Resonance: What does it mean to be courageous?

 In Joseph Spilberg, The CAPE Blog

CAPE students studied the Holocaust to teach us all something about courage

Resonance: An exploration of courage and performance art created by 5th Grade students studying the Holocaust during the 2013-2014 school year at Durkin Park Elementary School in Southwest Chicago.

Teachers: Jillian Ryan and Cara Maloney
Teaching Artist: Anni Holm

circle in field

“Resonance” and other exemplars of CAPE classrooms’ inspiring student pieces were featured at Convergence 2014.

Every year we hope that students remember the project we do from CAPE forever. Not only because they enjoyed what we created, but also they learned something they will take with them for the rest of their life. CAPE projects create so much excitement in our classroom, when students are excited about what they are learning, they learn more!” -Jillian Ryan, Classroom Teacher, Durkin Park Elementary

For a Chicago Public School student in 2014, the history of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II can be difficult to imagine. Making connections to victims of the Holocaust can be even more difficult for a 5th grader. A typical curriculum on this topic would have students read narratives, study the history and then write personal or persuasive narratives on the topic and themes. However, last year at Durkin Park Elementary, 5th grade teachers Jillian Ryan and Cara Maloney, working with CAPE teaching artist Anni Holm in CAPE’s Veteran Partnerships Program, carried out an ambitious arts integrated project in which students made an authentic connection to this complex and important part of history.

The instructors started by establishing the concept of courage as the “Big Idea” that is central to many Holocaust narratives. In their Language Arts units the students read two books in which courage is a central theme: Number the Stars (Lois Lowry) and Willow Run (Patricia Reilly Giff).

For Anni, whose background is in performance art and social arts practice, the concept of courage was an ideal starting point for collaborating with this group of students and teachers. (see Anni’s work here.)

walking in a line

The instructors held multiple discussions and activities with their students to flesh out their inquiry question, “What does it mean to be courageous?” They looked to the novels, but also asked students to draw upon their own personal experiences as they developed their project. In this way, students made their own connections between the history of the Holocaust and their personal lives.

“I think that we can learn to help other people out.  Like Anne Marie helped her Jewish friend escape to Sweden.”  -5th Grade Student at Durkin Park Elementary

Through a series of individual and group performance activities in each classroom, the students soon decided that courage depends a lot on the support of others; that one person cannot be courageous and alone. Students discovered that when creating their performance pieces, the more support they received from one another, the easier it became to be courageous and take risks. Jillian and Cara’s classrooms then collaborated to create a large-scale performance art piece, which they performed and documented on-site at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.



“The way that we were all dressed and working together, they would know something was going on [if they saw our performance].  They might say that is cool what those kids are doing. Ms Anni said we want people to think about what we are doing and ask questions.”  
-5th Grade Student at Durkin Park Elementary

In their final performance, sixty 5th grade students, with help from their teachers and parent volunteers, demonstrated the strength and courage that comes from supporting each other. The students walk hand in hand, silently and reverently, circling the Holocaust museum until they reach an adjacent field. The entire group forms a large circle to express a powerful idea: courage comes through unity- an idea that resonated for victims of the Holocaust and also for these student-artists.

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