Last week, Loudoun County Public Schools partnered with The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Education (TOLI) to conduct a seminar exploring the Holocaust and Virginia’s history of racial injustice.
Seventeen educators from Virginia and Maryland participated in the weeklong program, which was organized by Nicole Korsen and Jennifer Rodgers, teachers at Sterling’s Dominion High School. It was one of several branches of TOLI’s Satellite Seminar Program across the nation.
The seminar was available to teachers interested in exploring topics in-depth. While middle- and high-school English and social studies teachers were the bulk of the program’s roster, instructors of math, science and other ostensibly unrelated subjects also joined in order to enrich “their own knowledge and cultural competency,” Rodgers said.
“There are some teachers who might have a lot of very tangible takeaways that tie directly to their curriculum, and there are some other folks for whom this might be for their general knowledge,” Rodgers, who teaches social science, told the Times-Mirror.
The program took an interdisciplinary approach to exploring the darker aspects of local and world history, according to Korsen. During the week’s virtual sessions, participants would break out into discussion groups and analyze literature and images depicting and discussing the historical events in question.
For example, one breakout group discussed an image of a young German soldier holding a handgun to the head of a Jewish person in Poland.
“I can see having a conversation with my 10th graders … about the age of these young German soldiers, who were given the orders to take this particular action,” said Valeria Austin, who teaches social science at Leesburg’s Tuscarora High School.
“This isn’t here to be a class taught on the Holocaust or racial injustice. This is meant to be a way to infuse these lessons into other classes, into our everyday classes,” Korsen, an English teacher, said.
TOLI’s slogan, “Never Again Begins in the Classroom,” expresses the organization’s belief that education is essential to ensuring the darker parts of history are not repeated. According to TOLI Communications Associate Jennifer Miller, only 19 U.S. states to date have passed legislation requiring that the Holocaust be taught in public schools. Virginia is not one of them.
Additionally, the idea of schools allowing classroom-based teachings about racial discrimination has fueled controversy within the Loudoun County Public Schools community and the entire country for several months.
At least 165 local and national groups have voiced opposition to the alleged teaching of critical race theory in U.S. public schools and “to disrupt lessons on race and gender,” NBC News reported on June 15. The debate, in part, fueled the disorder that descended upon the audience at last week’s Loudoun County School Board meeting, resulting in one arrest.
Participant Mark Bland, an English teacher at Sterling’s Seneca Ridge Middle School, recognized that teaching about historical instances of discrimination is unpopular within certain community groups. Still, he opined that teachers are “there to make sure that [students’] conversations [about these topics] are happening.”
“They know the world they live in, and we’re there to give them documents that they may or may not build connections with, or find windows into new parts of history,” Bland said.
“I think that a course like this helps me to become a better teacher of students in the Tuscarora community who have grandparents who have experienced these challenges in history,” Austin said.
Along with virtual discussions, participants took a field trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
They also visited Leesburg’s Douglass Community Center — which served as a school for Black residents until LCPS integrated in the late 1960s — and met with NAACP Loudoun Branch President Michelle Thomas for a briefing on local African American history.
The exploratory seminar is a spiritual counterpart to Dominion High School’s “Adopt a Survivor” program, which invites Holocaust survivors to speak to students. Korsen’s father, Jacques Wagschal, was a speaker at the third annual “Adopt a Survivor” event in 2020.
Wagschal died Sunday “after a period of declining health,” according to a Tuesday email from Rodgers. She said Wagschal “would be honored” if community members donated to TOLI “to further his wish that his story be put in the hands of the next generation.”
More information on TOLI and a link to donate are available at toli.us.