More than 95 percent of the students at Thurgood Marshall High School are students of color. Most are Latino or Asian American. None are Jewish. But for the past school year, English teacher Jennifer Banaszek has taken it upon herself to bring Holocaust education to her freshman class at the school in San Francisco’s Bayview district.
Students and teachers have also built a butterfly-attracting memorial garden meant to be a healing space, filled with student artwork.
Banaszek is able to do all of this with a $2,500 Morris Weiss Award from Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center, an annual grant given to three Bay Area teachers to incorporate the Holocaust and “patterns of genocide” into their curricula to “inspire understanding, moral courage and social responsibility.”
The Holocaust is taught in 10th-grade modern world history in San Francisco public schools, according to Morgan Blum Schneider, who directs the Holocaust Center. But the subject is not tested in year-end assessments, so not all teachers focus on it.
“The teacher could choose to read a paragraph from ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and check, it’s done,” she said. “It’s often up to the teacher and the culture of the school.”
Banaszek has taught aspects of the Holocaust before, but the grant has allowed her to go more in-depth. She received the award after being nominated by the school librarian, Phil Crawford.
Thurgood Marshall has about 500 students, more than half of whom are English-language learners, some from undocumented or refugee families. Banaszek said she wanted to approach the subject from a human rights perspective.
That the Holocaust would be covered in an English class is itself a different approach. Banaszek said she believes reading literature — prose and poetry —“provides a human, reflective element to learning.” The students are reading the graphic novel “Maus.”