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Literature spurs lesson in WWII, Holocaust history

Fifth graders, left to right, Marin Peterson, Natalie Prochazka, Jacob Guenard and Mitchell Connolly stand beside their class Holocaust memorial “quilt” at Great Lakes Elementary School last week. The display capped a reading unit on World War II that grew to encompass interviews, field trips, Power Point presentations and much more. (Maria Lockwood)

Seeking to fuel a love of reading, Kristin Trianoski introduced her Great Lakes Elementary School fifth graders to two books set during World War II. The move led to months of learning, including a field trip to the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, local interviews, research, power point presentations and a Holocaust memorial created by the students.

“She’s found something that they’re passionate about and they’ve made the connection,” said Great Lakes Principal Cindy Magnuson. “It’s gone longer than she expected and far deeper but the learning is just incredible.”

The unit also had the desired effect.

“All their reading scores went through the roof,” Trianoski said.

Last week, students shared what they learned, from the devastation on Kristallnacht and the death toll at Auschwitz to the number of soldiers captured and killed during the Battle of the Bulge. They also talked about things they no longer take for granted — being able to brush their teeth, take showers and see their families. One day, the 32 students crammed together in an entryway to simulate conditions in one of the cattle cars that took Jewish families to concentration camps.

“It was so tight,” Jacob said.

“It was hard to breathe,” said his classmate Marin Peterson.

The Holocaust part drew the students in, Trianoski said. They couldn’t understand how neighbors could do that to neighbors. Or why soldiers went along with it.

“The soldiers, the Nazis that worked there, some of them were just forced to be there and had no choice, and they were nice as possible,” said fifth-grader Mitchell Connolly.

Their memorial is a patchwork of squares filled with images and words. Passers-by can see a pile of shoes taken from concentration camp victims, a lit candle of hope and, twice, the words “Never again.”

The children said they think it’s an important topic to learn about and share.

“I want them to know that we don’t want any of this to happen anymore,” said Jacob Guenard.

Reading “Four Perfect Pebbles” and “Lily’s Crossing” took them longer than usual because the class would stop to talk about the history of the time.

“It is a very serious topic and they are handling it with so much passion and maturity,” Magnuson said. “It is a great example of how learning about history can impact our work in the present and future.”

Trianoski brought in her grandfather’s uniform and first-hand account from WWII. Students followed suit.

“They were bringing things in and having conversations at home … it turned into this thing that I don’t want to stop,” Trianoski said. The unit, however, ended in January.

Natalie Prochazka, 11, said she tried to keep reading books on the topic at home, but it wasn’t the same.

“It was harder not reading with a group because you couldn’t share any of your ideas; you could only share them with yourself,” she said.

Marin read the first page of “Four Perfect Pebbles” to her 8-year-old sister.

“She said she really liked it because she read it constantly … she read for probably an hour every night,” Marin said.

Although the unit is done, students said they hope their quilt of images, on display outside the school cafeteria, will serve as a reminder.

“Never again,” Mitchell said.

Teaching the Holocaust

The University of Minnesota Duluth hosts a three-part series on “Teaching the Holocaust” for K-12 educators 6:30-8:30 p.m. March 18-20 in the Griggs Conference Center at UMD.

The series is free and open to the public, but registration is required. To register, contact Betsy Rosenzweig at by Friday.

The workshops, sponsored by the Arrowhead Reading Council, will equip participants with tools, resources and discussion themes for educating young people on the Holocaust. The speaker for the March 18 session, “Teaching the Holocaust,” is Mary Anderson-Petroske, vice principal at Northern Lights Elementary School and a member of the Baeumler Kaplan Holocaust Commemoration Committee. Other workshops include “Selecting Literature of the Holocaust” March 19 and “Teaching Anne Frank” March 20.