We talked about the issues of distance and the passage of time, about how none of us in the room were even born when these events took place. None of the fifth graders were Jewish, none had relatives who had been in the Camps. I was asked if I was Jewish, (I am) but I have no relatives who had been in a Camp.
We discussed how many of the most moving memorials were quite simple, and in their simplicity resided their power to move people: the Vietnam War Memorial, John Kennedy's eternal flame, (one student had recently been to the US Arizona in Pearl Harbor and suggested it as an example).
We decided that each student would create a single ceramic slab about 5x7 inches and on the slab they would glaze a single word (rather than a picture). We "brain-stormed" and generated dozens of words on the board that the students thought were relevant to the Holocaust: children, death, sadness, horror, peace, hatred, murder and so on. I asked that no judgments be made about any individual word. Each student could select a word to be placed on their tile. When the tiles were glazed and fired they were arranged randomly on the floor in an alcove at the bottom of a stairwell to form a kind of found poem.
Now, as a project I think it was quite successful. So what are the dilemmas?
There is a kind of isolated quality to all of this. How is it connected to the wider, contemporary, what we call the "real world." Reports came back to me that other children, not involved in the project, were heard making anti-Semitic comments about the display. A number of parents came up to me at the open-house/school-wide art show and said that they were surprised that I had taken on such a "controversial" issue. ("The Nazis are controversial," I asked? "I thought that it was a settled question. I thought the verdict on the Nazis was in!") A Greek parent asked why I had done something on the Jews but not about the Greeks.
I should add that not all the responses were negative (or bizarre). One teacher took a photograph of the display. Her grandmother had been a survivor and she wanted her to see what we had done. I had other favorable comments as well.
But the questions remain for me, and maybe for you: How do you do socially relevant art in an elementary school art room setting? Our time is so short, our curriculum is so isolated. How do you turn the responses into "teachable moments?" Are there more questions that can be pulled from this experience?
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