Reading, Teaching, Learning

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Slice of Life Story Challenge - What I Know For Sure - Walk a Mile


     It's Day 11 of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, started by Two Writing Teachers.  I am writing around the theme topic of "What I Know For Sure." (See Day 1 for a full explanation.)
 
 
We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the hellfire.
– Moshe Szulsztein
 Image and poem from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit
 
I have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. twice.  Once was in 2008 with Ed and the girls, and then Ed and I visited again, just the two of us, this past fall.  The first time was an incredibly emotional experience.  It was difficult to concentrate on the exhibits, taking in the monstrosities of the Holocaust while wanting to protect the girls from many of the images.  There is so much to see, read, and feel.  It's dark and crowded inside, and it takes hours to fully appreciate everything the museum shows and teaches you.  I managed to keep my emotions somewhat in check until I came to the 4,000 victims' shoes on display.  These were shoes "the Nazis systematically confiscated from their victims at the killing centers of Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Chełmno, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau."  The musty, leathery smell and the heartbreaking humanity of the shoes overwhelmed me, and I finally lost it.
 
When just Ed and I returned this past fall, we decided we wanted to go through it again.  This time, since we had already experienced the initial impact, we were able to linger over the shoes, pointing out the various lives they represented.  We pictured the people who stood in them.  Some are high-heeled, some are work boots, some are baby shoes.  We talked about their owners' possible stories, hopes, and dreams.  They break your heart.
 
What is it about shoes?  They are so personal, so functional, so stylish.  Our sayings about not judging people until you walk a mile in someone's shoes come alive when you stand there looking at all those remnants of real people.  All those lives.  It brings home the absolute necessity of directly teaching and practicing empathy to prevent this kind of event from continuing to happen.  Our children, our students, our young people need to be explicitly taught to practice feeling what other people feel.  To come alongside others in order to understand, connect, and experience their worries, their pain, their joys.  This doesn't come naturally or easily to everyone.  It is a challenge for me many days, especially when I am tired, preoccupied, or busy.  It may require defining and practicing.  Adults need to model it - for each other and for our kids. 
 
My friend, Megan (yes, the one I wrote about a few slices ago), and I teach an empathy unit that we developed to our students every September.  There are many books out there, written by wonderful authors, to help us demonstrate it.  Our classes talk, write, and read about it.  We refer back to those touchstone texts all year.  Empathy must be developed to fully appreciate the characters in our books and the people in our lives.  Stories are one of our best ways to teach empathy.
 
I know that teaching empathy to fifth graders in September is not going to solve racism, bullying, prejudice, and genocide.  I know those shoes will still be piled high in the museum, and more shoes will be left behind across the world as war and murder rage on. 
 
But one thing I know for sure:  We are the last witnesses.  If we don't teach compassion and empathy as parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and mentors, who will?  We have to fill those shoes with living, breathing people of mercy.

9 comments:

  1. Wow. This is incredibly powerful stuff here. I visited a former concentration camp in Germany while I was in high school. While I don't remember a ton of specifics, I do remember the feeling of looking around at my friends. We were an exuberant, lively bunch.... but not that day. That day we were all stunned into utter silence.

    I'm going to take a look at your unit. I'm working on WNDB with my fifth graders, and I'd like to see what you do!

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  2. This hit me. That pile of shoes, that pile of shoes.When people come into my 2nd grade, they are always amazed by how empathetic my kids are. Thank you amazing picture books. I couldn't have said this better: "But one thing I know for sure: We are the last witnesses. If we don't teach compassion and empathy as parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and mentors, who will? We have to fill those shoes with living, breathing people of mercy."

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  3. You stopped me in my tracks when you posed: "Our sayings about not judging people until you walk a mile in someone's shoes come alive when you stand there looking at all those remnants of real people. All those lives. It brings home the absolute necessity of directly teaching and practicing empathy.." The fact that you and your colleague developed a unit to teach empathy is a game-changer for these kids, and all who they will impact through their lives. You're sending waves of empathy and acceptance through coming generations.

    I'd LOVE to get the files on your unit, and share something similar with my students!

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  4. I've enjoyed reading all your Slice of Life posts, today's was especially moving. Empathy and acceptance are so important, love this quote "But one thing I know for sure: We are the last witnesses. If we don't teach compassion and empathy as parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and mentors, who will? We have to fill those shoes with living, breathing people of mercy."

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  5. I, too, was touched by this post. I know I would have cried at all those shoes. Teaching empathy is important. What you know for sure is powerful and can spread. Love this line, "We have to fill those shoes with living, breathing people of mercy.

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  6. Holly, you have a lot of people interested in your unit! I went to the Holocaust Museum almost twenty years ago with our kids, and my visit was much like yours. I think it's time for me to revisit it. Thank goodness for teachers like you in our world filling " ...those shoes with living, breathing people of mercy."

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  7. Such a beautiful post, Holly - those last lines took my breath away.

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  8. My eyes were filled with tears the entire time I was reading. Thank you for sharing this...

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  9. I have wanted to travel overseas for a long time... I didn't know of the museum in Washington. Still far but more possible.

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