Literature, Deep Inquiry, Makerspace: Memorial Projects for the Holocaust & Other Cataclysmic Events

This is excerpted from a longer post originally at


I was 16 months into my teacher training, and as instructed by my mentor teacher, I had photocopied and handed our students excerpts of the novel Night by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Only a few minutes into my brief introduction to the author and the book, curly-haired, freckled, inquisitive David raised his hand and asked, "Miss Merz, why are we learning about this depressing, sad book?"

I stumbled through an explanation of my own opinion. I told him and the rest of the class that if we could learn as much as possible about a story like this, we could perhaps better prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again. That seemed to please David and his classmates, and truthfully 13 years later, that answer, albeit simplistic, still works. But all these years later as I still teach about sad, depressing books, I continue to get that “why” question from other Davids about every other May.

A Project Idea Emerges
Then one summer evening, during a long distance phone call, my dad described to me a meeting he’d had with a panel of Michigan state commissioners who were working to install a memorial for Vietnam Veterans in Lansing, Michigan. A new book about Stalin’s reign of terror lay in my lap, and curricular questions swirled in my brain. As I hung up, I wondered about asking my students to create a monument or piece of art that synthesized what they’d read and learned.

My mind jumped to the first professional development I ever did, which was at the Buck Institute for Education in Novato, California. It was an exhilarating workshop on project-based learning that had never left the back of my mind. Could this be an authentic question or problem to pose to the kids: How do we remember or memorialize the people, all the people, scarred by genocide? Why should we remember them? What does it mean to remember? How does art help people remember? How is memory connected to education and change?

In the next school year, as I planned for the following spring, I reached out to everyone I could think of – art teachers, architects, sculptors and professors – and got a handful of professionals to agree to guide my students in their creative processes. I decided I would indeed ask my students to create some sort of memorial, whether it be funerary, educational, or celebratory in nature.


The Project is Launched
When April came, each seventh grade student read one or more of our selection of novels about teens in the Holocaust or similar historical circumstances, and then were asked to consider the following questions:


Why do we remember cataclysmic events?
How do we remember instances of mass violence?
Why do these stories need to be told?


I had long known but had forgotten that throwing questions rather than answers at young people made them think harder. I was pleased to see that choices and freedom made them start making their own connections. I stopped trying to cram more information down their throats and threw their wonderings back at them. When someone asked if what we were reading about had ever happened somewhere else, I handed them a book or guided them to a website, but I didn’t say anything else. The questions led to more questions, which led to research, which led to more questions and more reading and more learning.

After reading as much as they could handle, I asked them to first work individually to: study the idea of memory and memorials by analyzing national and international examples of memorials, physically visit an example of a memorial or public sculpture in Milwaukee, and eventually, work with a small group to create their own scale models or maquettes of memorials, with the help of our panel of local experts. They could dedicate their memorial to a single person, a group of people, or an idea. They could honor one of the people in the book they just finished, or they could chose to create an original piece of public art meant to educate its viewers about an injustice related to classification or the us versus them view. In a sense they responded to their novels through art and examined art as catharsis, a way to remember, to mourn, and to educate.

Once an idea was agreed upon, each student also had to argue through a formal proposal that his or her ideas were worthy of being made. Mrs. Eppelsheimer (our school librarian) was integral in helping them research the various people and topics they chose to honor. The facts, figures, and statistics she led them towards ended up helping make for very persuasive proposals.

Inquiry and Creation
Their ideas blossomed into examinations of race, classification, bias, power, privilege, slavery, sexism and police brutality. The classroom discussions and debates were heated and intense and brave. Their ideas ranged from the concrete to the analytical, the beautifully simple to the complex. One memorial was dedicated to the life of Mildred Fish Harnack, a woman born in Milwaukee, educated in Madison, but executed under the direct order of Adolf Hitler for her work in the anti-Nazi organization known as the Red Orchestra. Another memorial honored victims of cyber-bullying who’d committed suicide.

I organized groups and supplies and teamed up students with experts who could help them solve their design problems or librarians who could help them find a statistic to help them make their case. I finally felt like I was a conduit for their learning, a facilitator, but not the answer holder.

Our school’s brand-new makerspace, dubbed “Nerdvana” teemed with buzzing students, cutting foam core, sculpting clay, smearing paper mâche and hot gluing 3D-printed elements together to create symbolic forms. The students were shocked and honored that professional sculptors, architects, designers and college professors wanted to come into their classes, but they did, at various steps along the way, through planning, drafting, building and critiquing. Also, these adults were often thrilled to be invited, and most importantly, they were extremely impressed by the creative and compelling work being produced.

Reflection and Presentation
Most groups, upon reflection at the end of the process, said that their creations did not quite turn out the way that had envisioned; however, many were better than originally imagined. Finally they were creating conclusions and synthesizing information in a way that I had so longed for all those years ago, and they were doing it on their own. Students wrote about their ideas, drafting and revising and rewriting repeatedly, until their proposals and poster messages were as clear, strong and sophisticated as they could be.

In order to create a final product that was as professional and as visually appealing as the students hoped, Dale Shidler, Chair of 2D and 4D Design at The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) guided them in photographing their completed models and then producing 24’ x 36’ posters that would serve to market their ideas.
Four local artists and architects also visited and consulted with each group throughout the process.

On Tuesday, May 27, 2014, the entire grade traveled to MIAD and formally presented their posters to three faculty members, who graded all of the projects on feasibility and design aspects while I graded all of the written work and intermediate deliverables. The panel of judges was so impressed that five groups were awarded honors for their concepts and design. All posters were displayed in our middle school hallways for a week, and the winning posters were displayed at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee for three months.

Three years later we are still changing and trying new ideas. The poster component is still included, but doesn’t have to be. The book choices evolve continuously, and along with Holocaust survivors and educators, this year’s students will hear from author and activist Loung Ung on the Cambodian genocide and the need to take action to promote peace; the youth and programs director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, talking about segregation in Milwaukee; and the president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition on the dangers of Islamophobia and xenophobia. I remind myself continuously that I don’t have to have all the answers; I just have to keep getting my students to ask the questions.


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