Two Southmont Jr. High School teachers attended a national Holocaust education conference in Washington, D.C. this summer, drawing on the ordeals of victims and survivors to teach students about the genocide.

English teacher Erin Jones and social studies teacher Jordan Hatch represented the school in the Belfer National Conference for Educators at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. More than 200 teachers from across the nation met with scholars and educators to reinforce their understanding of Holocaust history and develop strategies for teaching the subject in the classroom.

“Educating students about the history of the Holocaust provides an opportunity for young people to think critically not only about the past but also about their roles in society today,” Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives for the museum’s William Levin Family Institute for Holocaust Education, said in a statement.

As area schools put renewed emphasis on the legacy of the period, Southmont formed a committee of teachers to create lesson plans and programs. State law requires Holocaust education in schools. Holocaust survivor Eva Kor visited local schools and gave a public lecture before her death in July and eighth graders make annual trips to Kor’s museum in Terre Haute.

Jones, who became interested in the Holocaust after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in middle school, was seeking more background on Jewish history and culture when teaching the book in her own classroom.

Students take online 3-D tours of the secret annex where the teenaged Frank and her family was in hiding for more than two years, and read journals written by imprisoned Jews in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto.

The stories are a springboard to lessons about tolerance and human rights, present-day genocides and issues facing other cultures, races and religions. 

At the conference, museum scholars urged educators to avoid teaching or implying that the Holocaust was inevitable. And romanticizing the tales of people saving Jews from deportation to the concentration camps inaccurately portrays the response, scholars say.

“[The students] love those stories, but in fact less than 1% of the general population stepped up and helped,” Jones said.

Two Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the museum spoke at the conference and the teachers explored the museum’s latest exhibit, which examines the factors that shaped Americans’ response to the Nazis.

Jones said she plans to include more testimony from Holocaust survivors and non-fiction accounts of the genocide into her teachings. She and a group of other local educators will be at Auschwitz in January to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

The museum provides free lesson plans, historical information and other resources on its website. Educators with more experience teaching about the Holocaust and who’ve attended the conference can apply for the museum’s teacher fellowship program. 

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