By Lori Higgins
DETROIT (Detroit Free Press) — Starting this school year, it will be mandatory for Michigan schools to add lessons about genocide to the social studies curriculum for grades 8-12, particularly teachings about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.
The mandate is part of bipartisan legislation that received near-unanimous support when the Legislature approved it in May. Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law in June. Eleven other states already require instruction in genocide, according to the Genocide Education Project.
The new requirements “are not a lot of work for most districts” because genocide is already part of their curriculum, said Bill DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. But “some districts may need to take a look at what’s in it.”
The Holocaust and Armenian genocide were specifically cited because the Michigan Legislature has already passed laws commemorating both, said Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, the primary sponsor of the legislation.
Michigan has one of the largest Armenian communities in the nation. The Armenian genocide began in 1915, resulting in the killings of 1.5 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
“This is something that should be a priority — teaching our children how to recognize genocide through past genocides,” Kesto said.
He said he has been discouraged by international studies that show large numbers of people have never heard of the Holocaust or have little knowledge of it. He said the motivation is that when people say “never again,” it actually means something.
Amy Bloom, a social studies consultant for Oakland Schools — the intermediate school district for Oakland County — said a good thing about the requirement is that it puts a focus on social studies. It’s a subject that tends to get lost amid discussions about reading, math and science.
“This is a very important topic, and it draws attention back to the fact that social studies is a part of a well-rounded education,” Bloom said.
She said social studies teachers are already teaching about genocide, including the Holocaust. But she said it’s unclear just how widespread lessons on the Armenian genocide are in Michigan schools.
“I couldn’t tell you 100% to what extent (it’s) being addressed,” Bloom said.
Southeast Michigan benefits, Bloom said, from having the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. It has also been benefiting from iWitness Detroit, a multimedia program of the USC Shoah Foundation that uses video testimonies from the survivors and witnesses of genocide to teach students. The program also provides professional development for teachers, including a three-day workshop held recently for metro Detroit teachers that was sponsored by Oakland Schools.
The ISD plans even more training for teachers.
The new law goes beyond mandating the teaching of genocide. It requires the state’s assessment system test students on genocide. It also requires the creation of a temporary commission, called the Governor’s Council on Genocide and Holocaust Education, that will have a number of functions, including looking for ways to enhance genocide education, advising school leaders on those efforts, promoting genocide education in schools and the general population.
Snyder, when announcing he had signed the legislation, said the next generation of leaders “needs to have the wherewithal to recognize and help prevent widespread harm to their fellow men and women. Teaching the students of Michigan about genocide is important because we should remember and learn about these terrible events in our past while continuing to work toward creating a more tolerant society.”