Act 70 Spurs Improved Training, Teaching about the Holocaust

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Holocaust education has been part of the Abington School District’s curriculum for decades.

And thanks to teacher training provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center, students’ understanding of that horrific moment in history will include more personal and tangible perspectives.

“Children can’t understand ‘6 million,’” said Julianne Petersen, Abington’s supervisor of social studies for grades seven to 12. “We are trying to teach them through personal stories.”


The tools to do just that were provided to 112 Abington teachers by the testimony of a child survivor of the Holocaust, Ruth Kapp Hartz, as well as Sally Flaherty, curriculum advisor in social studies at the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and others at the April 26 training session.

That’s just one of the avenues through which teachers are being trained to bring Holocaust education to the students of Pennsylvania in accord with Act 70, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in June 2014. The law encourages Pennsylvania schools to teach the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations, although they are not mandated to do so.

Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition — a lobbying arm of statewide Jewish federations — credited those organizations with getting the Holocaust education bill passed, and with providing the resources for training educators throughout the commonwealth.

“I’m proud of what the [Jewish] Federations have done, working together,” Butler said.

In just two years since the law was enacted, those involved with supporting its implementation have made a lot of progress, according to Flaherty.

“We’ve done really well,” Flaherty said. “We are much better at this point [in providing training to educators] than we ever thought we would be.”

In Pennsylvania, all curricula are decided at the level of the local school boards but are required to meet the academic standards of Chapter 4 of the Pennsylvania Public School Code. Each school district chooses what specific content it will use to meet those standards, Flaherty explained.

“There are no Holocaust, human rights or genocide standards in Pennsylvania,” she said. “But what Act 70 said is that the Department of Education is to encourage districts to include this content to meet the academic standards in Chapter 4.”

Act 70 requires the Department of Education to provide professional development to teachers throughout the commonwealth, and to create guidelines for teaching the Holocaust, human rights and genocide to meet those standards.

Teaching the Holocaust remains “purely voluntary” for Pennsylvania school districts, pursuant to Act 70, Flaherty noted, but the Department of Education is required to support districts in this endeavor.

The Department of Education accordingly convened a committee of volunteers knowledgeable in the Holocaust, human rights and genocide.

“We helped write the curriculum guidelines,” said committee member Matthew Hamilton, the education program manager of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “These curriculum guidelines were created so when teachers look at Act 70, they have a framework to work with.”

The guidelines “encourage the inclusion” of: “The breadth of the history of the Holocaust, including the Third Reich dictatorship, concentration camp system, persecution of Jews and non-Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish resistance and post-World War II trials”; the “definition, history, response and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Holocaust and any other genocide perpetrated against humanity, including the Rwandan genocide and other genocides committed in Africa, Asia and Europe”; human rights violations; and “anti-Semitism, racism and the abridgment of civil rights.”

The guidelines also provide the parameters of how these subjects should be taught, Flaherty said.

“There are to be no simulations,” she said, as an example. “Don’t have your kids role play; it’s in poor taste to have a kid pretend he is a Jew in the Holocaust. It’s all about being empathetic, and not about having to experience it.”

Although Act 70 was passed less than two years ago, the training, which began in July 2015, is “really having a positive effect,” Hamilton said.

By the end of 2017, the Department of Education is required to provide the results of a statewide survey in which schools will be asked if they teach the Holocaust, human rights and genocide, and if their educators attended any professional development opportunities, according to the provisions of Act 70.

If the survey shows that “less than 90 percent of the school entities are offering instruction in the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations” then legislation will be implemented to “require school entities to offer instruction in the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations,” Act 70 states.

Toby Tabachnick writes for The Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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