High schoolers from five Birmingham City Schools arrived at Temple Emanu-el on Thursday to present artwork that interpreted their studies of the Holocaust.
The event, the culmination of a six-week program of art and social studies launched by Violins of Hope, included a day of seminars, guest speakers and a musical concert played on violins once played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.
Violins of Hope is a national organization founded by Amnon Weinstein. Weinstein, a renowned violin maker, began restoring violins that Jewish musicians were forced to play while captive in the Nazi concentration camps. Amid death and despair, the song of those violins was often the last thing Jewish victims heard before they were killed in the gas chambers. Weinstein, decided to seek out and restore those instruments as a way to honor those who died.
The violins were in Birmingham for a series of events last week, including the session with the Birmingham students at Temple Emanu-el.
The Violins of Hope Birmingham project coordinator, Sallie Downs, said launching this educational program with Birmingham City Schools was the right place to collaborate.
“Violins of Hope belongs to the entire community,” she said. “which will hopefully help people to see this has everything to do with everybody when you consider that we’re human kind and we’re all related.”
The Birmingham Holocaust Education Center partnered with Violins of Hope to reach out to the schools and design the combined social studies and art lesson on the Holocaust. The effort worked with 147 students.
Jackie Jackson, program specialist for social studies at Birmingham City Schools, saw potential in a project about the violins of the Holocaust and was eager to recruit the district’s teachers to participate.
“We are about diversity and we want our children to be exposed to civil rights and human rights issues,” Jackson said. “We are a global community and as much as our children can see their lives relative to others’ lives, I think we can develop a sense of achievement, accomplishment, a sense of the possibilities.”
Social studies and art teachers from George W. Carver, Huffman, P.D. Jackson-Olin, Ramsay and Wenonah high schools participated in training workshops and were provided with teaching materials for the students. The book “Violins of Hope” by James A. Grymes was provided for their lesson plans, and supplies and materials, including violins and wooden pallets, were provided for the art projects.
Coordinating the lessons across subject matter was a new but welcome approach for several of the teachers. At first, Jackson-Olin High School art teacher Gretel Watts, was unsure how to tackle to lesson.
“Initially, when I found out they wanted to combine the art and history department lessons, I was confused about what could possibly be the end product. But once presented with the concept, it became more clear how to relate this subject and the style of art,” Watts said.
Watts used several tools to present the lesson.
“The theme fit perfectly for the process with the students,” she said, “They brainstormed on the white board, we watched videos including ‘Night and Fog.’ (a documentary on the Nazi concentration camps), and I read them a chapter from ‘Violins of Hope.’ Then we combined the ideas and got started creating the art.”
The Violins of Hope student project might just have come at the right time. A national study reports that knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust is dwindling. The study, released Thursday by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, found that one-fifth of millennials either hadn’t heard of or were unsure if they knew about the Holocaust. Forty-nine percent of millennials could not name one of the concentration camps or ghettos where Jews were held prisoners.
Several students reported that the lesson resonated with them in several ways. Huffman High School student Ezekiel said, “This is the first time I got to come and see where my art was displayed. I actually got to speak about it too — which was new to me.”
Ezekiel also said he felt a connection to the topic. “This is such a deep topic for me, being African American, and for other groups going through struggles every day, so I knew there was a lot that I could work with,” Ezekiel said about his art work. “But I wanted to try to bring light to it — even though it was dealing with the Holocaust.”
Ceci, a fellow classmate at Huffman, said she related to the project as a Mexican American.
“I thought about how they want to build a border and kick us out of the country and we’re just trying to survive,” she said.
For Demarcus, a student at Jackson-Olin, the collaborative approach to learning struck a chord. “We didn’t do this at my old school, so it’s new to me.
I liked working with a group of people. We did have different ideas, but we worked together and we got through it,” he said.
The interdisciplinary approach also appealed to the teachers who led the project. Jared Crenshaw, social studies teacher at Jackson-Olin said that he appreciated collaborating with the art department because the two classes reinforced and enhanced the learning process.
“It was good for them to have the parallel experience and I could see tangible proof that they understood the topic through the art they created, said Crenshaw.”
Gretel Watts, his co-collaborator, said that, while she had participated in some small crossover projects on science subjects, the Violins of Hope project made for a strong collaboration.
The opportunity for more collaboration between teachers of art and other subjects appeals to Jackie Jackson. For at-risk students, hands-on, project-based learning is effective, she said.
“You get the kids to actually take a thought and turn it into something. Boy, it’s amazing,” Jackson said.
Jackson also had praise for the teachers who agreed to reconsider their teaching styles.
“It was the teachers that latched onto the idea,” she said, “I know people complain about teaching and education, but when you see the product of what teachers can do to motivate students, I think it changes your perspective a little bit.”
Jackson said she hopes all seven schools participate if the Violins of Hope program is offered again next year. She also has visions of similar projects.
Jackson said, “There are different times during the year where we can focus on the cultural issues that our students need to address in order to live in a very complicated, global, fast-moving society. All we need is the resources. I think we can get it done. I’d love to do it.”