Teaching with Testimony across the Curriculum

Using Testimony in the Classroom webinar

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, Professor Sara Jones of the Department of Modern Languages launched a set of teaching resources, Using Testimony in the Classroom, produced in collaboration with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), and National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM).

The resources provide guidance, advice and lesson sketches for teachers using testimony in different forms in Holocaust education and provide opportunities for a cross-curricula approach.

But why teach Holocaust education across the curriculum? And what role can testimony play in such an approach? These questions were the subject of a CPD webinar organised by Professor Jones in October 2020. The webinar included talks by eleven speakers who provided a range of perspectives from research and practice.

Why teach across the curriculum?

The one thing teachers of any subject complain about is a lack of time within a packed curriculum for their particular subject. The Holocaust is a complex topic and a great deal of demands are placed on Holocaust education. It is of course primarily about historical events; nonetheless, Holocaust education is also expected to include teaching antiracism, preventing discrimination, fostering empathy, and ethics. There is insufficient time within the History classroom to deal with all of those aspects and the expertise on these topics may well lie in other disciplines.

Indeed, the Holocaust often already appears at multiple points across the curriculum. The literary texts taught in the English or Drama classroom may include representations of the Holocaust; the Holocaust will be one aspect of the study of Judaism in Religious Studies. A cross-curricula and mapped approach makes that explicit and ensures that teaching in one subject informs teaching in another. As Dr Sarah Hall (University of Birmingham) noted in the webinar, this allows the integrity and value of each subject to be retained, but promotes meaningful connections between them. Teachers in each subject work with their own strengths, Catrina Kirkland (Education Officer, HET) pointed out, but also work with one another to convey the complexity of the topic. HET’s approach and the comprehensive resources developed by the Trust have this kind of cross-disciplinary expertise at their core.

Bocca della Verita

Why teach with testimony?

Testimony can play a crucial role in these cross-disciplinary connections. Eyewitness testimony humanises historical events and allows us to understand them within the framework of an individual life. We may not be able to imagine the murder of six million people, but through personal accounts we can begin to understand that these things happened to this person in front of me. In this way, Dr Hall argued, it promotes “cognitive”, “affective” and “conative” learning – knowing, feeling and doing. Genevieve Carnell (Education Officer, HMDT) explained that these terms link directly to the aims of the Trust’s educational initiatives. HMDT’s resources, including their ‘Life Stories’, are designed to be used across subject domains and incorporate the Trust’s motto of ‘know, feel, do’.

Using Testimony in the Classroom reconceptualises testimony to incorporate personal accounts produced in multiple forms, media and genres: alongside live survivor testimony, this might include theatre, documentary film, autobiographical writing, literature, video recordings, and digital technology. Understood in this way, testimony is already used across the curriculum. A cross-curriculum approach makes that red thread more explicit and shows how testimony can connect Holocaust education across subjects.

What pedagogical considerations underpin the use of testimony across the curriculum?

A key part of mapping testimony across the curriculum is thinking how students approach personal accounts as a source in different media and from the perspective of different subjects. Approaching testimony in history is not the same task as approaching testimony in literature, but the two can learn from one another. This is an aspect of what Dr Gary Mills (University of Nottingham) described in the webinar as the “triple-helix curriculum”, which combines substantive knowledge with skills of critical thinking and conceptual understanding germane to those subjects.

Using Testimony in the Classroom supports teachers with the ethical and methodological underpinnings of such a pedagogical approach. Louise Stafford (Director of Learning, NHCM) explained how concerns around ethics and methods had also been at the forefront of discussions around digital innovations incorporating survivor testimony at the Centre. The use of technology is also central to the innovative online-only exhibition produced by the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Chief Curator, Karolina Ziulkoski, explained that the exhibition is centred around the autobiography of Beba Epstein, but sets Beba’s story in a clear and extensive historical context combining multiple forms of testimony and making possible connections to a variety of subjects (including, History, Geography, Religious Studies, English).

Ethical considerations are also front-and-centre when considering what role perpetrator testimony can play in Holocaust education. Using Testimony in the Classroom recommends careful use of perpetrator accounts in order to foster understanding not only of what happened, but why it happened. As Professor Mary Fulbrook (University College London) noted in the webinar, this is crucial if Holocaust education is to achieve its aims. Four members of the team working on the UCL project Compromised Identities presented at the webinar (Professor Fulbrook, Professor Stephanie Bird, Dr Stefanie Rauch, Dr Bastiaan Willems). They explored the implications of giving bystanders and perpetrators a voice and the ways in which this can be achieved responsibly across multiple media (literature, oral histories, ego-documents, photography).

In sum, the webinar offered secondary teachers from across subject domains an insight into why they might explore a cross-curricula approach, how they might go about it, and where they can find innovative new resources to underpin Holocaust education across their school.

Professor Sara Jones leads the Culture as Testimony Project, a two-year research network (2016-2018), supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She teaches on the University of Birmingham's postgraduate MA Holocaust and Genocide programme.