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The Communicator

The Interview

Boaz Dvir

Boaz Dvir seated at a table

Boaz Dvir directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State. It is an interdisciplinary program — part of the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative, which Dvir also directs — that aims to solve this issue through evidenced-based training and listening.

Boaz Dvir is an award-winning filmmaker and faculty member in the Bellisario College. A few years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Education asked if it could add two of Dvir’s post-Holocaust documentaries to its statewide offerings for educators. He “immediately agreed.” That first interaction led to a partnership that would create a program to help K-12 educators teach difficult topics effectively.

It became clear to Dvir that teachers lacked the support and training to teach a wide variety of challenging topics. The Holocaust was just one example of many. He also learned it was a problem that affected classrooms nationwide.

Today, Dvir directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State. It is an interdisciplinary program — part of the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative, which Dvir also directs — that aims to solve this issue through evidenced-based training and listening.

Q: Can you talk about how this program was built and what it means for teaching difficult topics in the classroom?

A: Like most of their colleagues around the country, Pennsylvania K-12 educators must address a range of difficult topics — slavery, the Civil War, evolution, I can go on. They often know what to teach, but not how to teach these often-controversial subjects. To foster the effective instruction of difficult topics, we created an initiative that, instead of providing educators with curriculum or content, offers the pedagogical support and teaching tools they need.

We encourage educators to shift from being a sage on the stage who delivers answers to being a facilitator who sets the stage for students’ learning and helps students come up with their own compelling questions.

This means giving students agency. Imagine a 12-year-old saying, “Instead of lecturing and asking me to memorize information for a test, my teacher lets me figure out what I want to explore. She’s helping me come up with a compelling question that matters to me. She’s giving me the tools to investigate this for myself and navigate fake news to find credible sources. I’m putting all of that together and drawing my own conclusions.” That kind of a learning experience can help transform a child.

If we do this right, we have a real shot at creating a new generation that handles polarizing topics in a much more respectful, open-minded and productive way.

Q: That style of teaching is called inquiry, which is a major part of this program. Can you discuss what inquiry is all about and how it helps address the challenges of teaching difficult topics?

A: I’ll give a couple of examples. So, if you lecture students and hope they retain information, the most you’re going to get is awareness, right? Now, awareness is fine. I’m the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Do I personally want to raise awareness about the Nazis’ murder of 6 million Jews and millions of other victims? Of course. Do I want my family members who perished to be forgotten? No. I’m also a journalist. So, I’m a big believer in the spreading of knowledge and facts.

But through the effective instruction of difficult topics, educators can aim higher. They can instill insight in their students about the human condition and enable them to develop critical thinking, active listening and empathy.

So, let’s say you are a teacher, and you’re teaching social studies or geography in high school, and the lesson is Ukraine because it’s in the news. Well, if you did it the old way, students might remember some of it or they might not. But if you empower your students to figure out the truth for themselves, to explore this topic on their own, to focus more on questions than answers, then they might take action. For instance, a Ukraine lesson could lead a student to create an anti-bullying club in their school. Now that’s an example I came up with, which means it’s not that creative. Students come up with much better projects than I do.

Q: The pilot program saw incredible retention. Out of the 20 teachers who voluntarily signed up for the yearlong program, all 20 completed it. How do you explain that?

A: I think there are three reasons for it.

Number 1, there’s a tremendous need among educators for high-quality training and pedagogical support. These teachers have difficult topics that they need to teach. They often know what to teach but may struggle with how to teach. In some cases, they’re unaware that there is a support mechanism, and they’re delighted to hear about it.

Number 2, teachers in Pennsylvania and across the country must go through professional development (PD) to keep their jobs and progress in their careers. It’s a big part of their professional lives. I have spoken with hundreds of teachers about PD. Not a single one has ever told me it was great. PD tends to range from mediocre to a waste of time. Now, the teachers may look at our intensive, sustained, professional learning and say, “Oh, that’s a lot of work.” But no one denies that the program is research-based, built on best practices, and is of the
highest quality.

Number 3 may sound less important than the first two, but I believe it’s equally important. We are there for the teachers. We’re on their team. We respect them. We love them. We want to see them succeed. In this day and age, when teachers are underappreciated and overburdened, they need this kind of support. At the same time, we always tell them the truth. We do not sugarcoat it. If you go through a yearlong or semester-long program with us, it is challenging. No question about it. But it’s also rewarding.

Q: Can you expand? What makes it challenging?

A: It’s intense work for the participating educators. It’s a lot. You’re doing a lot of work. It’s active, not passive, professional learning. It’s action planning. You’re holding yourself accountable. We are there to support you, and part of that is for us to provide accountability. And we work with the participants on holding themselves accountable. So, it’s a mindset shift. It’s a lot of work mentally and physically … and it begins in the summer. The first half of the program is an uphill climb, but it becomes a downhill run in the second half. Participating educators say, “I know how to do it now. This is exciting.”

Q: What do you hope to see from the students [whose teachers completed this program] after they graduate, get jobs, start families, go to college?

A: We hope that during their K-12 years, the students of our program participants gain useful life skills and the ability to contextualize the insight they obtain to their here and now. We hope they sharpen their perspectives and strengthen their identities while growing to embrace other perspectives and respect other identities. We hope they engage in civil, productive civic discourse. We hope they understand they can often put what they’re learning in difficult-topic instruction to immediate use, improving their lives, and contributing to a thriving community. We hope they become agents of positive change.

We believe that what will happen beyond K-12 will depend on our program’s scalability. As adults, if the students of our participants find themselves in a world where most children had had a teacher who’d gone through this program, they’d be part of a better society. A society where people with varied perspectives join forces to solve problems. They’d welcome and seek out a wide variety of backgrounds and points of view. They’d advance societal and even personal solutions more efficiently and with greater, wider impact. They’d not just judge and dismiss, but really listen to other people. They’d transform society.