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Ties that bind a Holocaust survivor & an innovative teacher

On the morning of April 11, 1945, as his Nazi guards fled in anticipation of an American assault, my Saba (grandfather in Hebrew) joined his fellow inmates in seizing control of Buchenwald, a concentration camp near the East-Central German city of Weimar.

In the afternoon, the U.S. 6th Armored Division liberated my Saba and 21,000 other Buchenwald inmates.

It was the ninth — and last — Nazi camp Ozer Grundman had survived.

I asked my Saba, a Hasid (ultra-Orthodox Jew), several times over the years how he outlasted Hitler. He contemplated various reasons: God protected him, his faith sustained him, his mother’s prayers received a divine audience, his dead relatives’ souls put in a good word for him upstairs, and/or what secular folks like me call “luck” played some sort of a mysterious role.

Although I realized this question could never elicit a definitive, complete answer, I considered a story my Saba told me a possible, partial explanation.

Growing up in an Orthodox household in South-Central Poland, my Saba demanded to be educated. But his small hometown of Szydłowiec offered no viable options for observant Jews. So, he compelled his reluctant parents to send him to a far-away Hasidic boarding school.

The academic and physical challenges my Saba endured attending this strict, secluded yeshiva helped prepare him, he said, for foiling the Nazis’ campaign to murder every European Jew.

His words echoed in my head as I directed and produced “Class of Her Own,” a forthcoming documentary about a highly innovative African American inner-city schoolteacher. Like my Saba, Gloria Jean Merriex considered education the ticket to salvation and success.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of Gloria’s death at the age of 58.

Gloria started out an ordinary teacher. During her first 25 years at Duval Elementary in East Gainesville, Fla., she followed the state’s curricula and the school district’s pacing guides. She felt content seeing her students, the vast majority of whom came from impoverished homes, simply pass.

When Duval failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in 2002, however, Gloria experienced an epiphany. Watching many of her students held back, she set out to reinvent herself.

“Things have changed,” she said, “and I know I have to change my techniques.”

Instead of zeroing in on her students’ shortcomings, Gloria came up with creative ways to cater to their strengths. Noticing they effortlessly memorized complex hip hop lyrics, she turned to music and movement to make her lessons stick. She wrote hip hop earworms about math, reading, and science. She choreographed a geometry dance and other content-infused routines. And she engaged her students in church-like call and response.

“She didn’t move to using music because she studied Howard Gardner’s work about multiple intelligences,” Elizabeth “Buffy” Bondy, former director of the University of Florida’s School of Teaching and Learning, told me. “She moved to using music and movement and the other strategies that she used because she studied her students.”

To start meeting her students where they were, Gloria created a new curriculum filled with relevant details, referenced everyday examples and props, and designed multi-topic lessons.

“She invented her own approach,” Don Pemberton, former director of UF’s Lastinger Center for Learning, told me, “at a great risk to her job and career.”

Taking a similar gamble, Duval’s principal supported what some viewed as Gloria’s rebellion.

Leanetta “Lee” McNealy, who now serves as an Alachua County School Board member, displayed vision and leadership by going even further. She asked Gloria to teach math to all fifth-graders and reading to all third-graders and fourth-graders.

Gloria made sure to involve her students’ parents. She invited them to visit her classroom, visited them in their homes, and offered a weekly evening session to those who wished to keep up with their children.

Realizing she’d been letting down her students all those years by aiming too low, she substantially raised her expectations of them—and herself.

She also practiced tough love.

In one year, Duval raised its FCAT score from an F to an A.

Gloria gave us a blueprint for how to customize instruction for K-12 students.

Her students’ joyful mastery of the material provided all the evidence Gloria needed. She just smiled when she was told research showed some of her techniques trounce traditional teaching.

That body of research is growing. For instance, a 2019 National Academy of Sciences study revealed active learning greatly enhances educational results.

Gloria continued to create new strategies — and sustain Duval’s academic excellence — until she suffered a fatal diabetic stroke in 2008.

Her methodology and approach resonate now more than ever, as educators, students, and parents face mounting pressures.

Preparing “Class of Her Own” for distribution, I find myself wishing I could have introduced Gloria to my Saba, who died at the age of 78 in 2003. Despite their differences, they would have bonded over their ironclad belief in the power of education. I visualize them exchanging stories and learning oh so much from one another.

About the Author
Boaz Dvir is the author of the critically acclaimed nonfiction book “Saving Israel” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), which follows World War II aviators who risked their lives and freedom in 1947-49 to prevent what they viewed as an imminent second Holocaust. Washington Times book reviewer Joshua Sinai described this nonfiction book as a “fascinating and dramatic account filled with lots of new information about a crucially formative period.” A Penn State associate professor, Dvir is the founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Initiative and the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative at the university. He's an award-winning filmmaker. He tells the stories of ordinary people who, under extraordinary circumstances, transform into trailblazers who change the world around them. They include an average inner-city schoolteacher who emerges as a disruptive innovator and a national model (Class of Her Own); a World War II flight engineer who transforms into the leader of a secret operation to prevent a second Holocaust (A Wing and a Prayer); an uneducated truck driver who becomes a highly effective child-protection activist (Jessie’s Dad); and a French business consultant who sets out to kill former Nazi officer Klaus Barbie and ends up playing a pivotal role in history’s most daring hostage-rescue operation (Cojot).
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