A Letter to My Children: A Reader Response by Elissa Sivel for EDU 5260 An Introduction to Curriculum Studies

A Letter to My Children: A Reader Response by Elissa Sivel for EDU 5260 An Introduction to Curriculum Studies

As children, learning difficult truths comes with growing up. A truth is something that is in accord with fact or reality. It’s something that has happened, even if it is difficult to accept which makes certain truths harder to learn than others. I can remember how I felt when I learned that Santa didn’t exist, that my grandparents weren’t immortal or that you won’t always get what you want in life. After reading Stanley’s account explaining his reaction to his children having asked “Daddy, what are Nazis?” (p34) while watching The Sound of Music, I tried to remember when I first learned about the Holocaust. Like Stanley mentioned, I don’t remember ever not knowing about Nazis. But now looking back, my earliest memory would have been reading Number the Stars when I was around 11 years old. The story is told through the eyes of a young Danish girl whose family conceals a Jewish girl during the Holocaust. The story itself doesn’t present much historical detail and has a relatively happy ending. So, I was not too disturbed by what I had learned and don’t think that I approached my parents about the matter.

Looking back on this experience as an adult, I wonder what my parents would have told me had I asked them similar questions to what Stanley’s children had asked.

I also wondered, do I tell you about the central facts of Nazism: the Holocaust, the mass, industrialized, assembly-line murder of millions, many of them women and children, some no older than yourselves? Do I tell you about systematic terror and its willing accomplices? Even if I knew how to explain these things, matters that I find barely comprehensible myself, I am not sure that you are old enough to carry such knowledge. (Stanley, 1999, p.35)

Stanley brings up some very important questions about teaching children difficult truths. How old should a child be before you teach them about such things as the Holocaust? In what context? What is explained and what is omitted?

As an educator, I struggle with these important questions all the time. Our educational system seems to have a habit of only presenting what’s comfortable. Difficult topics are sometimes excluded from the curriculum or presented lightly and quickly by educators who have not been trained on how to broach sensitive of difficult subjects.

At the school that your parents send you to, you participate in lessons recreating “pioneer times”, as if the human past of our city only begins with the arrival of Europeans. The school unapologetically fosters loyalty to the very institutions that obliterated Aboriginal people from our memory as well as from the land we now occupy. Like all other public schools in Canada, this school fosters a nationalism that exists in relation to vast silences and their exclusions from our collective memory. (Stanley, 1999, p. 36)

In Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity, the authors develop many difficult truths that are omitted from North American curriculum. In the article, J.F Bobbitt suggests that in order for students to understand the struggle and sacrifices of settlers, the curriculum should include re-enactments of war. Are these accounts of mass violence and suffering something that we should be exposing children to? On the other hand, they are true events that happened. What we must remember is that a difficult truth becomes most dangerous when we stop talking about it. Stanley believes that education is the only solution to help children make sense of history and conflict and that supressing dialogue about difficult truths would be detrimental to understanding them.

Addressing these issues is no easy task for teachers. The first step, which Stanley took, is to think about the difficult question before answering. Teachers should think about topics that may be controversial in their subject area before their course even begins. This may allow the educator to be able to anticipate certain questions that could create conflict amongst students and be better prepared to have meaningful discussions that encourage students to think critically about the topic, to entertain diverse perspectives and appreciate their different experiences and opinions. Teachers cannot avoid difficult topics simply because it makes us feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. Stanley mentions that it is education that has the potential to counter disconnect by critically engaging students in the classroom learning of all truths about humanity, whether they be difficult ones or not. While this may put a lot of responsibility on the educator, there are ways to approach such topics without placing so much emphasis on resolution and therefore lightening the load of the teacher. Lisa Farley argues in her article that teachers should avoid trying to rationalize why certain events took place and focus more on speaking of these difficult truths matter-of-factly. “And yet, I argue that if education is to be an intervention into the complexities or history, it does not reside in the adult’s capacity to provide a rational explanation that will resolve conflict” (Farley, 2009, p. 538).

Stanley also makes an important point about the representation of Nazis in mass culture and the idea of evil represented as “other”. The author explains that fragments of Nazism could be found in popular movies presented to children in that time like 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and Star Wars but that upon further reflection, there can be no true analogy for Nazism and its evils. He describes the dangers of not having accurate representation of the Holocaust and how this could create a harmful silence. “Even as your mass culture articulates reality, it displaces it” (Stanley, 1999, p. 39). Mass culture and media often represent good and evil as being fixed. This causes us to see evil as an essence that is different from ourselves, furthering our disconnect with what has happened in the past and is still happening today.

As educators, parents and members of a community, we must take the necessary steps, as Stanley has, to make sure that we use all teachable moments to answer questions truthfully, even if the truths are difficult ones.


“Difficult Dialogues”. CFT RSS.N.p., 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/difficult-dialogues

Farley, L. (2009). “Radical Hope: On the Problem of Uncertainty in History Education.”  Curriculum Inquiry, 39(4), pp. 537-554.

Kraft, D. (2014). How young is too young to teach my child about the Holocaust? Haaretz  Journal, 6. Retrieved from URL: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world   features/1.587655

Stanley, T. (1999). A letter to my children: Historical memory and the silences of childhood,  (pp.34-33). In Judith P. Robertson (Ed.), Teaching for a Tolerant World, Grades K-6: Essays and resources. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Tuck, E. & Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2013). Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler FuturityJournal of Curriculum Theorizing, 29(1), pp. 72-89.