For those of you who teach students about the Holocaust in the literature classroom (and even outside of the literary realm), my wife introduced me to a wonderful project a few years ago. I usually start on a Wednesday, and the project requires two weeks with very little in class time needed.
1. First, I introduce the students to poems composed by children who lived in a ghetto called Terezin. The poems are found in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. You can order it here. These were the children of artists whose poetry and artistry have been compiled. By the way, I do not tell the students the name of the compilation because they find out later, and the impact is stronger then.
2. I randomly assign each student a poem by drawing names from a hat and assign each student a butterfly to create. The butterfly must represent the poet and include elements from the poem. I give the students one week to create their butterflies. I included pictures below this post.
3. I inform the students that they have two weeks to memorize their poems (or they can read them for a lesser score). This is an oral interpretation of poetry, in which the students must express the feelings of the author during their recitations. Inflection, enunciation, passion, emotion, poise, and more are factored into the score.
4. The students hang their butterflies after one week has passed, so I have quite the decorated classroom for a time. It’s quite a spectacle.
5. On the day of the recitations I have the book of compiled poetry with me because the end of the book details what has happened to each poet. After the first student recites his/her poem, I tell the student to remain standing and then I tell the student what happened to his/her poet. If the student’s poet died, then the student must cut down his/her butterfly. If the student’s poet lived, the butterfly remains to decorate the ceiling a few more days.
After the first butterfly is cut down (and only 2-3 butterflies will remain, and not the first butterfly), the class goes silent as the students realize the gravity of what they just learned. The students have identified with their poet by the care of the butterflies’ creations and by the memorization of that child’s words. After all, our students are close in age to the poets. This can be a very moving experience, and I rarely escape the period without tears or, at a minimum, silence.
Once the students have finished their recitations, I impart the following to them:
- It is not necessarily the biggest or strongest or most beautiful butterflies that remain hanging.
- Survival of the Holocaust was random.
- The reason the students created butterflies is because the compilation, taken from one poem within the book, is I Never Saw Another Butterfly. These children of Terezin did not see more beauty, did not reach their potentials, and did not have the opportunities our students possess.
- Life is precious and must be cherished.
At the end of the school year, this project is regularly cited as the students’ favorite or most memorable. Here are some pictures from my classroom. Any favorites?