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Paper Clip Drive Helps Students Learn About Holocaust


Two Tennessee middle school teachers have created a unique project to teach about the enormity of the Holocaust. The students could use your help!

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When Sandi Roberts and David Smith began teaching their eighth-grade students at rural Whitwell (Tennessee) Middle School about the Holocaust, they realized how difficult it was for students to grasp the enormity of human loss.

Six million -- the number of people who died -- was too large a number for the students to comprehend.

Roberts and Smith came up with a project to help make the number more real to the young teenagers. They and their students are collecting 6 million paper clips -- one paper clip to represent each person who died under Adolf Hitler's plan to wipe out the Jewish people.

Since last August, the project has collected 501,726 paper clips, which are stored in a 55-gallon drum at the back of Roberts's classroom. Students keep track of the tally, write thank-you notes, file letters that arrive with donations, and otherwise manage the project.

Students have absorbed the idea that the paper clips represent something more than a convenient way of holding papers together. They see them as individuals who died in Hitler's concentration camps. Roberts said one girl came to her and held up a single paper clip, asking, "What if this were the person who would've found cure for cancer?"


The paper clip project is just one aspect of a larger after-school program that focuses on the Holocaust. Roberts and Smith started the program in 1998 after Whitwell Middle School's principal, Linda Hooper, asked them to develop a program to increase students' sensitivity to diversity. Whitwell, a rural town in eastern Tennessee, has 450 students, mostly white and Christian. Only five are African American.

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"That's not how the world is," Roberts said. "There are people from all different cultures with many different gifts to offer."

They decided to focus on the Holocaust as an example of the harm prejudice can do and modified a high school curriculum Smith had learned about at a workshop. Roberts said the goal is "to teach our students what happens when people are not tolerant and allow power and charisma to rule our thinking."

Each year, the teachers choose 20 to 25 students to take part. They meet one day a week after school for two hours, and parents must attend at least one meeting a month. Involving parents is important because the material covered is unpleasant, and teachers need parental input on how far to go with it. "The material is tough. There isn't a thing about this that's pretty," Roberts said.

The activities look at prejudice in general before getting into the Holocaust. Early in the year, students are assigned a topic -- prejudice against fat people, short people, Catholics, or blacks, for example. They work in small groups to create a bulletin board that includes suggestions on how to counter such attitudes.

Students also go through an intense experience that simulates what their counterparts endured in the Holocaust. They pack a bag with only ten items and take it to a meeting. The students are led on a march for about a mile. Then they are blindfolded and tied together and marched another mile. They are searched, their belongings are confiscated, and they are put into cattle cars.

Although the students know they are safe -- their parents are nearby throughout -- they say it gives them an idea of what Jewish teenagers might have experienced during the Holocaust as they were rounded up and shipped off to camps.

When evaluating the program, students often say this experience affected them the most, according to Roberts. The impact of the program on students who participate is obvious, she added. The students are kinder and more apt to stop and think about the effects of their remarks before gossiping or talking about others.


The paper clip project helps personalize the deaths attributed to the Holocaust. Roberts said she and Smith considered collecting buttons or pennies but chose paper clips after they learned Norwegians wore them on their clothes to show support for the Jews during World War II.

The project was publicized in the local media and on a Web page in the 20th Century History section of Paper clip donations have come in from around the world, some with letters detailing the writers' relationships to the Holocaust, including survivors and those who lost relatives. Those letters fill nine scrapbooks.

The teacher estimates it will take four years to collect 6 million paper clips. At that point, they'll be made into a sculpture. A California jeweler is now working on a design.

Originally, the plan was to melt down the paper clips and use the metal, but students objected. "It would be like burning them again," Roberts said students told her, referring to the ovens where the Nazis burned many bodies.

The project is difficult, Roberts said, because in making the paper clips "live" for students, they also come to symbolize people whose lives were abruptly cut short. "Of course I'm tired of it," she said. "It's very hard on my heart, but we will do this if it takes the rest of my educational career."

Nancy Thompson
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 06/14/2000
Last updated 03/28/2008