnight,” in which a Danish surgeon and his family hide a rabbi and his family in their home and use the doctor’s hospital to hide other Jews before finding them safe passage to Sweden.
“They are both historical fiction,” Pritchard said. “Danish people hid Jews in ambulances and morgues and tracked them after the war to bring them back. It’s remarkable how that little country worked together to save the Jews.”
One reason why Denmark was successful in hiding and saving its Jewish citizens is because King Christian X would not allow Jews to wear the Stars of David on their clothing. Without it, German soldiers were unable to distinguish who were Jews.
Typically, fifth graders study explorers and the American Revolution and don’t learn about world history until middle school.
“I love seeing the light bulb go off in students’ heads,” Pritchard said. “There are some subjects you want to see their faces when you teach.”
To end the unit, students answered questions about how people should be treated, what are some examples in history of people being treated unfairly, what they learned from the unit and how has it impacted their thinking.
While watching “Miracle at Midnight,” Melanie Bonilla learned that Jews were being treated unfairly by German soldiers in Denmark and hid in the woods to evade capture.
She wrote, “The Star of David was a special necklace that all Jews had to wear if they were a Jew. Also I learned that the Jews were good people. But something that is unfair in the movie is … that people thought that the Jews were bad and wanted to take them away. I think these are a lot of unfair things and they need to be more respectful to people.”
Case Prescott wrote, “There is a right way and a wrong way to treat people. I think that black people were treated unfairly. We can stop this by putting posters that say black lives matter. … I kind of feel bad for black people because they get bullied.”
Students also wrote reflective poems, together as a class and individually. This is the class poem:
“I read a book about the Jewish people in Denmark who were in trouble.
I watched a movie that was very close to the book I read and it showed me history.
I learned that a necklace with the Star of David was something special to the Jewish people.
I found out there was a war and there was shooting with the Resistance.
I thought it was similar to Star Wars.
I learned that the Germans were trying to kill the Jewish people and there were spies that helped them.
Now I know that discrimination is wrong.”
Braylen Thomas’s reflective poem:
“I read a story about discrimination, and one about
People saving people. Jews saved from death.
I watched how people got together, and risked
Their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
I learned that there were secret codes, and drugs
On handkerchiefs to keep the German’s dogs from
Being able to smell where the Jews were hiding.
I found out that when people get together for
Good, they can do anything.
I thought that the Germans were going to kill
Annemarie or her family for helping the Jews
I learned about history, and how horrible that time
Must have been to be singled out for who you are,
Just because you are Jewish.
Now I know that it could happen again if we let it.
Next time it might be me that needs help to