Never again: maintaining vigil through education, and pennies

By Kim McDarison

When Edgerton Middle School eighth-grade math teacher Dean Wanless mused over how he might best represent numerically the 11 million people who died in internment camps during World War II, he thought about pennies: he’d learned about a teacher within a different district who had engaged similarly with his students using paperclips, but Wanless thought, he said, that after the exercise, pennies could be donated to a worthy cause. With that in mind, Wanless proposed to his students that they try to collect one million pennies, with each penny representing 11 people who died.

“Our number represents all of those who were killed in the camps, not just the Jewish people. We didn’t want to disenfranchise any groups,” Wanless said, noting that others, along with Jewish people, died in the camps.

Further, he wondered, how might he amass, store, and respectfully display the pennies, given their volume and memorial component? For that answer, he turned to the high school and middle school tech departments, he said, asking those students for help with retrofitting an old television stand, now complete with Plexiglas front and lighting, used, with reverence, as the collection box.

In Mr. Wanless’ math class, penny collection began February 1, along with an eighth-grade interdisciplinary unit, focusing on World War II and the Holocaust. Four other teachers, each of other subjects: English, social studies, and science among them, too, created projects that helped reinforce the overall theme. The month-long journey for the 150 students included a workload that was challenging, the teachers agreed, but worth it as students learned, through each area of discipline, about history, its mistakes, and their part in the continuum to make sure such atrocities are not repeated.

“It’s also about how you treat your friends and classmates,” eighth-grade social studies teacher Rachel Montry said. She and the other teachers noted that relatable topics and their associated questions came up as students talked about current events.

“We try to answer questions with as little bias as possible and stay geared towards having the conversation respectfully. We do it by sticking to the facts, and saying: this is what happened, and this is what’s happening now. They make the connections themselves,” Montry said.

Placed upon a classroom wall, there is a “Pyramid of Hate,” so students can learn that atrocities, like the Holocaust, or current behaviors like the desecration of cemeteries, don’t begin with gas chambers, but instead with bigoted words and thoughts,” Montry said.

Wanless also talked about current events, saying, he, too, found his students asking themselves questions about the condition of the current political environment.

“A lot of times we (teachers) reflect after our units about reach and I think this unit hit home. Our biggest objective was to show how people were impacted by the atrocity.

“We talked about how there are still people who deny it ever happened,” Wanless said, noting that such events as recent bomb threats in synagogues and stones overturned in cemeteries point to ill will towards Jewish people that some people still harbor today.

The projects

Within each classroom, the students went to work: in Montry’s social studies class, each student picked a unique topic for research from a supplied list and created a tri-fold board. At the end of the unit, Montry said, the boards were displayed in gallery form, on February 23, in the school gymnasium, first, for students in earlier grades: 5-7, and then, that evening, for parents as they participated in parent/teacher conferences.

For their schoolmates, Montry said, the students were meant to become experts about their topics, sharing their knowledge and answering questions. After the gallery presentation, ballots were distributed and a vote was taken, allowing the younger students to decided which of the tri-fold boards would emerge as their top five choices. Those selections, and the students who created them, will be presented to the Edgerton School Board during its meeting scheduled for April 10.

In John Schuster’s English class, students were presented with a mandatory project, a five-paragraph comparison/contrast essay between two books: The Diary of Anne Frank, and a second choice made from a supplied list, including such titles as: Number the Stars, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Book Thief, and then several additional project choices, including: a poem, an illustrated poem or a work of art in the form of a stamp.

“Anne Frank is a teenaged girl, and the other literature was chosen because the antagonists or protagonists were teenagers. They were chosen on purpose for obvious reasons,” Schuster said, citing an opportunity for middle school students to relate with similarly aged characters. Selections offered included historically-based fictional and non-fictional accountings, he said.

Presented on the same parent/teacher conference night, albeit in a separate gallery housed within the library, poems and artwork were displayed and put to a similar vote, with the top five within each of three categories and their student authors and artists, to be presented to school board members on April 10.

In science class, Montry said, focus was placed on understanding the impact of the atomic bomb: “I hear students saying: ‘let’s nuke them.’ But, what does it mean to nuke someone? We wanted them to see what that was.”

Back in Mr. Wanless’ classroom, the pennies were mounted: as of March 24, the Friday before spring break, some 82,086 pennies had been collected, with students’ families and those in earlier grades adding to the memorial. Pennies will be collected until June 1, Wanless said, and then two donation checks will be made: one to the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee and another to the Holocaust Museum and Educational Center in Skokie, Ill., but the pennies themselves offered opportunities for developing skill sets in math as pre-algebra and algebra students were asked: Using ratios: what is the number of wheat pennies we found? If we keep collecting pennies at our current rate, how many will we have by June 1? With all the pennies collected, how much does this (the box) weigh?

Visiting the Jewish museum

The month-long interdisciplinary unit culminated with a trip to the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, the teachers said. With such a large eighth-grade class, the students went in two groups, one on February 27, the other, on February 28.

While the Edgerton students were visiting, Montry said, the museum was featuring a traveling exhibit. On display were what she described as several quilts and tapestries made by a survivor who sought to depict her life while she and her sister were in their early teens. Both girls fled their home, changed their names to ones that sounded more Christian, and hid in Poland. The art was created when the survivor was much older, Montry said.

Montry was describing work made by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, who, then 15, became separated from her family after they and other Polish villagers were ordered aboard a nearby train. Esther and her younger sister survived the war by posing as Polish farm girls in a village where they were not known. They never saw their family again, the museum’s website states. Some 50 years later, Esther created 36 works of embroidery and fabric collage as a means by which to help her own daughters know the family they had lost, the site continues. The exhibit remains available for viewing through May 26. To learn more about the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, visit the website here.

Said Schuster: “The trip was very valuable. How many teenagers from Edgerton would visit a Jewish museum?”

Said Wanless: “At the museum, it’s a common theme: never again, and that education plays a huge part in never letting this happen again.”

Teachers contributing to the interdisciplinary unit included: Dean Wanless, math; John Schuster, English; Rachel Montry, social studies; Karla Loftus and Laura Zobal.

Through their eyes

Taking a break from counting pennies, Kylie Ryckman spoke about her field trip experience, noting she was most impacted by the fabric art as created by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. That exposure, coupled with what she’d learning while building her tri-fold board about Gross-Rosen concentration camp, she said, gave her insight into what it meant to be Jewish during the war, saying: “I learned that an atrocity took place in some camps and what people went through there and what it means to be Jewish.”

About the donations she and her classmates would soon be making using the collected pennies, she said: “I hope it will help to inform more people about what happened.”

Classmate Dylan Brandt echoed her sentiment, saying: “I made a poster (tri-fold) on Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician. I leaned that he didn’t have much of a childhood and he was raised in the army. For my stamp, I drew a picture of someone’s hands bound together. It represented that people in the camps didn’t have much freedom.”

Relative to the donation, he said: “I hope it lets people know this was a horrible event and makes sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

To learn more about the ongoing initiative to raise one million pennies, visit the “Totals for Tolerance” Facebook page here. Those interested may use the “learn more” button within the page to donate to the cause through “Go Fund Me.”



penny box child adding pennies

A repurposed television stand (at left) serves as a collection container for the one million pennies students hope to collect by June 1. Eighth-grader Rory Martin (at right) adds her cache of 1,650 pennies to the collection. 


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Several eighth-grade students in Dean Wanless’ (top, left, standing) math class count pennies before they are added to the collection box. 


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MaeAnne STockel work

Lena Seyfarth (top, left) displays the illustration she made to accompany her Holocaust-themed illustrated poem. Hers was one of five rated “the best” by those who viewed the work in the school’s library on February 23. Works created by Zoe Cross (top, right), MaeAnna Stockel (bottom, left), Brooke Acker and Leslie Salgado received similar recognition within this category.


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D.J. Rudnitzki (at left), Kylee Houfe (middle), and Abi Wiley (at right) were three among five receiving “the best” rating for their Holocaust-themed poetry as determined by those attending and voting during a February 23 “gallery” presentation held in the middle school library. Poems written by Lillian Bemis and Lexi Schultz received similar recognition.   

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Within the category of commemorative Holocaust-themed stamp, voters selected five pieces which were rated “the best,” including works created by Wesley Salimes (pictured), Dylan Brandt, Izzy Gilmour, Ashley Kosmicki and Matthew McCue. 

Five social studies tri-fold presentations received accolades naming them “the best,” including works made by Jacob Nelson, Dakota Callies, Clayton Jenny, Lauren Radtke and Mayra Campos.


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Social studies tri-fold board depicting Auschwitz as created by Jacob Nelson.


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Social studies tri-fold board depicting the life of Capt. Walter Henry Write as created by Dakota Callies.



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Social studies tri-fold board depicting Holocaust deaths as created by Clayton Jenny. 


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Social studies tri-fold board depicting the Japanese Invasion of China as created by Lauren Radtke. 


myra inside 2 myra inside 4 myra inside 3 Mayra Campos trifold

Social studies tri-fold board depicting Chelmno death camp as created by Mayra Campos.

(Kim McDarison photos.)


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A Pyramid of Hate (as depicted) was placed upon a classroom wall to help students understand the value of their thoughts, words and actions. (Graphic obtained through the Anti-defamation League website here.


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