Learning about genocides in high school

Why do we only talk about Quebec and Canadian history in our classes? We talk about world peace, but it’s impossible if we don’t know the history of others,” Isabella exclaims indignantly from the very last row of the class.

“Because it doesn’t affect us directly,” another student answers immediately. A confused but lively exchange ensues, in which several students participate; there is some applause in step. That Monday morning, in Geneviève Audet’s class, we covered a delicate and complex subject: genocide.

Based on the “Studying Genocide” learning guide, the first of its kind in Canada aimed at high school students and officially launched in April, this teacher at a school in the northern suburbs of Montreal is starting a series of four courses on the subject. For more than an hour, questions swirled around among this group of observant students.

It is wrong to say that they cannot talk about it, that they are not interested in it. If we take our time, they are the ones who make us evolve.

By raising the issue of the Bosnian genocide, the group of about twenty students receives a number of lessons to take a position on the following question: should the UN play a role in the commemoration of the genocides? “Stay open, because your opinion may change in the next four lessons,” warns the dynamic teacher, guided in the classroom by an education advisor.

The interest of young people in the subject is undeniable. Soon their questions branch out into related matters, such as racism or mass murder. “Can the Polytechnique attack be considered a genocide? asks one student, while another asks whether a genocide necessarily stems from racism, or whether it is genocide against animals.

Patient, educator, Mme Audet answers the students’ questions delicately, but admits he doesn’t have all the answers. When Isabella leaves the small classroom where the rows of three desks line up, Isabella asks her, “If anti-white racism doesn’t exist, does that mean there will never be genocide against whites?”, Mme Audet admits to being irritated.

“As a teacher you have to set limits for yourself, otherwise things can get out of hand,” she confides to the empty class after the students have left for dinner. But while the subject is shocking, today’s students approached it with curiosity and open-mindedness, much to the teacher’s satisfaction. “It’s wrong to say they can’t talk about it, that they aren’t interested, she thinks. If we take our time, they are the ones who make us evolve. †

The idea for these courses came one winter day, when Geneviève Audet saw on a Facebook group intended for teachers in the social universe an announcement about a training in Montreal on teaching genocides. Since places were limited, she signed up right away. “This training not only touched me, but it also taught me things,” she confides to her group.

With the help of an education consultant associated with the Center de services scolaire, she set out to adapt the guide to today’s world course. While the complete guide presents nine genocides that took place in the twentieth century (including that of the First Peoples in Canada), it chose to teach those of the Muslims in Bosnia. “My uncle was a blue helmet and went to Bosnia,” she says.

A long-term project

The birth of this educational guide is primarily due to the struggle led by the President and Founder of the Foundation for the Study of Genocide and Daughter of Holocaust Survivors, Heidi Berger. “When I was training about the Holocaust in schools, I noticed the students’ emotional response to the genocide and their shocking lack of information on the subject,” she explains in an interview.

This motivated her to start the foundation in 2014, then the educational guide for high school students after “years of discussion” with the Ministry of Education. Officially launched in April, the content has been tested by some educators as part of pilot projects. This spring, training courses were given for volunteer teachers. “The second step in our foundation’s mission is to make the guide mandatory,” explains Heidi Berger, reminding us that we must go “step by step”.

The tool aims to adequately equip teachers, especially those who teach courses in the contemporary world and ethics and religious culture, or who wish to cover this topic in their classroom. “If a student asks his teacher what is happening in Ukraine, there with the guide, we think the teachers will be better informed and at ease to discuss a genocide,” she believes.

The content was developed by Professors Sivane Hirsch and Sabrina Moisan, respectively professor in the Department of Educational Sciences of the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières and professor in the Department of Pedagogy of the Faculty of Education at the University of Sherbrooke.

“Our thinking is that if we provide quality content that meets the needs of teachers and doesn’t sidestep the sensitive aspects of these issues […]it will encourage teachers to move on,” said Ms.me Hirsch.

The research duo now wants to think about ways to talk about racism in school. Bringing into the classroom the analysis of these current topics, but which are not necessarily in the official school curriculum.

To be seen in video

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