Teaching Genocide in Schools

Sophia Isajiw

Valentina Kuryliw’s Holodomor in Ukraine Offers Unique Tools for Educators

How do you teach children and young adults about genocide, such as the Holodomor in Ukraine, where millions of people died? Do we even need to teach them about such horrific atrocities at an early age? 

For Valentina Kuryliw, the answer to this question is decidedly, “yes.”  

Educators are trained and prepared to talk with and teach students about sensitive subjects in order to bridge important moments in history that are filled with trauma, that happened decades before anyone in their classroom was born.  

Teaching Genocide

The Holodomor for example was a man-made famine created under Joseph Stalin 90 years ago, and seeing the history of this genocide taught in classrooms has been a major focus for Kuryliw, who is the Director of Education of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta. 

To help educators and the general public learn about and understand the background of the Ukrainian genocide, Kuryliw wrote Holodomor in Ukraine, the Genocidal Famine 1932-1933: Learning Materials for Teachers and Students (CIUS Press, 2018; 308 pp.).  

Kuryliw is the daughter of two survivors of the Holodomor and very familiar with the trauma the genocide has had on survivors and their descendants – many of whom live in Canada. Through her own experiences as a historian and veteran teacher, Kuryliw is sensitive to all the needs of an educational system and environment when presenting a topic like the Holodomor in a classroom.  

Holodomor in Ukraine was carefully researched, translated, and written by Kuryliw to be utilized as a resource with lesson plans for teachers to use in the classroom. She also wrote the book in a manner that offers an appropriate methodology for the learning results desired with students, but without describing the most horrific incidences that occurred during the Holodomor.  

Since the late 1980s, although history books about the Holodomor were published, there were few curricular resources for teachers, let alone a compendium of these in one book for educators. Though useful, most lacked any guidance on how educators can implement a 90-year-old topic that deals with the starvation and deaths of millions into lesson plans for school-aged children and teenagers.

In writing her book, Kuryliw, who is also the Chair of the National Holodomor Education Committee of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, wanted to develop a tool that is user-friendly and offers a variety of ideas and resources that utilize the latest research on the Holodomor.  

The lesson plans offered incorporate interactive instructional strategies and engaging teaching methods that meet contemporary guidelines and employ critical and historical thinking skills that benefit students of all ages as they learn about the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime in 1932-1933. 

Over the past 10 years, teachers across North America have used Kuryliw’s book to bring the Holodomor into their classrooms.

“Educators will find Holodomor in Ukraine to be an invaluable resource filled with engaging lessons, meaningful assessments and thorough background information about Ukraine’s genocide,” said Tamara Kowalczyk, a history teacher with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) in Ontario, Canada, who utilized the tools within the book and has her own lessons published in it.

A Complete Resource for Educators

There are several reasons why Holodomor in Ukraine is so helpful for teachers:

Comprehensive: The book is an all-inclusive teaching resource that is richly illustrated in full colour. It contains primary documents from Soviet archives carefully selected, excerpted and translated for ease of use, timelines, maps, memoirs, photographs, eyewitness accounts, age-appropriate literary works, multimedia links and resource listings. In addition, assignment sheets are provided for most resources.  

Organized: The materials within the book are a compilation of all the resources needed by educators to teach the topic of the Holodomor. They are prepared into four well-thought-out sections containing: a rationale for teaching the Holodomor, learning materials and archival documents and a timeline of historical background events including a glossary of terms, learning activities, projects, assignments and worksheets for students and assessment rubrics, and an Appendix with extensive bibliography and the author’s “Top Picks” list of resources to use and supplemental materials for enthusiastic educators.  

Ready to Use and Accessible: The book is immediately useable in classes straight out of its packaging, it’s accessible and packed with ideas and photocopiable resources. These long-awaited resources are prime new learning materials for students. 

Stand-Alone Materials: It also features stand-alone teaching materials, lesson plans and assignments with straightforward, sensible, and basic information about the Holodomor.

The former Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, Liliia Hrynevych, wrote about Holodomor in Ukraine, “The interesting suggestions presented in the book regarding interactive methods of teaching and developing critical thinking skills will truly become very beneficial for Ukrainian educators as they teach the Holodomor in schools in Ukraine.”   

Kuryliw’s Focus on Inquiry-Based Learning

Kuryliw built a 35-year career as a renowned educator in both English and Ukrainian language schools in Canada and educating history and social sciences teachers in Canada and Ukraine. Prior to retiring, she was a history teacher and department head of history and social sciences at the high school level, most of it with the Toronto District School Board, the largest school board in Canada and the fourth largest in North America.

More importantly, both of Kuryliw’s parents were survivors of the Holodomor, and this part of her background has shaped her career into what it is now. Her book is dedicated to her parents, to James Mace – who pioneered the study of the Holodomor – and to the millions of victims who were starved to death.  

As an educator, Kuryliw is also a strong proponent of inquiry-based learning, a student-centered approach in which students play an active role in their own education.  

Typically, every student in the class works on a different question or topic (individually or in groups) after which they come together to share their conclusions regarding the different pieces of the puzzle they’ve researched and analyzed to arrive at a greater understanding of the whole together.  

Teacher facilitation is key to this process, and within this environment, teachers take on the supportive role of providing guidance through the learning process rather than acting as a sole expert or provider of information. They ask high-level questions and make suggestions for exploration about the process rather than just the content. Thus, instruction is de-emphasized, and student and educator undergo the learning process together.  

At the end of the inquiry cycle, students reflect on the experience and what they learned, and consider how it connects to other topics of interest. This approach is focused on fostering independence, hands-on learning, and exploration. It is therefore no surprise that her book employs this engaged learning approach together with a multidisciplinary approach to integrating the teaching of the Holodomor into social studies, social justice courses, civics, media studies, the literary and visual arts, religious studies, history, and genocide studies courses.  

Oksana Kiciuk-Kulynych, an educator and member of the U.S. Committee for Ukrainian Holodomor Genocide Awareness, reviewed this teaching resource and said, “Kuryliw has made an invaluable contribution to the teaching and engaged learning of the Holodomor with this book, which will undoubtedly ensure that a more thorough understanding of the event and its legacy are spread to wider audiences. It remains only for educators to use it to teach and to further insist on its inclusion in all levels of curricula in their educational institutions. Any concerned individual interested in raising awareness about the genocidal Holodomor would benefit from this resource, particularly schools and universities, libraries, and genocide organizations.” 

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