Edgerton math class collects pennies for Holocaust fundraiser

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Jim Dayton
Sunday, March 19, 2017

EDGERTON—Eighth-grade math students at Edgerton Middle School recently were given an unusual assignment that went beyond their normal classroom lessons: Try to collect 1 million pennies.

The fundraiser is part of an interdisciplinary unit where all subjects have lessons related to the Holocaust and World War II.

For the past month, Dean Wanless' math classes have collected pennies as a way to visualize how many people died in the Holocaust.

Most historians estimate the number of Holocaust victims to be somewhere around 11 million. If the math classes achieve their goal, each penny would represent 11 lives lost, Wanless said.

Collecting such a massive amount of pennies would help students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, he said.

“The kids have such a difficult time on the concept of the size of a million,” Wanless said. “I wanted to try to help them build the concept of what a million is. If we could get them to conceptualize 1 million, how could we get them to conceptualize 11 million?”

Teachers suggested at the beginning of the school year that all classes could contribute to a Holocaust and World War II unit. It would be a greater learning experience for students if they could learn about that time period from multiple sources, Wanless said.

English classes read "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank and other books related to the Holocaust.

Science classes researched the atomic bomb.

Art classes created illustrated poetry and made a gallery to display their work.

While social studies classes learned about important dates and events from World War II, they also discussed modern strains of anti-Semitism, such as vandalized Jewish graves and bomb threats at Jewish community centers, Wanless said.

Eighth-graders took a field trip at the end of February to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. The field trip combined with current events has given the unit more relevance, especially because not many Edgerton students are Jewish, he said.

Half of the money raised through Wanless' fundraiser will be donated to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, with the other half going to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, he said.

Wanless had read a book about a teacher who had done a similar Holocaust project with paper clips, but the school was stuck with a colossal number of paper clips. Wanless wanted to collect something of value to pass on.

The class is accepting money of all denominations. Wanless takes all donations to the bank and converts them to pennies.

The project also has a GoFundMe page set up for the public and has collection boxes at all Edgerton schools, he said.

At last count, the class had a little more than 41,000 pennies, or roughly $410. Realistically, the project won't reach its goal of 1 million pennies, which would equate to $10,000, Wanless said.

But he is confident the project will achieve its goal of educating students about the Holocaust and helping them understand complex historical events.

“Even where we're at, if they look in the case and see all those pennies, a phenomenal amount of pennies … then we start to paint this picture of how catastrophic this was,” Wanless said. “The buy-in we've seen from the kids has been incredible.”

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