All good history teachers work to bring the past alive for their students. Yes, it wreaks of cliche, but there is a grain of truth in the attempt to broaden our students’ perspective, to help them to see themselves as part of a broader narrative. In working toward this end we introduce students to a wide range of experiences from traditional primary sources to the sights and smells of the past. Some of the most meaningful lessons are those that provide an opportunity for students to make a personal connection with the past and that connection is often couched in emotion. This is not easy to do, and I don’t mind admitting that I tend to steer clear of these types of lessons, not because of any skepticism regarding the value of emotional identification, but owing to its potential to become a distraction from the historical reference itself. At the same time I believe that the history classroom can be an ideal setting in which students can exercise their other-regarding emotions such as empathy and sympathy. Again, my concern is that it be done carefully and with an understanding that up to a certain age students are self-centered and self-conscious.
With this in mind consider the lesson plan of Haverstraw Middle School teacher, Eileen Bernstein, who, in an attempt to teach the horrors of the slave trade chose to bind the hands and feet of her students and have them crouch under their desks. Her goal was to impress upon them the cramped quarters of a slave ship. As you can imagine some of the parents were very upset with the teacher’s decision after their children came home visibly upset. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough information to gauge how the teacher used this simulation in class. How did she hope to translate the emotion of the simulation where hands and feet are tied and turn it into a history lesson? What questions were the children being asked to consider?
The teacher in question has apologized for causing any problems with her students, but refuses to apologize for using the simulation in class. I’m just waiting for the next story where the teacher asks her Jewish students to simulate “Sophie’s Choice” upon entering a mock Concentration Camp.