Editor's Note: Global Solutions Pittsburgh, an education and human rights group in Pennsylvania, recently paired up with a school in Pittsburgh to teach eighth grade students about genocide. In this guest blog post and accompanying video, Global Solutions Pittsburgh's Michele Cahill describes the intiative and why she personally found the work inspiring.
In 2007, Katheryn Gaertner returned from a trip to Poland where she visited Auschwitz and several other Holocaust extermination camps. Gaertner, who is a language arts teacher at Winchester Thurston Lower School, or WT, in Pittsburgh, said that the trip disturbed her so much she wanted to share this experience with her students.
“When I came back I just made it my mission to work with the kids and find a way to educate them, and through them other people,” Gaertner said. So during the 2007-2008 school year, she initiated the WT Holocaust Project, an annual interdisciplinary project that educates eighth grade students about the Holocaust and genocide. The project also requires students to apply their knowledge by conducting research and designing a multimedia art exhibit for the annual WT Holocaust Project Museum.
This year, the teacher committee that guides the eighth grade Holocaust Project invited Global Solutions Pittsburgh to serve as a community and education partner. We were more than excited to participate.
Winchester Thurston invited the staff of Global Solutions Pittsburgh to speak to its eighth grade class, so a colleague and I addressed the students, discussing the “eight stages of genocide,” as well as touching on the various genocides that have taken place since the Holocaust. This partnership helped enrich the students’ study of the Holocaust and provided a base for their research. We also had the opportunity to serve as mentors for individual student projects, helping the students get a better focus on the people and subjects they were honoring in their final museum exhibit.
After all the hard work, research, and design, the WT Holocaust Project Museum opened on January 11, 2012, featuring guest speakers David Rosenberg of the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, who spoke on the current situation in Sudan; Brian Atuhire, a behavior change communications specialist, who spoke about the Rwandan genocide; and several student presenters who spoke about their experiences throughout the fall term and how developing their project had impacted them personally. The gallery was open until February 3, attracting visitors from all over the Pittsburgh community.
“When we started the project I didn’t know genocide was still an issue today,” said Joan M., an eighth grade student at Winchester Thurston. “Realizing that it was a real problem still was scary, and it also made us realize that we really did need to do something.”
After the WT eighth grade students finished their museum project, they still felt compelled to do more and take action to assist survivors of a more modern genocide, Darfur. During a class trip in September to Washington, D.C., the students met with staff from the Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools Program, which works with schools like Winchester Thurston throughout the U.S. to support quality primary education in Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad, as well as to develop mutually beneficial relationships between schools in the U.S and in the refugee camps. The WT students decided to participate in the program and help make a difference in the lives of modern genocide survivors.
The WT students are committed to their partnership with the Darfur Dream Team and are anxiously awaiting further connections with their sister school in eastern Chad. It is our hope that they will be able to contact students in their sister school to learn about their experiences with genocide, as well as in the refugee camps. They have also collected money through donations in their museum and plan to host several other fundraisers for Darfur Dream Team throughout the year.
For me, what has been most inspiring about this project is that for an entire academic year, eighth grade students dedicated time every single week to educate themselves, educate their community, and help survivors of genocide. It has been a real privilege to work with these amazing students and teachers at Winchester Thurston, and I am honored to have been a part of their education and activism.
Michele Cahill is the manager of education programs at Global Solutions Pittsburgh.
Photo: 2012 Winchester Thurston Holocaust Project Museum (Global Solutions Pittsburgh)