“Today’s lesson is going to begin in a weird way,” I tell my students.
A student snickers: “So today will be nothing new?” I take the comment as a compliment.
“Have you ever played headbands? Today is a version of that game. I will place a sticky note on your forehead. Please do not tell anyone what the note says. Once everyone has been labeled, I want you to walk around the room treating each other only according to the label.”
The colorful labels include phrases like: I’m so popular, I’m a bully, I have no friends, I like to gossip, I love sports, I have tons of school spirit, I am very sassy, I like to joke, etc.
The students giggle, the classroom is loud. I instruct them to take their seats but keep their label stuck to their foreheads. The image of twenty plus adolescents with post-it notes on their heads is hilarious.
After a series of warm-up questions, I go in for the kill. I comment: “You were very gifted at treating each other according to your labels. Why do you think humans label? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this human behavior?”
Of course, this lesson is about the Holocaust. This lesson is about the creation of “other.”
I instruct the students to write in a chart, labeled with five categories: the creation of other, prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and persecution. We discuss definitions and I give examples of how the Jews were systematically moved along this continuum until extermination. I point out that Hitler called it the Final Solution.
All day long I bite my tongue. I do not bring current events into the lesson. I keep it historical. The staff has been warned to keep our political opinions to ourselves. I try to keep the current political climate out of my classroom.
But I fail.
A student says: “Mrs. Brown, have you heard about the bomb threats and the cemeteries?” He is, of course, referring to the bomb threats on Jewish Community Centers and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, one incident which was in neighboring Rochester, NY just last week.
I still refrain from drawing conclusions for my students. I don’t analyze or connect. I simply let the class discuss with one another. The students are thoughtful. They make poignant correlations. Some students are silent, all are engaged. This is the world we, the adults, are showing them. These will be our future voters.
As for me, I will continue to label my students.