Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

A Real World Lesson Plan


“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Long before Emma Lazarus’ quote was mounted on a pedestal plaque for the Statue of Liberty, “Native Americans” were immigrants to what became American soil. There’s really nothing unique in America about an immigrant background. We all have one; just some more recent than others. On my mother’s side, nine generations settled in America before I was born here. On my dad’s side, I’m a first generation. I exist because my Czech Jewish father escaped the Nazis and made it first to China. After nearly two years, he left for America where he later learned that 44 of his relatives perished in the Holocaust. Each immigrant who has arrived in America likely believed, as my dad did, that in this land of freedom, you can triumph over the darkness left behind. After living through seemingly insurmountable odds, my father achieved that dream.

Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure to participate as an author guest presenter and observer at Orange County Public School’s Dr. Phillips High School in the 9th grade classroom of English teacher Nilam Patel. The topic: Family History. On my first occasion to be with the students, I shared stories from my nonfiction book, “Adventurers Against Their Will.” The book relays WWII tales involving my refugee father corresponding from China with friends and relatives. Some of the letter writers were trapped behind in Nazi-occupied Bohemia. Others were refugees like my dad, stranded somewhere in the few places in the world accepting Jewish refugees. After the war he hid the letters away in Chinese antique boxes, only to be discovered after his death. My first book is about my quest to locate seven of the letter writers so that I could learn the rest of their life stories and lessons learned from their experiences.

The idea of my presentation was to peak student’s curiosity in their own family history. I wanted them to learn what brought their various ancestors to America and find commonalities among their classmates. The inspiration worked! After months of research and interviews with family members, the students closed the year out with intriguing presentations where they revealed their own stories, many unknown to them before their search. Witnessing the results was a real gift. 

Afterward, Nilam B. Patel, English I and II Chair,

Dr. Phillips High School Center for International Studies Magnet, sent me a note that made me realize how important the effort was to her students:

Mrs. Schirm met with the media specialist and me to provide customized lesson plans to make this unit of learning the best fit for our students. She offered a plethora of primary and secondary resources for teacher and student use to make this a personal and educational experience. She visited the students as we introduced their “Genealogy Projects” and shared her adventure in writing, researching, and communicating with a network of family, friends, and experts to paint a mosaic of incredible stories tied together by documented evidence and first-hand interviews. As students conducted their own research on an aspect of their family history, such as migration patterns, ancestry, health history, love stories, etc., they emailed Mrs. Schirm for guidance and received a response from her with many ideas and resources to explore. Students spent six months brainstorming, researching, interviewing, collecting artifacts and documents, and building a story to share with their classmates and other faculty and parents. Parents contacted me with appreciation on opening up dialogue in the family with grandparents, great grandparents and family members during the process that led to priceless moments that will be treasured. Mrs. Schirm also visited our students on the last day of presentations to debrief them on continuing to dig deeper and appreciate the information they are uncovering today. Many students shared their enthusiasm, shock, tears, and curiosity throughout this experience and they look forward to building on this project in future years.

No matter who we are or when and from where our families came to America, we share dreams for a better future. Our collective hope is represented by Lady Liberty’s forever-lit torch, meant to carry enlightenment about the noble ideals of freedom and equality that belong to each one of us. Of late, some Americans seem to have forgotten what that promise held for so many of us regardless of cultural, religious, and other differences. 

With an offering of hope for the hopeless, the American invitation to freedom and safety grows increasingly important as the sea of world events becomes stormier. The students of Nilam Patel now know so much more about their family history. They have empathy for others. Understanding our personal histories helps us realize what we’ve accomplished as a nation and how important it is to protect human dignity and rights. If we care about each other we are more likely to act if someone is bullied or threatened.

Joanie Holzer Schirm lives in Orlando, Florida, and is the author of “Adventurers Against Their Will.”


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