Teaching The Holocaust




All teachers know that the last 5 weeks of the school year can be trying.  The weather gets warmer, and students begin dreaming of summer vacation.  Classroom lessons in these 5 weeks must be more creative in order to keep the students engaged.  For this reason, I teach my Holocaust unit as the final unit of the year.  Yes, the Holocaust is dark and the discussions can be too; however, students are so entranced in the topic because they just can’t wrap their brains around such hatred.

The 6th grade teachers in my building teach the Holocaust novel, Yellow Star.  This unique book is written in verse and really sets the stage for me as an 8th grade teacher.

In 8th grade, I teach Night by Elie Wiesel.   Throughout this unit, I incorporate quotes by infamous Nazi leaders, short stories, picture books, and even music.

The more we study about the Holocaust, the more my students want to learn.  Even though we read Night as a whole-class text, I encourage students to read other Holocaust novels for their independent choice novels.

Other Holocaust titles:

Parallel Journeys by Eleanor H. Ayer.  In this novel, Ayer shares the stories of Holcaust survivor Helen Waterford and Hitler Youth member, Alfons Heck.

-The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.  In this novel, a young boy, Bruno, moves from his family home in Germany to Poland.  While out exploring the surroundings of his new home, he finds a boy behind a fence who looks sad and a bit dirty.  Not understanding that this boy is in a concentration camp, they become friends.  It is a story about innocence and acceptance.

-The Devil’s Arithmatic by Jane Yolen is a historical fiction novel in which Hannah, a teenage girl in New York, is transported back in time to WWII Germany.  Hannah learns to respect her Jewish heritage as she is sent to a death camp.  While “transported” sounds a little far-fetched, Yolen makes it believable.

-Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli  is another historical fiction novel set in WWII Poland.  An orphaned boy must learn to navigate the streets while avoiding capture by the Nazis.  The narrator of the story is the boy, now an adult, living in America.

-Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.  Sepetys might just be my favorite author…EVER!  In Between Shades of Gray, 15-year-old Lina is taken from her home in Lithuania and put on a cattle car bound for Siberia.  Lina must learn how to survive in frigid conditions and maintain hope in spite of devastating losses.  Good luck putting this book down because every line is written with such intense beauty.

-Salt to the Sea  is another historical fiction novel by Ruta Sepetys.  Not surprisingly, Sepetys nails it.  Each chapter tells the story of a person (often children) caught in the midst of WWII.  As the story progresses, each character becomes intertwined with the others.  Can they escape Germany unharmed?

-A Night Divided (Holocaust is a stretch but the right time period) is a historical fiction novel in which a young girl who must escape to freedom after the Berlin Wall falls and separates her family between East and West.

-The Berlin Boxing Club by by Robert Sharenow shows how 14-year-old Karl survives being Jewish in Nazi-era Berlin.  In order to prove his worth to his peers, Karl receives boxing lessons from champion Max Schmeling.  Karl learns to take care of his family and show courage when all odds are against him.


In this Holocaust unit, I incorporate many other texts and genres in order to expose the students to as much material as possible.  Some of the stories, articles, picture books, and music I use are below.  I hope you can use them in your Holocaust studies as well.

Picture books:

Hidden by Loic Dauvillier is a lovely poetic graphic novel in which Dounia, a grandmother, tells her granddaughter about her experiences hiding from Nazis in Paris.

Terrible Things:  An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting — In this story, forest animals live together peacefully until one day “terrible things” arrive and clear out all animals with feathers.  One by one, the “terrible things” cleared out all the animals that weren’t perfect.  Eventually, the remaining animals team up and take on the “terrible things” despite the fear involved.

The Harmonica by Tony Johnston tells the story of Holocaust survivor whose family was separated when the Nazis invaded Poland.  Miraculously, only his father’s gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy’s hopes alive.

The Four Butterflies by Itzik Kipnis four young butterflies are under siege of a beetle.  Each of the butterflies seeks a place to hide — all except the black butterfly who cannot find camouflage.  Sad and alone, a bumblebee comes to the rescue.  A beautiful story of hope and friendship will touch all who read it.


“The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel.

Each year, I am amazed by the engagement that this topic generates from my students.  I am constantly revising and adding new components to this unit.  As such, I am always looking for new ideas.

Please share Holocaust ideas/texts/lessons.  Together we can generate endless lesson ideas.



Should Homework Be Counted Late?


How should we be assessing student work?  Should timeliness, neatness, and following directions be part of the grade?  Should it be a separate grade?  Should it be counted at all?

My middle school, along with everyone else in education, is seriously debating this issue.  There are a variety of beliefs on the issue…and just as many books.  I am not sure where I stand.  I feel that each of the arguments has some validity to it.

About 10 years ago, my middle school (6-8) changed its teacher-by-teacher late work policy to a school-wide late policy.  While I am not necessarily sold on the late percentage, I have appreciated the consistency of the policy.  Parents know that from team to team and grade level to grade level, the policy is the same.

I am assuming that because of the intense debates regarding homework and grades, my school is changing back.  They have asked teachers to come to the table with an alternative to what is currently in place.  From what I understand, every teacher can have a different policy or grade levels can choose to offer consistency.

Because I am very unsure of what policy I should have, I have talked to other teachers, districts, and read books.

Some argue for no homework, hence removing a need for a late policy.  Some offer a a variety of percentages off.  Some take work all year long with no penalty.  Some take work for only a couple of days after the due date.

Some argue that due dates are necessary to teacher students about deadlines and timeliness.  Others state that we are imposing rules inappropriate for the age.  I think they are all right.  I have given late credit for years.  I thought I was teaching the importance of meeting deadlines, but didn’t realize that the final grade didn’t accurately reflect mastery of skills.

I am not sure that late work does teach students how to meet deadlines.  I think I was adamant about it because I thought it wasn’t fair to those students who turned their work in on time.  To be honest, I still have doubts about that.  In order to show parents about missed deadlines and the need for following directions, some teachers have recommended two separate scores:  one for mastery of skills and one for timeliness, neatness, etc.  I see that this system has potential.

To be honest, while I find the “no homework” policy intriguing, I need help understanding how it works.

What about those students who can’t finish in class because they work more slowly?  Is it homework for them?

What about passing back the work completed in class (after providing feedback)?  Can’t students who didn’t turn it in now copy it for full credit?  

I am open to any and all advice because my policy has to be in place before the end of this school year!  Fire away.  I am all ears!  🙂

PBL in action


I have the distinct privilege to work in a middle school — a true middle school that values teacher teams.  In my school we have a class called ISB (Interdisciplinary Solutions Block).  In this class, a team of four teachers (math, science, social studies, and language arts) work collaboratively to design real-world projects that encompass all four subject areas.

For the past 6 weeks, our two 8th grade teams have been working on a PBL project — Moot Court.  It is a project that stems from We the People in which students participate in a simulated courtroom trial.

The project started when our Social Studies teachers wrote up three fictional court cases involving student rights.  Each of the core area teachers took a class of about 27 students to guide through this process.  Within that group of 27, students designed 6 strong groups of four (easier said than done) and learned a little bit about each case.  They then decided which case they wanted to debate and whether they wanted to defend the student or the school.

Students researched Constitutional law and precedent court cases to develop their arguments that would later be presented to a panel of judges (a combination of parents, law students, law professors, professional lawyers, and judges).  They generated their arguments and turned them into speeches that they would present as a legal team.  They wrote and re-wrote their arguments (because their teachers weren’t satisfied with their first drafts).  🙂

Six weeks and a thousand re-writes and rehearsals later, students were ready for presentation day at Indiana Tech Law School.


This was our first year presenting at Indiana Tech Law School, and the results speak for themselves. Sometimes, in order to see what a student’s true abilities are, you must offer them opportunities to share their knowledge with people OTHER THAN their teachers — it offers authenticity to a project.

This project was no exception.  Knowing they would be presenting to professional judges and lawyers who knew the Constitution and precedent cases prompted the students to put their best foot forward.

Our students stood when the judges entered the room, they shook hands, they spoke with courtroom lingo, and truly demonstrated Constitutional knowledge.


I was granted opportunities to build bonds with the students as they looked to me for guidance, advice, and positive affirmations of a job well done.  These are my proudest and most cherished moments as a teacher.  Neither they nor I will ever forget this opportunity.

I hope you have a chance to take your students out of the building and teach them in the environment that best fits the purpose.


Feeling Humbled



#AprilBlogADay  — #4

“The most important story we will ever write in life is our own — not with ink, but with our daily choices.”     —  Richard Paul Evans

I have been a teacher for 16 years.  And for 15 of those years, I have taught in an affluent district with involved parents, dedicated teachers, and passionate administrators.  I thought our success (high standardized test scores, graduation rates, and percentage of students going on to college) was because we were quality teachers.

I have been actively involved in Twitter and blogging now for all of 6 months.  But…in that 6 months, I have been exposed to thoughts, ideas, lessons, and advice from teachers and administrators from all over the world.  I have seen intense passion for education and a willingness to spread that passion to others.  Some of the ideas that others are sharing have made me feel…well, inadequate. Inspired…but inadequate.  I see teachers produce these amazing, student-centered, mindful, active lessons while maintaining home lives, children, book writing, blog writing, Twitter Chat creating, and more.

What am I doing?  I am teaching.  I am grading.  I am communicating with parents.  Just recently I have started blogging.  How do these teachers do it…and do it well?

To be honest, I have no idea how they do it.  Maybe they are just better multi-taskers than I am.  BUT, while I am feeling inadequate, I am also feeling inspired to affect lives the way these teachers and administrators are. I hope by “stealing” lesson ideas from others, I will become better at my job and able to contribute to education in the ways they have.

Today, I am humbled.  I feel horribly inadequate, but am inspired to be more.  More for me, more for my students, more for my school, more for the world of education.

Accepting advice!  🙂


Success Stories


#AprilBlogADay  — #3

As a middle school teacher, it isn’t often that I know where my students end up as adults. With the advent of Facebook, I am in touch with more former students than in the past, but historically, I don’t know what becomes of them.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been fortunate enough to run into two former students…ages 26 and 23 (yes, I had them when they were 13).  One went on to become a physical therapist and the other, a computer technician.

I find this information quite gratifying.  I know that my 9 months as their 7th grade teacher had little or no effect on the success they have achieved as adults.  Nonetheless, I love seeing former students find success.

I am especially happy for the computer technician.  In 7th grade, he struggled.  He was identified as having a learning disability, and that “title” stayed with him throughout middle school.  Despite this struggle, he was positive then and has remained that way.  He spoke so positively of his middle school teachers — remembering Greek mythology, novels, and teachers who were nice.

I cannot express what joy it gives me to see these students become successful adults.  How do I know these two students’ stories?  By random circumstance, the physical therapist treats my back and the computer technician showed up at my door to fix my printer over Spring Break.  🙂

Do you have any amazing student success stories?  Share them here!



Book Trailers Encourage Reading

AprilBlogADay #2

book trailers

Need another way to help generate a love of reading among your middle school students?  Visit YouTube for an amazing array of book trailers…yes, BOOK trailers.

Just like movie trailers, book trailers show just enough plot and action to entice students to read the book.  I try to show one or two trailers a week, but sometimes I do more based on student requests.   Without fail, every book in my classroom library and our school media center is checked out within two days of showing a trailer.  I have created a “Book Wait List” because I only have 2-3 copies of some titles.  I try to showcase a different genre each week, and I love that students will read outside of their comfort zone.

Now, be forewarned…not all book trailers are created equal.  You will definitely want to watch them before showing them to your students.

Here are some links to some of my students’ favorite trailers.  Enjoy.

Matched by Ally Condie

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak (this one is the movie trailer)

— Interview with Markus Zuzak (to accompany The Book Thief trailer)

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Girl, Stolen by April Henry

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (movie trailer)

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (book trailer)

The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey by Homer

Unwind by Neal Shusterman (this one has some graphic audio if you are bothered by medical stuff)

These are just a few of the trailers I show, and I often show movie trailers when movies are coming out.  It is my way of trying to get the students to read the book first.



Have you had success showing book trailers?  What are some of your favorites?  I would love to add to my collection.  




My #AprilBlogADay Challenge — Day 1



Well, it’s April 6, and I am posting my first blog of April…oops.  I will do a blog a day for the rest of the month.  SCARY!

If you look back at my posts, you’ll see that I post about once a week…at best.  Yikes.  What on earth will I write about every single day?

This is good for me, though.  This might just make me less inhibited about my writing and just “go for it.”

So, being that I am on Spring Break this week, I thought I would write about what a teacher does on Spring Break.  I think there are two kinds of teachers (and you’ll find that we all fit into these two categories–depending on the year).

Teacher 1:  works on NO school stuff on Spring Break:  no e-mail, no grading, nothing! That’s actually quite healthy.

Teacher 2:  Takes home school work and views it as time to “catch up.”

This year, in order to save money, we decided to stay in town.  So…I am Teacher 2 this year.  I am working.  I did all the mandatory stuff first…grading, e-mails, etc.  Now, I am starting to read blogs, participate in Twitter chats, watch some webinars, and plan lessons.

While I am not sure I am taking the much needed break from work that I should, perhaps my last six weeks of the year will go smoothly due to my efforts this week.  Only time will tell.

To those who have inspired new lessons, thanks.  I’ll let you know how they go…perhaps that’s what I’ll blog each day about.  🙂

If you were going to do the #AprilBlogADay Challenge, what would you write about?

Books for Reluctant Readers

Ever wonder what books to recommend to those “I hate reading” students of yours?  I have quite a few ideas, but you’ll find that I am a firm believer in choice.  So over the years, I have read and read and read young adult literature, and I have listened to the recommendations of my students.  And while my list is ever-growing, I have developed a list of “go to” books that, more often than not, do the trick.

Now, every year, I do have a few students who read the minimum…the 20 minutes I provide in class each day (rather, every other day… I teach on a block schedule).  But, I tell myself that over the course of the school year, they will have read 4-5 more books than they would have without that 20 minutes each day.  I am happy to add that the recommendations below have been that “magic bean” that has turned some of my most stubborn  and reluctant readers into life-long readers (some come back years later to share with me what they are reading…best gift a teacher can receive).

The books below, along with a short summary of each (and a little commentary from me), are my “go to” books for my devout 8th grade non-readers.  I hope you find them as successful as I have.

-A Child Called ‘It’ trilogy by Dave Pelzer:  Autobiography — If you need a quick dose of reality, this book won’t fail you.  I cried a big ugly cry when I read this novel.  In fact, there were times I had to quit reading because I just couldn’t emotionally take any more.  In this autobiography, Dave Pelzer tells the story of his abusive childhood at the hands of his mother.  I assure you, there is no shortage of inexplicable cruelty in this book.

A child Called IT

I think my students have loved this trilogy because they can either relate to it or cannot comprehend it.  I personally, was fortunate to grow up in a loving home.  I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around the level of cruelty…and the level of “turning a blind eye” that went on in this book.

Without spoiling books 2 and 3, book 2 (The Lost Boy) is about Pelzer’s life in a foster home and book 3 (A Man Named Dave) is his life as a motivational speaker.

-Artemis Fowl by Eon Colfer:  Fantasy — This isn’t your typical fairy book (although there are fairies).  In this 8 book series, Artemis Fowl, a precocious but like-able boy, finds himself in a world he didn’t even know existed.  He soon becomes a detective traveling between realms to solve various crimes…all having to do with Artemis in some way.

Personally, I love all the secondary characters in the Artemis Fowl series.  They have so much personality and depth…and save Artmeis a time or two.

Artemis Fowl

-Crossover by Kwame Alexander: Fiction written in verse — In this story ( a quick read), twins Josh and Jordan Bell are amazing basketball players.  Unfortunately, as what happens to must young adults, they make a choice and must deal with the repercussions of that choice.  This story is about family, brotherhood, and coming of age.  I have found that students of all backgrounds love this book.



-Go Ask Alice by Anonymous:  Realistic Fiction — This book is not for the faint of heart.  There is sex, drugs, high school parties, and addiction.  BUT…so many of my 8th grade girls are not into the John Green type romance novels.  They need something “harder”…something, sadly, that they can relate to.  I recommend reading this book before handing it out.  I sometimes even call home first.  Parents usually give the green light because it means that their child is reading.

Go Ask Alice

Because this book is so raw, the students are immediately sucked in.  It has also opened a lot of one:one communication for my students and me.  Some students have opened up about their own lives because they now had something to connect with.  Great book…read it before giving it out.

-Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne:   historical fiction — I personally am a HUGE fan of any book that focuses on the Holocaust.  (side note:  if you haven’t yet read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys…read it NOW.  AMAZING!)  I teach Night by Elie Wiesel as a whole class novel as part of a Holocaust unit.  The students become so interested in the Holocaust that I have developed an entire section on Holocaust literature in my classroom library.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an overwhelming favorite (it is also a movie).  It focuses on two young boys…one inside the fence of a concentration camp and one on the outside.  The innocence, trust, and love of children is so evident in this novel.

Boy in

There are so many more…the Alex Rider series, the Percy Jackson series, The Glass Castle, Legend trilogy, Enclave, and more. I hope you find the success in recommending these titles that I have had.

What titles should I add to my list?  I would love to hear your “reluctant reader” titles.  


Helping Students Develop a Passion for Reading


About five years ago, I adopted a new approach to reading instruction.  I read books by Nancy Atwell, Penny Kittle, and Donalyn Miller and completely changed my approach.  Not only did I begin to develop a classroom library, but I learned how to use it to inspire readers.

For 10 years (prior to Atwell, Kittle, and Miller), I just told kids that they should love reading but ultimately did nothing to promote that love of reading.  I thought that I could inspire them through the whole class novels we read.  I taught them everything they could possible know about characters, theme, setting, and plot in The Pigman, Lyddie, Zlata’s Diary, My Brother Sam is Dead, and more.  However, I did not create independent readers.

When I began approaching reading as a fun activity, I was first met with resistance. It was obvious to me that many of my students lost their love of reading around 4th grade and had made no effort to get it back. Technology and video games took on a greater importance to them than reading.

To rebuild their reading interest, I began showing book trailers (look on YouTube) for some of the more popular YA novels. I began reading passages from novels.  I began talking incessantly about the books I was reading.  I boasted how many books ultimately become movies.  I purchased book after book to create an appealing classroom library (my husband keeps threatening to cut me off).  Most importantly, I devoted 20 minutes of class each day to silent reading time.  I call it DIRT (Directed Independent Reading Time).


To be honest, it didn’t take long to convince most of my students about the benefits of reading.  I was somewhat surprised how quickly I was able to get them on board.  The greatest moments of my day are sharing book recommendations with my students and sharing stories of reading success.  They feel so accomplished when they find “that book” — you know, the one that forever changes them as readers. Today, I am met with groans of protest if we lose DIRT to delays or pep sessions (anything that might shorten class).

Some of my more stubborn students took longer to “buy in” to reading.  I can’t deny that each year I have a few students who never fully develop a love of reading while in the 8th grade.  I tell myself that they read at least 3-4 books (just during DIRT in class) throughout the course of the school year that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.  I also hope that perhaps my reading “push” will come to them later in life.

While many teachers do not believe in reading logs, I use them.  I have found that my middle schoolers respond to the concrete nature of logs.  They love seeing the total number of pages and books they have read each nine weeks.  It is something tangible for them.  It also helps them generate new reading goals for themselves.  (Logs are not graded)

Start reading with your students as soon as you can.  Don’t wait.  You won’t regret it.


How have you helped to inspire students to read?  Share your ideas.  

Teaching in the Middle

middle school

Whenever I meet someone new and mention what I do for a living, I always get one of two responses:  “Oh…Why?”  or  “You must be a saint.”

This always makes me chuckle.  I assure you that I am not a saint, but I do love teaching.  I think that my students keep me young.  I always know the new fashion trends, popular music, and the ever evolving slang of young adults.  But, just because I love it doesn’t make it easy.

The demands of standardized testing, curriculum mapping, and vertical articulation aside, teaching young adults ages 12-15 is not easy.  Middle school teachers must possess immense creativity and patience.

The above graphic says that”Adolescents misinterpret emotions and instructions 40% of the time.”  Parents and secondary teachers everywhere can attest to this.  There is so much going on in a teenager’s body physiologically that they have a hard time balancing school, friends, family, church, and more.

Also, the statistic that “middle school students typically have an attention span of 10-12 minutes” is particularly true.  When I had young children at home, I wanted to know what research said was developmentally appropriate for time-out.  I read that young children should be placed in time-out 1 minute for each year of age.  So, a 3-year-old should be in time-out for 3 minutes.  Clearly, if the above graphic is true, this correlates to learning as well.  Students can maintain focus for approximately 1 minute for each year.  12 years old = a 12 minute attention span.

This knowledge should change how middle school teachers teach.  We must teach in shorter mini lessons and then let students move and practice instruction.  Luckily for me, I teach in a block schedule with 80 minute classes.  This allows me to conduct several activities each day.

Take a look at David Walsh’s book Why Do They Act That Way —  A Guide for Dealing with Teenagers.  It is not a book on education but will change how you teach adolescents nonetheless.  (I will book talk this book in my next blog post).

In what ways do you see middle school students are different from elementary or high school students?  How does this affect your teaching?  Share your ideas.  I would love to hear them.