Teaching an Under the Radar Topic

It’s always interesting to hear what is and is not taught in various high school history classrooms around the country.  One teacher might spend 3 weeks on Civil Rights, another only 1 week.  One might discuss the Cambodian Genocide and another might not.  I know it is a challenge to fit in all the required topics each year and to go into each topic in depth enough to do it justice, so finding time to discuss under the radar topics might be impossible, but with it being standardized testing season, keeping kids busy with these types of topics after they finish their tests might be a good way to start incorporating this type of material.

teaching some under the radar topics, like Nazi Germany's Lebensborn program

World War 2, the Holocaust, and related people and events from the 1930-1945 time period have always been my passion.  Since 3rd or 4th grade I have read about children in hiding, Auschwitz, a Jewish soldier in Hitler’s ranks, the bombing of Dresden, medical experiments on twins at Auschwitz, the Monuments Men, and so much more (probably close to a thousand books just on people/places/events/topics from 1930-1945).  The Nazi program of Lebensborn is a topic that I always spend a day teaching my students about though I have yet to see any of my colleagues mention it in their classes.

This was a program designed to increase the “pure Aryan” population by having genetically ideal Aryan men and women who were pro-Nazi/Pro-Hitler procreate (regardless of their marital status) and have what would hopefully be genetically ideal Aryan babies.  Children who had the ideal physical characteristics Hitler wanted were even taken from their families as Nazis spread across Europe, they were brought back to Germany to “good” Nazi families, and attempts to “Germanize” them began.  If the kids couldn’t be “Germanized” they were taken to extermination camps and suffered the same fate as Jews.

A couple of years ago, I printed out an article on Lebensborn for my students to read, analyze, and reflect on when they finished their state standardized test of the day.  I knew virtually all of my students would be learning about this for the first time, but it didn’t occur to me that it was new information to many of my colleagues as well.  I was incredibly flattered when I was asked to speak about it at our department meeting and to provide each of the other classes of juniors with the same assignment.

teaching some under the radar topics, like Nazi Germany's Lebensborn program

Flash forward a few years and here I am on TpT and I decided to make a more universally teacher friendly version of the assignment.  So just yesterday I made a Lebensborn Webquest and posted it to my store.  Out of curiosity, I did a search for other TpT resources on Lebensborn and the only results I got were my webquest and the 2 bundles it’s part of.  So that was very interesting to me.  It implies that no other teachers have made resources for it because either they don’t teach it themselves, or if they do teach it, they don’t think anyone else would teach it so why take the time and effort to make something that no one will ever use.  So let’s see what happens.  This will either sit untouched in my store forever, or someone will happen to come across it and think the same thing I did a few years ago: that this would be a good under the radar topic for their students to learn about after sitting through a standardized test.

Are there topics you teach that are under the radar?  I’d love to read about it in the comments!

Links for more information on Lebensborn:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/world/europe/07nazi.html?_r=1& https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Lebensborn.html

In a Perfect World I Would Teach…

In a perfect world I’d love to teach at a high school where I could (within reason) create my own classes.  At my high school, seniors took 6-week seminar style social studies electives and I LOOOOOOVED it.  I chose to take one on the 1920s, another on the Vietnam War, another on current events in Africa, and I actually don’t remember the other one (oops, sorry amazing seminar teachers).  Ever since then I thought that would be a great way to teach.  I would have students in the class who genuinely wanted to be there and I would be able to teach things I was truly passionate and exceptionally knowledgeable about.  I would be able to take a small-ish topic and go more in depth with it than a traditional class schedule would allow.

what and how I would love to teach one day in a perfect world

what and how I would love to teach one day in a perfect world

Yes I enjoy teaching (and am knowledgeable about) a lot of topics in the history/social studies world, but I certainly have my preferences.  I have always wanted to teach a full class on Europe from 1919-1945 and another class JUST on the Holocaust, but again, even short seminars (like half a semester each) on topics such as art theft throughout history would be great.

One reason why this has been on my mind lately is because I do have a lot of flexibility in what I teach in my Thursday class.  If you’re new here, it originally started out per the director as a “Music Theory” class, but then due to parent opinion turned into a “Western Culture and Civilization” class with a preferable focus on including art or music of some kind within each topic.  I had incorrectly predicted the pace at which we would move during the French Revolution Unit and we finished it 3 weeks before spring break.  I didn’t want to start another “big” topic/unit because our spring break is 2 weeks long and I didn’t want the kids brain dumping everything so with permission from the director, I decided to teach a mini-unit on art theft throughout history.

I was honestly REALLY excited about this.  It was going to be completely out of the box for the kids and I hoped that my enthusiasm would help keep them focused even though spring break was in sight.  The first week I told them we were starting something totally new and they’d learn what we were going to study by completing a cloze passage.  I made one passage for the 5th/6th graders, another for 7/8, and a third for the 9/10 kids.  Since NONE of the kids had done a cloze passage before I suggested that they skim the page first, see if they could get any clues, and then start filling in the blanks.  I also told them to not get hung up on the “right” word (as in the word I had in my answer key), but rather a word that would still provide a reader with the general gist, so if I wrote authorities and they wrote police that was fine, if I wrote escaped and they wrote got away I told them that was fine too.  The kids all figured out that it was about art/painting theft and after we discussed the general gist of the passage we dove into the material.

The cloze passage had given them an overview of the topic and contained detailed a few different examples of art theft, including one where the thief was caught but the art was not recovered (they had a lot of fun guessing where the paintings could be and how we might find them), one where the thief and the paintings were recovered, one where neither the thieves nor art was recovered, and then they had a paragraph about this topic during WW2 (we followed that up the second week of this topic by spending the whole class period talking about art theft during WW2).

We then looked at pictures of dozens of paintings that had been stolen over time and the kids had a lot of really great discussions about why people steal, what their motivation is, is the risk worth the potential reward, what makes paintings in particular a target, etc, and then they diverged into the half-serious-half 7th grade-mentality of “I bet this is how they got away with it,” and their thought process was definitely sci-fi movie worthy than class worthy.

On the last day of this unit, I divided the kids up in to pairs/groups of 3 and they were each presented with a real life case of art theft, and then acting as reporters, presented the facts to the rest of the class press conference style, and answered the questions posed by their classmates.  Having something physical like that the day before spring break, and interactive, I think was huge in keeping them engaged.  I recommended Woman in Gold and Monuments Men to them to watch over spring break since overall they were pretty enthusiastic about the topic, and one parent already emailed me thanking me for the recommendations, as a family they had already watched Woman in Gold and were going to watch Monuments Men next week.

When class let out I did feel bad that we couldn’t keep discussing this topic after spring break since we do have the rest of the curriculum to get through, but it definitely reignited my burning desire to not just teach history from the Revolutionary War through the Cold War for the rest of my career.  I love it, I do, but I also really really really want to teach classes on smaller/more focused topics.  Maybe I should start considering higher ed?  We’ll see what opportunities present themselves in the next few years.

If you could teach anything you wanted what would it be?