The child of a Holocaust survivor, Dominion High School English teacher Nicole Korsen always felt a responsibility to do something with her father’s story. As a child, she dove into the subject by doing as many school projects on the Holocaust as possible.
Now, Korsen continues to put that story in the hands of others as an educator.
This summer, Korsen was one of 226 teachers from across the country to participate in the Belfer National Conference for Educators hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The conference is a three-day workshop that aims at helping teachers effectively teach the Holocaust to millennials and younger generations.
“Educating students about the history of the Holocaust provides an opportunity for young people to think critically not only about the past but also about their roles in society today,” said Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives for the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education. “As the global leader in Holocaust education, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum works to ensure teachers have the training and resources they need to introduce their students to this important and complex history — and show them how its lessons remain relevant to all citizens today.”
Every year, the museum trains hundreds of teachers through programs held in Washington and around the country. The institution provides teachers with advanced tools and teaching materials for students of history, English, social studies, language arts, library science, journalism and more.
At the Belfer conference, the participants teamed up with museum educators and scholars to share rationales, strategies and approaches for teaching about the Holocaust. They also explored the museum’s latest exhibition, "Americans and the Holocaust," which examines American society in the 1930s and ’40s and the factors that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism. Program participants also heard from Margit Meissner and Susan Warsinger, two Holocaust survivors who volunteer at the museum.
Korsen plans to continue her professional development on the subject by applying to the museum’s fellowship next year.
This is not Korsen’s first workshop on the Holocaust. Last summer, she was part of a cohort of 25 people who participated in the TOLI summer seminar in New York City, and in 2020, she and Dominion history teacher Jennifer Rodgers plan to open a TOLI satellite in Loudoun to help bring Holocaust education and professional development to other teachers in northern Virginia.
This past school year, Korsen, who sponsors Dominion’s Jewish Student Union, also helped organize a Holocaust remembrance event during the Loudoun International Youth Leadership Summit. Six Holocaust survivors, including Korsen’s father, shared their stories with the international delegation of students.
Korsen tasked the students with sharing the survivors’ stories.
“I can only do so much, but if I can put this story in the hands of my own children, if I can put it in the hands of students in my classroom, and then of course the international students, then it makes such a difference,” Korsen said.
Earlier this month, Korsen said she heard from one of the teachers from the Singapore delegation who said that the students who attended the summit put on a presentation to 1,000 other Singaporean students about their survivors’ stories.
“Even if we inspire just five or six people with telling this story, they can relate it to what’s happening in their world, because it’s not about the Holocaust, it’s about the lessons that we learn from it,” Korsen said.
Korsen said she will continue to weave all she learns throughout her curriculum. Since Loudoun has no Holocaust education course, it falls to English and history teachers to incorporate the lessons of the Holocaust in their classes, she said.
This year’s ninth-grade theme is identity, and Korsen plans on using the topic of the Holocaust and discrimination through activities such as diary entries and the questioning and contextualizing of history as she works with her students on discovering their own identities while striving to understand and empathize with others.
“I will encourage them to speak out for themselves and others when or if they see a violation of human rights and will encourage them to think critically about human behavior so they can see from the perspective of others as well as realize the danger of categories or labels, especially the simplification of good versus evil,” Korsen said.
Korsen said it’s important when teaching the Holocaust to get away from preconceived notions, turn the statistics into people and present the most complete and accurate version of events. Through her participation at conferences, Korsen’s learned that some go-to educational tools like “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” are not the best to use, because Frank’s story is just one perspective and Striped Pajamas is not historically accurate, she said.
This summer, she learned of the book “Salvaged Pages” by Alexandra Zapruder, which is a collection of diary entries from the diaries of 15 young people who experienced the Holocaust. Korsen said the broad perspective is important.
Books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” are also part of the curriculum, and Korsen said she plans on providing opportunities for students to learn and connect with perspectives of people of diverse backgrounds. This all connects with Holocaust education, she said.
Though the Holocaust took place almost 70 years ago, discrimination and genocide have existed in the world since then, making the lessons still valuable and relevant, and Korsen plans on sharing all she can with her students and colleagues.
“Because it’s not, ‘This is the Holocaust, what would you have done,’” Korsen said. “The question is, what will you do now from these lessons that we learned from it?”