Crossing Lines: Tools for Teaching Tough Topics

Date: June 18-22, 2018
Location: Sacramento, California



How have the experiences of Japanese-American and Mien refugees in the 20th century impacted the history and culture of the West Coast and the United States? How can their experiences be shared within a wider historical lens, connecting their hardships with those of Holocaust survivors in Europe? That is what many educators considered during a 5-day professional development seminar, that took place from June 18th to June 22nd in Sacramento, California.

Crossing Lines: Tools for Teaching Tough Topics is the title of the program, which is sponsored by The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI). The seminar convened for its eighth year, alternating between Chico and Sacramento, to bring together educators to discuss cultural competence and how to integrate sensitive issues and create safe spaces in the classroom.

The seminar, led by Gail Desler and Pam Bodnar, connects experiences from the Holocaust with those affected by the Rwandan genocide, the Japanese-American incarceration, and the Secret War in Laos. Today, many survivors of these historic events live and work within the vicinity of the seminar. Focusing on the power of stories to promote the acceptance and appreciation of all cultures, the seminar has welcomed Holocaust survivors, Japanese American incarcerees, and Mien and Hmong presenters to share their personal experiences and family histories.

Field trips can be eye-opening opportunities to learn more about one’s neighbors. Desler describes how “one of the field trips we take is to a [refugee-owned] strawberry farm. The families appreciate the fact that we’re truly interested in their stories. Maybe they speak limited English, but here we’re asking them to share with us and valuing everything they have to say. Sometimes it’s not the field trip that costs hundreds of dollars, it’s just going down the street and seeing who your neighbor is, and that’s even more impressive.”

These farms were once owned by Japanese-Americans before their internment during World War II. “Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this was the heart of the Japanese-American community on the west coast. They were the strawberry growers in this area. Overnight, the history of the Florin community changed because they were rounded up and taken away to relocation camps. Few would return because there was nothing to return to. Most of what they owned had been taken away,” Bodnar explains.

Many of the farms are now owned by Mien refugees of the Secret War in Laos, a conflict rarely acknowledged in American history books. Desler and Bodnar both have met with teachers and students who are descendants of these refugees, and they use the seminar to stress the importance of sharing those diverse and untold experiences of hardship. Desler illustrates that “when we appreciate someone else’s culture and experience their story, we realize we are more alike than different.”

The professional development continues after the seminars, when teachers can access mini-grants of amounts up to $1,000 to support projects that bring Holocaust and social justice education to wider audiences. TOLI’s impact on teachers is palpable well after they have returned to the classroom.



This seminar has concluded. Please check back in the fall for more information on 2019’s seminar!

The overarching goal of our seminar, now in its fifth year, is to promote school site leadership in teaching global acceptance and writing for change. A secondary goal is to help students make connections between historical events of the past (“then and there”) to more recent events (“here and now”). To bring the lessons of the Holocaust into a 21st century context, we will focus on the common threads between the Holocaust, the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, and the “Secret War” in Laos, a little known legacy of the Vietnam War.

We are delighted to have Sam and Carol Edelman, from The Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance, once again joining us as our opening keynote speakers.  The Edelmans will set the context for our “crossing lines” theme through a Holocaust lens and beyond.  Holocaust survivor Bernard Marks is also joining us this year to share his memories of Nazi death camps and lessons learned on  survival, resistance, and resilience. Marielle Tsukamoto will join us again to share her personal story of exclusion and forced removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Hannie Voyles, Holocaust witness and survivor during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, returns to our seminar this year as our closing keynote speaker to share her inspiring testimony and heartwarming poetry.

Throughout the week, discussions and alignment of lesson development with the Common Core State Standards will challenge traditional classroom barriers by weaving  in technology, social justice, and writing for change across curriculum lines.


  • Gail Desler

    Gail Desler is a technology specialist for the Elk Grove School District (California). Using technology to help students cross the line from bystander to upstander is central to her workshops. Her passion for teaching for social justice has been nurtured by the Area 3 Writing Project, the National Writing Project, and the Memorial Library.

  • Pam Bodnar

    Pam Bodnar is a middle school counselor at Marsh Jr. High in Chico California. She is a passionate advocate of social justice and cultural awareness. Pam is dedicated to training student peer mediators as peace ambassadors through Holocaust Education programs and international travel experiences.


For more information about The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), please contact

TOLI is located at 58 East 79th Street in Manhattan. (get directions)