Incorporating Holocaust Education into
K-4 Curriculum and Teaching in the
United States


Harriet Lipman Sepinwall


An international conference for teachers at the University of Hamburg in 1997 was the first such meeting to focus on whether or not the Holocaust should be taught to children in kindergarten through grade 4. If so, what should be the goals, strategies, resources, and assessment of “Holocaust education” in the early grades? As U.S. teachers seek to prepare students for life in our increasingly multicultural society, these questions are of particular relevance. This article focuses on the experiences of some New Jersey teachers to suggest ways in which Holocaust education can be made appropriate for K-4 classrooms in the United States.

Today, an increasing number of states, as well as school districts and individual teachers, have made a commitment to incorporating Holocaust education into the elementary curriculum. Sensitive to the needs of children in K-4, they recognize that study of the Holocaust may not seem an appropriate topic for our youngest students. Still, they believe that there are some lessons of the Holocaust that can and should be taught at this level.

Young children need to learn the importance of tolerance and respect for others who are different. They need to acquire and practice skills for resolving conflicts peacefully and for living together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and appreciation for the contributions of others. Teachers of young children have an opportunity to lay a foundation upon which teachers in the upper grades can build to help make this a better world.

The United States has been home to a diverse population throughout its history. This diversity has been its great strength, yet also its greatest challenge. American history is filled with examples of nativism, prejudice, racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigrant actions and movements. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s imbued many educators with hope that tolerance and respect for diversity could be taught.

The publication of Alex Haley’s Roots: A Saga of an African American Family in 1976 led teachers to encourage students to trace their own family roots by asking questions of family members, looking through photographs and other family documents, and sharing what they learned with classmates. Rather than focusing on the melting pot idea—where differences are set aside in favor of a common American identity—the idea of the salad bowl became popular. This view of America encouraged people from diverse ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds to share the unique aspects of their cultures with each other. Rather than asking students to give up their backgrounds and “melt” into Americans, this newer view stressed an America in which cultural differences would be celebrated and contribute to making a culture in which all the ingredients (distinguishing characteristics of different groups) would remain visible. Still, racism, intolerance, and violence based on “differences” continue to exist.


A Mandate for Holocaust Education

Although individual elementary teachers have dealt with aspects of the Holocaust, some states are now mandating that it be taught in all schools and to children of all ages. For example, New Jersey—home to more than one hundred ethnic groups and considered by some to be a microcosm of American society—now requires that education about the Holocaust and genocide be taught in “an appropriate place” in all grades from K-12. The New Jersey law, passed in 1994, states:

The instruction shall enable pupils to identify and analyze applicable theories concerning human nature and behavior; to understand that genocide is a consequence of prejudice and discrimination; and to understand that issues of moral dilemma and conscience have a profound impact on life. The instruction shall further emphasize the personal responsibility that each citizen bears to fight racism and hatred whenever and wherever it happens.

The New Jersey law points to studies reporting that many students do not know about the Holocaust. New Jersey’s governor and legislators resolved that all children in the state must be educated so that the lessons of the Holocaust could be learned. While authorizing the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education to assist teachers in carrying out the mandate, the law allows for some flexibility on the part of teachers in choosing what strategies and resources to use with students. With more than six hundred school districts in New Jersey, there are many ways in which teachers in this state are aiming to implement the mandate.


Goodlad’s Five Types of Curriculum

Educators have different definitions of what constitutes “Holocaust education” and a “Holocaust curriculum.” John Goodlad’s identification of five types of curriculum, each operating at a different level, may be useful here as we seek to describe the nature of Holocaust education in the United States as it exists and as we want it to be.


Ideal Curriculum

This term refers to the curriculum that has been recommended as what is “best” for teaching about a subject. The ideal curriculum must contain a rationale, including goals and objectives, for the program of study. In the United States, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Anti-Defamation League are prominent among groups that have made recommendations as to what Holocaust education should be, particularly at the upper elementary and secondary school levels. Some states and other organizations have stressed the need for Holocaust education in both elementary and secondary schools, but little attention has been paid to what the ideal curriculum should be specifically for K-4.

Professional organizations of early childhood teachers, while not yet proposing curricula specifically called “Holocaust education,” continue to stress that the elementary curriculum should be developmental and enable students to develop self-esteem, gain respect for diversity, and gain knowledge and skills appropriate to their age, interests, needs, and abilities. Although there is no uniformity about what should constitute “Holocaust education” for K-4, there does seem to be some linkage between the goals and objectives of the early childhood curriculum in general with those recommended for Holocaust education.


Formal Curriculum

This term refers to the written curriculum approved and adopted for use in schools. There are a few curriculum guides written specifically to guide teachers of K-4 in a study of the Holocaust. The State of New Jersey established the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and gave it the responsibility to develop and recommend curriculum for implementing the mandate for Holocaust education. One of the curriculum guides that resulted is Caring Makes a Difference, K-8. Respecting local initiatives, this guide includes specific recommendations—but not mandates—regarding goals, strategies, and resources for teaching the youngest children.

Caring Makes a Difference focuses on encouraging positive self-esteem and respect for diversity in others. For example, its thematic topics include “Learning How to Be Friends” and “Communities Are People.” There is a gradual inclusion of concepts for teaching about the Holocaust more specifically by grade 4. Students this age are asked to

explain how prejudice hurts everyone and ways we all (individually as a community, as a nation, and as a world) suffer because of it; give examples of times that prejudice has led to the persecution and killing of groups of people such as in the Holocaust; recognize and accept that each person is responsible for his/her actions; and think of ways in which he/she can stand up for what he/she believes is right and good.

Caring Makes a Difference, K-8 was distributed to all New Jersey school districts by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, which also provided funds for teacher training, including assistance in using the guides and becoming familiar with available resources. New Jersey currently has more Holocaust education centers than any other state, and these work with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education to assist in teacher education and training to prepare teachers of all students, including those in special education, ESL, and bilingual education.

The state of Maine has no mandate for a specific Holocaust curriculum, but the Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine has developed The Spirit That Moves Us—A Literature-Based Resource Guide: Teaching About Diversity, Prejudice, Human Rights and the Holocaust For Grades Kindergarten Through Four. This guide lists many books that teachers can draw upon for developing a Holocaust curriculum. The guide is available to teachers who choose to use it, as are teacher training workshops run by the Maine Center.

The state of Florida, which does have a mandate for Holocaust education, has encouraged the development of curriculum guides by district- and university-based Holocaust education centers. For example, the Holocaust center at Florida Atlantic University has developed specific units for use by elementary teachers beginning with kindergarten.

The focus on “forma#148; Holocaust education even for younger children has resulted in the production of new books for the K-4 level. When a formal curriculum exists, teachers are encouraged to learn about and use such books, and several organizations publish catalogs with descriptions that include recommended grades levels. However, it is not always possible to assess a book’s appropriateness for a specific group of children just from reading a description.

Books recommended for use with K-4 generally do not provide graphic details of the horrors of the Holocaust, but may substitute metaphors or allegories such as those found in Promise of a New Spring or Terrible Things. Some books for young children do include stories relating to what happened to children during the Holocaust. They may tell stories of strained and lost friendships, or of hidden children and their rescuers, or they may deal more specifically with the Holocaust by describing the lives of those forced into concentration camps, of families separated and then reunited, or of children facing life as survivors after the Holocaust. Still other books encourage children to see the Holocaust in the context of historic antisemitism and to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

Many of these books seem appropriate for the early grades, but others have content and/or illustrations that might frighten young children despite the picture book formats. Although the formal curriculum in Holocaust education in the United States to date does not include any required books for use in K-4, it is essential that teachers be familiar with any books on this subject to be used in the classroom.

As Holocaust education becomes part of the formal curriculum of more schools in the United States, additional types of resources, such as videos and plays, are being developed. For example, Act I Presentations in New Jersey has produced “Can I Play?” an interactive play with music specifically for K-3 to involve students in learning about prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, and exclusion as it affects children. Increased use of the Internet links students in classrooms with Holocaust survivors and with other students who are studying this topic, and allows them to use Holocaust-related documents.


Perceived Curriculum

This term refers to the program of study that teachers report they are teaching and students are learning in a given subject. It also relates to what administrators, parents, and others say the curriculum is accomplishing. Anecdotal reports from any or all of these groups are the basis for defining the perceived curriculum.

Studies of New Jersey elementary teachers who incorporate Holocaust education into the curriculum reveal their belief that what they are doing is important for children. They describe their students as developing enhanced critical thinking skills and as behaving more kindly and respectfully toward others. In one study of K-4 teachers, a New Jersey second grade teacher said that while she thought her students were “too young to study the Holocaust … it is important to teach about differences and that all people should be treated equally.”


Operational Curriculum

This term refers to what is actually taking place in the classroom. It can be defined and assessed by lesson plans, observational reports, and videotapes of instructional situations. Teachers in various New Jersey school districts, as well as in other states, report using a variety of activities and resources in their classrooms. One second grade teacher in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, reports using books (e.g., Molly’s Pilgrim and Sneetches), videos, and class discussion in the Holocaust curriculum: “We read many stories and have class discussions. Children write stories and also illustrate differences and tell why it is important to treat people equally. We do many self-esteem activities so that children will have confidence in themselves, their talents, and their differences.”

A third grade teacher in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, said that among her goals was to “teach about the Holocaust, enlighten children about the diversity of cultures—how they are the same and how they are different—teach tolerance, and reduce prejudice.” She has her students learn about Jewish holidays and traditions, invites Holocaust survivors to speak to her students, and discusses newspaper articles concerning the lives of survivors today.

A fourth grade teacher in Hockessin, Delaware, aims to teach children about “tolerance, prejudice, propaganda and empathy.” Her strategies for teaching include “discussing prejudice and propaganda, learning about the Nazi plans and actions, having the students wear a Star of David, having the students meet and ask questions of a Holocaust survivor, and having the students record what they are learning by writing a journal.” She also takes students to visit the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and encourages them to discuss what they are seeing and feeling. Her students have made tiles to depict what they learned about the Holocaust.

A fourth grade teacher in Langley, Virginia, incorporates Holocaust education into her unit on “Cultures of the World.” Her class begins study of the Holocaust by reading Number the Stars and examining the role of the Danish rescuers. She hopes this will help her students learn to be rescuers and not bystanders.

Cathy Bullock works to reduce prejudice in her class of 6- to 9-year-olds on a Zuni reservation in New Mexico by involving students “in a proactive project to counter prejudice in the school and community.” She notes that “all of the children in our class are Zunis except for one girl who is Jewish. She and the other children are responding well to our parallel discussions of prejudice against Zunis and prejudice against Jews.”

Among the books she uses with students are Esther’s Story, The Night Crossing, Terrible Things, Molly’s Pilgrim, The Big Orange Splot, The Lily Cupboard, A Picture Book of Anne Frank, The Number on my Grandfather’s Arm, and Rose Blanche. To counter the negative results of prejudice, “children in three classes brainstormed some of the similarities and differences among peoples and why some groups of people feel prejudice toward others. Families were asked to explore feelings and emotions and define ‘love’ through works of art. Families contributed collages, photographic displays, pottery, paper mobiles, and family stories. The final display was an exhibit in the main hall of the school.” According to Bullock, “the entire Zuni community got involved.”

Bullock has developed the following five goals for her students and believes that they are being achieved:

1. Read children’s literature about feelings and emotions, about how people are the same and different, and about prejudice.

2. Chart how children in the class or school are the same and different.

3. Discuss whether children observe other children who are not treated well, why this is so, and what can be done about it.

4. Identify groups of people who suffer from prejudice in the school or community, and read children’s literature that presents these groups in a positive light.

5. Engage in a project to counter prejudice in the school or community.

Notably, all of the teachers mentioned in this section reported using books designed for Holocaust education to teach tolerance and respect for diversity, and books designed for reducing prejudice to introduce components of the Holocaust curriculum.


Experiential Curriculum

This term refers to what students actually learn from the operational curriculum they are experiencing. The experiential curriculum can be identified through student questionnaires, interviews, examinations, and inferences based on observation. Since K-4 Holocaust education has not yet been adopted in most U.S. schools, there has been little formal assessment of what students learn or experience from a Holocaust curriculum. Some teachers have reported that their students became more empathetic, more accepting of diversity, and more willing to act when someone was being treated unfairly, as a result of learning about the Holocaust. Some have also reported improvement in students’ critical thinking skills.

These reports have been primarily anecdotal, with teachers providing examples from student journals as well as individual and class behaviors. They stress the questions that students ask and the ways in which they personalize the problems faced by Holocaust victims. As Holocaust education becomes more widely adopted, interest will doubtless increase in what students actually derive from the Holocaust curriculum. Assessing the experiential curriculum is sure to become a concern of school districts as well as of teachers who hope to learn whether the goals (and hopes) for Holocaust education are being achieved.



The following recommendations for K-4 Holocaust education are offered for educating young children. These are just a few of the things that teachers can do.

Holding conferences or workshops for K-4 teachers to discuss their experiences in Holocaust education could provide further opportunities to define and assess the importance of a Holocaust curriculum. Many teachers of young children already report great value in this for their students. Helping our youngest students to value themselves and others and to learn the negative effects of prejudice and racism may well set a positive course for the rest of their education. Our understanding of child development and the goals of early childhood education seem to be consistent with the hopes for using Holocaust education to help build a world in which all children and adults feel safe and valued.


Children’s Literature

Ackerman, Karen. The Night Crossing. New York: Random House, 1995

Adler, David A. A Picture Book of Anne Frank. New York: Holiday House, 1994.

Adler, David A. Number on My Grandfather’s Arm. Union of American Hebrew Congregations, n.d.

Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.

Cohen, Barbara. Molly’s Pilgrim. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1998.

Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Lowry, Lewis. Number the Stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Oppenheim, Shulamith Levey. The Lily Cupboard. New York: HarperTrophy, 1995.

Pinkwater, Daniel Manus. The Big Orange Splot. New York: Scholastic Trade, 1993.

Seuss, Dr. The Sneetches and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1988.

Wolkstein, Diane. Esther’s Story. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1996.


About the Author

Harriet Lipman Sepinwall is a professor of social studies methods in the Department of Education, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey. She has been co-director of the college’s Holocaust Education Resource Center since 1994, and works with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education to provide Holocaust education workshops for teachers. This article is based on a presentation she made to teachers in Hamburg, Germany, at the first international conference on K-4 Holocaust education.