WHITE PLAINS, New York — Three public schools in White Plains, New York, played host to specialized Holocaust exhibits last spring, bringing 2,500 students face-to-face with accounts of the genocide paired with local stories of resilience.
The “We Are White Plains” installations were created by the nonprofit Common Circles to “help students step into the shoes of different individuals and learn their stories,” said founder and executive director Marla Felton, a former attorney.
“Some students who expressed doubt the Holocaust really happened or doubted the extent of the Holocaust told us they have changed their views and are even educating others on the danger of misinformation,” Felton told The Times of Israel on-site at White Plains Middle School.
After wrapping up in White Plains, the nonprofit spent this summer working on new installations for schools in Storrs, Connecticut. Given the cost of bringing students to Holocaust museums, Common Circles curates museum-like experiences to reside at schools for months, said Felton.
The highlight of installations, said Felton, is when students “interview” eyewitnesses through the USC Shoah Foundation’s artificial intelligence-based “Dimensions in Testimony” project.
“When you are in history class, you just read the textbooks and you are left wondering, how did these people actually feel? Now that we have AI it’s a lot more interactive and you can get a lot more answers,” said Lizani Padilla Guarnos, a student at White Plains High School.
On the first day of June, in a small room adjacent to the White Plains Middle School library, students asked Jewish-American liberator Alan Moskin — in his so-called “Interactive Biography” form — dozens of questions about what he saw as a liberator of German concentration camps.
“I know so many kids that have antisemitic values or don’t believe the Holocaust happened,” said White Plains High School student Cassandra Acuna Hoppe. “To see forever what these people went through from a first-person account is very powerful and so important,” she said.
‘Humanize and make connections’
At partner schools in White Plains, the installation opened with students looking at what it means to belong to a group. Guiding questions helped establish components of a civil society where “differences” are respected.
Students next viewed an “Art & Identity” station focused on how implicit biases influence the way people think. The concept of “othering” was introduced, opening a path to frame the Holocaust as the outcome of extreme prejudice and “othering.”
“We believe that starting the experience focusing on our multilayered identities allows students to be more open to engaging with the topic of the Holocaust, and allows them to humanize and make connections with survivors,” said Sue Spiegel, the Creative Director for “Common Circles”.
During its semester-long stay in three White Plains schools, the installation saw some teachers return with students multiple times to supplement classroom content. Other classes made several visits to “interview” each of the “Dimensions in Testimony” eyewitnesses for 45 minutes, said Spiegel.
“My students learned more in 40 minutes today than they could in six weeks in my classroom,” said Susan Anastacio, a teacher at the district’s Eastview Middle School.
‘Institutionalization of hate’
Walking into the Holocaust exhibit in their school libraries, White Plains students first encountered artist Bayeté Ross Smith’s “Our Kind of People” photographs featuring community members wearing different clothing aligned with multiple identities.
My students learned more in 40 minutes today than they could in six weeks in my classroom
District superintendent Joseph L. Ricca was among the 44 local personalities photographed for the installation. In addition to his familiar everyday suit, the superintendent was shown wearing a jujitsu outfit and activewear.
“We’re helping kids to recognize and realize we are multidimensional,” Ricca told The Times of Israel.
By opening with photos of people students are familiar with, the exhibit helped students apply the concepts of belonging and bridge-building to their everyday lives, said Ricca.
“There’s more to me. There’s more to the mayor. There’s more to the school resource officer,” said Ricca, a former history teacher.
Their method makes this conversation real for students
As head of the first school district to host Common Circles, Ricca said the partnership was invaluable.
“Common Circles was a jumping-off point that provides a unique level of student engagement,” said Ricca. “Their method makes this conversation real for students. To connect what’s in the classroom with this immersive experience,” he said.
In recent years, said Ricca, there has been “an institutionalization of hate, an acceptance of hate, and a search for the ‘other’ who is the cause of my problems,” he said.
The superintendent likened this “othering” to what took place in Nazi Germany, when Jews were scapegoated and ostracized from society.
“We need to recognize that when we talk about the Holocaust, this was yesterday. Two people ago, generationally,” said Ricca.
‘Embedded into the school itself’
Data gathered from student visits showed the project is “changing the trajectory of how students in White Plains think about their identity and the identity of others and how the actions of one person can make a difference,” said Alan Marcus, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Education.
Contracted to evaluate Common Circles’ approach, Marcus — an expert in curriculum and instruction — said responses from students were “overwhelmingly positive.”
From the perspective of Common Circles, the installation’s success is related to how the community can interact with it over the course of months.
“Because the exhibit is embedded into the school itself, students are able to interact with it on a daily basis, allowing them to learn and grow in a more organic and authentic way,” said Spiegel.
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