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Howard County seventh-graders learn about historical injustices through art

Twelve-year-old Kamryn Henson took her felt needle in hand and began creating symbols to depict Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, onto a felt square.

Kristallnacht took place on Nov. 9, 1938. Thousands of Jewish businesses and hundreds of synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed by Nazis, and tens of thousands of Jews were taken to concentration camps.

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In class, Kamryn made a black framed window that was cracked in the middle with a letter “J,” representing Jews. She then added a yellow baseball bat breaking into the middle of the glass with an “N” on it to represent Nazis.

Kamryn is a seventh-grader at Glenwood Middle School in Glenwood. Her English teacher, Lisa Henn, teaches a section each year called “Facing Injustice in Our Worlds” that requires students to research a historical event where an injustice has occurred and then create a PowerPoint presentation as well as an art project.

Kamryn said she enjoyed the art project because “sometimes a picture can show more expression than words.”

This year, students chose topics from depicting the Trail of Tears, a forced relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homes; Japanese internment camps during World War II; the Rwandan genocide of 1994: the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland under Nazi Germany; Kristallnacht; and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

The art component of the project is not typical.

The students’ images are not hand-drawn or created with magazine clippings, pictures or on a computer. Instead, the students are felting — an art form that uses special needles with barbed blades to matte dyed sheep wool fibers onto a felt square in the design of their choosing.

Katherine Dilworth — a local artist who works with the Young Audiences of Maryland, a Baltimore nonprofit that brings art into schools — is in her sixth year of introducing Henn’s seventh-grade classes to the art of felting.

Each year, Dilworth joins the classes for a week, first showing them artwork that tackles complicated issues or situations with simple imagery to help them create their own. Then, the students get to work on their projects, creating images on colored felt squares. Dilworth finished up this year’s week-long projects on March 22.

The projects the students create are “quite moving at times,” Dilworth said.

Each year the images the students create differ from earlier years, she said, one reason being the students are not shown previous images to allow them to truly create something on their own.

The Glenwood Middle School Parent Teacher Student Association sponsors the project, Dilworth said.

Henn said each year the unit has a positive response from her students and that they really seem to enjoy it.

“It’s a hands-on activity that provides them the understanding of the topic at a deeper level, [and] understand symbolism … [with] a lot of critical thinking,” Henn said.

Her classes read one of two anchor texts, either “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939-1944” by Aranka Siegal about her experience living in a Jewish ghetto in what was then Hungary during World War II.

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There is a heavy focus on the World War II and Holocaust era in Henn’s classes, including a timeline of that period of history on the bulletin board in the back of her classroom.

Ashley Ford, 13, chose to focus her project on the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In her square, Ashley created the entryway to the camp with the word “Auschwitz” on it with a rain and lightning storm in the background to depict a sad and depressing time, she said. She then created a pathway for the Jews to walk on and a barbed wired gate so they could not escape.

Ashley said she really likes learning about history and learning about Auschwitz because it puts that time period in perspective for her as “it shows what the people went through.”

Corey Reynolds, 12, decided to research the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native Americans, for his square.

On his green square, Corey first matted down an American flag that “represents pushing out the Native Americans,” with a black road running through the flag to represent the trail.

There is a yellow patch at the top of the trail that represents “the light ahead of [the Native Americans],” Corey said.

He enjoyed the project because he was able to choose a topic, learn about it and “take whatever I wanted out of this,” he said.

Another topic students could research was the Rwandan genocide of 1994, a 100-day period of mass killing of members of the Tutsi tribe during that country’s civil war.

Jenna Hassanein, 12, decided to make her square on the genocide. She first created Rwanda with brown fibers and spelled out Tutsi in capital letters in dark red on the country. She then took orange fibers to outline the country’s shape to represent the explosions from the genocide.

“I’ve always enjoyed learning about history,” Jenna said. “This point of history is not always great, but I like learning about it so we don’t make the same mistakes.”

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