FARGO - Uncomfortable and overwhelming.
That's how 25-year-old Ashlee Cournia described her first learning about the Holocaust in high school. She hated hearing about the death of millions and seeing all the pictures.
Now Cournia, a language arts teacher at Shanley High School in Fargo, aims to teach her students about the Holocaust in ways to evoke empathy while understanding anti-semitism and the Nazi rise to power.
"Hate doesn't just happen. We slowly become indifferent," she said, "becoming engulfed in it without even knowing it."
Jacob Kienzle, language arts teacher at Discovery Middle School, said it's important to educate his students on the Holocaust so "we can prevent anything like this happening in the future."
That being said, the topic is difficult when dealing with seventh graders.
"Teaching a topic as heavy as the Holocaust, it's hard to teach that and not let it become a very depressing atmosphere," Kienzle said.
For being English teachers, both Kienzle and Cournia have put a lot of their own education and energy into history, specifically with the Holocaust, so they can bring that knowledge back into the classroom to pass onto their students.
The teachers received extensive training from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Kienzle attended a conference at the museum this summer along with his wife, Brita Bostad, who is a teacher at West Fargo High School. Cournia was invited to the conference in Washington, but she instead went to Concordia College where people from the museum joined a lecture series in March. Kienzle was also in attendance at the local lecture.
For the past 23 years, the museum has hosted a national conference for educators to provide successful strategies on teaching the Holocaust. This summer more than 180 teachers from across the country gathered to hear from scholars and survivors.
"In the face of rising anti-semitism and Holocaust denial, educating students about this history is becoming increasingly urgent," said Peter Fredlake, director of the museum's teacher education and special programs, in a press release following the conference. "As the global leader in Holocaust education, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum works to ensure teachers have the training and resources they need to introduce their students to this important and complex history - and show them how its lessons remain relevant to all citizens today."
One of the biggest takeaways mentioned by both teachers after receiving their training earlier this year was that there's no way to compare their students' experience with those from the Holocaust.
"You can't understand what it would've been like," Kienzle said. "You can't make a comparison to their pain."
Cournia used to have her sophomores create an identity chart with information about their family, home, belongings and interests. So as they read "Night" by Eli Wiesel, they could begin checking off items from the chart just as they are taken away from Wiesel throughout the book.
Rather than trying to have her student relate, Cournia said she wants them to gain awareness.
"Without us learning about it their memory is gone," she said.
Kienzle said he feels more confident about answering questions from his students now that he has a greater understanding of the Holocaust. When his students are reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" and they ask, "Well, why didn't they just leave?" he can give them historical context about how difficult it was to obtain visas among the many other challenges.
Through the Memorial Museum, Kienzle and Cournia were connected with a surplus of educational materials, including other diaries of Holocaust victims and survivors. Kienzle said he is most excited about having his students read those additional diaries so they can get be exposed to more than just Frank's experience.
When leaving Washington this summer, Kienzle said he and his wife actually had to ship books back to Fargo because their luggage couldn't handle the load of learning resources they acquired from the conference.
The museum's website is a great resource for students, Cournia said. They can use it when researching projects to be sure they are getting consistent and accurate information-after all, there are still websites out there that deny the Holocaust even happened.