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I teach ELA and social studies at a middle school in South Bronx, N.Y., where social studies has always been a path for students to understand social constructs and the obligations they have as citizens or immigrants. Most of our students are from Central America, the Caribbean and East Africa, and our school is economically and educationally disadvantaged. We use Expeditionary Learning as the primary curriculum for ELA, with set texts that are centered on historical eras and issues for human improvement. Hence my desire to pair “How Saba Kept Singing” with the first volume of the graphic novel “Maus.” Both the text and the videos gave students a deeper understanding of the Holocaust.

That afternoon, I chose to begin with a choice to watch the “Remembering Auschwitz” clips from “How Saba Kept Singing,” or the usual text. My students all agreed to watch the videos. I gave them a little background knowledge and explained the connection to the topic we were studying. It was unusual for the students to be so quiet after lunch, but I guess the title was catchy. Someone said, “How could singing stop Hitler?” I wondered how they would make the connection to a topic they usually discuss with little interest, and what they would think about what it means to be an upstander.

Each student received a structured “note catcher”. For our group activity, they were supposed to generate characteristics of a Holocaust upstander and create questions to further their understanding of the experience of a survivor upstander. As I walked around the room, I was awed by the thought-provoking questions students came up with, all connected to the Holocaust. The discussions were rich and engaging as some became upstanders right there for the Jewish people, and owners of their own learning. They were able to make connections to their life and community.

In this class I have honors students, ELLs and students with disabilities. Everyone was engaged, but my students with disabilities were the stars. Their unique talents came to life from the visuals of the concentration camp. This class took three periods.

Valerie Green Thomas is an ELA and social studies teacher at Middle School 390 in the Bronx, N.Y., and a member of Retro Report’s Council of Educators.

This article first appeared in Retro Report’s education newsletter. You can subscribe here and view past newsletters here.