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Helping Students to 'Step Out of Apathy': A Lesson From the Holocaust

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: how an English teacher found an unexpected lesson in the Nazi "Final Solution" -- Hitler's effort to exterminate the Jewish people during World War Two.

RS: The Holocaust was in the news this week when Iran's Foreign Ministry held a controversial two-day international conference. The gathering was condemned by world leaders as an effort to deny the murder of six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps. But what does all this have to do with English teaching?

AA: Karen Wink is a professor at the United States Coast Guard Academy where she teaches required courses in writing and literature to first-year cadets. A few years ago, she took a trip to Europe to study the Holocaust. She wrote about how the journey transformed her life and her teaching in a recent article in English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

KAREN WINK: "I became very interested in going because I had been teaching some Holocaust poetry and I had, prior to that, lived in Washington, D.C., and attended the Holocaust Museum several times. And I was very interested in learning more about the Holocaust and, I thought, what better way than to take a travel-study course for two weeks to Germany and Poland? And the trip had such a profound effect on me, it just seemed a natural that it would affect my teaching. And it did, in ways that I never expected."

RS: "Why don't you talk about some of those ways? How did it change you personally and how did it change your personal teaching style?"

KAREN WINK: "Well, when I was on the trip, it started to affect me because when I visited Sachsenhausen, the camp, as well as Auschwitz, I realized that evil exists. And I felt that Auschwitz was one of the most twisted and haunting places on the face of the earth. And what also struck me is that when I was there, I noticed that it had a militaristic basis. In other words, we visited the barracks, the commandant's house. We also noticed some photographs in which the victims were, in fact, marching. And it reminded me of a military academy, and I remember thinking: this has become real. And I think there's no better way to teach than to bring real experiences into the classroom.

"And I noticed that when I would teach by bringing in photographs of my trip, by bringing in some of the writing I had done in a journal, by talking about the trip, I noticed students were -- had more rapt attention than they normally would. And I started to think: what is it about bringing place and disclosing feelings and being willing to stay in what I call the 'discomfort realm' that transforms learning?"

AA: "And you entitled your article, 'A Lesson from the Holocaust: From Bystander to Advocate in the Classroom.' What do you mean by that, from bystander to advocate?"

KAREN WINK: "One of the premises from which I teach is that students should not be 'witnesses' in a class; they should, in fact, be participants. And when I noticed students were not, in fact, participating in my classes before and after the trip -- and I'm talking about my experience here primarily in the first couple of years -- is I thought: wait a minute, what is it something maybe I need to do, to role-model, to disclose, to really become in a way that they, in turn, are willing to go from a bystander to an advocate?"

RS: "And how has that affected the students, and what strategies do you use to engage the students so that they are more, as you say, advocates in the classroom?"

KAREN WINK: "There are several ideas that I have implemented and also are still working with. For example, there are stories -- I think to tell students stories from your own life that may involve some transformation. For example, my experience in Germany. I think you can also encourage some debate. But let it be in a fair-minded way -- what Parker Palmer, the author of 'The Courage to Teach,' calls 'creative conflict.'

"And sort of plan for those times, too, when you're talking about issues of, say, race or gender or ethnicity or the role of the military or our place in Iraq, and allow for that. And I think it's also important to share writing -- your writing. I noticed that is really powerful when I would read something that I wrote. First of all, you get their attention more because they also think, 'She writes? I thought she just taught.' And then they listen in. And I think they, in turn, are willing to risk a little more so that transformation can take place -- that is, like a step out of apathy."

AA: English Professor Karen Wink is in her eighth year of teaching at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. For more advice about teaching and learning English, go to our Web site --

AA: And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.