Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Connect the Pop
Inside Connect the Pop

Learning About the Holocaust Through ‘Schindler’s List’ and IWitness

For those who may have simply arrived here fortuitously, please know that this is third in a series of pieces related to the USC Foundation and the 20th anniversary Blu-ray release of Schindler’s List. For an overview of the Foundation’s remarkable, interactive, and media-based IWitness resource for librarians and classroom teachers, a quick detour might be helpful. And the first part of my conversation with Executive Director Dr. Stephen D. Smith and Director of Education Dr. Kori Street, in which we focused on librarians, can be found here.


Popular media these days is often blamed for “making” young people more callous and uncaring toward others, especially those who are perceived as different. But the value of your work seems to be in part because it has the opposite effect, fostering empathy with those who seem different where little may have existed previously. Is that an important way to use media in schools nowadays? Why? And do we need to be careful, or at least mindful, about entering this territory for any reason–political, intellectual, pedagogical, and so on?

Smith: It is important that the process that we envisioned that students would go through is first of all engaging with the content itself. Once they have engaged with the content, and that will involve a certain developing of an empathy with the subject matter, it is important to make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. We are not encouraging students to sympathize with the Holocaust survivors who gave their testimony but rather to learn to empathize with the human-related content that is deeply embedded in the stories. So the first instance is developing that empathy with the content, the second thing, then, is developing insights from that content. Students start to think about how that content applies to their own lives. The third thing, then, is to gain some conviction from that content in which they develop their own thinking–how that content might direct or support their own values, morals, and actions within the world. The last part is participation. We are seeing it as a step-by-step process but first of all engaging with the content and then participating fully within the world and society which we live.

Street: We absolutely have to do things with integrity. One of the students said to me, “You know IWitness is kind of like a cross between a library and YouTube.”  So it is this medium in-between where they can engage in the way that they love to, but they are doing it in a way that is moderated. There are terms of use, there is a community set of guidelines, in which they have to operate in a respectful and responsible way. We all want students who are good, responsible, engaged participants in our societies. IWitness challenges them to understand that. We are just getting ready to launch an activity that is about building empathy and fighting bullying, and one of the things that people always worry about is, “Well, are you equating what happened in the Holocaust  to Jews to bullying?” We are not doing that at all: what we are using are the stories from the archive where Holocaust survivors talk about being bullied as being children and what that felt like and how they still live with that, so that is not at all done by anyone during the Holocaust but rather that they expedited that, and students will develop an empathetic response so that they will learn empathy. This starts and pushes against what is naturally happening when they can just watch and have no responsibility. There is responsibility in IWitness–there are no anonymous actions, students have to own what they are doing, they have to take credit for it, and they have to participate in the community.

Smith: The key issue here that we need to be mindful of is that there are no specified lessons within IWitness.  “The lesson of the Holocaust is this or the lesson of the holocaust is another”–what we are trying to do is support students in their own inquiries to make choices, to think through and reflect on difficult issues so that they reach their own decisions and conclusions and learn to communication those to others.

How does Schindler’s List itself fit into everything you do–and that teachers and librarians do–in 2013? That is, now that there are so many robust resources that have been developed after the film, and largely inspired by it, how does screening it, discussing it, engaging in film analysis, and all the rest of it connect back to what are, after all, non-fiction texts when it comes to testimony?

Smith: One of the ways Schindler’s List really does segue into our work here is that the IWitness Challenge, which we are encouraging students and teachers across the country to enter, starts with the story of Oskar Schindler. The basis of the challenge is to make a video essay in which the students model the behavior off of Schindler: they look at his story and learn from his story, and from there go out and find an issue within their own community, home or classroom that they think they can make a contribution towards resolving, solving or participating in–and to make a video essay about how they participated, why they participated and what they achieved. We are hoping that the film provides the springboard to modeling behavior that students can then emulate.

Is there a set of “best practices” that’s emerging in regard to using the film, and maybe even one that’s changing based on evolving tech? I’m wondering, for example, if it makes sense to screen the film first, to build background knowledge–or perhaps only clips from it. And does this question change when we’re discussing different grade spans?

Smith: The first thing to say is that the students who are participating today range from seventh to twelfth grade. We are using exactly the same activity or sets of activities, and their work would just reflect their different stages of development or insight. There are age-appropriate sensitivities that we are very aware of. We give guidance to the teachers within each activity as to which subject area and which age group they will be appropriate for.  Of course the issue with Schindler’s List is that there are some age restrictions on its use, and teachers need to be mindful of that. We not suggesting or prescribing its use in classrooms before, during or after. Of course it is a wonderful resource and a film that everyone should see if they do have the time, and to do so in an educational environment is always going to vastly improve the educational experience. But the activities themselves in IWitness do stand alone and there are opportunities for students to do those activities with or without Schindler’s List.

Street: I think a lot of those questions are up to the teachers. The teachers have different ideas about those things. Certainly we have to be respectful of students at different grade levels. They will have a different ability to understand, to take it in, and this is complex and sometimes very difficult material. In terms of the relationship between Schindler’s List and IWitness, the story of Schindler’s List is a fictional story, but it is based on these real life stories. So what is wonderful is for students to understand when they are reading that media fictional sources and non-fictional sources and other sources all  go together in creating their own understanding. So they can listen to a testimony about something they have seen in the film and start to draw out distinctions and conclusions about the values of different resources, and this helps them in terms of reading other types of media. So, yes, we have to develop the best practices, yes, we need to have that opportunity. There are also a lot of excellent resources that have already been developed because so many people are already out there doing this. The one example that pops into the top of my head is actually Facing History and Ourselves–they have done some wonderful work around Schindler’s List, and they are using our testimonies and they are using IWitness, so they are starting that process for all of those teachers out there.


Dr. Kori Street came to the Institute in 2011 from Mount Royal University, where she was an Associate Professor and served as Chair of Entrepreneurship, Nonprofit Studies, International Business and Aviation in the Bissett School of Business. After completing a Masters in the History of Education and Gender/Feminism at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, Dr. Street received her PhD in history from the University of Victoria in 2001. Her focus was military and social history, an interest fueled by her four years of service in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Her current research interests include the scholarship of teaching and learning, the Canadian home front in the First World War, and the Holocaust. She completed a major web-based project with a colleague in the Department of Humanities on the “Black Donnelleys” with the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History group. The website engages students in the study of history using inquiry-based learning models and won the MERLOT Award for innovation in 2008 and the Pierre Berton Award in 2009. Dr. Street’s current work is focused on the preservation and educational use of Holocaust survivor testimonies. This focus has also resulted in work with national and international committees on Holocaust education, remembrance, and research as well as an examination of Holocaust imagery in the Harry Potter books and films. Continuing the focus on education, her other areas of research are problem-based learning and the integration of information literacy into the classroom.

In recognition of her teaching, scholarship and service record, Dr. Street won the Mount Royal University Distinguished Faculty Award in 2011.

[Dr. Steven Smith’s bio can be found at the conclusion of Part 1 of this conversation.]

About Peter Gutierrez


  1. Wow that is great! I would love to also suggest a documentary about the children of Hitler’s Generals. All proceeds go towards stopping Holocaust denial. Thank you.


  1. […] documentary featuring actual Schindler List survivors, and the USC Shoah Foundation Story profiling the director’s organization which works to preserve Holocaust testimonies. Kathy Ceceri is a senior editor at, […]