Teaching a subject as weighty as the Holocaust is no easy feat. It can be an even greater challenge for English literature instructors who have little background in Holocaust studies to teach literature set during the Holocaust.
“A book like The Diary of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank, is a wonderful and important work, but the book itself doesn’t tell much about the Holocaust,” said Illinois State University’s Associate Professor Emerita of English Paula Ressler. “It’s generally up to teachers to fill in those gaps and explain what’s happening outside the attic where the Franks hid.”
Ressler and former English and Women’s and Gender Studies faculty member Becca Chase aim to contextualize Holocaust literature and provide pedagogical guidance for current and future English teachers through their new book, Meaningful Encounters: Preparing Educators to Teach Holocaust Literature (Rowman & Littlefield). Ressler hopes the work can help teachers across the country. “I’ve observed students who had to teach Holocaust texts, and the frustration that came because they did not have the background,” she said. “They need a way to navigate.”
With the aim of giving educators a base of knowledge, the book unpacks oversimplified concepts about the Holocaust, It includes a brief history of the Holocaust, events leading up to it, and its aftereffects. “The book is designed to build on what teachers and students already know, challenge misconceptions, generate empathy for victims and survivors, and help them better understand the moral issues people faced that relate to what people face today,” said Ressler, who added Meaningful Encounters links the difficult content with literary theories and educational practices that promote deep learning.
The work is a case study of an English teacher education course taught by Ressler. “Becca and I identify and analyze the issues these preservice [future] teachers grappled with,” she said. “Beginning with their efforts to recognize contemporary antisemitism, we track how the education students explored big themes in literature and pedagogy, such as ethical and moral dilemmas, feminist literary criticism of Holocaust literature and feminist writing about the Holocaust, classroom dissonance, and literacy education.”
Chase believes Meaningful Encounters can provide insights for teachers on more than the Holocaust. “The book can be a useful reference for educators interested in teaching about genocides and mass atrocities in responsible and ethical ways,” she said. “It also can help teachers and their students link what happened then to today’s world.”
Helping teachers engage students in difficult conversations supports the development of lifelong skills geared toward building mutual respect, noted Chase. “A lot of people don’t touch subjects like the Holocaust in class because the subjects are too fraught, or they don’t go into them too deeply because they think doing so will be too traumatic,” said Chase. A former assistant director of Illinois State’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, Chase is a writer and editor who served on the staffs of the feminist journals Sojourner, Women’s Review of Books, and woman of power. “But to understand ethical and moral dilemmas people experience today—and to stand up to injustice—students and their teachers need exposure, theory, discourse, and praxis.”
Both Ressler and Chase have been active in social justice work throughout their lives and careers, within the Civil Rights, peace, and LGBTQ liberation movements. “There is a Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, meaning ‘repairing the world.’ This effort is at the core of our practices. It’s why I became a teacher,” said Ressler, who is the author of Dramatic Changes: Talking about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity with High School Students through Drama (Heinemann), winner of an Outstanding Book Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.
In November, Ressler and Chase will present their research to the National Council of Teachers of English.
Meaningful Encounters: Preparing Educators to Teach Holocaust Literature is available now.