Early childhood educators are increasingly being called upon to deal with emotionally charged topics, which include natural and manmade disasters, war, terror, death, and other traumatic events. At our teachers college, we prepare students to deal with a challenging issue, memory of the Holocaust, through a series of activities and workshops spread over 3 years. In this study, we examined the students' emerging pedagogical paradigms for dealing with the Holocaust in the early childhood classroom in Israel. The results of this research shed light on development of pedagogic content knowledge (PCK) related to emotionally laden topics among preservice teachers.
In Israel, Holocaust commemoration has penetrated the national ethos in such proportions that teachers of young children have little choice but to include Holocaust Remembrance Day into the regular programs (Ben-Amos & Bet-El, 1999). State education inspectors, parents, and Israeli society in general expect teachers to mark the day as a national event. Teaching materials and in-service programs are provided, and the Ministry of Education’s preschool website proposes an active role for the teacher (Goldhirsh, 2008). Because the day itself is marked by a two minute siren, during which citizens stand silently, children are exposed to the Holocaust remembrance events, thus teachers experience a need to respond. Brody (2009) found that Israeli preschool teachers feel obligated to find socially acceptable pedagogies for their classrooms. Though quantitative data are unavailable, Rina Cohen Rozenshein, the Ministry of Education’s National Supervisor for Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood, claims that “in most preschool classrooms, Holocaust Day is marked, and only in a minority of classes the teachers go into greater depth” (R. Cohen, personal communication, August 4, 2011). In other contexts, such widespread compliance to school policy has been found to correlate with years of experience, gender, and participation in a community of learners (Masuda, 2010; Sezgin, 2009).
Our college has developed a comprehensive program whose aim is to prepare the students intellectually, emotionally, and pedagogically to deal with the Holocaust in a developmentally appropriate manner. In the first year, Holocaust history is addressed via visits to a local museum, reading biographical accounts of Holocaust survivors and making presentations about these books to peers. In the 2nd year, students revisit the museum, concentrating on the topic of children in the Holocaust, and they read and present a second biographical account. During these museum visits, students actively investigate and explain specific exhibits to others in the group. In the 3rd year, the students participate in didactic workshops on the pedagogy of the Holocaust. They are presented with a teaching paradigm based on stories of Jewish children who lived in a ghetto and survived the ordeal, often with the help of a non Jew (i.e., a “righteous gentile”). This content illustrates the program’s emphasis on values. Through such stories, children confront values such as courage, prejudice, racial hatred, and human kindness in an investigative manner proposed by Mardell (1999) in his description of curriculum about apartheid. The goal of this workshop is to support students’ creation of their own lesson plans related to the Holocaust and based on developmentally appropriate instructional principles. Students select a story and work with peers under the guidance of pedagogic instructors and an expert early childhood Holocaust educator to create an activity. Afterwards, they implement their lesson in their student teaching in the preschool or kindergarten classroom, and then report reflectively to the entire group in their college course. This opportunity to develop individual solutions for the dilemmas presented during the entire program scaffolds a constructivist approach to curriculum development.
During the 3-year duration of their practicum, the students observe their supervising teachers present activities about the Holocaust, and they are permitted (though not required) to lead their own activities on the topic. Because of the difficult nature of the topic, supervising teachers are often reluctant to allow students to take responsibility for these activities, preferring to teach as the students observe.