Lake Stevens teacher brings Holocaust history to life

LAKE STEVENS — As Cavelero Mid High School students look forward to lazy summer days spent in the sun, their teacher anticipates more somber reflections at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.

Eighth-grade English teacher Emily Dykstra plans to depart in July for a 10-day excursion. Led by Seattle-based Holocaust Center for Humanity, the trip tours Warsaw, Krakow and several smaller Polish cities, including a farm where a family of non-Jews fed and housed concentration camp escapees.

Dykstra says her trip will “refresh my memory on the atrocities I teach my students” and enrich her school’s curriculum. It comes ahead of a report that’s likely to recommend a statewide mandate that schools teach about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Center teaches the history to “inspire students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference, promote human dignity and take action.” It runs a small museum in Seattle and loans out educational materials for teachers across the state.

The center also plays a pivotal role in outlining best practices for Washington educators who teach about the Holocaust. Unlike in Oregon and California, Washington schools are not required to teach a unit on the subject. However, a 2019 bill passed by the state Legislature highly encourages it and requires schools to follow the center’s guidelines in lessons.

This fall, the Holocaust Center will release a report on “the effectiveness of the legislation,” including recommendations for future education requirements in Washington. It’s due by September.

“I think that is one of the things we are pushing for, making (a Holocaust unit) a mandatory requirement,” said Alli Lapps, spokesperson for the Holocaust Center.

Dykstra hopes to share materials with other teachers at Cavelero and throughout the Lake Stevens School District. Dykstra, a 26-year teacher who completed a Fulbright Exchange in the Czech Republic in 2010 and 2011, has spent more than a decade teaching in-depth units based on her own visit to the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Anne Frank House Museum and the Ghetto Museum in Terezin. Her presentations feature photos Dykstra took herself.

“I can make it more live for the students, instead of just saying, ‘Let’s turn to page 30 and read,’” she said.

Already, coworkers invite Dykstra to their classrooms. Tina Kinnard, the English department head at Cavelero, said Dykstra’s lesson is usually the highlight of the unit.

“Her presentation is so organized and personal. She’s just so good at explaining what she learned when she was there in a way that’s really accessible to the eighth- and ninth-graders,” Kinnard said. “They are always really wrapped up in what she is saying.”

A collection of Holocaust-related material hangs on the wall in Emily Dykstra’s classroom at Cavelero Mid High School on Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A collection of Holocaust-related material hangs on the wall in Emily Dykstra’s classroom at Cavelero Mid High School on Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Kinnard added that Dykstra has been “very instrumental” in developing Cavelero’s Holocaust unit, taught by six teachers in the English department. She has helped build lessons around the book “Maus,” a graphic novel that uses mice and cats to retell the true story of a Holocaust survivor. She also compiled materials to cover what led up to the Holocaust, which isn’t in the base English curriculum the school uses. That helps students better understand Hitler’s rise to power “didn’t happen overnight,” but instead was built on years of propaganda and hate, Dykstra said.

She envisions someday bringing her presentation to classrooms in other Lake Stevens schools.

“Emily is the most collaborative educator I’ve ever worked with,” Kinnard said. “She will create and share anything she makes with any teacher who needs it. … So it’s not a surprise to anyone that she would create this resource and share it readily.”

Whenever she can, Dykstra tries to connect historic events to the modern day. While teaching students about World War II propaganda campaigns, she points out current examples with fake news stories shared on social media.

In the past year, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol comes up in class, and she guides students in deciding for themselves what it means to see Nazi symbols displayed on flags or shirts at the rally.

“We see the rise in Nazi flags and Nazi propaganda and white supremacist propaganda, so we can see that infiltrating our own democracy. No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, that’s alarming,” she said. “And the kids can understand why that’s alarming, because they’ve learned the history behind it.”

“I do open it up for observation for current times,” she added, “but I definitely don’t preach. It’s more opening students to their own critical thinking to make their own determinations.”

Dykstra’s interest in the Holocaust took root in childhood. Her father loved World War II history. To bond, the two would watch documentaries or read about the war. As she learned more, Dykstra realized the importance of studying history. Remembering the Holocaust, no matter how difficult, is key to preventing another similar event in the future, she said.

“For me, there are so many stories that didn’t get to be told or voices that are no longer alive to share their experiences, I feel it’s almost a duty of mine to speak what I can for them,” she said. “I don’t presume to know their pain, but I feel like we have to learn about that time period so we don’t repeat it.”

Emily Dykstra, an 8th grade English teacher at Cavelero Mid High School, rifles through the different books at her desk, many of which cover the Holocaust, on Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Emily Dykstra, an 8th grade English teacher at Cavelero Mid High School, rifles through the different books at her desk, many of which cover the Holocaust, on Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

She will be joined on the Holocaust Center’s Poland trip by about a dozen other teachers from across the nation, including educators from Redmond and Battleground. The trip also hosts relatives of Holocaust survivors and others who are interested in learning more.

“By visiting these sites and paying homage to the people who were not fortunate enough to survive, we understand that we have a duty to protect their memory,” Lapp said. “We can learn from history and do better.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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