Intellectual Recharge for Teachers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'THE truth is that I would've made a lot more money," says Harriette Blechman, a public high school teacher from Flushing, N.Y., "if I'd worked this summer." Coming from a teacher sitting in a classroom on a summer day, it's an ironic comment. But Ms. Blechman isn't here to teach - she's here to learn.Blechman and 13 other high school teachers took part in a four-week seminar on the literature of the Holocaust, held at Simmons College in Boston during June and July. The class was one of 52 seminars for elementary and secondary-school teachers sponsored this summer by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The program isn't designed to tell teachers how to teach, it's supposed to allow them to recharge their enthusiasm, to "replenish our intellects," as one seminar member put it. The NEH pays the participants, allowing some teachers to forego, as Blechman did, taking a paying summer job. They receive $2,200, but they must pay for transportation and accommodation. Even so, the combination of providing an opportunity simply to learn along with a little remuneration is welcomed. "This is such a respect to me as a professional," says Lucile Burt, an English teacher at a public high school in Arlington, Mass. The Holocaust literature course was a particularly popular offering this summer, amid a field of seminar options ranging from "African-American Women's Autobiographies" to "Virtue, Happiness, and the Common Good in Plato's 'Republic Lawrence Langer, the Simmons English professor who led the Holocaust seminar, says almost 500 teachers inquired about the course and that more than 100 applied for the 15 places. Although his was the first NEH seminar to be held at Simmons, Professor Langer is no amateur in his field. He has published four books on the Holocaust, including this year's "Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory" (Yale University Press). As they gathered for one of their meetings in the third week of the class, the teacher/students were struggling with how to interpret the acts of heroism performed during the Holocaust. They had seen "Weapons of the Spirit," a film about a town in southern France where residents hid Jews and helped them escape Nazi-occupied France. They'd read about the effort of some 300 people interned at Auschwitz in late 1944 to destroy the four crematories at the concentration camp. The resisters painstakingly assembled bombs from gunpowder and other materials smuggled into the camp, detonated one, and destroyed one of the Nazi ovens. Then the rest of the plot was uncovered and the resisters were killed or punished. And they had considered the tendency to confer the hero label on all camp survivors, and to celebrate in their survival "the dignity of the human spirit," as Langer phrases it. BUT the professor, who has conducted interviews of Holocaust survivors and studied the testimonies of many others, describes a survivor who still struggles with his inability to save his wife and child. "Where's his dignity?" Langer asks. "What's he celebrating?" Then he describes a Nazi atrocity - the setting afire of a crowded church as those who fled were shot - and says of the townspeople in southern France: "I don't see how their heroism mitigates [the burning church].... The poison is so large, the antidote is so small." This topic engages the seminar members - the discussion eventually involved all but one of the people in the class - including Ms. Burt, the Arlington teacher. She acknowledges that, in considering the Holocaust, people want to focus on the heroism and how those acts seem to redeem humanity. "That's what we would like to believe," she says. She suggests that the heroism be seen as coexistent with Nazi barbarism, not something that mitigates it. People should study the moments of heroism, she says, "not for the sake of celebration, but for the sake of historical truth." Her observation seems to be a point most of class can agree with, and they move on to discuss the next text, the memoir of an Auschwitz survivor. But the question of heroism comes up again later, and it's clear that it is a recurring theme for the seminar. There are several references to discussions that have taken place after class, during dinners, and even in late-night conversations in the dormitories, where most of the teachers are staying. Moira Lang, an Ithaca, N.Y., teacher, says that the experience is a little bit like college. Of course there are down sides, she points out, like "sharing the bathroom." Langer agrees that his students "are totally immersed" in the subject. They spend 12 to 15 hours a week in class, and many have had previous experience with the topic. He says he doesn't want to put down his undergraduate students, but he seems elated by his summer students. "It helps me as a teacher," he says, "they really are sophisticated."

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