Holocaust Education and English Language Learner Students

Reflections on Teaching the Shoah

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David H. Lindquist, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Education at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne. He is a Museum Teacher Fellow and Regional Museum Educator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Tosha Tillotson, M.A., is the education director of the Central Valley Holocaust Educators’ Network, Sacramento California. She is a Museum Teacher Fellow and Regional Museum Educator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is active with the Citizen Voice Project.
By Tosha Tillotson and David H. Lindquist



Teaching the Holocaust involves confronting many challenges regardless of the setting involved. The complex nature of Holocaust history demands that students and teachers function at high intellectual levels as they study that history, and the need to determine how sensitive topics should be approached challenges educators in ways that are not present when teaching most other topics. Thus, any teaching of the Shoah places significant demands on teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical expertise.

These demands increase when educators teach students whose backgrounds differ from those of the general population. Specifically, students whose language skills limit their understanding of texts and classroom dialogue face multiple challenges as they seek to learn within new school environments. Moreover, the distinctive cultural milieu and life experiences that form the frames of references from which these students approach the study of all social studies topics make it imperative that teachers build curricula that include culturally relevant perspectives in order to ensure that students are provided an opportunity to learn material at sophisticated levels.

This paper considers how these factors influence the teaching of the Shoah in a Roman Catholic high school located in a major city in the western United States. More than 80% of the school’s students are either immigrants to the United States or members of the first generation of their families to be born in this country; thus, most students have been identified as English Language Learners (ELLs), a category used to determine if special language services should be provided to them. (…)

­English Language Learner Education in the United States

Barbara Cruz and Stephen J. Thornton hold that most teachers do not feel qualified to work effectively with ELL students. While a high percentage of teachers in many regions of the United States have ELLs in their general education classrooms, fewer than 30% of all teachers have received any ELL training. Less than 3% of teachers are certified in ELL education, and no more than 1% of texts frequently used in teacher education programs include substantial coverage of ELL theory and practice.

This situation must be set within the framework of contemporary education in the United States. While total student enrollment in American schools grew 12% from 1990-2001, the ELL population expanded by 105% during those years. (…)

Given these factors, teachers must consider the presence of ELL students in their classrooms as they plan and implement curricula. This requirement assumes special significance in schools in which ELLs comprise a majority of the student body. (…)

Teaching Social Studies to ELL Students

For several reasons, social studies teachers face many challenges as they prepare lessons for presentation to classes that include ELL students. Vocabulary must be a focus when preparing lessons for ELLs because social studies terminology is abstract and is used in sentences whose syntax is often complex and not easily.

In addition, much social studies vocabulary is culturally derived and subject to subtle interpretations, thus causing even native English speakers to experience difficulties of analysis and implication. For ELL students, such cultural implications provide significant barriers to the development of their understanding of social studies topics. In addition, students from diverse cultural backgrounds often view historical situations in markedly different ways.

Moreover, ELLs frequently do not bring background knowledge about the American context of historical events to their studies. Conversely, native English speakers in the United States have often been introduced to such information in non-school settings prior to studying such topics in the classroom, thus aiding their comprehension of the topics being studied. (…)

Despite having received little or no training in language assessment techniques and acquisition strategies and pedagogies, social studies teachers are often required to make critical decisions regarding the language skills of their ELL students. (…) This process occurs within the already hectic context of social studies classrooms in which teachers must contend with all of the other duties and activities involved in the everyday teaching/learning process.

Finally, the selection of pedagogical approaches that reflect the backgrounds and needs of ELL students who are enrolled in mainstream social studies classrooms must be considered. Thus, Joy Janzen stresses that teachers must consider linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural aspects as they determine how best to present social studies lessons to ELL students. The presence of ELLs from many diverse backgrounds complicates what is already a multi-layered, highly nuanced process.

The fact that approaches used in teaching ELL students enrolled in American schools have changed dramatically in recent years complicates this process. Thus, Cruz, et al., (2003) note that “At the turn of the twentieth century, the goal of education was to ‘Americanize’ immigrant children and in many cases erase all vestiges of their native cultures, including their home languages. … But by the latter part of the twentieth century, educators began to question the educational soundness and equity of merely ‘Americanzing’ students” (p. 3). In the new model that developed in response to this critique of existing practices, the concept that ELL students had to conform to pre-existing academic, behavioral, cultural, and social expectations was replaced with an approach in which diversity was to be allowed, encouraged, and even valued. (…)

Introduction to the Reflections

During the academic years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, a teacher at a parochial high school located in a Western state integrated two Holocaust units into the school’s curriculum. One unit was placed into an English 11 course, and the other was included in a United States history course. Each unit culminated with students participating in the local Yom HaShoah (Day of Remembrance) observance held in April of the year. This paper now discusses the approaches taken in developing and presenting the history units taught at Mount Carmel High School (MCHS). (…)


The approaches taken in teaching the Holocaust at MCHS are consistent with current theory that relates to teaching history and the social studies to English language learners. Four specific examples of the attention given to contemporary research may be noted in the development and implementation of MCHS’s units on the Shoah. First, the focus placed on vocabulary development is supported by Short, Vogt, and Echevarria (2011), who note that “Since proficiency in English is the best predictor of academic success, it seems reasonable that teachers of English learners should spend a significant amount of time teaching the vocabulary required to understand the lesson’s topic” (p. 12). Second, the emphasis given to involving students in varied activities inside and outside the classroom correlates with Short, et al., who state that many ELLs have never experienced collaborative learning in working toward the creation of a project.

Third, the development of a structured research paper is supported by Short, et al., (2011), who contend that “Academic writing is an area that is affected significantly by limited English proficiency” (p. 7); the research project assigned in MCHS’s Holocaust units is designed to address this issue directly. Fourth, and perhaps most critically, the approach used in teaching the Holocaust at MCHS is consistent with Lemke, who contends that effective content area learning must be centered on understanding the conventions used in the classroom in addition to learning the subject matter involved.

The Holocaust units at MCHS may be seen as an exemplar in promoting both content area learning in history and the social studies in addition to advancing the facility with which English language learners function within the contemporary American educational environment. As such, the units successfully merge academic learning with cultural acclimation, thus achieving the goals that are central to the mission of Mount Carmel High School.

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