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Exhibit Sparks Students to Learn About World War II Atrocities

Bob Jones

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 • 5:00am

SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – SPHS senior Brooke Penik will be the first to admit she’s not great with history tests and knowing lots of dates, facts, and figures.  But you wouldn’t know it by the way the 17-year-old led her fellow students on a guided tour of an exhibit in the high school’s library about World War II atrocities that took place in China. 

Penik was excited to share what she learned, and along with fellow senior Erika Holterman, had just finished giving a tour of the exhibit to about two dozen World History I students who were seeing it for the first time.

The exhibit is on loan from the New Jersey Alliance for the Learning and Preservation of the History of World War II in Asia (NJ-ALPHA), and South Plainfield is its first stop in the United States after arriving from the Beijing Museum. The panels depict atrocities the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted during the war and tell the story through photographs—some graphic—taken during the mid to late 1930s.

According to SPHS teacher Fran Flannery the exhibit has sparked many of her students to learn in ways they haven’t before.  Flannery teaches an advanced history course on Genocide Studies, and as part of the course students learn about how Chinese men, women, and children were mistreated during the war.  The lessons cover things like the Nanking Massacre, how women were used as sex slaves, and how the Japanese army experimented on the Chinese with biological and chemical weapons.   

The twenty or so students in Flannery’s course studied the material for three weeks before the exhibit arrived.  They then paired off to prepare and practice their presentations, eventually giving them to entire classes of students assembled in the school’s library.      

Flannery says this type of experience gives her students an opportunity to learn in ways they haven’t before.  “It gives a kid like Brooke a chance to express herself in a way you can’t do through a test with pen and paper.” 

Penik and Holterman both think their fellow students were more receptive to learning about history because the message was coming from someone their own age.  “It’s cool when your friend can teach you something,” said Penik.    

Several students taking the tour felt the same way.  “When your peers are into it, you get into it too,” said sophomore David Schuch after seeing the exhibit. 

Flannery says that while most students learn about the Holocaust and what happened under the Nazis, few know about atrocities in the Asian Pacific.  The Japanese aggression began in 1931, and most history classes don’t get into what was going on before America got involved in the war.  “There’s little emphasis on pre-Pearl Harbor,” Flannery explained.

The students who viewed the exhibit agreed.   Vincent Mulhearn took the tour with his history class and was surprised he hadn’t learned these lessons before.  “I was shocked that we could go all this time without learning about it,” Mulhearn said afterwards.

Flannery says that most American schools don’t teach their students about the atrocities that took place in the Asian Pacific and that NJ-ALPHA and groups like it are trying to change that by educating teachers, who in turn can educate their students about what happened.

Flannery was one of those teachers.  In 2008 she was selected to study in China and came away with a renewed appreciation about sharing what she learned with her students.

Apparently Flannery’s passion for the subject is taking hold with the students.  “Everyone’s talking about it,” said Mulhearn after his class headed back to their classroom.

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