Middle schoolers become researchers, artists, historians, and storytellers, exploring memorials and monuments through an integrated year-long study in Judaism, Fine Arts, and Humanities. This project-focused learning fosters deep understanding and engagement about the Holocaust on a personal level as well as within a deeper global context.
Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford is using the lens of art to help seventh grade students make make deep, real-world connections to Jewish history through active inquiry, learning, and discovery in a project-based learning environment. The Legacy Project is easily replicable in other schools and at different developmental stages. In the following paragraphs, we will present a road map that other educators can follow.
Art Educator Rhiannon van Bindsbergen and Middle School Humanities teacher Colleen Simon were inspired to bridge their classes after participating in professional development through Facing History and Ourselves, to engage students in a deep investigation and robust exploration of history of the Holocaust and their connection to it.
Engaging Facing History’s model linking Holocaust education to genocide in other parts of the world, Colleen’s Humanities class, which combines Social Studies with English Language Arts, began The Legacy Project by viewing and unpacking Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” The danger of a single story was a theme that recurred throughout the year, including the students’ lessons mid-year on the founding documents as seen through the lens of whose story was being told and whose story was being ignored and the impact that had on how the United States has evolved as a country. This will be further addressed in Phase Two.
Phase One: The Development and Evolution of the Question
The year-long Project Focused Learning Program began with a simple question: What is a Monument? As our students further explored this topic through both Jewish history and art, the question evolved and became more focused on the creation of a memorial dedicated to the Holocaust. Drawing upon Colleen’s deep knowledge of the Holocaust and genocide, the students began researching events that led to the Holocaust, what happened during that period, what post-war life was like, and the ways in which we are still affected today. Colleen and Rhiannon worked collaboratively, sharing written texts, images, art, and video with students to lay a foundation of understanding not just about the “what” of Holocaust memorials, but why these Holocaust memorials play a vital role in contemporary society.
Colleen and Rhiannon accessed the extensive database of Facing History and Ourselves to bring content and context to our seventh grade students. Students read texts and heard testimony from Holocaust survivors and bystanders, studied art and propaganda of the period, and viewed photographs and videos documenting the events of the Holocaust and its aftermath. These impactful experiences of working with personal accounts, imagery, and founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, helped the students design their culminating project as a Memorial to those who survived the Holocaust. Students were challenged to write found poems, personal reflections, and create personal artworks representing the different stages of the Holocaust. Samples showing the process of writing their drafts can be seen here.
Phase Two: Focused Research
In their research stage, the students examined other memorials to inspire their own work; this visual element helped students understand the power a memorial can have on the viewer. A list of memorials, articles, and supplies can be found here. In addition to doing research on previously existing memorials and monuments, students were able to visit a number of sites to see first-hand the impact they make on the viewer. These sites included the Garden of Stones Memorial in the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the 9/11 Museum and Memorial in New York City. One student noted that the 9/ll Memorial made him feel both sad and hopeful to take in its beauty after such devastation.
Throughout their research, our students met with Dr. Avi Patt, a Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford, to view and dissect different existing memorials and monuments from around the world that commemorate the Holocaust and other genocides. As students delved into the core purpose of a memorial or monument, the word that resonated with them was Zachor (remember). This word, this idea, is what guided the students inquiry: what did they want to remember? What is their responsibility as artists creating a memorial to carry the idea of Zachor?
At around this time, Colleen’s Humanities class revisited the notion of whose story is being told. For example, the students studied the language of the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and examined what was originally meant by “All men are created equal.” Students examined a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote about the African American scientist Benjamin Banneker, which provided insight into how Jefferson may have viewed the story of the contribution of non-whites to the field of science. The students examined the etching Paul Revere created about the Boston Massacre, comparing this visual representation with the documented historical facts of the incident. They evaluated the single story that Paul Revere wanted to tell and why he would choose to present this story.
Phase Three: Planning
The next step for the students was to decide what their goal was in size, scale, function and design. After selecting Zachor as their over-arching theme, the students became fascinated by the use of hands, as inspired by the Holocaust Memorial of Miami. It was essential for our students that this memorial be something personal to their generation; they wanted to demonstrate their responsibility for carrying the legacy of memory to the next generations. This idea was born from their realization that they are the last generation to know survivors of the Holocaust. Two of the students have grandparents who survived the Holocaust and spoke with the class in person, reinforcing their personal connections and responsibility. The class wanted to connect these grandparents and their grandchildren together in the final memorial construction; their art reflected their theme of Zachor, representing the passing of memory from generation to generation.
Colleen and Rhiannon acted as facilitators of their students’ discovery and left them to explore what their vision for a memorial would be. Students maintained creative control over their construction of their memorial. This is a key component in the project, to allow the students to take ownership over the project. The educators acted as facilitators to bring the students’ vision to fruition. Students worked independently on sketches of design ideas, and presented them to the student group. The students then worked collaboratively to decide what elements were kept, and what elements were discarded. Collectively, the group decided: hands, cement, plant-life or an element of nature and growth, and the symbol of the Star of David.
Phase Four: Trial and Error
This part was the most fun! Students were able to take risks and fail without fear. If something didn’t work, the class put their heads together to figure out why, and build a better way. Students spent the end of first semester and start of the second semester reflecting on and attempting different construction strategies. After the students determined the shape and structure of their memorial- a multi-tiered 5 ft sculpture- they chose cement as their medium of construction. Cement was a new medium, even for Rhiannon, so she and the students did a lot of testing! Artisan cement and alginate castings of the student’s actual hands proved to be the winning strategy. This process was not simple or quick; they spent weeks perfecting the art of hand castings and mixing artisan-fine cement.
Phase Five: Prototype
Spending weeks in construction was exciting, exhausting, and empowering. The seventh grade students, having fully integrated their background knowledge and research on the Holocaust with their artistic vision, were tireless in their effort to create a memorial that serves as a beacon for their greater community in the Hartford area, and specifically for their Schechter family. The students chose to construct their memorial on Schechter’s campus, the first of many Legacy Projects they hope to inspire. The students also commissioned local artist Amy Deming to create a metal sculpture of an abstract three-dimensional Jewish Star. The students were excited to see their sketch come to life, as Amy took their vision and made it a reality. Finally, students added life with plants and flowers that were thoughtfully selected, representing flowers of Europe and of Israel as well as daffodils to symbolize rebirth and growth. A video team from Facing History and Ourselves captured the students’ emotions and experiences throughout the process here.
Phase Six: Reflections
As part of Colleen Simon’s Humanities class, students wrote beautiful reflections in the form of essays, speeches, flyers, posters, and a website. The website and posters were helpful as the students planned an unveiling of the memorial for the community. The students personally reached out to members of the community through emails, flyers, personal invitations and press releases. To culminate their year of hard work, a wide range of guests from family and friends, to local government representatives and Holocaust survivors, gathered for “Our Legacy Lives On,” the students’ memorial dedicated to the Survivors of the Holocaust and the generations that thrived after. Students also created beautiful information cards with their Artist Statement and Intent for the memorial that we have for distribution at the school. The students also gave tours to Schechter’s guests and other students who had questions about their memorial. The memorial will live and breathe with the school; its vegetation may be added to, cared for, and maintained.
This interdisciplinary collaboration between Judaism, Humanities, and Fine Arts was so successful that Colleen and Rhiannon have decided to extend their project into a second year. This idea of history through art and story will continue and build upon the experience the students have gained through their creation of the monument honoring Holocaust survivors. In Humanities, the continuation of The Legacy Project for the students’ eighth grade year will explore the stories of men and women who have survived difficult events in their lives. As the year progresses, the students will be learning American history through the stories of those who were here first, those who were forced to come and those who chose to come. Within each of these units live the stories of survivors.
This fall, the students studied the forced education of Indigenous peoples at reservation schools. The students listened to testimony and viewed photographs of the young boys and girls who were sent to these schools and how it impacted their identity and narrative. Honoring the ideals set forth by Facing History and Ourselves, students will make connections between these Indigenous children as survivors and the survivors of the Holocaust. The ongoing collaborative work this year will reflect the students’ study into Survivor Stories. The students will continue the project-focused structure this year, working on an independent project to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be a survivor. After learning interviewing techniques and meeting with a person who is a survivor of harsh circumstance (violence, genocide, illness, etc), the students will create a written biography and an artwork representing the individual they have gotten to know and researched.
Throughout her 16 years teaching middle school English Language Arts and Social Studies at both private and public schools, Colleen Simon developed a passion to help educators teach the difficult lessons of genocide. Since 2009, Colleen has planned workshops for “Teach for the Future: Holocaust and Genocide Education in the 21st Century,” sponsored by the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. She helps develop educational materials for the Holocaust Education Resource and Outreach (HERO) Center, which is a joint initiative between Voices of Hope and the Maurice Greenberg Center at the University of Hartford.
In 2014, Colleen was named a national teacher of the year through the National Catholic Educators Association (NCEA). She has created Humanities curriculum for Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford and other schools. Colleen has also written lesson plans for the Anti Defamation League and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She was the recipient of the Joseph Zola Award and Grant to develop Holocaust/genocide curriculum. Colleen was a fellow with Fund for Teachers, enabling her to travel to Poland with an Auschwitz survivor. She has received additional training at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a teacher fellow.
Colleen’s research as a PhD student focuses on how slavery has been taught in the United States.
Rhiannon Van Bindsbergen
Rhiannon Van Bindsbergen has been teaching Art Education since 2008, after receiving a BA in Fine Art and Art History, with concentrations in painting and Italian Renaissance. Rhiannon has worked for the last three years at Solomon Schechter Day School as the Teaching Artist in Residence. She received training from Facing History and Ourselves and was awarded a grant for their Project Focused Learning Initiative (PFLI) in its first year, working with Schechter’s seventh grade students to create their Memorials and Monuments Project. Rhiannon hopes to continue her collaboration with Facing History and is expanding this project to encompass Schechter’s entire Middle School Curriculum.
Over the years, Rhiannon has worked with K-8 students in both museums and schools. During her five years with Clovis Unified School District, she was contracted to build an Art Curriculum for the district’s Kindergarten program, as well as their Enrichment Programs for 4-6th grade. Her curriculum is still in place within the California Distinguished School District.