Using my Nudel – Bearing witness to the past and the present

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A brief word of thanks:

It seems my column struck a note with many people, however, I have good news to report. I sat in a class of Grade 7 pupils who had a trip to the Herzlia Media Centre and were given an introduction to the joys of literature. When asked who in the class read, nearly all put their hands up. I now know that at least the Grade 7s are reading.

And thank goodness for that.

But now for the main attraction:

When we look at society today, we tend to remember what affects us immediately. News and events that either failed to stimulate us or took place some time ago are lost on us. Take the State of the Nation Address (SONA) that took place just last month. We all remember what happened in the past three years, the theatrics of the EFF and the violence that has subsequently increased during these encounters (much to the dismay and disgust of the public). But do we remember what President Jacob Zuma actually said?

Personally, unless I read the particular bits of information that are repeated in the media, I don’t remember anything. In fact, the boredom that ensues after the chaos is quite incredible. If it was delivered later I’d watch it as preparation for my bedtime routine. But what does stimulate us and how do we remember?

Dr William Griffith, a cellular neuroscientist and chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, explains that our memories are not like a filing cabinet, where we can just access information when we want. Instead, he says that memory is like the strength of a Wifi network — the strength of the network determines how the event is translated within your brain.

Our neurons (the nerve cells in the brain) communicate to each other through synaptic connections. They ‘talk’ to each other when certain chemicals or neurotransmitters are present.

To use another metaphor, think of a neurotransmitter as an email. If you receive one or two emails when you’re busy, you might just ignore them. But, if you receive hundreds of emails from the same person, saying the same thing over and over again, you might start paying attention to what the email is saying.

So, what is bombarding us today, and which ‘email’ is constantly appearing in our figurative inboxes? Are we remembering what is constantly being thrown at us instead of the issues that are really relevant? What is interesting is the way in which school and the teaching environment cause children to remember things which may not interest them to such a degree. And the way in which schools are teaching is changing rapidly.

The other day the Herzlia Vocal Ensemble and the Grade 10 Jewish Life class had the rare opportunity to interact and collaborate with five Eastern European schools around the theme of the Jewish Partisans and the Partisan song.

Three of the schools were Jewish (which in Former Soviet bloc countries is quite amazing). What’s really cool is that we used Google Hangout in order for the pupils to hear some information about each of the schools.

We were then introduced to the history of the Partisan Song, which the Vocal Ensemble then sung.

It was incredible, hearing how all these schools and students were inextricably linked to the Partisans and, by default, Judaism (even the non-Jewish schools). However, how many of us actually know the history of the Partisans and their struggle? Perhaps we hear the Partisan song once a year at Yom Ha’Shoah. But do we take note of the author of the poem, Hirsch Glick, who died at 22 at the hands of the Germans? Do we take note of how his lyrics became a symbol of resistance against the Nazis and the Holocaust?

What I took out of the experience is that these kids across the world have been introduced to something which they have never even thought of before. Here was an entirely new way of encouraging remembrance. They now understand and acknowledge that there are other kids who they can teach and learn from.

Instead of their teachers and the school or national curriculum being their only source of information, they now have peers around the world to interact with to develop their knowledge and education.

Our youth who need to understand the enormity of being keepers of our history. Through peer-led learning, we can ensure that our past and our heritage will be safeguarded against the flood of news that is either fake or irrelevant.

Returning to the email metaphor, it is our responsibility, as educators, to empower our students to discern ‘spam’ from important information. As it is written in the Partisan Song: “If the sun and the dawn are delayed – Like a watchword this song will go from generation to generation.”

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