Sunday, March 25, 2007

Six million what?

Lois Lowry recently posted on her blog a letter from a teacher who was having his students collect and tie together six million centimeters of shoe lace to "represent the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed in the Holocaust."

Lois seems all for this idea ("It is always such a pleasure to hear of and from imaginative teachers like Doug Greener in Maple Grove who do more than just assign a book, and whose students will always remember what they have learned in his class") but I have my doubts.

Oh, okay, I'm flat-out scandalized. What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism. Through repetitive tasks (collecting shoelaces and tying them together) and the sheer accumulation of material objects, the point of the exercise is--what, exactly? That six million is a whole lot? Sixth-graders don't know this? What will the participants understand about the Holocaust that truly challenging assignments--in history, literature, and the arts--could not teach them, better and with more nuance? I assume since the teacher was writing to Lowry, author of the frequently taught Number the Stars, that this shoelace-tying is but part of a larger curriculum on the Holocaust, but when it comes to "students remembering what they have learned in class," I fear that what these students are going to remember is "sixth-grade, the year we tied together six million centimeters of shoelaces."

What bothers me most about this project is that it fools kids think they have learned something about the Holocaust; hell, it fools them into thinking they have done something about the Holocaust. But what such a project does--at best--is makes kids feel something about the Holocaust. But that feeling is unearned; worse, it seems earned, because the kids have devoted so much (useless) labor to it.

But just tell me, please, that it's not a curricular tie-in (heh) with a math lesson.


Fern said...

I am essentially in agreement with your reading of the superficiality of this sort of academic cross-training exercise, in which students are asked to connect to something profound via something not so much. (I'm not sure it's really the same thing but I have a similar feeling of disconnect when I read about people biking or hiking across large land masses to raise awareness of rare diseases.) But I also have a more sympathetic reading of this particular assignment because I don't think we can assume that sixth graders--or adults--really understand the concept "six million." I don't know a whole lot about science education, but I think that one thing science educators try to do is to help kids get their heads around big numbers. This is presumably the goal here.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Roger on this one. Kids surely don't understand how much six million is -- but I'm not sure that seeing it in centimeters of shoelace is going to add anything to their understanding of the human impact. (Do they know how many people are in the world?) Better to engage them in thinking about totalitarianism, and xenophobia, and fascism, and utopianism, and how several groups of people were essentially entirely deleted from huge chunks of the developed world. If you're in an urban area, asking them to imagine all the nonwhite nonChristian nonheterosexual people they know being taken away gives a pretty good sense of "a lot of people."

Kelly Fineman said...

Sounds to me like the teacher read Six Million Paperclips and decided that it sounded too ambitious (true), but wanted to make the kids award just how enormous 6 million is.

The book (and the documentary about the project) are both excellent, and are about quantifying, in some way, the horror that was the Holocaust. And the kids from the paperclip project got a lot out of it -- and now they have a Holocaust museum in the middle of Tennessee, in a town that has (or at least had) no Jews.

Roger Sutton said...

Except, Fern, this is not science education, it's social science, and the goal is not to have children understand "six million" as a numerical concept but as a social one as specifically defined for a single event and, as you point out, its the horror of the event enumerated with the banality of the "commemorative" action that is so icky.

I'm with you on the rides,walks, etc., except those also have the result of more money for the sponsoring good cause. Why not have the kids collect six million pennies and send the money someplace relevant and useful?

Anonymous said...

"Better to engage them in thinking about totalitarianism, and xenophobia, and fascism, and utopianism, and how several groups of people were essentially entirely deleted from huge chunks of the developed world."

When you engage sixth graders in this kind of thinking, let me know, I'd like to see it.


Andy Laties said...

There's something else here. The thing is, the Final Solution was a science project.

Hitler was a Social Darwinist. He believed in the science of genetic modification of the human species. The Holocaust was of a piece with such state practices as forced sterilization in Vermont in the 1920s and a variety of other social engineering projects.

IBM provided the technological wherewithal for Hitler's project.

That is: pseudo-science (Social Darwinism) was the historical origin of the Holocaust. No old-style pogrom could have been so dramatically, systematically "effective" at mass-murder. IBM-style computerization (along with Ford-style mass-production techniques and theories) were essential for the implementation of the Holocaust.

And this is the argument against teaching children about the Holocaust by using a numerical/scientific approach. Better to have them reading the Diary Of Anne Frank.

It is the substitution of a mathematical understanding for a humanistic understanding that enabled the conception and enactment of the Holocaust in the first place.

Monica Edinger said...

I too thought of the Paper Clips project when first hearing of this one. However, I have to respectfully disagree with Kelly about it as I think both projects are not the way to go when helping children learn about the Holocaust. Both make me (from a family of Holocaust victims and survivors) a bit sick actually. Better they should read something real, The Diary of Anne Frank or Night or something else (when they are old enough --- but that is a different topic).

Anonymous said...

Also -- what about the other people, the ones who aren't counted in the "six million"? The Gypsies, the gays, the Communists?

-Rebecca Rabinowitz

Zolah said...

When I was about twelve, one of our maths teachers decided to teach us how to come to the numerical equation for a circle. He had us draw a circle with a compass, cut the circle into tiny slices (as many as possible) and then stick them back together on a piece of paper with the equation written neatly above it. What was that equation? What was the essential mathmatical truth behind this piece of 'practical' work? I have no idea. No memory whatsoever. I remember the tiny pieces of orange paper and the smell of the glue, and even the hair colour of the girl sitting next to me. But the real point of the exercise is completely lost. And this was a maths lesson. If this idea of linking the elevated to the mundane can't even convey the basic, 1+1=2 truths of maths, how on earth can it be expected to work when conveying human emotion and suffering?

As in so many cases, this strikes me as laziness disguised as innovation.

Anonymous said...

this variety of inane busy work has been going on at least since A THOUSAND CRANES. teachers should be embarrassed. and authos should be sad to see their books used in this way

Anonymous said...

Inane busy work - inspired perhaps by A THOUSAND CRANES - at least this sort of class project has long been a refuge of lazy teachers who want to congratulate themselves for their sensitivity. one would hope that an author would be embarrassed to have her work used in this way.

Uma Krishnaswami said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Uma Krishnaswami said...

Isn't this a result of the current mindless devotion to the ubiquitous State Standards? This teacher will no doubt be able to check off on some list that ties into whether his school makes the grade or not (or requires "corrective action") that he hit a social studies and a math benchmark in one swell foop in this dismaying exercise.

Andy Laties said...

Brian Selznick's new title "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" draws on the true story of how the director Melies, in poverty, sold his films (the original reels of film) and the celluloid was melted down to make plastic shoe-heels.

There's some parallel between that story and this Holocaust/shoelace exercise: a symbolic transmutation of Yesterday's Lives into Today's Shoes. Freaky, man.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anonymous (aka Rebecca Rabinowitz)....Why won't anyone admit it wasn't just Jewish people who died in concentration camps? Yes, there is no doubt 6 million Jews died in horrendous ways, and the Holocaust should always be remembered. But were the others who died not worth mentioning? Why is it deemed a travesty to even mention that others suffered similarly?

And why not use this as a teaching moment, as I do with my young child, to not just remember the
victims of the Holocaust, but also the victims of all events of genocide throughout the world, both in the past, and in the present? Use the Holocaust to discuss prejudice, racism, the evils of absolute power, etc...

Shoelaces don't do it. No more so than what was done local to me, where a school decided to teach about slavery but gathering all the students into the gym and having them lie on the floor, side by side inside a taped outline, to re-create the size and shape of a slave ship. What could that possibly teach?

Have teachers teach from the heart, not from the head, until the concepts hurt so much the next generations won't ever be inclined to repeat the horrors of the past.


--m said...

Unfortunately teachers are not allowed to teach from either the heart or the head. They must teach from their state's Essential Learning Requirements (which, btw, also require those cross-curricular tie-ins). Before one criticizes a teacher, I believe one should volunteer 2 hours a month (30 minutes once a week) tutoring reading or math in a public classroom. It doesn't take long to learn how constricted teachers are. Between state standards that must be met and an obscene lack of government funding, teachers are hogtied.

I imagine that the shoelace teacher has 30 students, some of whom can explain all the social and political repurcussions of World War II, and some of whom can't find their own hometown on a map. He's got to come up with *something* that will engage them all (it will be duly noted on his evaluation if some students are not interested in his lesson). He's probably hoping half of them come away from the lesson with some concept of the enormity of the loss. And, yes, he can tick off a few learning requirements for the principal during the next walkthrough.

If you want to get mad about dumb lessons, get mad at state and federal government and tell them to quit requiring things without paying for them so teachers aren't forced to teach the Holocaust on a shoestring. --m

Jennifer Elliott said...

If you read through the entire letter on Lowry's blog, it states that the students are collecting these laces and will eventually build a pair of large shoes to wrap those laces around. That, in turn, will be displayed at the state fair for all to see the enormity of the Holocaust. I think it's a wonderful idea.

Collecting laces specifically and building the shoes is also a very smart thing to do. If you've ever been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., one of the last things you will see are piles upon piles of shoes left over from the victims who were killed in that horrible event. I imagine there might be something detailing this in their project as well.

Also, think about this: Kids aren't just going around asking for shoelaces. Adults will be asking them why these laces are needed, and the students will have to explain how they're representing the millions of Holocaust victims in shoelace centimeters. This is not only educating the kids (because kids who teach what they learn are twice as likely to remember it), but it is educating the public as well.

As a teacher myself, I commend the creativity of this man! I find it very odd and sad that you and some of your readers felt the need to take the time out of your day to criticize such a dedicated professional.


annie said...

"Our goal is that this monument will honor the victims of that horrible
event, and will serve as a statement to the world that intolerance,
prejudice, racism, and hatred have no place in our world if we are to
have any chance of living in peace with one another."

This excerpt of the teacher’s letter posted on Lois Lowry’s blog stood out to me.
Perhaps the kids will remember that and the cooperation and community spirit they felt in making this gesture.

Anonymous said...

"--m said...
Unfortunately teachers are not allowed to teach from either the heart or the head. They must teach from their state's Essential Learning Requirements (which, btw, also require those cross-curricular tie-ins). Before one criticizes a teacher, I believe one should volunteer 2 hours a month (30 minutes once a week) tutoring reading or math in a public classroom. .....I imagine that the shoelace teacher has 30 students, some of whom can explain all the social and political repurcussions of World War II, and some of whom can't find their own hometown on a map. "

"m", your words hit the nail on the head. When a teacher cannot teach from either the head nor the heart, then school ceases to be useful to society.

Yes, I have volunteered in schools. Yes, I am a teacher - a teacher, with another profession as well, now a homeschool educator by choice. I am adamantly against the dumbing down of the curriculum, as is being done across the country, to supposedly make a happy compromise for all students. Our students - even those who are struggling- deserve far more. Kids should never be underestimated.

How can those students who - as you describe - understand the social and politial repercussions of WW2, gain any education by such an experiment? How can those who can't find their hometown on a map, find their true and strong voice by an experiment that requires them to find shoelaces for an experiment - shoelaces which they well may not even be able to afford for themselves?

Then again, how can present-day and future genocide be affected by such an experiment? Afterall, we cannot change the past, we can only hope to change the future.

There are other more creative options available to educate about genocide, options which may have real impact on our society, though these options require more effort on the part of schools and teachers.


Anonymous said...

OHMYGOD!!! The holocaust represented by a giant pair of shoes with shoelaces snaked around them? Please tell me that this is an early April Fool's day entry.

Andy Laties said...

"I find it very odd and sad that you and some of your readers felt the need to take the time out of your day to criticize such a dedicated professional."

Doesn't every professional hope that other professionals will take notice of his or her work??

I said that I thought the teacher's overemphasis on the math, in this yearlong lesson, as opposed to the human side of the subject, was problematic since Hitler himself was thinking about his victims as merely math/science objects (Social Darwinist genetic purification: eliminate a population in quantity, with success being measured as complete quantitative elimination, i.e. total mass murder).

That's a substantive critique, not an ad hominem attack on the teacher.

Of course perhaps this exact Hitler-the-pseudo-science-geek material is actually unbenownst-to-me already fully integrated into the lesson plan, in a year-long form, so as to counteract the excessive addition/awe component.

It doesn't take any time out of my day to think such critical thoughts. Thinking critically about the world helps me engage in self-criticism, and assists me in deciding how to take action in my own life. No doubt I'm guilty of inconsistencies of intent and action much more egregious than those those plaguing this teacher. I hope someone calls me on them.

Anonymous said...


I agree with others who have defended a teacher who is probably anything buy lazy. I think it likely that this exercise was part of a larger unit on the holocaust, genocide, the historical roots of the second world war. But I am still of the mind of M, that it was mostly a waste time. Think of the time and the money that went into this project to accomplish . . . what? As you said, a gesture. We are teaching the children to make a gesture instead of a difference. The holocaust was a terrible time in our history, to understand that, is to feel terrible about it. But we don't want our children to feel helpless and distressed, so we let them expiate their discomfort, at great cost in time and money, by collecting shoelaces. Now they don't feel bad anymore! Hurrah! (Don't tell them about Darfur.) I just don't think that this is, in the end, worthwhile.


Monica Edinger said...

Lois Lowry has responded to the comments here at:

Roger Sutton said...

Lois Lowry has responded to my remarks at her blog ( and I have to say that I think she has both mischaracterized and evaded my point, but judge for yourself. (I'm sorry I can't provide a link but the copy I made of Mitali Perkins' instructions for linking within comments is now incomprehensible to me.)

The issue of who to include as victims of the Holocaust is a long and contentious one. I'll just say that MORE shoelace won't help. As well, the issue of just how many Holocaust memorials we need has been the subject of debate, prompting several books within the last decade--I recommend Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life.

Contrary to M, I think the shoelace project is a case of a teacher teaching from the heart rather than the head, and this is the problem. The shoelaces--and the paper clips, and the proliferation of Holocaust memorials and Life Is Beautiful, and many (by no means all) novels and memoirs for children--sentimentalize history and tragedy. I don't think there is any place in education for making children feel good about feeling bad about the Holocaust.

shahairyzad said...

I completely agree with your concerns about this shoelace project. I think even your most mediocre 6th grade class is capable of delving deeper into this issue.

As for the sentimentalization of history, I don't think this has much to do with teaching from the head or the heart. This is simply what happens to tragedies over time, a process as predictable as the stages of grief.

I'm not saying that makes it okay. I'm just saying that it would be impossible to find any historical tragedy or conflict that has not been sentimentalized (WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, Gay Rights movement, etc.) This is especially true when the event in question offers (to those inclined to view things simply) a clear delineation between good and evil.

Since most people do not want to identify themselves as evil, or even partly evil, they look for ways to assure themselves that they are essentially good. To do that, they have to simplify the tragedy and romanticize the role they might have played in it had they been present at that time. Thus, we all like to believe we would never have been Nazis, we would never have turned in our friends and neighbors, we would have hidden our Jewish friends in our attics and closets, or, if we were Jewish, we would not have boarded those trains, we would not have gone into those camps, we would have made the whole world see what was going on, etc.

There ARE those who manage to avoid this sentimentalization. But I think they're fewer than we'd like to believe and limited mostly to those who were involved in the tragedy, either directly or through relatives and friends. These people eventually die, though, and while in the best possible worlds all their narratives and accounts would be preserved and society would continue to remember what happened, even this would not be enough to avoid the sentimentalization that comes with the passage of time.

So though I think we should expect better ideas from our teachers than just the mindless collecting of six million shoelaces, we shouldn't blame them if they're no better than the rest of us at keeping history clear and sentiment-free. Especially since, in the end, it's emotion--not fact--that makes us remember.

Andy Laties said...

I met some prospective booksellers, two years ago, who have been delivering books to people in prison -- prisoners who were arrested under the Patriot Act -- prisoners who have been held in prison and never told what crimes they were accused of.

Muslims in America today.

These prospective booksellers were planning to open a bookstore so as to have an aegis under which to do their book-distribution work, because it was illegal for them to be delivering these books as individual activists to these Patriot-Act Muslim prisoners, and because the library that had been their "umbrella entity" was nervous about continuing to serve that role for the anti-Patriot-Act activists, given the possible community criticism of library support for "possible terrorists" held in prison without charge.

There are a lot of current ways to teach American 6th Graders about social conditions that lead to genocide. Such as this kind of hometown dehumanization and "othering" of "different" people.

I haven't seen the "Paperclips" movie, so I can't comment about that original project as a Holocaust education project. I wonder whether the children so educated would step forward and deliver books to "possible terrorist" in prison in America today. I hope so.

There are approximately 4 million Americans who are presently in 6th Grade according to the U.S. Census. I would not think that they would wish to be represented to other people in some other time or place by 4 million centimeters of anything.

Our children's individuality is of their essence. 4 million 6th Graders is a very large number. Because this number refers to human beings, it's a problem when we stress this numerical descriptor: it dehumanizes these 4 million American 6th Graders to stress their 4-million-ness.

Let's think of 6 million of these people and 4 million of those people all as individuals. When we teach their lives, let's stress their individual humanity, not their sheer mind-boggling quantity.

We don't put all 4 million American 6th Graders into a single classroom and look at them through a one-way mirror. Instead we ask them to write poems, and then we read these poems, and we offer them libraries full of marvelous books and we help them each select a book to, alone, love.

In the Holocaust Museum in D.C. you have to walk through a series of rooms that tracks the process of degradation and destruction of a single Jewish family. This is what I'm advocating.

(I have done some specific Holocaust education work, as a bookseller--selling hundreds of different anti-racism and anti-discrimination titles at the "Anne Frank In The World" exhibit, toured by the organization Facing History And Ourselves, in Chicago in 1993. I spoke with, and sold books to, thousands of exhibit-visitors. I'm not unqualified to comment about Holocaust education, and I'm not denigrating another educator's work. I'm being critical, and this is an obligation we all have to one another as adults rearing children collectively.)

Jennifer Elliott said...

I don't mean to say that you cannot be critical thinkers about this situation. Some of you are doing just that, and that is good, in my opinion. What I don't like to see is those people who are criticizing this teacher's actions without knowing what else is taking place in his classroom.

Roger Sutton said, "The shoelaces--and the paper clips, and the proliferation of Holocaust memorials and Life Is Beautiful, and many (by no means all) novels and memoirs for children--sentimentalize history and tragedy."

I'm not sure that I would use the word sentimentalize, myself. People have different ways of "speaking out" against certain situations and events.

One of the three blogs that I frequent is Chris Rice's blog. He is a singer who may be best known in the world of Contemporary Christian music, but he has recently moved more into the "mainstream," so to speak. At any rate, he is also a very brilliant writer.

On his blog today, I read of a man who memorialized 22 people who died in a bomb attack near his home in Sarajevo. How did he do this? He played the cello for 22 days for each person who died. However, I wouldn't consider this sentimentalizing the event. I would call it memorializing it.

Though there are some big differences between this event and the Holocaust, I would say that what these students are doing is creating a memorial to these victims of the Holocaust, and I see nothing wrong with that. It will still serve as a reminder to others of the people who died and will help others realize that this horrible event in history will never be forgotten.

In response to the act in Sarajevo, Chris Rice writes, "The ideal still matters, even when reality does not reflect it. Love conquers hate. Light pushes back dark. " I would think that this is the real point in the shoelaces activity. They care enough to collect these shoe strings and tell others about the purpose of their project and the history behind it. The reality of the shoelaces wrapped around the large shoes may not completely reflect what really happened, but the ideal still matters.

Jennifer Elliott said...

Chris Rice's blog can be found at

Andy Laties said...

Well the cello memorial sounds perfect.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add that teachers are often challenged to develop an education experience that is both meaningful and inoffensive to parents. Which is difficult with topics that are so utterly offensive, like the holocaust. I doubt the principal and board of education would rally to support activities that really represent the holocaust. The teacher would probably be told to focus on the numbers.

That said, I don't believe in using numbers to communicate human tragedy. It's a cop-out. It's a type of rhetoric that only conveys the scale, but no human stories, no emotion. It doesn't matter how they quantify the number, because numbers do not suffer, fear, or have souls.

I, too, worry that the students will believe they have done something about the holocaust. I remember my daughter came home from school one afternoon, excited that she and her classmates had ended the Iraq war with pinwheels. The art teacher had them make "Pinwheels for Peace", and the kids took the idea literally. I understand what the teacher was trying to do, but at the same time, oversimplification of complex events makes fools of our children. Kids are smart enough to understand many aspects of history and they don't need to be doing pre-school activities to reinforce the lesson, especially sixth-graders.

The overinvolved parent in me would probably be very frustrated if this were my sixth grader, and I would wonder if the time might be better spent working on a more intellectually stimulating project.


Deborah Feigenson said...

I found this debate through Lois Lowry's blog (so don't think there already isn't a bit of bias here) but as a 6th grade educator who teaches the Holocaust, I just have to weigh in.

The worst way one can teach the Holocaust to kids this young is to, as you put it, "intellectualize" it. It is developmentally inappropriate and pedagogically ineffective. First of all, a sixth grader has no concept of what the number six-million really means. It's too abstract for their thinking at this age. Therefore, to make this number concrete, you are helping them to understand the horrific scope of the Holocaust. (And yes, 15,000,000 would be a better number). By "intellecutalizing" the holocaust on the level you suggest, you would confuse, disengage, and frighten a 6th grader. They are simply not cognitively ready to understand the event in those terms, and by not addressing their emotional need to understand the scope and tragedy of the Holocaust in a concrete and personal way, you will actually foster misunderstandings and misconceptions in the majority of your students. This project, done of course as part of a larger unit on other 6th-grade appropriate issues such as bystanderism, stereotyping, antisemitism, and prejudice (which it was in the paperclips documentary) is not only salient, it is meaningful and far more powerful than reading about the complex governmental and social issues at work during WWII.

These are not simply the words of a "touchy-feely" teacher; they are supported by a large body of research on how adolescents learn.

Anonymous said...

The sheer number of people systematically murdered by the Nazi's is an important part of the Holocaust to understand and remember. Helping students to understand this in a concrete way can be a useful part of the learning experience, as noted by Deborah. That acknowledged:
1. Using a unit of measurement of length, centimeters, to try to teach the concept of an amount, six million people, cannot be mathematically sound.
2. "Memorializing" the Holocaust in the form of a giant shoe at a state fair is ludicrous. The choice of symbol for a memorial is important and should be meaningful, if it is to teach the students anything useful and lasting.

Writing in a hurry, but at least not at 12:30 am this time,

Andy Laties said...

"This project, done of course as part of a larger unit on other 6th-grade appropriate issues such as bystanderism, stereotyping, antisemitism, and prejudice (which it was in the paperclips documentary) is not only salient, it is meaningful and far more powerful than reading about the complex governmental and social issues at work during WWII."

Well that is very exciting -- the other parts of the curriculum! I think it's fabulous that these subjects are being integrated into a standard 6th Grade curriculum. If these other subjects are being taught, then I have no problem with the shoelaces or paperclips which seem to me a kind of empty mnemonic device that can't be harmful if designed to give a sort of theatrical weighting to the crucial, content-specific material.

I do find your idea that 6th Graders can't learn ordinary social history quite odd, though. Social Darwinism is a terribly harmful and offensive idea which remains pervasive, and I would think that it's fairly simple to explain: "You're better off than me, therefore, you ARE a better PERSON than I am; and, you were BORN to be better than me, so your PARENTS must be better than my parents; and, I better shut up and get used to being worse than you. Plus, my kids can expect to be worse off than your kids, and, they'll deserve it, because that's the way our families were born."

That doesn't seem very complex to me. Kind of like Tom Paxton's song: "My dad's better than your dad..."

Roger Sutton said...

Deborah F., I don't understand why enumerating 6 or 15 million via the use of some kind of physical counter (shoe-lace, paperclip) is less frightening than the number itself. it just takes longer.

To Deborah and Jennifer, I don't at all object to the sixth-grade study of the Holocaust. I just think it should be study, not an exercise in commemoration. What's different about Jennifer's cello-player example is that he chose a way to express his feelings about an event he wanted to memorialize. If a child, or a group of children, want to similarly commemorate an event or person of their choice, great. But I don't think it's right for a unit of curriculum.

Anonymous said...

"By "intellecutalizing" the holocaust on the level you suggest, you would confuse, disengage, and frighten a 6th grader. They are simply not cognitively ready to understand the event in those terms, and by not addressing their emotional need to understand the scope and tragedy of the Holocaust in a concrete and personal way, you will actually foster misunderstandings and misconceptions in the majority of your students. "

I'm sorry, Deborah, but research, as well as it can be done, is often filled with flaws in execution. There are often unknown variables in action. I know, as I have done professional research myself, and have worked with children for over 20 years.

I won't believe that 6th-graders are incapable of understanding complex emotional and societal issues. If we take the time, we can see that these children are quite complex, and often have their own share of complex emotional and societal life issues. The idea that these children are not cognitively ready for anything more than shoelaces is abominable. Some children grow up in segments of American society that itself holds no value to human life. How does this differ?

What a wonderful way it would be to validate these students' own personal concerns by discussing the whole depth of hatred and prejudice!! Perhaps it might inspire notable change. Remember...other research has in the past shown that we achieve only the level of knowledge and effort that we are expected to achieve. Expect more!

I too am pleased to hear that the shoelaces are only one part of their education of genocide and prejudice. But I still don't see a value in the shoelaces. And a giant pair of shoes? Come on people...


Anonymous said...

If you look at the photograph at this web address (there are countless others) you might better understand the particular poignancy of the shoelaces.

Anonymous said...

I have a sixth grader. I look at him, and I think deborah is right that he would be confused and frightened if you tried to "intellectualize" the holocaust for him. So, I'm very glad that it is not part of his sixth grade curriculum. yea for my school district. I'd rather that he not be taught about about the Holocaust until he was ready, emotionally and intellectually, to learn about it. That doesn't mean he's never heard of the holocaust. We aren't hiding it and he's read Number the Stars because we own a copy. I doubt that he fully understands the story, but that doesn't worry me. He understands enough. He'll learn more in the not too distant future. Any misconceptions, I am confident will be resolved. Someday, he'll see the copy of Lowry's book and go, "oh, now i see what was happening. Now I know more."

I think these subjects get pushed further down the curriculum by a desire to form the children up appropriately, to teach them to be compassionate, tolerant individuals by getting the right programming in while they are still malleable.


Anonymous said...

The poignancy of the pile of shoes is that they are a very concrete representation of and connection to the large number of murdered people who once wore them. "Everybody wears shoes. Actual people wore those shoes. That's a lot of shoes. The people who wore them were all murdered. Those shoes could be mine." And, hopefully, "We have to do what we can to keep this from happening anywhere, ever again." Maybe even, "What can we do about Darfur?"

A giant pair of shoes with six million centimeters worth of shoelaces neither gives an indication of the number of people killed (unless you want kids to think of them lying end to end--perhaps in a mass grave, but I don't think that's what the teacher is after) nor a visceral connection to these personal items of victims of the Holocaust. It's not the same. It's not even close.

I do feel for the teacher, though, who was trying to do a good thing and is now getting lots of publicly administered chastisement. Sometimes we try new things with a class and it isn't always perfect the first time we do it. Hopefully, this is a good teacher who will persevere and improve on what he/she is doing.


Andy Laties said...

Well as I suggested earlier I think it's an honor when your educational work becomes the subject of professional debate. I'm reminded of the famous Jane Elliott Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes anti-bias curriculum for instance, which attracted heated debate even as it was spreading coast to coast. I think that what I'm reading here in this discussion is essentially that the Paperclips film has spun off an adaptation, in this Shoelaces curriculum. I'd say that the intent of any such film about a new pedagogical approach is to encourage the adaptation of that approach, and therefore, ALSO, to stimulate debate about its efficacy. I would assume that some education degree doctoral candidate will do some research on reader-reception/outcomes. That would be good. We're in need of data here. This is a big idea. Let's find out if it works. With the rise in Holocaust Denying worldwide, it would certainly be great if a new approach to Holocaust Education that actually works has been discovered.

llemma said...

I'm the "anonymous" from the second comment, and I respectfully disagree with all y'all who think we can't teach that stuff to sixth graders. I do it with my fairly well-read and well-educated fifth graders and a dear friend of mine does it with her very urban, very below-grade-level sixth graders.

To the parent who prefers that her son read and not understand Number The Stars: An age-appropriate understanding should not mean an inaccurate understanding. Can't tell you how many kids like yours come into my class believing that Hitler was a crazy person from Germany who wanted to bake Jews in pizza ovens.

In my mind, an age-appropriate but intellectual understanding goes something like this: (1) Germany was not doing very well. (2) Hitler's party promised that they would take care of everything and make Germany awesome again. (3) But, they said, everybody had to do exactly what they said, and they had to be made in charge of everything -- including what people were allowed to say, think, do, believe. (4) And, they said, all the problems so far had been caused by people who weren't real Germans. In order to solve the problems, they had to get rid of those people. (5) These ideas appealed to plenty of people who were struggling and wanted someone to blame and wanted things to get better. (6) Other people went along with these ideas because they were scared they'd get in trouble (or be seen as not a real German) if they didn't. (7) But some people -- even people who were definitely real Germans -- did stand up and say it was wrong.

People who still don't believe that elementary-age children can and should learn this stuff, feel free to drop me an email ( and I'll share more of my curriculum.

llemma said...

P.S. Our Number The Stars unit comes on the heels of a lengthy study of utopia and dystopia. One of the most interesting bits is when, after we study fascism and the Holocaust, I make students go back and reread their own utopian city plans -- which often feature getting rid of undesirables, ceding control of daily life to centralized authority, and intense surveillance to prevent "wrong ideas."

Roger Sutton said...

Ah, children, like the Mitford family, "Nature's fascists." I'm reminded of that when I talk to teens about censorship, which they abhor when applied to their own reading yet in the same breath say "but I'd keep that book away from younger kids."

Doug Orlyk said...

As a former teacher, I find it frightening that so many educators are teaching "from the heart and not the head."

To use an exercise like this to evoke feelings of shock or sadness in young people is wrong. This is the same reason that I oppose the Bible being taught in public schools-- because too many people read the Bible emotionally and it could not be taught by everyone in an unbiased, literary manner.

It is wrong for educators to teach young people how to feel; they should be teaching them to make choices based on what they read, hear, and see in the world around them.

The Holocaust and its horrors need to be taught as a series of facts, events, and that includes the numbers of innocent people dead. Young people need to determine how that makes them feel. This shoelace project does not accomplish that.

Moreover, to make a "curricular connection" by adhering to the NSLB (No Shoelace Left Behind) Act will evoke little memory to these young people other than "remember all those shoelaces?"

rindawriter said...

Thanks much, Andy for the details on Social Darwinism. I did not know much about it before, and it gave me much to ponder.

I may have given this example before here, but, when loaning a movie DVD of Joan of Arc, to a 13-year-old girl, I found it impossible to convince her that the movie was based on an actual story that happened to a real girl who lived long ago in a real time and place. What was so shocking to me was the child's almost complete ignorance of the concept of history, when I tried to tell her the details of Joan's actual history. The child had no ability to see historical events as realities that once actually occured to real people; the past was all just fantasy to her, stories that never happened, dramas to make movies about, not history, not the actual occurrence of real events to real people in real times and real places. It's really rather terrifying to think about, to realize that children may not be able to remember the past nor be able to empathize with the human tragedies in that past, if, to them, the past simply does not exist as a reality. You can begin to see why, then, among some young people, Neo-Nazism has become popular so easily and why some even believe and teach so ardently that the Holocaust never occurred at all! None of the past exists as any sort of reality for them. Scary thought.

Andy Laties said...

Well if you want kids to understand that the past is real, start by giving them some Oral History homework, in which they have to interview their older relatives. Have them construct a family tree.

I have an older cousin who has spent 40 years doing geneology. He has a chart on his door--from top to bottom of the door, that documents my family from the 18th century to the present. It's about 10 generations WIDE with cousins. 1,100 people. He is in the process of publishing a 900 page book of my family's history. Each page, approx, is a single individual or family. Many of these pages are essentially short bios with a photograph.

Since its an Eastern European Jewish and Russian Jewish family, a heart-breaking percentage of these lives end during the 1940s -- either courtesy of Hitler or Stalin. The bios are of real people, constructing lovely lives, and then -- truncated in horrible ways. Happily, of course, many of my family's lines survived into the present. (Thus this blog entry, and thus my dozens of third, fourth, fifth and sixth cousins.)

Children today are survivors of the traumas of their own families' histories. That's the kind of history to start by teaching them, if you want them to understand the reality of the past, in my opinion. Of course I'm unusually fortunate to have a family member who's obsessed with geneology -- but my cousin Lonya's work was NOT easily done. Someone has to do this work, in every family. A great teacher might just inspire some child to take on the task for their own family, or to learn of which relative in their own family is actually struggling to preserve the family legacy.

(P.S. None of my relatives as photographed (in Lonya's book) who died thanks to Hitler resembled a paperclip, or a centimeter of shoelace.)