Interview and Article by:
Josha Sietsma, Netherlands (MTF 2015)
Writer, volunteer at the Nashville Food Project, Holocaust scholar, middle school teacher. Where to start when interviewing Kim Blevins, a Teacher Fellow from 2011. How about her role as author? In her writings the sentence: cat gotcher tung?. The line is in Lacking Experience of Sophistication published on the website of Muscadines. The South is in your work. Tell us, what does the sentence mean?
This is a sentence from a short story that was published in 2009, I believe. I’d written it in southern dialect: cat gotcher tung? is dialect for “does the cat have your tongue?” which is an idiom that means, “why are you not talking?”
The Holocaust and the American Civil Rights movement are my two historical passions. I gravitate towards work with social justice implications.
You were a facilitator last summer at the Belfer National Conference. What got you started and wanting to teach about the Holocaust?
My paternal grandfather served in the US Army during World War II. He collected Time/Life picture books about the war, and as a young child I loved to pour over those books, and I loved to hear my granddaddy’s stories. I remember being struck by a photograph of a Polish girl working in a forced labor factory. She had pigtails and a kerchief on her head and she looked a great deal like me. I always wondered about her, if she survived the war. This interest in personal stories compelled me to learn this history from a very early age. I always knew I wanted to be a historian of this time era, and chose history as my major in undergraduate school, and modern German history was my field in graduate school.
In 2008 you were named Belz-Lipman Tennessee Holocaust Educator of the Year for your outstanding and creative curriculum and classroom work. Most of us, reading this article, are teachers. Could you share one of your best-practices?
Do not try to force an emotional response to the Holocaust. Let the history and the individuals speak for themselves. Have patience with your student’s responses. People react in a variety of ways when confronted with something this terrible and they need time to process it. Don’t expect all students to respond in the same way: there is no “right” response.
From Nashville, TN, to Berlin, Germany: A Global Holocaust Exchange based on the initiatives on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The title of your project as a teacher fellow back in 2011. What made you want to be a teacher fellow?
I always admired the USHMM, since it is the premiere Holocaust authority in the United States and as soon as I heard about the MTF program I wanted to be chosen. It has not disappointed. Every event I’ve experienced at the USHMM has exceeded expectations.
The Museum staff is exceptional; the resources are without parallel. And the other educators I’ve met through the MTF program are some of the finest teachers out there. They have enriched my teaching and my life. The teachers that I worked with at Belfer this summer were simply amazing. Facilitating Belfer was an honor. It was hard work, but the team made it enjoyable.
From your reflections on the Europe tour (Tennessee Holocaust Commission European Study Trip 2017) : “This trip has profoundly changed my life.” What is the benefit of visiting historical sites?
There is no substitution for visiting the historical sites of the Holocaust. It deepens your understanding of the events in a singular way.
On a slightly different note. In The Paris Review, Spring 1984. James Baldwin was asked the following: “Is that one of the reasons you decided to be a writer – to find about yourself?”. Can you relate to this question? Have you found things in your writing process you’ve shared with other Holocaust scholars?
James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers. I love him, and yes, I write to learn about myself and my place in the world. Writing is how I make sense of everything. I write fiction and creative nonfiction, and I teach English as well as history. I incorporate a great deal of writing into my history classes. Overall, I urge students to find the vehicle for their voice: writing, dance, painting. We are all artists and just need to find the medium that is our preferred way to communicate with the universe. My medium is writing, and I hope to encourage my students to give writing consideration as the way they raise their voice.