Here you can read the shortened version of the interview with Jesse Tannetta, program manager of Echoes and Reflections. If you’d like to listen to the full interview, please check it out on The Teacher’s Lounge.
Michael Arnold: We’re joined today in The Teacher’s Lounge by Jesse Tannetta, program manager for Echoes and Reflections, a content partner with Curriculum Trak. I’m excited to have this opportunity to share with you the mission and resources of Echoes and Reflections and the work that they do around Holocaust education. It’s great to be able to talk to Jesse about it. So welcome, Jesse.
Jesse Tannetta: Thanks for having me. This should be fun.
M.A.: I’ve just been really amazed at the depth and breadth of the Echoes and Reflections content. I know you play a pretty major role in all of that. Hopefully we’ll unpack some of that today. But let’s start with some high level information for those who aren’t familiar with Echoes and Reflections. Echoes and Reflections has a lot of information, lessons, units, even PD opportunities, focusing mostly on the Holocaust. But you try to do more than just focus on the Holocaust. Explain that just a little bit.
J.T.: To start from the very beginning, we were founded in 2005 as this really powerful partnership and we’ll talk later a little bit more about the reason for that partnership and why it makes our stuff excellent. We’re part of the Anti-Defamation League, the USC Shoah Foundation, which I’m sure your listeners and you yourself know from Steven Spielberg and “Schindler’s List,” and Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust Museum in Israel.
So that partnership is really integral with everything that we do, from professional development, like you said, to webinars, online courses, and in-person PD. It also includes our resources, whether that is our units, which were all updated in the last couple of years, or full lesson plans about the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism, as well as our student-facing resources that are new and exciting. These include our timeline of the Holocaust or student activities that are self-directed.
We’ve focused on the Holocaust for 17 or 18 years now, but this is really an interdisciplinary topic and it delves into the big questions that we have as human beings about living with each other and about what we can do to each other, both in a positive way and a negative way. As I’ve been a lead content writer for the last couple of years, something else that we’re focusing on going forward is genocide. We are writing a unit on genocide and teaching about other genocides and the importance of this kind of phenomenon that we can trace all the way back thousands of years, but that is also something that is happening in our world right now today.
M.A.: All of this content is free. Do you charge for anything and, if not, how do you cover the cost of all this?
J.T.: There have been some instances where we’ve partnered with an organization. For instance, if you have been watching the news in the last couple of months with the US and the Holocaust, the Ken Burns documentary is with PBS Learning Media at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We were integral in that as well, building an online course. But really we’re sustained by the generosity of donors and those three big organizations that all provide money, provide resources, provide expertise, whether that’s in digital testimony or providing expert resources and scholars. All of those things are supported by generous donors, by these huge organizations. We know that this work matters and is effective and drives teachers and students to our content.
M.A.: I want to help our listeners understand that while you’re focusing on the Holocaust, which maybe the schools that we work with might have a chapter about in eighth grade, U.S. History, or whatever the case might be, your resources are actually designed to come alongside a lot of the topics that a faith-based school would want their students to think about. This is true of the Holocaust, certainly, but also to provide a context for bigger topics, as you mentioned, genocide and other issues related to how we treat other humans.
J.T.: Absolutely. I really find the Holocaust is that perfect mix between history and religion and faith and philosophy, sociology, and psychology– all of those aspects. I think there’s just so many connection points. If you’re teaching in a school that’s in a state that mandates Holocaust education–there are over 30 at the moment right now–how are you going to fit that into your current lessons? Or if you’re teaching a class about philosophy, how do you talk about the Milgram experiment or trauma? If you’re in a psychology class, we have a great resource and consulted with a fantastic psychologist to work through a unit about how you live after the Holocaust. How do you deal with that trauma? What does that trauma look like and how do you cope with that?
I think there’s so many connection points that are not just the obvious ones. We’re teaching U.S. history. We have to talk about liberation of concentration camps or we’re teaching post-war. We have to talk about the Cold War, and we have to talk about the Berlin Wall, or other history connections. I think there’s plenty of those, but there’s also all of those stories about human beings and humanity that are just as important and provide really great connection points for your students to really start to dive deeply and become global citizens.
M.A.: There’s a lot to get to here, but let’s take the personal angle first and just talk about you. Tell us a little bit about your background in Catholic education and what your experience was not only as a student, but also a teacher.
J.T.: Like I said, my two big loves were history and faith coming out of high school. And so I double-majored in that. I grew up with a mother who was a teacher, and I remember those long hours, and my mother cautioned me, Don’t be a teacher. It’s hard. It’s stressful. It takes a lot out of you. And so I didn’t want to become a teacher, but I think when you grow up in an environment where education is so important, you are drawn to it. I was lucky to teach at two really great Catholic schools and really enjoyed that.
But also I had this driving passion to learn more about the Holocaust. I enrolled in a master’s program of Holocaust and Genocide studies and had just a transformative teacher, as well as a professional development trip where I was able to study in Germany and in Poland and visit some of the sacred spaces.
And I think that all comes together into that, when we’re studying this traumatic history, on the one hand we want to just stare off into the darkness and into the void and really get lost in despair. And then you also have all of these other philosophical questions about who we are. Who are human beings? Who are they now, in light of this catastrophe? And then, who is God? Where is God during it? Where is God after it? How has our relationship changed after this? And so I think that my drive has been trying to answer those questions on my own, but also hoping to lead teachers and students to be willing to think about those deep, meaningful questions and searches of the soul.
M.A.: Something that I’ve really appreciated as I have become familiar with Echoes and Reflections is just the commitment to high quality pedagogical practices. I think first and foremost is your effort to capture some of those primary resources in the one-on-one interviews you do with survivors, letting them tell their story. But there’s a wide range of things that you try to incorporate in your content. Would you just share some of those with us and the reasons behind it?
J.T.: Yeah, I think that we approach education and learning in multiple modalities, whether that is looking through a poem and trying to figure out what it’s telling us, or it’s thinking about artifacts, precious materials, or precious possessions that we hold dear in trying to understand why something like that would be so important. Also, we look at artwork and song and those first person testimonies that are just so powerful. So I think one of the parts is just to have those multiple modalities.
I also like to say that whatever you think the Holocaust was, however horrible you think it was, it was 100 million billion times worse. I think, though, that there’s only so much death and despair that you can study. There’s also a really important aspect of bringing in these other more abstract ways of learning to help students really contemplate or even try and understand the fact of this monumental loss.
We know that it works. Echoes and Reflections did a study that was published in 2020 showing the efficacy of Holocaust education. It researched college students who had received Holocaust education in their high school experience. It showed them to be more open-minded, more tolerant, more accepting of differing viewpoints, more likely to step up against intolerant behaviors. One of the biggest eye-opening aspects of that study was that students also were registered as higher critical thinkers and had higher aspects of civic efficacy if they experienced survivor testimony, whether that was in-person, getting to hear a survivor’s story, or even in the video testimonies that we have throughout all of our units.
M.A.: I think this is probably pretty obvious, but it’s worth making the observation that with those horrifying events like the Holocaust or genocide, or whatever the case might be, it’s easy to separate ourselves from those things emotionally, and think of it as another event, to kind of sterilize it in that way. But when you examine personal testimonies or poems or songs or artwork, you’re confronting humanity at its very core and inviting students to make personal connections to some of these events. That has to have a profound impact on how they view it and view themselves in light of it.
J.T.: Absolutely. Those human stories are what help us try and understand what a loss this was. Understanding what’s happening with events, dates, and statistics is important when we think of 6 million Jews murdered. But it doesn’t tell the story. It doesn’t tell the story of looking at a diary of David Sierakowiak in which he talks about his mother who withers away because she continues to give her food to her children and starve herself in Warsaw, in the Lodz Ghetto, before being deported. She’s just one person, just one of that 6 million murdered. But to see David say goodbye to his mother and his mother resigned to the fact of death, but also completely adamant and grateful and sure in the decisions that she made to try and save her children. Those kinds of big stories really tell us what happened and can really help us to understand it better.
Choosing This Work
M.A.: So what draws you to work with Echoes and Reflections? What drew you in the first place and why do you continue to do what you do?
J.T.: I firmly believe that we’re the best. I think the partnership drives that. It’s unique. It’s special. The collaboration that the three organizations have really creates content that I think is unmatched.
So, not to brag too much, I think that’s the first part. I think the second part is just that there’s a way to have this immense impact. I miss my students, I miss that ability of having a hundred students a year and feeling like I can really make a difference. But in this role, I work with hundreds to thousands of teachers every single year. That growth is exponential in terms of helping teachers build their confidence, build their capacity and their knowledge and their skills in the classroom to really impact their students. My current role is a mix of exciting things. I am the program manager, so I do a lot of the content creation. You’ll see my words and my writings and my decisions of what resources we use throughout our units, which is something that I’m really proud of and is really exciting.
My big project at the moment is building an online course. I hope to release it in the next few months. I’m looking at justice, life and memory after the Holocaust. I’m also working on a unit that will be our twelfth lesson plan, looking at genocide more broadly, using different examples from genocides that happened in the 21st century.
So it’s a kind of a smattering of lots of different things, of being outward facing but also driving that intellectual curiosity of research and writing, too.
M.A.: Research, writing, content creation. That’s a fun space to be in. I want to go back to the three organizations that support the mission of Echoes and Reflections. They have a common goal that the Holocaust is not forgotten and that it never happens again.
J.T.: Yeah. When I think about why I study the Holocaust, my first answer is so that it never happens again. And I think that is a clear and good goal. But I also think that there’s a lot of positive aspects to studying the Holocaust as well, such as building empathy and building civic responsibility and becoming global citizens. We want our students to approach everything with critical thinking, with rational minds. I think those aspects are really important. I think that the three organizations each kind of have their own driving agenda as well, and they all mold and impact the work that Echoes and Reflections does.
The ADL is the oldest anti-hate organization in the world. It was founded in 1913 after the murder of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was falsely accused of murder. Their mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure fair justice and treatment for all. That’s a goal that we think about often when we think about contemporary anti-Semitism, when we try to make connections between stereotyping and conspiracy theories and the hatred that anti-Semitism largely groups together and thus emboldens other forms of hate.
The Shoah foundation’s goal is to record testimonies from the Holocaust, but also from other genocides, from other instances of mass atrocity because oral archives are really sacred sites of memory as well.
And then obviously, Yad Vashem, the official Holocaust History Museum of the State of Israel that was founded as a government institution to remember the Holocaust, to honor victims of the Holocaust, but also to honor the righteous who risked their lives to save Jews in Europe.
I think all three of those organizations have their hand print on Echoes and all three of them drive us to create something that is a little bit different from all three of those organizations, but very clearly impacted by the work that they do.
Echoes and Reflections’ Resources
M.A.: Could we take a few minutes to just walk through the variety of things that you provide? Give us a brief synopsis of each resource and maybe the problems that you’re trying to address through that offering.
J.T.: Sure. One of the great things about our lesson plans is that if you are a brand new teacher or you just were given a new class, our lesson plans are step-by-step. They include information to help you prepare to teach the unit, some essential questions, goals, and connections to standards. And then step one is to introduce students to this concept. Along that web page we also have a student handout, a graphic organizer for them to fill out. There’s also a testimony to watch. It has everything that you could need if you’re brand new.
If you’re seasoned, or if you’re thinking about using some of our resources in another class that you’re teaching and you think adding some of our stuff would be beneficial, it’s modular. You can pull a lesson and incorporate into what you’re already using because we know that teachers do that, right? They take the best resources that work for their class from multiple sources. In terms of lesson plans, I think that we try our best to help all sorts of teachers, whether they’re brand new or they’re veterans in the field.
I think that our major focus for the first 17 years of our existence has been in professional development. There’s a lot of talk throughout the country and throughout the world about how we get students to learn more, like our students can’t read or their math scores are slipping, or whatever issue it is that you’re hearing about. The number one solution to driving student learning is to have better teachers. That’s clear. The better your teacher, the more your students will learn. We’ve really tried to focus on how we help teachers teach this topic that is terrifying. Never mind all the other things that happen in the classroom or that teachers are having to deal with. We’ve really focused on professional development. So that’s five to six webinars a month.
We’ve been doing webinars since before they were cool, for 10 years. We’ve also built online courses. We built our first courses maybe four years ago at this point, and now we have six that rotate on a national schedule. We have been doing in-person professional development for 18 years now, like going out to a school, sending out an expert facilitator, and working with teachers one-on-one. All of those kinds of aspects I think help solve different issues within the classroom. The main driving focus of all of those has been to have better teachers to help them, to teach them, to train them, to work with them. And also that informs our work too. We are constantly working with teachers. Our facilitators are largely either just out of the classroom or still in the classroom. And so we get that really important feedback, too, about what they’re dealing with in their classes and that also informs the work that we do.
M.A.: So the lesson plans, those are available actually through Curriculum Trak, and they’re available to anybody on your website.
J.T.: Yes, our website address is really simple: echoesandreflections.org.
M.A.: If you’re a Curriculum Trak user, you can find Echoes and Reflections in the Other Curriculum area, and if you’re an admin, you can pull in either single units or lessons, or an entire scope of the lessons that Echoes and Reflections provides, and then you can distribute it among the courses where it might fit into your overall scope and sequence within Curriculum Trak. Contact support if you need some help with that.
The PD is amazing: to have all these opportunities to strengthen your teachers. If a school’s interested in pursuing some PD through Echoes and Reflections, how do they go about doing that?
J.T.: If you go on our website, there’s a connect page that kind of talks about all the different PD that we offer. Or they can reach out directly to me or to us in any way. I’m sure my email will be shared somewhere, or on the connect page, so just email us. We’re a small but mighty team and we work really hard to connect with teachers across the country.
M.A.: Tell us about the self-directed courses for students.
J.T.: We partnered with our USC Shoah Foundation, which has a great platform called Eyewitness. Eyewitness is free for teachers to use; they just have to register for an account. And I think they have over 500 activities. They’re about many genocides, another aspect of the work that Shoah Foundation does, as well as student activities. We released five last year. They are 20 to 30 minutes in length. You can assign them to your entire class once you register for a free account, and then you’ll be able to monitor your students and they have an activity that kind of walks them through something simple.
We have a great one that’s actually a virtual eye-walk. So it takes you through using Google images of a town in Poland. “Survivor Time” talks about growing up in pre-war Poland, and you get to see pictures of what it looks like today. It also allows for students to create something, like a word cloud or a PSA. Then they’re also able to share it with their classmates and comment on their classmates’ work. We know that our students are always in the digital sphere, right? It’s a great way for students to learn, as well as building that social aspect of social-emotional learning too, and having students learn from each other, which, as we know, is where the bulk of the learning comes.
M.A.: I think that’s really powerful and the fact that all of this is curated and available on a website that teachers can easily find just makes it so much more useful. What would you say is something that’s available at Echoes and Reflections that the typical teacher might be surprised to find?
J.T.: That’s an awesome question. I think I’ll go with our Video Toolbox. So we’ve talked a lot today about our units, about our professional development, about our student activities, and some awesome resources that we have. But I think I’ll just highlight one resource that’s a few years old. In our Video Toolbox, there are five videos in total that are about 10 minutes in length, and they can be tied to our units, but also they can be free-standing as well. They look at very specific moments.
We have a great one about anti-Semitism. We have one that’s about liberation, which uses testimony from survivors as well as liberators. A video toolbox like this has some good videos that have some discussion questions attached to them. I think it might be something that teachers would really love to use, especially if you’re teaching a U.S. History course and want to talk about liberation. Or if you want to talk about this war in Europe, you can use a quick video about some aspects of fighting that war and literally stumbling over these camps and not knowing what was going on.
M.A.: Again, these videos are not just for history class. I made a quick list here of courses or subjects that might be able to incorporate your content history class: obviously technology class, and Bible or religion class could pull in some of these components. Whether it’s a video or a unit or a lesson, probably a variety of electives and even clubs that a school might sponsor could find this information useful. You might even be able to pull some of it into a chapel or something else along those lines. There’s a wide range of uses for these resources, which is really exciting.
How many schools and how many students are you currently working with?
J.T.: Yeah, we’ve worked with over a hundred thousand teachers since 2005. I think our goal is to reach about 20 to 30,000 teachers each year, and that reaches roughly 2 to 3 million students every year through their work.
I just wanted to jump back on the statement that you just made about religion and philosophy and sociology. When I was teaching religion, I liked bringing in those very specific historical examples. I think it is just paramount to having students learn about morality, about decision making, developing historical empathy, all those things that we want students to do when we’re teaching morality or philosophy or religion or sociology.
M.A.: Real world connections, combined with developing empathy and what side of the question do I come down on: that’s really what we want our students to think about. That’s really powerful.
Well, it’s been an honor to have you with us, Jesse. Thank you for your time. Thank you for what you do.