Butterflies Fly to Cape Cod!
By guest author Daniella Garran, Educator at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School
I returned from NCSS in November after several days of hearing wonderful presentations from educators across the country, but what struck me most was something in the exhibit hall: The Butterfly Project. As soon as I realized what it was, I knew I had to bring it to my school. I painted my own butterfly and packed it safely in my suitcase. When I arrived at school the following Monday, I walked in to my principal’s office and said, “We are doing this. You can’t say no.”
Students’ First Lessons on the Holocaust
I’m fortunate to teach in a charter school where we are encouraged to teach our passions and interests. I am blessed to be able to sneak a Holocaust unit into my ancient civilizations curriculum with the endorsement and encouragement of my administration. In Massachusetts, students don’t formally learn about the Holocaust until well into high school. However, in my opinion that is entirely too late to learn the lessons of the Shoah. Because I teach middle school and this is students’ first exposure to such a significant historical event, I think it’s important to introduce it with great caution and care. I notify parents a month before we start our study and provide them with lots of resources so that they can feel equipped to answer students’ questions when they get home. I know that the topic resonates with students and their families. Over the years, I’ve received many notes thanking me for introducing the Holocaust to students because parents felt that they didn’t know how to do so at home. I’ve had students discover family histories that had been dormant for many years. One student’s grandmother sent her grandfather’s scrapbook and photo album from when he liberated the camps in Germany. No one in the family had ever expressed interest until my student had. This unit opens the door for meaningful dialogue.
Family Histories Come To Life
This year presented the perfect confluence of events. In response to my annual letter to families, one parent replied, “Just thought you’d want to know that Alex’s great-grandmother is Righteous Among the Nations.” OF COURSE I wanted to know! This student was able to research her and learn more about family history through the project I assign, Memoirs of the Righteous, for which students research an individual who risked his or her life to save others during the Holocaust. And at open house in the fall, one mom approached me and said rather casually, “My father is a survivor if you’d be interested in having him talk to the class.” We began a dialogue which brought us to January 18, 2018.
We arranged for Martin Owens, a survivor whose parents sent him from Austria to England to a boarding school for refugees in 1938, to come speak to the class. I knew that this couldn’t be just a short talk from a guest speaker out of context. After a morning of special programming including virtual tours of the Anne Frank House, writing found poetry, learning about the amazing people of Denmark who miraculously saved 7,200 of their 7,400 Jews, and seeing how Holocaust victims and survivors have been memorialized throughout the world through art, students watched NOT the Last Butterfly to understand the context of the project. Having already viewed Paper Clips as part of our Holocaust unit, students understood where the inspiration for the project came from and were eager to create their own memorial.
I told students that they have a huge responsibility.
They are the last generation who will coexist with Holocaust survivors. As such, they must commit to carrying on the messages of survivors and the lessons of the Holocaust. As young people, they also have an opportunity. They have a chance to make a difference, like the Righteous Among the Nations did so many years ago. Whether they help one person or 100 people, they will affect change.
I am lucky to have a wonderful class this year who took this to heart and solemnly read the identity cards provided by The Butterfly Project. They were reminded that they are giving those children a voice and they were encouraged to try and capture that child’s essence when they painted their butterfly. Here is what one student had to say:
“I got a little girl who only lived until she was 6, so I made a whimsical butterfly. Making that butterfly was so heavy. You were the one who was representing that poor child, no one else would, only me. The story was really touching. I will never forget today. This was a really unique learning experience. I feel super touched to be one of the last generations to hear from a Holocaust survivor.” — Mackenzie Cole, 7th grade
In the Jewish faith, 18 (chai) is a lucky number and is synonymous with life. It is not lost on me that today is a double chai (1-18 – 18). In essence, through The Butterfly Project, today we gave life to more than 80 children whose lives were cut short. It is an honor and a privilege.
To learn more about this event, read this special article about the day in the Cape Cod Times.