As an ELA teacher, I try to do my part by teaching something with Anne Frank, or a novel like Wiesel’s Night or We are Witness by Jacob Boas. This year, however, I am taking a different approach. Instead of teaching the content of the Nazi horrors, I decided to focus more on the context in which these horrors occurred. I want my students to understand not only what happened, but why it happened. I want them to understand the power that Hitler had as an authority figure, and how everyday, good-hearted people allowed for the extermination of their friends and neighbors.
To start this conversation, I asked my kids a simple question: Why do we follow the rules? In every class, I received similar answers – It’s the right thing to do; We have rules to protect from harm; Breaking rules means facing a consequence.
I then shared this story about a prankster who called public places under the guise of an authority figure and persuaded people into dangerous and disruptive acts of vandalism. After they listened to the audio clip, my students were asked to explain what this prank illustrated about obedience. They were beginning to understand that people do not necessarily follow the rules, they follow the person telling them the rules.
To reinforce this idea, I then moved on to Dr. Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiment from the early 60s. If you’re unfamiliar with this study, Wikipedia has a pretty solid overview on Milgram’s work in understanding why we obey authority figures. The actual experiment footage is over three hours long, but I managed to find a 9 minute overview that the kids found fascinating.
To end the lesson, I again returned to the original question, Why do we follow the rules and asked the class to think about what they had just learned and then answer the question again. It was amazing how firmly they grasped the concept that following rules is something that is inherent in all of us, and when prompted by authority, we will do things that go against our better judgment.
I going to continue this conversation with the novel The Wave by Todd Strasser. It doesn't take place during 1940s World War II era, but I think it will tie in easily to best show how Hitler was able to convince Germany to commit such atrocious war crimes.
Here is the Prezi presentation I used with my kids to guide them through the lesson. Feel free to use it yourself and share with others!
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