Tucked up under the eaves of third floor Ross House, a story is unfolding by the windows overlooking the Front Circle of campus.
English faculty member Samantha Kravitz is reading The Diary of Anne Frank with her sixth grade class. They recently had a week of “history,” learning about the Holocaust — genocide, antisemitism, the rise of Hitler, Jewish ghettos, and concentration camps. Sam uses the firsthand accounts of Jewish Holocaust survivors as primary sources to help students learn more about this period in history.
Before this morning’s reading, students explore the Anne Frank House, touring virtually via the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. The museum’s website allows you to see inside the Secret Annex, the place where Anne and her family hid during the German occupation of the Netherlands in 1942. The narrator describes the daily life of the families living there over the warehouse… “Any sound might betray them, even the toilet.” The students are surprised by how relatively clean and spacious the rooms are in the photos. The virtual tour helps students picture the life of the Frank family there, even down to the titles on their bookshelf (religious reading and Charles Dickens). They see how Anne’s father measured her height on the wall of the Annex, hear the schedule of Anne’s day and picture what her day-to-day life was like. Anne’s day is prescribed; no movement is allowed during the workday as any sound could give them away, but they can see how she experiences freedom at night once the workers leave and what she dreams about in her period of hiding.
Seeing images of the Annex helps the students feel more connected to the text they have been reading this week, a play version of The Diary of Anne Frank adapted by Wendy Kesselman.
The students are “acting” out the play in class, more for absorption and understanding than for dramatic presentation. “The kids like acting it,” Sam says, as there’s much to relate to as young people, such as a study schedule and family dynamics. Anne’s love interest in the Annex piques their interest, too.
After the tour, the class shifts into play mode. Students stand up, find their playbooks, and gather around a table to set the scene.
Today’s scene depicts the celebration of the group’s first night of Hanukkah in the Annex. A Jewish student who knows the Hanukkah prayer steps up to read it.
“Acting the various parts (and we rotate through) allows students to put themselves in the shoes of the characters and imagine themselves as the person they are portraying,” says Sam. “At the same time, students get to practice fluency, expressive reading, and have an opportunity to visualize the action.”
A longtime faculty member at MB, Sam organizes her classes with direction and purpose, balancing expectations with encouragement. In sixth grade, English is integrated into a curriculum that uses fiction, non-fiction, and primary sources to explore a variety of topics, such as the Holocaust and refugee issues. History comes alive for students while reading Anne’s diary and delving into the larger context through sources like the museum tour. MB’s middle school curriculum emphasizes active reading and presentation skills — both are in ample supply today.
Students are excited about the chance to approach the text this way. Usually, everyone wants a major role and there are not enough class periods or parts to satisfy students’ interest. “There is great anticipation during the day before class: what role will I have today? When I display the roles on the whiteboard, word spreads quickly amongst the kids as they see it and share who is playing which role.”
Sam favors approaches that help students engage with text. When thinking about a text to add to the curriculum several years ago, Sam saw a need for Holocaust education. In past years, she has welcomed a Holocaust survivor to speak to students, utilizing connections through the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. The last few years have been difficult with Covid, but she is looking forward to welcoming another visitor to class this March: “It is really a special experience. After all, there are fewer and fewer survivors alive.”
“This unit always inspires some kids to delve deeper into the topic,” she says. “This year one student is reading the Diary version for independent reading, and another is reading The Librarian of Auschwitz.” Last year, three students submitted artwork and poetry to the Arts and Writing Contest that the Education Center runs each year and all three placed.
Sam enjoys being able to tell part of the Jewish story to her students. In recent years, the school has welcomed many children from the Jewish Community Day School in Providence, joining MB in the sixth grade. “It’s important to provide a mirror for them in the classroom,” Sam comments. “We discuss what Judaism is and its rich history. We take time to hear about what life was like pre-war for European Jewish people. It was an incredibly rich and vibrant culture that was completely decimated. Two-thirds of European Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Antisemitism has a long history and is on the rise today; kids do not know this.”
As the students delve into what that means, their acting out is physical, literal, and their classroom transformed. A window ledge becomes Peter’s room, the rear of the class the attic. Students are up out of their seat, moving where the action takes them. They don simple props or elements to help get into their individual roles — suspenders for Otto Frank, an apron for Mrs. Frank. Mr. Van Daan has his bow-tie, Peter a stuffed cat, and Anne, of course, has her diary.
It’s not all fun and play though. Even in bright and sunny Ross House, in Sam’s safe and welcoming room, the reading of the play transports the students — and their viewers — to feel, in some small degree, the terror and stress of Anne’s young life. Dogs barking, approaching steps on the stairs, the bookcase door rattles. The Polizei is outside and you feel the family’s fear, even 80 years and 4500+ miles away.