Bringing Depth to a Study of “Maus”

Studying the Holocaust is no easy assignment—for a student or a teacher. Many students are first introduced to the history and stories of the Holocaust around the fifth or sixth grade through books such as Number the Stars by Lois Lowry or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

There’s also a book titled Maus by Art Spiegelman that’s often used in studies about the Holocaust. Styled as a graphic novel, the book tells the real-life story of Spiegelman’s father, who was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. In the book, the author chose a unique device to tell the story: he portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The first volume of Maus was published in 1986 and a second volume was released in 1991. In addition to critical acclaim, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and has been taught in schools across America since then.

When eighth-grade English teacher Robby Uhrman decided he wanted to have his girls read Maus this past year, he resolved to enlist some additional support for teaching and discussing the Holocaust and the book’s content. The goal was to ensure that a book such as Maus—or any material about the Holocaust—could be taught intentionally and thoughtfully, considering the difficulty of its subject matter.

“Eighth-grade girls are moving toward more independence,” Uhrman explained.

“They’re able to process books such as Maus or George Orwell’s Animal Farm because they are cognitively at a place where they can make connections to history and clearly see the allegory of both books, even if it’s a struggle and emotionally heavy. Part of their development is a heightened sense of right, wrong, and justice, and they can develop empathy by studying these books.”

Uhrman consulted with Trey Wilson, Hutchison’s middle school head, and together they thought carefully about how to best lead the eighth-grade girls through a study of Maus. They decided to enlist the help of Facing History and Ourselves. The organization is known for equipping educators with ways to teach the lessons of history, and its unique pedagogy emphasizes empathy and reflection. Uhrman had attended Facing History workshops and events in the past, and as part of his professional development at Hutchison, he joined a Facing History day of learning with visiting scholars. One of the professors detailed a curriculum she designed around how to use personal testimony from Holocaust survivors in the classroom, which fit well with Maus because it is a form of personal testimony. 

During the workshop, Uhrman also met with Rachel Shankman, who is the retired founding director of the Memphis office of Facing History and Ourselves and a previous visiting scholar at Hutchison. She volunteered to visit Uhrman’s eighth-grade class as part of this study. In the past, she has shared her story and that of her parents, who were concentration camp survivors, but she had an idea about a different approach. Instead of reading the book in isolation, she wanted the girls to learn about Jewish culture and traditions so that they could form a more complete picture.

“Rachel didn’t want the girls to live only in the atrocities of the Holocaust and the victimization of Jewish people,” Uhrman explained. “Instead, she wanted the girls to learn that this is a faith full of rich traditions and at the center of it is acknowledging the humanity in others, Jewish or not. She believes that studying the Holocaust has more depth if we humanize the people. Maus does a good job of this because the author details the story of his father and his family before the Holocaust begins.”

Investigating Identity

To start the study, Uhrman used an exercise suggested by Facing History, which is to create an identity chart so that each student can examine her own personal community. “I modeled mine for them to show the diverse number of places you can go,” Uhrman said. “I’m a father, a teacher, a reader, a son, a husband, a white male, to name a few examples.

“Once they completed their charts, they started to think about the different communities that we exist in and our circle of obligation. We have these ideas about how to conduct ourselves ethically, but how far does that reach? Where does that circle of obligation stop?” The beginning of Maus, Uhrman explained, essentially tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, his community, and his circle of obligation.

After that initial exercise, they moved into learning some of the history that led up to the Holocaust. Uhrman took the class to the gym for a research relay, which is a way to get up, move around, and take in a lot of information in a short period of time. The girls familiarized themselves with facts about Jewish tradition, World War II history, and Hitler’s rise to power, and then competed in a relay race to answer questions. “It’s an active way to learn and retain the history and it’s more effective than sitting in a quiet classroom and listening to me lecture them,” Uhrman said. The girls were also studying the Holocaust and World War II in their social sciences class.

Then they started reading Maus. One lesson Uhrman learned that he will implement next year is to have the girls read some of the difficult chapters in the classroom so that the content can be processed together instead of on their own. While the girls are developmentally able to grapple with the challenging topic, engaging in a discussion with their peers helps sharpen their critical thinking and sparks intellectual curiosity. 

When Shankman visited, she titled her session Judaism 101 and brought a guest, Rabbi Abe Schacter-Gampel of the Memphis Jewish Community Center. Together they talked about Jewish culture and tradition, including the centuries of culture before the Holocaust, and what their faith looks like today. They brought religious items such as yarmulkes, tallitot, and mezuzahs, as examples for the girls to see, and answered the girls’ thoughtful questions about Judaism.

Rabbi Abe Schacter-Gampel of the Memphis Jewish Community Center and Rachel Shankman, retired founding director of Facing History and Ourselves, led a session titled Judaism 101 about Jewish culture and tradition.

Later, Uhrman invited two other visitors to speak to his class. Danielle Katz, Hutchison’s social media manager, and her father, Ben Katz, spoke to the girls about how her grandparents (Ben’s parents) survived concentration camps and being hidden among other families. It was the first time Danielle had organized her family’s history to talk to a group about it.

“Danielle said she had always wanted to do something like this, but admitted she had some trepidation around it,” Uhrman said. “The presentation she put together was amazing and powerful, including primary sources and photos, and then she conducted a Q&A with her father. Because Danielle is someone that the girls know, it was a further way to humanize the people affected by the Holocaust.”

Danielle Katz, Hutchison’s social media manager, conducts a Q&A with her father, Ben Katz, whose parents were Holocaust survivors.

Having R.E.A.L. Discussions

Teaching Maus dovetailed with another initiative. Dr. Alyssa Villarreal, academic dean, worked with Trey Wilson to pilot a new in-class discussion technique called R.E.A.L. Discussion, which is an acronym for four key discussion skills—relate, excerpt, ask, and listen. The technique can be used in both formal discussions and casual conversations and was born out of the need to provide structure to in-person discussions for students who “struggle with expressing themselves, engaging different viewpoints, listening deeply, and reading non-verbal cues.”

Uhrman said that “relate” equates to the different moves you can make in a discussion, whether you agree or disagree, connect it to a personal experience, or to another text. “Excerpt” is similar to producing evidence. What do you have to back up what you are saying? “Ask” is important because often the girls will not ask enough questions. Instead, many times they quickly agree with one another. But asking clarifying questions or redirecting is important. And “listen” begs the question, are we listening and how are we listening? The R.E.A.L. format uses hand signals so that girls can indicate when they’ve heard or agreed with a statement. This keeps the discussion moving.

Uhrman explained how R.E.A.L. is different from other formats such as a Socratic seminar: “Sometimes students will dominate a conversation and this is an equitable format where they have a system for showing how many times they’ve spoken. It gives the girls an opportunity to pause and say ‘who hasn’t spoken?’ or ‘who’s only spoken once?’ ”

For the discussion of Maus, Uhrman offered them five questions and had them rank the questions based on their interest. They then chose the top two questions, which gave them buy-in to what they would discuss. Using their copy of the book, as well as some supplemental articles, they had a day in class to fill out planning documents for the discussion, pull evidence, and decide how the evidence supports their answers to the questions.

“The day of the discussion, I go over the guidelines and the hand signals they use, and then I sit back. They have the whole hour and they run the entire discussion.

“They rose to the occasion,” Uhrman reflected. “This was a time in class that they were able to learn as much or more from each other than from me because they needed to talk with each other to process what they were going through. There wasn’t going to be a lecture from me that was going to help them get through all the discomfort of reading the book. They needed to hear each other’s experiences with it.

“The end of the pedagogy from Facing History,” Uhrman said, “is to look at what kind of lessons have we learned from this. What led to this scenario and how do we prevent things like this from happening again? That reflection piece is supposed to inspire them toward future civic action in their lives. How do we apply what we’ve learned here to their own communities that we outlined and identified at the beginning of the unit?”

As a conclusion to the Maus study, Uhrman gave an assignment to help the girls process what they had learned. They could choose from a variety of creative projects including keeping a diary, writing a graphic novel, composing an original song, writing haikus or a letter to Spiegelman, or presenting a dramatic monologue. Campbell Jenkins ’27 chose to create a civic self-portrait (left - click to see a larger image) which expresses ways that she hopes to act in the future based on what she learned from this in-depth project. 


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