Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
In 2014, English teacher Justin Bilton and social-studies teacher Jason Stark were assigned to share an office at the newly opened Essex Tech, a career and technical education campus in Massachusetts’s North Shore region. Bilton had studied the Holocaust and totalitarian regimes in college and grad school, and he told his new officemate about his summer experience at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Belfer National Conference for Educators in Washington, D.C. Stark, whose maternal grandmother survived the Holocaust, was intrigued.
He and Bilton decided to team up and create a genocide-studies class—a rare find in a public high school, especially a CTE campus. What began as an elective in the fall of 2015 is now an optional history course for Essex Tech’s seniors; the curriculum includes the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, and contemporary human-rights issues. In 2019, Bilton, 39, and Stark, 41, testified before the Massachusetts legislature in support of a bill that would make genocide studies a required part of the state’s high-school curriculum. At a time when the majority of American teens don’t know how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, Bilton and Stark hope their class can be a launching pad for students to better understand the roots of systemic violence. I talked with them about the class in June 2020; our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.