Using Lessons from the Holocaust to Reduce Bullying

Ruth T. Hannon (Bridgewater State College)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To: (1) teach college students about social-psychological dynamics involved in the Holocaust; (2) train college students to teach children how these dynamics operate in contemporary hate speech, hate crimes, and bullying; and (3) illustrate the value of action teaching


In an interdisciplinary course "Perspectives of the Holocaust," college students learn about research on conformity, obedience, diffusion of responsibility, and other psychological factors involved in the Holocaust. After that, local middle school teachers visit the class and describe the challenges their children face from bullying and hate speech. Students are then invited to (a) develop presentations that use lessons from the Holocaust to teach children about prejudice and bullying, and (b) give these presentations to children at the middle school. Following this experience, students write about their work and present a summary to the class. Reactions to this activity have been overwhelmingly positive and suggest that it reduces bullying and leads to long-term learning about prejudice and the Holocaust.


"Perspectives of the Holocaust" is an upper-level college course typically offered to a group of 30 students from psychology and other disciplines. Co-taught by professors of psychology (Ruth Hannon), communication studies (Joel Litvin), and social work (Rebecca Leavitt), the course explores how various disciplines examine the Holocaust — how each attempts to explain the inexplicable. First offered in 1997, the course has been described by many students as a transformational experience.

Although the Holocaust occurred shortly before and during World War II, we engage our students in discussions about the long history of anti-Semitism. We also use contemporary reports from newspapers, television, and the Internet to illustrate that anti-Semitism continues, and we discuss other cases of genocide, including Armenia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Sudan. Students often respond to this information by expressing a desire to do something for peace, particularly once they understand that some of the dynamics underlying these historic events still take place.

In 2000, the course faculty responded to a call for proposals from the National Communication Association (NCA) and the Southern Poverty Law Center — two groups that had joined forces to counter hate speech, hate crimes, and bullying. In our proposal, we teamed up with two teachers from a Massachusetts middle school that was experiencing significant problems with bullying and hate speech. We were accepted as inaugural partners in the NCA's "Communicating Common Ground" initiative, a service learning training that took place in November. In the spring of 2001, "Perspectives of the Holocaust" was offered with a service learning component.

Service Learning Activities

In the course we developed and continue to teach, the service learning part begins 3-4 weeks into the semester, when teachers from the middle school attend one of our class sessions and discuss the factors that make children vulnerable to peer pressure and bullying. During this visit, they describe common bullying episodes such as middle school students targeting a special needs boy or ganging up to attack lone pupils in a classroom or cafeteria.

Jewish woman chased by men with clubs in  Lviv , Ukraine, 1941

Jewish woman chased by men with clubs in Lviv, Ukraine, 1941

Over the next several class sessions, our college students meet in small groups to design projects to be taken to the middle school. Their task is to use lessons from the Holocaust to teach about the dynamics of prejudice, hate speech, and bullying close to home. For example, our students have spoken about the psychology of conformity and depicted how conformity operates in bullying situations. Middle school students come to see the power of conformity in such situations, and they learn ways to resist being drawn into bullying behaviors. Lively discussions follow and, oftentimes, middle schoolers share stories about bullying they've witnessed.

In another example, college students educate middle school students about the Nuremberg Laws (German laws that stripped Jews of their rights). College students then arrange for activities in which some classmates are systematically denied opportunities to participate in class activities while others are encouraged. Though the events pale in comparison, middle school students begin to grasp the meaning of "otherness" and understand what it means to deny someone's rights. Again, these activities produce strong emotions and valuable discussion.

After this discussion, the middle school teachers often give their students an assignment involving prose or poetry writing or artwork — products that allow students to show they comprehend the concepts presented. Our college students, too, do significant writing projects in connection with service learning. In addition, they present their work to the class at the end of the semester, giving them an opportunity to hone their speaking skills.

Lessons Learned

Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943

Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1943

All participants report benefits of the Communicating Common Ground initiative. Middle school teachers report that their students remember the lessons taught by our students long afterward. Teachers use the power of these lessons to diffuse or avoid conflict as the school year progresses. Teachers report, as well, that having college students visit the middle school is, in itself, an important experience for children who, coming from working class backgrounds, may not see other college role models. The value of this partnership was affirmed recently when the initiative's two middle school teachers arranged for junior colleagues to replace them upon retirement, passing the torch and continuing the collaboration.

Our college students have also been overwhelmingly positive about the service learning experience. For example, most students indicate in their course evaluations that the experience has increased their understanding of the Holocaust, strengthened their commitment to social action, and instilled a belief that education can reduce hate speech and hate acts. In open-ended responses, students often elaborate on these themes with comments such as these:

  • "It was also the first time any of us had the chance to go out into the community and use the knowledge from class to better the community. I personally believe that more classes should be taught in this manner, with a service-learning component, for what you learn will stay with you more effectively if you teach it to another as well."
  • "By the end of the second class, the child who, in the first class, kept thinking that bullying is 'no big deal' had turned his attitude to realize that it can be a big deal, and learned the importance of intervening if he sees another student being bullied."

On a personal note, I should add that this sort of action teaching is a particularly rewarding endeavor for college faculty. In this case, community service provides the focus for additional student reading and research, creative thinking, application of social psychology, and writing. Thus, the adoption of an action teaching approach enhances student learning while raising awareness about important historical and contemporary events.

Implementation Tips and Caveats

Because service learning requires considerable attention to detail and adequate planning, it is important to communicate regularly with community partners and to make sure that goals and timetables are shared. For example, colleges and middle schools may not share common vacation times, so advance scheduling is important. Likewise, it is critical to provide students and faculty with opportunities for debriefing at the end (as well as dialogue between college and middle school faculty) so that necessary changes can be made each semester.