The Arizona State Board of Education voted at the end of October 2020 to make learning about the Holocaust and other genocides a requirement for middle and high school students across the state.
The Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation has created a curriculum project based on a memoir by local Holocaust survivor Oskar Knoblauch that they hope will be used by educators teaching these requirements.
Titled “Hope Chest,” the curriculum takes students on an immersive journey through Oskar’s experience during the Holocaust, beginning when he was just 13 years old. His autobiography, A Boy’s Story, A Man’s Memory: Remembering the Holocaust 1933–1945, tells the story of his family’s struggle to survive by working together and guided by lessons of respect and hope.
Chris Harthun, residency and curriculum coordinator for Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation, created the curriculum in conjunction with Oskar and two local educators: Patti Mastropolo, assistant principal at Coyote Ridge Elementary School in Glendale, and Heidi Cocco, English language learner teacher at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix.
Chris had been working with Oskar for the past eight or nine years. “It’s impossible not to be inspired with his positivity and passion for wanting to help students be the best versions of themselves,” she says. “We had been talking about the possibility of a curriculum around his autobiography.”
Oskar has been sharing his story with Valley school children for years. He has amassed notebooks of thousands of moving letters from children who were impacted by his presentations.
“That deep impact and relevance that Oskar has on students are what we wanted to translate into Hope Chest,” says Chris. “They see the Holocaust through one young boy’s eyes, usually about the age of the reader. It’s almost impossible to imagine or comprehend the loss of more than six million Jewish lives. For middle school and high school students, trying to comprehend that through having this very personal sort of approach has made it more impactful.”
In the spring of 2019, Christine, Oskar and Patti worked together to map out what Hope Chest would look like. They decided what the general themes would be and that it would include art activities and journaling.
Heidi agreed to pilot the program before it was even written. “So there was a frantic pace of creating this curriculum together and her teaching it that week, and then we were able to revise anything that needed editing,” says Chris. “We were able to complete the curriculum by the end of spring 2020.”
The intention was for it to be a physical kit – a hope chest. Natalie Marsh, director of Learning & Innovation came up with the idea of it being a vintage trunk. “I fell in love with that idea of this vintage trunk filled with a class set of Oskar’s books, a teacher’s guide and student workbooks,” says Chris. There would be a thumb drive of media files, as well as hands-on objects for students to explore.”
Then in March 2020, when schools started to close down due to COVID-19, the group realized that Hope Chest needed to be translated to become an online experience.
This past summer, the group worked on rewriting things to ensure that they would be usable for teachers online.
“I think what makes Oskar’s presentations so different is because he makes them so relevant to students’ lives. We tried to engage students through the arts and activities – with the reading and then through journal writing,” says Chris. “All of these are collaborative things; we’re encouraging students to share, to build that classroom community. Trying to translate it to an online experience, where we have a lot of interactive pieces. It was a bit of a different experience.”
They have piloted the online program once in the fall of 2020 and will continue to do so this spring. Once they feel that they have made all the changes needed to successfully engage students, the online version will be available through the Arizona Department of Education.
Currently, teachers can request the free Hope Chest Curriculum through their website (scottsdaleartslearning.org/hope-chest/).
“Part of the silver lining in this COVID situation is that it’s forced us to think digitally, which then really broadened our ability to reach audiences. It’s the personal story and the outcomes are so universal. It’s not about memorizing the facts or the dates or the battles of World War II. It’s about that personal story of overcoming through the messages of hope and tolerance,” says Natalie.
She continues, “Oskar has been so generous with his story – giving us the books and the access and the ability to share. It’s truly important to him that this endures, and it is important to us, too. I hope that it creates the next generation of powerful and empathetic leaders that become up standards when they see injustice happening in the world.”
For more information on Hope Chest and the many other programs offered through Scottsdale Arts Learning & Innovation, visit scottsdaleartslearning.org.