Ask Dr. Lynch: Teaching Students About Genocide

Question: How should the topic of ‘genocide’ be taught in schools?

Answer: Before I respond, I would like to thank you for your question. Nowadays, we are seeing the topic of genocide being covered even in the elementary grades and there is no consensus on when it should be introduced or taught. However, I will give you my expert advice, which takes all of the dominant schools of thought into consideration. In my opinion, the topic of genocide should not be discussed prior to grade six, because although younger students have the ability to empathize with the victims of genocide, they have difficulty understanding genocide in its historical context. Teachers of elementary school students should begin discussing the concepts of the diversity, bias and prejudice in order to prepare students for more advanced topics such as genocide, slavery, and human trafficking.

As a teacher, the overall goal of each of your lessons is to engage students intellectually and to teach to them to think critically about concrete and abstract topics. Thus, any lesson or unit that you create about the topic of genocide should bear this in mind. Since many of the members of your school or community will fail to see the wisdom in using the classroom as a platform for geopolitical issues, your lesson or unit plan should be used to formulate a rationale for your decision and anticipate possible questions and concerns.

The topic of genocide can be used as a springboard for the discussion of human and civil rights issues. The examination of genocide allows students to experience one of the main purposes of education in the United States, which is to study what it means to be a conscientious citizen. Taking time to craft your lesson or unit plan on genocide will allow you to create activities that mirror your student’s intellectual needs. Also, challenge them to contemplate the finality of genocide and the fact that it still occurs despite the “cautionary tales” of the past.

When teaching students about genocide, begin by defining the term. Also, teachers should discuss the topic of genocide and its many occurrences throughout history .

Secondly, discuss the geopolitical and sociopolitical dynamics that have led to genocide. Make sure that you avoid making amateur connections between the instances of genocide that have occurred throughout history. This way, students will learn that each atrocity has its own identity and characteristics.

Thirdly, have students examine the world’s response to occurrences of genocide. When is diplomacy, negotiation, isolation, or military involvement appropriate or effective? Traditionally, what has been America’s response? In the words of the great Eldridge Cleaver, “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

Lastly, illustrate constructive actions taken by people and entities in response to genocide. In each genocide that has occurred throughout human existence, there have been individuals who have spoken out against these atrocities and risked their lives to stand up to the perpetrators of these unspeakable acts.

Teaching and learning about such an emotional topic can be draining, but nonetheless important. If you follow the guidelines that I discussed in my column, your students will become miniature human and civil rights activists in no time. In the immortal words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”



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