Holocaust education in the ESL classroom

Having spent over a year teaching English to adults, I was keen to try to incorporate Holocaust Education into my ESL teaching in the lead-up to Holocaust Memorial Day 2012. I strongly believed that it was important to address this topic as it is a part of the British culture and society that my students were assimilating into, even if only for a brief time. Nonetheless, it is a topic that needed careful thought and preparation to present to a class of students from a wide variety of linguistic, cultural, national and religious backgrounds.

My Upper Intermediate (B2) class consisted of a wide range of students: Spanish, Russian, Thai, Saudi, Syrian and Italian – just to name a few.  When teaching ESL you should always take into account the cultural/religious sensitivities of students as well as, in this case, considering what level of knowledge (if any) they may have of the Holocaust or World War II. I had to take into account the fact that some of my students came from countries where the Holocaust took place whilst others came from countries where Holocaust denial is rampant. Still others had little if any concept of the European dimension of WW2 at all. It was going to be challenging to say the least!


Due to the nature of the school I was working in, I aimed to have just one lesson on the Holocaust, but this would be a three hour lesson (with a 15 minute break in the middle) so theoretically I could get through a fair amount of material. I knew I would have to spend some time establishing the level of prior knowledge on the topic and dispelling some pre/mis-conceptions. I also wanted to incorporate elements of the Imperial War Museum’s Reflections Pack lesson on Dilemmas which I had used successfully in KS3 History lessons in mainstream schools. However, I had to remember that this was a language lesson, not a history lesson and that the emphasis should be on developing language. Luckily for me, the theme for HMD 2012 was ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’ – a theme that could easily lend itself to language issues.

The class, which would normally have been following the New English File Upper Intermediate text book had recently done work on modals and conditionals which I felt could be easily incorporated into the Dilemmas task (what should/could/might people have done in various difficult situations?) and, for reasons of cultural sensitivity, I wanted to focus on a wide range of individuals – victims, rescuers, bystanders – rather than a solely Jewish narrative.

The lesson

I established three key aims for the three hour lesson:

  • To raise awareness of International Holocaust Memorial Day through examining individual stories and using recently acquired language
  • To develop communication skills and skills of summarising information through group discussion and feedback
  • To develop students’ ability to express their opinion about the significance and/or necessity of Holocaust Memorial Day

In order to accomplish these aims, I prepared 3 main activities: Introduction/setting context, a listening activity that examined the actions of Irena Sendler and the Dilemmas activity, modified slightly for the ESL setting. I also showed the students the official HMD ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’ video on You Tube and Pastor Niemoller’s poem ‘First they came for the Communists…’

You can download the lesson outline plus resources from the resources page.

Taking Holocaust Education forward in ESL

Firstly I would say that I was lucky to be teaching an Upper Intermediate class. Their comprehension and communication skills were good enough to handle the materials I was using in their original format. The lesson could be used with Intermediate (B1) students if you were happy to adapt the reading materials to suit the level.

The most important thing to bear in mind when planning a Holocaust-themed ESL lesson/series of lessons is your relationship with your students and their own cultural backgrounds. As a Jewish teacher who had a great rapport with the many Arab/Middle Eastern students in my class, I felt confident enough to approach this very sensitive (and for them, controversial) subject.

The theme for HMD 2013 is Communities Together: Build a Bridge. If you are interested in developing themed activities for 2013, then visit the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website. The HMDT runs regional training session that are free of charge to support teachers who want to plan lessons or ceremonies to commemorate HMD. Maybe I’ll see you in London on October 11th?

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One Response to Holocaust education in the ESL classroom

  1. Great post! Very informative and insightful. Thanks for sharing!

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