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A middle school teacher says she feels obligated to help her students learn about the Holocaust and discrimination.
By LORRI HELFAND
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001
Ashley Sullivan, 24, a seventh-grade geography teacher at Safety Harbor Middle School, grew up in Pinellas County, but it wasn't until she was a sophomore at Georgia Southern College that she learned about the Holocaust.
"I was a little upset that I hadn't ever been taught that," Sullivan said. "This went on and I had no idea."
For a college assignment she created a four-week lesson plan on the Holocaust. Now, as a second-year teacher, she puts her lesson plan to work and makes sure her students are better informed. The district doesn't require her to teach her students about it, but she feels obligated to do so anyway.
For Sullivan, who is not Jewish, the Holocaust holds many lessons. Not only are her students learning about geography and history, but they're learning about discrimination and prejudice.
To teach those lessons, she begins the Holocaust unit with a discussion of discrimination. Sullivan said she makes sure to use terms her students can understand, such as "geeks" and "jocks."
During this section she also explained to her students why they shouldn't make fun of students who are different from them. Sullivan told her students there are many reasons why their classmates might not blend with the rest of the crowd. For example, she pointed out that there are several homeless children at the school who simply don't have the means to buy the hottest fashions.
The next sections of the plan involve Holocaust vocabulary words and a timeline of events leading up to the Holocaust.
Sullivan said she didn't gloss over some of the Holocausts gruesome events because she believed there were strong lessons in those stories. She remembers her students reaction when she read them a few passages from Hitler's Mein Kampf.
"What a sick man," she remembered them saying.
She told them about the ghettos, gas chambers and the conditions in the concentration camp. And posed hypothetical questions like, "If you had 10 minutes to pack ten things, what would you take and why?" or " What would you do if you were forced to choose between your children?"
She sent letters home with the parents explaining the lesson plan and prepared an alternative lesson plan just in case. Last year, one parent objected to her plan, and the student was given the alternative. This year, all parents gave her the thumbs up.
Sullivan capped off her lesson with a presentation by Holocaust survivor Marie Silverman, 69.
Last Wednesday around 150 of Sullivan's students crowded into the cafeteria to hear Silverman's story about her elaborate escape from the Nazi's, her mothers bravery and the kindness of strangers.
Her four-year journey began in 1940 in Antwerp, Belgium, and led her on a maze through France, Spain and Portugal. Along the way, she and her family were discovered by the Nazis and transported to a deportation camp. After several months at them camp, Silverman's mother helped her and her sister, Jeanette, escape. Months later, Silverman's parents got out, too. But the conditions of the camp took their toll on her father, who died soon afterward.
When Silverman was 12, her mother contacted the Jewish underground to escort her and her sister out of France. In 1944, they arrived in the United States alone. It was not until her 18th birthday that she was reunited with her mother.
She closed her speech saying, "We as survivors will soon be gone and it will be up to you to keep the stories you hear alive."
Afterward, dozens of students rushed to her side to ask questions and gaze at pictures of Silverman and her family, some of the few mementos her mother was able get to hold on to.
Amanda Sebba, 13, who is Jewish, said Silverman's presentation had special meaning for her.
"I always heard the stories, but I never actually met a survivor so it meant a lot to me," she said. "It made it more real for me to meet someone who's actually been through it."
Twelve-year-old Joseph Primiani thinks more people should hear Silverman's story.
"Other people should be taught this," he said.
Sullivan's wish is that her students spread the lesson. "If at least one of them goes home and tells a friend, I'm happy," she said.
Ira Sansolo, whose daughter Mara, 13, is a student of Sullivan's, said there were many evenings that Sullivan's lessons came home.
Sansolo said the topic has special meaning for him because he was born a Jewish and converted to Catholicism when he and his wife married.
Sansolo said he was impressed by how much Sullivan packed into her lesson plan.
"My child learned so much about the Holocaust that it was absolutely incredible," he said. "I'm 44 years old and there's stuff I never learned about the Holocast that she was able to bring to the forefront."