Learning from the Past for the Future

By Josephine Vassallo
Jul 19th, 2023

This is an interdisciplinary project which has linked teaching about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes and teaching about human values and democracy. It highlighted the issues of xenophobia, racism and limitation of freedom of any kind.

It’s not easy, to link teaching about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes with teaching about human values and democracy. Visiting historical sites is a powerful and meaningful experience. Our students were active themselves and able to explore various aspects more deeply. We felt that they learned and understood more about the significance of the Holocaust and human rights. Historical knowledge and understanding of historical processes are necessary to be able to reflect and draw conclusions that are applicable to the present: this was a fundamental element for us. We thought it was important bringing up the significance of human rights and how they can be maintained and strengthened, using their knowledge of the Holocaust as a basis. Students highlighted that visits to historical sites linked to the Holocaust play a crucial role in gaining insight into the Holocaust. For example, some students mentioned that for them, at the sites, “the sufferings of the Jews is conceived”, “I feel a real sense of empathy now”, and “Now I understand why we must commemorate.”

Historical sites gave us knowledge of the suffering of the victims and their individual destinies as well as of the everyday life of the Holocaust − knowledge that has been difficult to acquire in a classroom. Students saw original documents, testimonies and authentic objects which helped get a better understanding of this moment of history. All this was important to understand both about the Holocaust and about human rights, since both need to be explored by a historical and political point of views as well as in philosophy, social studies and ethics. This experience showed that students find motivation in investigating specific aspects when they have control over the content.

Our aim was to learn through historical information to provide a perspective on the contemporary situation. Through this experience which highlighted xenophobia, racism, limitation of freedom of any kind, just to say some, students were able to look at their own views and interpretation of these events.


Before visiting the sites

A visit to a memorial site focuses on the specific place and what happened there. Emphasis is on the history of the site, its past, and the individuals and events linked to it. Before the visit, students learnt in class the general historical context, the context of the particular site and how this site relates to other sites.

After the trip, all students mentioned and highlighted, how important it had been to have such knowledge beforehand (in class).


Need for reflection

We, teachers, realized the need for reflection straight away. This was necessary to process the powerful experiences and feelings that arose during the visits and also to examine the relation of the knowledge to the present day and the students themselves. It was very important creating possibilities for discussion, exchange of views and reflection.

Reflection: As a historical event, it is still so close in time and the crimes against innocent people are so extreme and terrifying that it is difficult to avoid moral interpretations. Learning about the Holocaust involved showing the consequences of devastating and gross violations of human rights. This was evidenced and testified through victims’ stories, diaries and letters and gave an insight into the thoughts and actions of people who organised and committed these crimes and how they tried to justify their deeds.


Back at school

After the visit, apart from having an opportunity to share their experiences, students were able to link their experience to the theme they had worked on in class. Follow-up work and reflection enabled the students to develop and review the knowledge and attitudes they had when they started this work. This helped students to reinforce their knowledge while also giving them some perspective on how their own knowledge and perhaps new questions have developed. To facilitate continued learning, it was also important to be able to go through these powerful emotional experiences.

Follow-up work:

The follow-up activity was designed starting from some basic didactic and educational considerations, attributable to that phase of the IPP defined as “action”. We asked ourselves, as teachers, how to channel the lived experience of boys and girls into a practical activity that could allow them to:

  1. work on the emotions and feelings that have emerged;
  2. put into play previous and acquired knowledge to create something that could leave a trace and be shared with the school community;
  3. exercise imagination and creativity;
  4. reconnect the past-present (what do I know? what have I experienced and felt?) and the present-future (what do I feel/think? how does all this help me to understand the present and project myself into the future as a citizen aware, to be a man, a woman for others?)
  5. develop design, team work and problem-solving skills;
  6. enhance and strengthen the Ignatian skills indicated at the beginning of the year in the class planning of the two fifths and which also constituted the fil-rouge of our way of procedures in the realization of the interdisciplinary project dedicated in the course of the academic year to civic education and global citizenship (the Project “suspended time: Fa-Re-Te”:


Develop a personal, autonomous and critical position through processes of reflection.

Organize, plan, and evaluate your own learning and growth path in an autonomous and personal way.

(This last point is important, as it places the work in a broader sense path, which includes the activity of the whole academic year and, for the fifth grades, of the entire duration of the second two-year period and the last year of high school).

Ultimately, it was a question of thinking of an activity that could allow the involvement of the whole person (mind, hands and heart, IPP) giving meaning to a path to make it a real life experience and personal and collective growth.

From all this was born the “Memory of the present”, this is the name we wanted to give to the last step of this long and exciting didactic and educational path which was structured in several phases:


  1. as teachers we have identified, starting from the stages of our trip to Germany, six keywords: humanity, science for…, separation, indifference, sport for…, courage;
  2. we asked the male and female students (the two fifths worked together) to divide themselves into six groups so that each group could “adopt” a key term;
  3. we have not given any prejudicial interpretation of the term in relation to the lived experience (the journey), but we asked them to interpret/re-read it with respect to the places visited (cities, museums, streets…) and to relate it to events/ facts/themes/places of the present from a global and transversal point of view;
  4. the groups worked after school hours on the creation of ppts in which the relationships they identified between events/facts/themes/places of the past-present and events/facts/themes/places of the present-future could emerge in clear and critical manner, producing a shared reflection;
  5. we requested that in each group all the members be put in a position to be able to express their skills and knowledge, making them available to everyone, also sharing materials acquired during the trip (photos, images…);
  6. the groups showed the work done in the classroom outside school hours, projecting the ppt files on the IWB, arguing their choices and sharing reflections and new knowledge (on current affairs) acquired during the team work;
  7. in the moment of sharing the ppt, as teachers, we have left room for personal considerations and stimulated reflection through targeted questions, aroused by the work carried out;
  8. as teachers, we have also paid close attention to the ways in which the entire work was carried out (participation, listening to the other, participation).


Considering the high level of involvement of boys and girls and the quality of the works produced, we proposed translating those works into an installation to be created at school in order to involve the entire school community:

1.the six groups created six exhibition panels (each dedicated to one of the six themes, see the attached photos) which were placed in one of the central rooms of the Institute, in order to outline a path of reflection;

2. on one of the sides of each panel images and brief thematic descriptive excerpts taken from the ppt created were displayed;

3. mirrors (reflecting material) have been placed on the other side of the panels, above which the descriptive key words of each panel have been reported, accompanied by a question mark: Humanity? Science for…?, Separation?, Indifference?, Sport for…?, Courage? This in order to lead people who had made that exhibition journey to look in the mirror and, reading the question, to reflect on their own position with respect to those themes;


4. in the room, in addition to the panels, the following have been placed:

    • two maps (one from the past and one from the present) of the area visited during the trip; the “modern” map was created through google maps, using position indicators ( ) to indicate the places visited;
    • an interactive screen, where you can click to learn about the history of some “Righteous of the earth” (referring to a previous activity) and project a very engaging video on the disasters-risks of the present (due to wars, violence, climate change

5. banners with evocative writings were placed on the entrance door of the room:

The entire work was carried out by the students and had a further development on the day of the visit to the Institute of Josephine Vassallo, national contact person for global citizenship of the Jesuit Education network. The classes showed Josephine their work and this was followed by an important moment of shared reflection which also saw the participation of Josephine and the teachers who accompanied the boys and girls in this experience.

Interdisciplinary approach

Students were guided through the whole project by three teachers:

Giovanna Callegari, history and philosophy educator; responsible for tutorial formation in Jesuit Network.

Giovanni Nugnes, Greek and Latin educator.

Vanessa Rowley, English educator; responsible for Global Citizen Education.


Some benefits of our Interdisciplinary teaching and learning:

–  Sharing ideas about our discipline and teaching with enthusiastic colleagues with a common goal.

–  Seeing one’s own discipline from a fresh and energizing perspective – builds excitement about teaching.

–  Opportunity to learn from students’ sometimes unexpected interdisciplinary connections.

–  Students see teachers model continued learning, interest in their discipline and in those of others, collaborating, making connections between what they know and new ideas, working from new and different perspectives, problem-solving, creativity, flexibility.

– Real-world learning, not isolated educational experiences.

– More opportunities for students to connect new learning with what they know and are interested in.

– Provides more ways for students to learn and demonstrate their skills and understandings.

– Highlights students strengths; builds confidence to overcome challenges learning new concepts.

– Encourages students to become personally invested in their work since they are given the privilege and responsibility of making choices about what and how they learn and demonstrate their learning.

This interdisciplinary project seems has motivated students. The work has led to more personal, relevant, and memorable learning experiences for students and teachers. Teachers got excited about students’ fresh ideas and new ways of demonstrating their understanding. Supporting students to reach beyond the typical constraints of a single content area and engage in interdisciplinary learning encourages critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills but more importantly, it gets student excited about learning!


Final reflection

A choice to defend human rights Respect for human rights cannot be taken for granted. Human rights can only be safeguarded if a sufficient number of people commit themselves to the defence of these fundamental rights. In Europe and in other countries, the Holocaust, the Second World War the rise of walls represent an important reference point that can remind us of every person’s right to life, liberty and personal security. Teaching about the Holocaust, the II World War and the Berlin wall unquestionably had a role in teaching about human rights, in explaining the historical context that brought about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, teaching about the Holocaust (II World War) can play a significant part in teaching for human rights, that is to say helping to strengthen individuals’ and societies’ commitment to the defence of these fundamental rights.


Article written by Vanessa Rowley, English teacher and Global Citizenship Coordinator at the Pontano School, Naples, and by Giovanna Callegari, History and Philosophy teacher at the Pontano School and Coordiantor of tutorial training for the Jesuit Education Foundation.