By Jennifer Houston, Middle School English TeacherThis article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin
Anne Frank. Just the name conjures emotions both deep and profound: outrage, sympathy, grief, hope. When Anne Frank began writing in her now-famous, red-and-white checkered diary she affectionately named “Kitty,” she had no way of knowing how her words would one day change the world. People don’t often recognize this—the power of words.
Within this framework, seventh-graders start their study of a tumultuous time in history and a young girl who dared to write about hope in the face of crushing adversity. The unit begins with students researching various topics in small groups—Hitler, Nuremberg laws and propaganda just to name a few. We also utilize Anne Frank: The Authorized Biography to delve more deeply into the history of World War II and the Holocaust in order to further enrich students’ understanding of the historical context. Gradually, students come to the realization that very little in Anne Frank’s adolescence was serene or predictable.
By the time we begin reading the diary, many students already feel like they know Anne, and they are anxious to hear her words. What many students don’t realize, however, is that the words they will read are nothing like what they expect. Instead of being bitter or despondent, Anne responds to her grim circumstances with determination and unfailing hope. Organic discussions about how we all handle difficult situations provide a glimpse of the emerging maturity in our seventh-graders.
Similarly, through the details of Anne’s diary, a surprising theme often emerges: She’s not that different from the students who walk the halls of Tower Hill today. She picks fights with her mom, dreams of movie stars and has a complicated, love/hate relationship with her sister. Anne’s words, in the form of musings and observations, help our students feel connected; their feelings are validated through the sense of something shared across both time and space.
Throughout this month-long unit, students also study how Anne’s diary is used today, both as anti-U.S. propaganda in places like North Korea and in our country, as a reminder to never let hate become stronger than love. They write poetry, debate authenticity and create artwork, all of which brings Anne’s words to life.
In 2014, seventh-grade English teacher Annie Zeberkiewicz and I received a Tower Hill Summer Enrichment Grant, and so we took our love of Anne’s powerful story and our shared passion for history on the road! In Copenhagen, Denmark, we explored the Danes’ resistance to the Nazi occupation of their country and how they helped save thousands of Jews from deportation to concentrations camps and almost certain death. At our next stop—Amsterdam—we toured the “Secret Annex,” Anne and her family’s hiding place for over two years. After several stops in Belgium, we headed home with Anne’s powerful words ringing in our ears and a renewed sense of responsibility for spreading her message of peace and hope.
Each year, we approach this unit with great anticipation, and there’s always a twinge of sadness when it ends. Luckily for our Middle Schoolers, Anne Frank’s inspirational story lives on through the power of words.