Rethinking Perpetrators, Bystanders and Rescuers: The case of Max Schmeling
Because I teach in a school with block scheduling, this lesson is presented for one 80-minute class period. However, it can be broken into two 40-minute class periods with day one consisting of the introductory class discussion, the silent sustained reading of the article, and the student note-taking and annotating, and day two being the small group discussions, board presentations, full class discussion, and journaling.
Before presenting the Sports Illustrated article to the students, I ask them who Max Schmeling is and what they know about him. Those few students who have heard of him, mostly boys, know him as a footnote in the Joe Louis story. Between the students’ brainstormed information and what I can fill in for them, mostly about the American civil rights climate of the time and the importance of Joe Louis as a model or hero for African Americans of the 1930s, the students now have a cultural context for the man about whom they are about to read.
I then hand out the Frank Deford Sports Illustrated article, “Almost a Hero,” and together we read aloud the first four paragraphs, which introduce Schmeling and present him as he is known today. At the end of the fourth paragraph is the statement that Schmeling “presents all the contradictions of Everyman, only in him the paradoxes are writ much larger because of who he was and what was going on all around him when he was in his prime.” This text introduces the idea of cultural and historical context helping shape the choices we make. I then direct students to a silent, sustained reading of the article. They are instructed to annotate the article, underlining or making marginal notes wherever they find a choice Schmeling makes that puts him into one of the categories of perpetrator (also allowing collaborator to fall into this category), bystander, or rescuer.
This would end day one in schools with a traditional schedule.
I then divide the students into three groups, each responsible for one choice from the article. I ask them to consider the following questions:
- At what stage in Schmeling’s career did this choice occur?
- At what risk to himself did he make this choice?
- Can you discern from the article what motivated him to make this choice? In your opinion, were there contextual circumstances that might have influenced his choice?
- Did he later regret the choice?
These questions are designed to have the students analyze Schmeling’s choices in light of his motivations and the pressures he was under from the world he lived in.
One member of the group is the designated scribe, and he/she lists on the board all the answers to the questions. As a full class we then discuss the accuracy of the placement, looking at motivation as well as actual choice. We also look at Schmeling’s life beyond the actual war years, for example his quiet financial support of the ailing Joe Louis in the years before the Brown Bomber’s death. If there is disagreement about the placement of some evidence, for example something placed in the bystander and perpetrator categories, we discuss the criteria the differing groups used to categorize the evidence.
We also note how difficult it is to be finite in our placement of some of his choices, underscoring for the students how difficult many of life’s choices are and how hard it is to categorize people. We wrap up the class discussion by bringing in some of the people we have studied before, such as Oskar Schindler, the Danish fishermen who ferried Jews to safety, nameless Germans who lived by rail stations yet “didn’t know” that anything was happening to carloads of Jews, and others. I am able to assess the students’ understanding of the article’s facts as well as their synthesis of the issue of choice as presented through Max Schmeling by their participation in class discussion, and as I go from group to group by listening to their group discussions.
The final 10 minutes of class are for a student response journal entry. Students have journals in a drawer of my classroom, and they write in their journals at least four out of five days on a given prompt that relates to the lesson planned. Many times journal entries begin the class, so that I can stimulate student thought about a subject before we delve into it or have them think about a quote that relates to the material about to be presented. However, there are times when I end with a student journal response, and I use these as an assessment of their understanding of the lesson. I give them a series of prompts to stimulate their personal response, and they may respond to one or as many as they choose.
- How do you personally evaluate the choices made by Max Schmeling?
- How do you explain his motivations?
- Do public figures have a different degree of responsibility than the everyday person?
- Is Max Schmeling “almost a hero,” as the title of the article suggests? Why or why not?
- Can you describe a time in your life when you had to make a difficult choice? What influenced your choice, and what were the consequences?
They also have the freedom to go beyond my prompts to something else they choose to add about what they have learned.