‘The Power of Words’: how can Holocaust T&L support whole school literacy strategies?

Torpoint Community College is a small, semi-rural secondary school in South East Cornwall. As a UCL Quality Mark Beacon School for Holocaust Education, it consistently seeks out new ways in which the College community can work together to support and strengthen the priorities of the whole college and to ‘inspire optimistic learners’.

The academic year 2017-18 saw a real shift in the relationship between the impact that the pastoral aspect of life at TCC could have on the academic. A tight focus was placed on supporting students in tutor time to be able to access and confidently use Tier 2 vocabulary; targeted vocabulary instruction; and more importantly, to actively engage in reading a range of material. As part of the KS3 Programme, a Reading Relay was created; a selection of short stories was selected by the Literacy Co-ordinator and a programme of focused tutor lessons to accompany these short stories was created. Each tutor group would focus on one story per week and the lessons would rotate in a ‘relay’ through the tutor teams.

As a UCL Beacon School for Holocaust Education, we spent much time discussing how we might support this and expand the programme to include extracts/short stories written by/about the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. Initially, the Reading Relay was designed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, with the theme; ‘The Power of Words’, to last one half term. It would be launched with the HMD18 assembly at the beginning of January and conclude with a large-scale display of student responses to the theme; each student would have a postcard to ‘collect’ the words/vocabulary they deemed to be the most ‘powerful’ and they would be displayed in a prominent position to mark HMD18. The Reading Relay would form part of the whole college marking of HMD18, thereby creating a programme which students would interact with on a daily basis, during tutor time, over a 6-week period. HMD18 would be marked by our local Cornwall Library Services and College Library holding an interactive display, displaying extracts, information and literature, which could be read/borrowed by students; a ‘Letters to Renie and Sedin’ project; ‘Stories from the News’ once a week in tutor time, focusing on the stories of Sedin Mustafic, Otto Weidt and Morris Field, with accompanying tutor time activities; a Rights Respecting Schools weekly tutor lesson on subsequent genocides; and a HMDT postcard activity, writing to Renie and Sedin.

Figure 1: The Power of Words reading relay booklet and accompanying postcards

Following three months of reading and several meetings with the KS3 Literacy Co-ordinator, we selected eight extracts from a range of authors, containing a range of Tier 2 vocabulary. We also felt it crucial to provide contextual statements for each of the authors/literature and a glossary for several of the terms to support understanding. As an introduction to the Reading Relay booklet, the IHRA definition of the Holocaust was provided, along with the HMDT statement about HMD18 and a contextual statement about the term ‘antisemitism’, with a link to the IWM ‘The Way We Lived’ video series.

Figure 2-4: Photos of students signing words with ‘power’ using the British Sign Language (BSL) alphabet

The programme was introduced in short staff CPD sessions in tutor teams. Resources were provided, with supporting material on our shared drive, so that tutors could access them with ease.As both the tutor teams and students were familiar with the concept of the Reading Relay, we designed the tutor programme in the same style; each tutor team would rotate through extracts each week, with a supporting set of lessons for tutor time. The programme consisted of a Power of Words booklet containing instructions, contextual statements, extracts and glossary. Each tutor group was also provided with a class set of postcards, on which to collect words which had ‘power’.

During the weeks of January to February of 2018, Torpoint Community College tutor times were a real hive of literary activity. Three tutor times a week were devoted to HMD18-focused literacy activities.

Tutor journals were full of ‘words with power’ and tutees were fully engaged with the Reading Relay and accompanying activities, such as speaking words in British Sign Language, as well as writing them confidently in sentences.

There was particular power in the relationship between Year 9 tutor groups and History, Geography and Drama classes. This is when we teach our ‘Unpacking the Holocaust’ Scheme of Learning, so students were experiencing a depth of knowledge not experienced before. The tutor programme acted as ‘flipped learning’ and really enable students to confidently understand terminologies addressed in History, Geography and Drama lessons. For the younger year groups, the power of prior learning held; this year’s Year 9 students are our 2018 Year 7 cohort and we are finding a familiarity of complex terms, for instance when discussing ‘antisemitism’ and ‘discrimination’ in Religious Studies lessons. As our older students moved forward in to their Y11 GCSE History lessons this year, studying Weimar and Nazi Germany, students are able to make explicit links between actions taken in the 1920’s and the consequences of those actions, despite not having been taught that period yet. These terms are being stored in long-term memory, which are having huge benefit, not just for student knowledge and curriculum planning, but also student confidence in using these terms with a real and genuine sense of literary understanding; a real improvement in ‘language for learning’.

Figure 5: The Power of Words display at the front of the College, HMD 2018

At the beginning of February 2018, we gathered our tutor postcards. Each student had their postcard displayed in the front windows of the College, set out to spell the word ‘Power’. We anticipated it being a short-term display, but following requests and feedback from the College and local community, this powerful display stayed in place until the end of March. We had brought our College student community together visually to demonstrate that ‘our words had power’.

Figure 6-9: Example activities from the Literacy Reading Relay 2019

As the Reading Relay programme developed through the academic year, the decision was taken to introduce the same style of activity in preparation for HMD19, with the theme ‘Torn From Home’. A series of lessons were created for tutor time to support our Rights Respecting Schools tutor session, with a focus on the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. This in turn supported the Literacy focus; a Tier 2 word was selected as the focus; students would learn the term, write the term and then use the term in context and then read an extract containing the focus word.

This Literacy focus was supported and developed by the Torn From Home project, designed for another tutor session in the week and allowed students to creatively respond to their literacy session. For more information about the 2019 Torn From Home project, see Beacon School’s creative response to survivor request to ‘Tell the stories of those who can not’.


Reading Relay extracts taken from:

‘Jars of Hope’, Jennifer Roy (ill. Megan Owenson), Capstone Press, 2015

‘Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto’, Susan Goldman Rubin (ill. Bill Farnsworth), Holiday House, 2012

‘An Englishman in Auschwitz’, Leon Greenman, Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 200

‘Auschwitz and After’, Charlotte Delbo, Yale University Press; 2nd Revised edition, 2013

‘The Book Thief’, Markus Zusak, Black Swan, 2014

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, Judith Kerr, Harper Collins Children’s Books, New Ed Edition, 2017

‘Number the Stars’, Louis Lowry, Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2011

Special thanks to Mrs Charlotte Lane, Lead Teacher & Curriculum Leader of History, Belief and Culture at Torpoint Community College – a UCL Quality Mark ‘Beacon School’

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