In recent days, I’ve read a number of posts on various blogs that address a common talking point these days, which is the idea that we need to remember that students are the center of education. In some places, the writers were simply reinforcing the idea of student-centered learning and better student engagement, something that I, along with quite a number of my colleagues strive for (and admittedly struggle with from time to time). But in others, there was this underlying tone that it’s not just that students are the center of learning in the classroom, but almost that they’re the center of the universe in some way. Said one person about cell phones: “If you can’t hold their attention in competition with a cell, that’s not their problem.” Said another: Attention is the new currency in our world and you need to offer something in exchange if you want me to listen to you.”
My reflexive response to this (i.e., my getting defensive … and come on, we all do it) is, “So, do I have this teaching license for your entertainment? I didn’t realize that I need to be singing and dancing. I know, I’ll add more fart jokes to tomorrow’s lesson.” But that’s not much of a constructive response, to be honest and no matter how bratty the insistence that I keep my students’ attention as if I am some sort of entertainer, there is a kernel of truth to it. If it weren’t true and I did not have to keep them attentive and engaged, I wouldn’t have to see the words “relevant” and “authentic” in every post I read. In other words, what does it matter to a student if the material that I am covering is not important to their everyday lives, or who they are, or isn’t something they can use right away (via social media, of course)? And mind you, I take all of these things into account when planning units and lessons. I, just like so many of us, want my students to leave the class feeling that they’ve grown in some way or learned something. I thought of that when I was planning the unit that I’ve just started teaching.
The only problem is that we’re reading Night, and that’s about something that happened half a century before they were born.
I’m not being flip here. I’ve been bothered by this ever since I picked up the book to revise the unit again this year, for a few reasons. First, I chose the book and therefore I’ve already made my unit teacher-centered because I am not letting my students take control of their own learning and letting them read what they want. Second, I’ll be spending time on an event that happened long ago in a country whose government no longer exists and will more than likely never exist again (a government we defeated, btw). And third, we live in a free society where that couldn’t possibly happen, so how it possibly be relevant to them?
Some of the answers to that are obvious: we learn about The Holocaust so it can’t happen again. We need to make sure we continue to fight intolerance and hatred. We need to understand the horrors that humanity is capable of. But again, I hear that voice that demands authenticity and tells me that I’m wrong for foisting this upon them because it’s not relevant unless they decide it is.
Now, in three years of teaching Night, I have always had students who latch onto the book and devour it, probably because they have an interest in World War II history or they have grandparents or great-grandparents who fought in the war, much like I did (my paternal grandfather was a turret gunner on a bomber), and while The Holocaust happened a while ago, it is still fresh enough in our society’s mind for students to know how important it is. But what happens as the decades go by and survivors pass and it becomes not a memory but a watered-down recount in a bad textbook that’s been whitewashed by Pearson because the Texas Board of Education says so? And how do you keep the murder of six million European Jews relevant to a predominantly white Christian population that might shrug it off and say “Eh, it can’t happen to me?”
Here’s where I will sound like a teacher-centered teacher, and I’ll try not to sound too pompous, but this is one of those subjects that I feel that whether in history or English class we need to always teach because even if students themselves don’t think it’s relevant, it is and we need to show that it is. We haven’t started the actual book yet; instead, we’ve talked about antisemitism, the rise of the Nazi party to power, and propaganda so that not only do we talk about what happened but why and how it was capable of happening on such a large scale. Because when you really think about it, the scale of The Holocaust is astounding and even mind-boggling, something that you don’t really understand until you look at a map and see the entire system stretched over several countries.
But again, that voice … “So what? It won’t happen here. It won’t happen to me. It’s not relevant.”
Because it’s not hard to make Night or The Holocaust engaging, but making sure that we don’t forget why it is always going to be important and relevant is going to continue to be the challenge, and as self-righteous as it sounds, it’s one I think we should all accept, no matter how teacher-centered that seems.