NEWTOWN – Anyone stepping into David Parker’s seventh-grade English Language Arts classroom at Oakwood Junior High School would be overwhelmed by what they saw.
Every table surface in the entire classroom is covered with handmade models of concentration camps in meticulous detail. The intricate displays are just one part of a much larger project on the Holocaust that Parker’s 78 students are working on all year long.
“This is a museum, not a classroom,” Parker said.
Parker, who had long been a history teacher, now teaches language arts and decided to use the tragic time in world history not only as a springboard to literature and writing exercises that would inform his students about the Holocaust, but also to teach them life lessons about discrimination and racism that still exist today.
“When I used to teach history, the Holocaust was a paragraph and a half in the textbook,” Parker said. “Thirteen million innocent people lost their life because of the way they were born.
“I thought if we’re going to read about it and write about it, why not bring in my knowledge of the history of it?” he said of the Holocaust.
The students had one month – roughly between Thanksgiving and Christmas -- to complete the miniature displays, write a thoroughly researched and error-free paragraph about a concentration camp, and create a 25-slide or more presentation following grammar rules and citing works from their research.
What the students turned in right before winter break more than impressed Parker.
“In 32 years of teaching, this is the most creative group of students I’ve ever had,” he said. “It about made me cry when I saw how much work they’ve put into this.
“They were receptive (of the project), and I’m pretty proud of them,” he added.
“The models they did at home at night or on the weekends,” Parker said. “Some of them are so large they had to be brought to school in the back of a pickup truck.”
Seventh-grader Kaleb Frazier admitted he “didn’t know a lot about Auschwitz” before he started working on his replica of the camp.
Kaleb said he cut small wooden rods that he used as fence posts that he stretched wire across as well as for the smokestacks of an incinerator.
Seventh-grader Hayden Thomason worked in collaboration with his classmate Alec Harrison to create a large replica of Auschwitz, complete with a train and military figures. Hayden’s dad helped cut all the wood for the camp’s wooden towers, two-dozen barracks and other structures.
“I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust before this,” Hayden said.
Fellow seventh-grader Yelka Layden said the classroom project opened her eyes as well.
“I knew who Hitler was, but I didn’t know much about the Holocaust,” she said. “I learned so much about it and what a tragedy it was.”
The students will continue to learn more about that era during the second half of the school year.
The topics that will be touched upon during the yearlong project include the rise of Hitler and Nazism; Anne Frank in hiding; concentration camps; the “final solution;” Jewish rights taken away, arrest and relocation; Dr. Josef Menegle and the twin experimentation with Eva Kor; Nuremberg Trials; resistance groups; liberation of Europe; Star of David; and the D-Day invasion.
So far the class has read “Number the Stars” and watched the movies, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“We’ve read and written about Anne Frank,” Parker said.
Future assignments include reading “The Boy on the Wooden Box” by Leon Leyson and “Surviving the Angel of Death” by Holocaust survivor and Terre Haute, Ind., resident Eva Mozes Kor, who along with her twin sister, Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.
Parker would like to be able to take his students on a field trip to CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, which Kor founded, and have the students meet Kor in person, but he said he hasn’t been able to secure a grant to fund the trip.
Another part of the project last month was to write a thorough paragraph about a concentration camp.
“Our goal is to write one, error-free paragraph,” Parker said. “They formulated a question, used authors’ words to support a main idea, made a personal connection to it and then explained how they felt about that connection.”
For many of the students, the personal connection was profound.
“It’s really important not to judge people based on religion or race,” Kaleb said. “We should treat everyone the same.”
Hayden said, “It’s unfair how they were treated. It’s not right.”
“I’ve always been around a group of positive people, but with the Holocaust, there’s no meaning to it but pure hate,” he said. “All people are the same no matter what their religion or race is.”
Because of the project, Parker said he hopes his students “become better readers, better writers and take what they’ve learned and become a better person.”
“I want them to be accepting of everyone,” he said.