8th Graders Make Holocaust Measure a Reality
Teacher Fred Whittaker of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School first toured the Museum on a teacher trip organized by the Jewish Federation of Louisville. Whittaker was so impressed, he returned home determined to bring St. Francis students to the Museum, too.
But the first trip with students did not go well, according to Whittaker, "I was not prepared to answer their questions and help them understand the history and the issues it raises," he said. As a result, he became determined "to figure out how to go into the subject and come out of it safely."
That commitment led him to participate in a number of Holocaust education programs, including the Museum's Kentucky Teachers Conference and Belfer National Conference for Educators. (The Belfer conference, he said, offered him "relief and hope.")
Then when the Holocaust unit he was teaching three years ago came to a conclusion, his eighth-grade class expressed dismay that not all students have the opportunity to study the subject. "All of them felt they had gone through amazing changes as a result of their study," said Whittaker. "They were saying things like ‘I wish everyone could do this' and ‘There ought to be a law'. I said, ‘Well, you could do something about this.'"
Whittaker's St. Francis students pressed Kentucky legislators for the next three years, learning the art of compromise and coping with frustration along the way. Finally, success: House Joint Resolution 6—called the "Ernie Marx Resolution" after the Holocaust survivor who accompanied the students on numerous trips to this Museum—now requires the state to develop a Holocaust and genocide curriculum.
"Lots of people in the legislature tried to discourage us, saying it wasn't going to go anywhere," said Whittaker. "But we were outraged. We realized we were being ignored, and we remained committed to our Resolution. It was a true David vs. Goliath story and outrage became our best tool."
Whittaker will return again to the Museum this fall with a new class of eighth graders. The annual trip has become a rite of passage at St. Francis. The students have raised money and spent the summer working in community service projects to earn a spot. For these Catholic students, the Holocaust unit is a study of faith in action for them, said Whittaker. "It forces us to ask, Why do we become who we are? Are our eyes open wide enough to examine the consequences of our choices on other people?"
"This Museum plays a tremendous role in helping us pass down a moral, spiritual, and historical legacy to our students," said Whittaker. "And with the lessons they learn, who knows where the eighth-graders of today and tomorrow will take us?"
St. Francis students testify before the legislature on this Kentucky Educational Television program.
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