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I don’t know if this fits into any of your categories of case studies, but
here is a story:
Kayla is a fifth grade teacher in my building who each year teaches about the
Holocaust as part of the social studies curriculum. Every year for the past
five years, Kayla has approached me, as the art teacher, and asked if I could
do an art project with the fifth graders that would address the topic of the
Each year I begged off, explaining my hesitation this way:
This is a huge issue. So huge, in fact, that adult artists have had
difficulty translating the horror of the death of more than 12 million Jews,
homosexuals, Gypsies, communists and others, into meaningful visual images. I
felt less than adequate in leading a group of 10 and 11 year olds through a
project that would result in images that were meaningful rather then trivial.
This past year, Kayla took a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC
and brought back a collection of posters. She shared the posters with me and
they were quite moving: A photograph of a child’s wooden pull-toy that was
overlaid on to a map/blueprint of one of the Camps, a photograph of a pile of
shoes, cloth patches of pink triangles and Stars of David.
I dediced that this was the year I would confront the issue. In April, I
made a presentation to the fifth graders. I talked about what Kayla had asked
me and about my hesitations. I showed the students the posters. We talked
about how the very fact of their simplicity and the every-day nature, the
“commonness” of the images took on great meaning because we were aware of
their context, of who owned the toy and what became of that child and of who
wore the shoes and what became of the people.
We talked about the issues of distance and the passage of time, about how
none of us in the room were even born when these events took place. None of
the fifth graders were Jewish, none had relatives who had been in the Camps.
I was asked if I was Jewish, (I am) but I have no relatives who had been in a
We discussed how many of the most moving memorials were quite simple, and in
their simplicity resided their power to move people: the Vietnam War
Memorial, John Kennedy’s eternal flame, (one student had recently been to the
US Arizona in Pearl Harbor and suggested it as an example).
We decided that each student would create a single ceramic slab about 5x7
inches and on the slab they would glaze a single word (rather than a
picture). We “brain-stormed” and generated dozens of words on the board that
the students thought were relevant to the Holocaust: children, death,
sadness, horror, peace, hatred, murder and so on. I asked that no judgments
be made about any individual word. Each student could select a word to be
placed on their tile. When the tiles were glazed and fired they were arranged
randomly on the floor in an alcove at the bottom of a stair-well to form a
kind of found poem.
Now, as a project I think it was quite successful. So what are the dilemmas?
There is a kind of isolated quality to all of this. How is it connected to
the wider, contemporary, what we call the “real world.” Reports came back to
me that other children, not involved in the project, were heard making
anti-Semitic comments about the display. A number of parents came up to me at
the open-house/school-wide art show and said that they were surprised that I
had taken on such a “controversial” issue. (“The Nazis are controversial,” I
asked? “I thought that it was a settled question. I thought the verdict on
the Nazis was in!”) A Greek parent asked why I had done something on the Jews
but not about the Greeks.
I should add that not all the responses were negative (or bizarre). One
teacher took a photograph of the display. Her grandmother had been a survivor
and she wanted her to see what we had done. I had other favorable comments as
But the questions remain for me, and maybe for you: How do you do socially
relevant art in an elementary school art room setting? Our time is so short,
our curriculum is so isolated. How do you turn the responses into “teachable
moments?” Are there more questions that can be pulled from this experience?